Summer League Media Row Report: Blazers 85, Hornets 82

The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 85-82, in their 2012 Las Vegas Summer League debut at the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday night.

This year's Summer League -- league-wide -- has opened with a bit of a dud. 2011 No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving broke his hand, 2012 No. 1 pick Anthony Davis got called up to Team USA, 2012 No. 2 pick Michael-Kidd Gilchrist sat out Charlotte's game on Sunday after impressing in his debut, 2012 No. 4 pick Dion Waiters struggled with his shot and finished 3-for-11 on Sunday, and 2012 No. 5 pick Thomas Robinson hasn't made the impact he's wanted to so far for Sacramento. Aside from 2012 No. 3 pick Bradley Beal, who has been impressive for Washington, the cream of this year's crop, hasn't produced to its collective capabilities.

Judged against the early performances of his top-Lottery colleagues, 2012 No. 6 pick Damian Lillard acquitted himself quite nicely in his debut performance for the Blazers. His night was the classic tale of two halves: 2-for-10 shooting in the first followed by 7-for-11 shooting in the second. Zero free throw attempts in the first; seven in the second. Lillard finished with a game-high 25 points, four rebounds, four assists and three turnovers in 33 minutes.

Lillard's first half was a cynic's premonition. He didn't shoot well, he seemed to think about it, he never really got the offense going in transition or in the halfcourt, he looked a bit apprehensive and it all added up to a 17-point halftime deficit. There were even some whistles and some catcalls in the stadium as his misses stacked up, even though the crowd, which filled about 15 or 20 percent of the full-size NCAA arena, was predominantly Blazers fans.

"I was nervous," he admitted after the game. "Not at the competition or who I'm playing against, more [like,] 'It's here now, you've got to play now.' That type of situation. I was definitely nervous, man."

Much of the praise bestowed upon Lillard, whether from management or the coaching staff, has started with his demeanor. At first glance, he does appear to have the elusive no-panic quality that other recent young floor generals that have cycled through the Blazers have lacked. On Sunday, he showed not only the ability to draw contact in traffic and finish but also a controlled fearlessness in his forays. He struck the right balance, particularly as the game wore on.

"In the first half, it was some butterflies," Lillard said. "I was just getting used to it, the speed, a lot of athleticism out there. Once I calmed down and got comfortable out there, I started to play better."

While he converted a number of lay-ups after contact, including a fairly spectacular left-handed finish, he wasn't in blinders mode. It was his ability to score within the stripped-down Summer League offensive framework that drew praise from Blazers coach Kaleb Canales.

Really, Portland's offensive plan here isn't particularly complicated. Put Lillard into pick-and-roll situations, particularly with rookie center Meyers Leonard, allowing him to create offense for himself, for Leonard who can use his quickness to cut to the hoop, and for surrounding shooters when defenses collapse.

"I thought he did a great job of looking through his progressions, especially in the second half," Canales said. "If the dive man isn't there, the shooter in the corner is there. I think he made such great reads throughout the game. It was very good for us."

"I think I got a lot of guys shots," Lillard said. "I really wanted to show people that I could make plays, get guys involved. I thought I got a lot of guys shots. Any time you can come in and make the guys around you better, and get them easy shots, I feel like you're doing your job. Playing well, making the right plays."

On Sunday, the Hornets often over-played Lillard's right hand, forcing him to drive left. Not that he needed any coaxing. Lillard looked very comfortable going towards his off-hand, had the quickness to turn the corner at the Summer League level going that direction, and gathered smoothly to create contact coming back towards the middle of the court once he got past the initial line of defense.

"People that have watched me play a lot of times, they see that I'm strong left-handed," Lillard said. "I'm right-handed, so I'm very capable of going right. Once they started to force me left, and I realized they were forcing me left, I just took advantage of it."

"He can go both ways," Canales said, smiling. "He can go both ways."

The offensive play of the night was a dish, though, an over-the-top, perfectly-timed lob from Lillard to Leonard for a high-flying finish. Leonard has come a long way physically since he came through Portland as a highly-ranked high schooler. The strengths of his game haven't changed much but he's developed his skills and confidence and there's certainly still plenty of unscratched upside there. It's a well-told story by this point that Lillard advocated on Leonard's behalf during the pre-Draft process and he spoke a bit on Sunday night about their developing bond.

"Me and Meyers have connected a lot," he said. "We've been in the gym a few late nights together. Just sitting around talking, messing around. Even on the court, we talk a lot. Just to loosen each other up. He'll throw a joke at me. I missed a few shots today and he threw a joke at me, just keeping the spirits positive. As far as the pick and roll, he's a threat to attack the rim and I'm a threat to make shots so we've just got to be able to work off each other."

