The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Houston Rockets, 99-88, in a Summer League game at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. The loss dropped Portland to 1-1 during 2012 Summer League play.
Tuesday's game was suspended with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter after Blazers guard Nolan Smith suffered a concussion after sustaining a blow to the head. Smith was hospitalized for precautionary reasons and has been released. His Summer League, obviously, is over, given that Portland's final game is on Saturday and he would need to receive clearance through the NBA's new concussion program.
I never had a great memory -- and Twitter pretty much destroyed what I did have -- but I spent a few minutes trying to recall the last time I was at a competitive basketball game that didn't make it to the final buzzer. I think it happened during a spring league game in high school where half my team bailed to attend a co-ed student council weekend retreat. Those nerds left us to play 4-on-5 while they holed up in a cabin doing team-building exercises and trust falls and maybe even some heavy petting. Anyway, I think I remember the game getting called after two of my remaining teammates fouled out. The refs took their whistles and pulled a Mike D'Antoni, walking out of the gym as quickly as possible before anyone stopped them.
This was around the same time people thought the world was going to explode because all the clocks would stop at 1999. In other words: Tuesday's night was a once-in-a-decade type thing. The tip to buzzer rhythm is so ingrained that that the whole day wound up feeling off-kilter and disorienting in the absence of the concluding bookend.
Part of what makes basketball great is that it's not a blood sport. It's the opposite. I happen to love the sideshows: the woofing, the preening, the trash talking, the shoving, the stomping. Chest bump a ref and let's argue for two days whether that's a one-game or two-game suspension. Good times. But basketball's center stage show is and has always been grace, athleticism and instincts, not brutish glop. Hoop heads ooh and aah and live for three weeks in the middle of the desert during the middle of the summer for no good reason other than to enjoy the world's best three-dimensional orchestrated energy.
Basketball, too, is a place where everyone still agrees that you don't want to see someone get injured, a place where there is still a solid code governing clean versus cheap, and where both teams get together to express their support for a seriously injured player, realizing that a career can end on any given play in a sport this fast, with this much leaping and this much potential for contact.
The pre-summer league chatter around Smith, just off his rookie season, was that he wanted to play "meaner." Bluntly, he couldn't play any nicer than he did last season. Smith was, for the most part, timid. Afraid to make mistakes and afraid to make plays. He was "adjusting" -- a pleasant person in a league of sharks doing his best not to get swallowed whole.
It's easy to forget a lot of things when you watch another man's eyes twitch uncontrollably as he lies prone on the ground for what seems like hours, but is really minutes. (Surely, the prone man forgets everything.) What shouldn't be forgotten -- by anyone -- is that Smith played his best basketball as a member of the Blazers on Tuesday. Sure, he didn't exactly need a pole vault to clear that bar. But he did set a new personal best, stretcher be damned.
In 37 minutes, Smith finished with 27 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals, on 10-for-16 shooting. On the mean-to-pleasant spectrum he was definitely shading towards mean, or as mean as a cardigan-wearing, foundation-running family man can be. Indeed, on the play that saw him injured, Smith was attacking hard, taking a risk to make a