There were two other minor stand-out qualities from Leonard's first night, which saw him post a double-double: 14 points and 11 rebounds.

First, he, like Lillard, showed some opening night fearlessness. For Leonard, it wasn't a matter of shooting through an early slump but of being willing to sacrifice his body while going over the top of the defense to attack the rim. It's one thing to have the lift and the gift to get up; it's another to do it in traffic without a second thought. On multiple occasions, Leonard went high, knowing contact or conflict was coming. As a result, he earned 10 trips to the free throw line.

Second: he's one of the rare big men who seeks out his outlet pass options with what appears to be real joy. On one occasion, he cleared a defensive rebound, pivoted, and, in one motion, and hit an outlet target at halfcourt. Seemingly emboldened, he tried it again, although it wound up being an overly ambitious effort that resulted in a turnover.

"He's got that," Canales said. "That's a weapon for him and a weapon we want to utilize. At the same time, he needs to be the guard's eyes. If he sees that a guard is cheating up, then we can't hit him. That's going to come naturally with the progression of him getting some game time under his belt."

It's worth noting that this game comes with a major asterisk. Had Davis played, the result would surely have been different. Lillard's forays to the hoop would have been met with elite length and a once-every-5-years shot-blocker; Leonard (who finished with five turnovers and seven fouls) would have been facing a very tough interior match-up; the Hornets would have gotten real offensive production from the center position and they likely would have done a better job controlling the boards. The absence of this class's one truly special talent doesn't erase Sunday's successes for Portland's rookies, but it does put them in a different context.

Still, between Lillard, Leonard and second-round pick Will Barton -- who got extended playing time and filled up the box score in a variety of ways as advertised -- Sunday's debut remains a quintessential "build on the positives" summer showing. There were plenty of flashes of potential on the court for the Blazers in their first game together and that's more than can be said for many of the other games so far through Day 3.

Random Game Notes

  • First-half Blazers starters: Damian Lillard, Nolan Smith, Wesley Matthews, Luke Babbitt, Meyers Leonard
  • Second-half Blazers starters: Damian Lillard, Wesley Mathews, Will Barton, Luke Babbitt, Meyers Leonard
  • Blazers guard Nolan Smith sprained his left ankle during the first half and was held out of the second half. It's not expected to be serious. Portland plays next on Tuesday night against the Houston Rockets. He's expected to be available although officially listed as day-to-day.
  • I haven't had the chance to write much on the 2012 Draft here but the Will Barton pick was one I particularly liked. Barton struggled with a little Crash-itis on his finishing around the rim but was able to use his length to rebound on both ends and had a pretty dish to Leonard late in the game. Like his game a lot.
  • How obvious was New Orleans' game-plan for Lance Thomas: ATTACK LUKE BABBITT. AND REPEAT.
  • The Blazers have an unofficial scrimmage against the Memphis Grizzlies scheduled for Wednesday, one of their few off days this week.
  • Couldn't help but think of the Winklevoss twins when Luke Babbitt and Meyers Leonard took the court with matching shooting sleeves. Going to spend Monday at a sporting goods store buying one to help me keep the blood going on my non-mouse arm.
  • Hornets guard Austin Rivers finished with 14 points on 3-for-13 shooting and struggled to free himself on the dribble and draw fouls like he probably expected to. His crossover is incredibly quick but he wasn't always able to put it to full use. On one second half possession, Lillard read Rivers' plan before he uncorked the cross and was already set to draw the charge (with time to wait, like at a bus stop) before the move was complete. Joining a vocal community of online observers and most of the media members here in Las Vegas, I see Rivers as a two and not a one.
  • Blazers owner Paul Allen, a lady friend and GM Neil Olshey sat courtside during the game. Lillard told me that he didn't even notice Allen was there. "I didn't. Man, when I play, I don't see a lot of stuff... Since I've been a part of this organization, it's been so much support, from the fans, to the coaches, to everybody around the Practice Facility. I think that's what the organization is about. I feel like it's been so much like a family so far, I've been so comfortable. I'm kind of not surprised to see him here."
  • Lillard's self-assessment of his debut: "I would probably give myself a C-plus. Just because I could have done more in the first half. I thought I could have played a lot better in the first half, defensively as well. I made that adjustment, I didn't take myself out of the game."
  • Young point guards give and young point guards take away. In the game's closing sequence, Lillard hit an apparent dagger three to push Portland over the top. He also missed two free throws, though, that helped give New Orleans two chances in the final 10 seconds to push the game to overtime with a 3-pointer. Both missed. Lillard on his missed free throws: "That bugs me a lot. I shoot a lot of free throws on my own time. It's easy points. Especially in a situation like that were I can end the game. I put the win in jeopardy. Any time you do that, you always think about that. I shoot 90 percent from the free throw line. I missed two of them."
  • Lillard on the adjustment from mid-major college ball to his first Summer League action: "It was everything I thought it would be. Big guys being able to run the floor really well. Deflections, length. I just had to play a little bit faster, elevate a little bit more when I attacked the rim, and pass the ball a little bit stronger. And I did that."
  • My favorite quote of the night came when I asked Lillard what he thought of Canales now that he'd been coached by him in his first live game. "He was everything I expected and more. Not just to float anybody's boat, but I really like him." He went on: "I think he's a great young coach. I think with all of the young guys we have on our team, he works well with us. He's not too uptight. He doesn't demand perfect from us. He just wants us to play hard and do what he asks. That's what we do, so he's been great to us."
  • Finally, Sunday was Lillard's 22nd birthday. {The win was] my first present," he said. "I just wanted to come out and play the games, let it come to me. I was being patient, my shots were falling, but I stuck with it, I got a few birthday gifts in the second half."
  • Any big birthday plans in Las Vegas? "It's late," Lillard said. "I will probably go eat with my parents and call it a night."

Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments

Well, we had a challenging first half. I think that's natural. We had a bunch of young guys out there excited, really wanting to do well. I think the second half we really settled down, especially with our defense. They had a 36-point second half which I thought was the key tonight.

Damian Lillard in the second half

He just plays with a sound mind and I think we saw that again tonight. He just got us into our execution, our running game, I thought we were selective with it tonight. We still pushed the ball, we want to keep pushing the ball, it's a running game. We just came out as a team in the first half and we really didn't get it on defense. We got a little discouraged that the ball wasn't going in and we kind of carried it to the defensive end of the floor. But as a team we responded tonight.

Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll

He just plays with such good pace, like we've been talking about all week. He's going through his progressions, in terms of his reads. Meyers did a great job of diving to the basket consistently. We're just trying to put shooters around him.

Meyers Leonard

I thought he was big. He ended up with a double-double. 14 and 11. He can hit free throws, that's going to be big for us. Him diving to the basket. This is a process, not only for him, Damian and Will, but for our whole team.

Nolan Smith rolled his ankle

We held him out in the second half. We have a practice day tomorrow. Try to get him some extra treatment, some extra rest. We'll go day by day with that.

Luke Babbitt

19 and 10. We'll take it.

Wesley Matthews wanting to be out there with his younger teammates

I talked to Wes about it after the end of the year, about his leadership. Leadership vocally, leadership by actions. I think his actions are speaking a million words right now. Him coming out, having training camp with us and wanting to play with the young guys and developing the chemistry that we need going forward.

Did he want to do it?

He's a gym rat. He wants to be out here as much as he can. He knew what it would do to our team dynamics. We had a mutual conversation but he's the one who wanted to be out here.

Did he get injured or anything? Just 14 minutes?

No, he's nice and healthy.

Will Matthews play in the next games coming up?

We're going to talk about it. You might want to ask him but we're going to talk about it.

You mentioned slow start -- some fearlessness too from Lillard and Leonard

I don't know if it was nerves more than nervous energy, maybe, if that makes sense. Just because they want to do so well. I think we just calmed down as a team, I think our defense really, really picked it up. Challenging the guys at halftime and they did a great job of responding.

Comparisons for Damian Lillard

He's Damian Lillard. Ben, you know him, it's a process. He's going to carve out his own niche. This is game one of many for him.

He likes to go left

[Smiles] He can go both ways. He can go both ways. One thing we talked about, he's got to play basketball. He's got to read and react to what the defense is giving him. I thought he did a great job of looking through his progressions, especially in the second half. If the dive man isn't there, the shooter in the corner is there. I think he made such great reads throughout the game that it was very good for us.

Meyers Leonard's outlet passing ability

He's got that. That's a weapon for him and a weapon we want to utilize. At the same time, he needs to be the guard's eyes. If he sees that a guard is cheating up, then we can't hit him. That's going to come naturally with the progression of him getting some game time under his belt.

Blazers Owner Paul Allen sitting courtside

I feel we have the best owner in sports. His passion and his commitment to us is so awesome to see. It trickles down to all of us. He's so passionate about the game, he loves the game, he loves our team, he's so committed to our team and city. We're just going to continue to take that in. That's big time that he comes out and supports us the way he does.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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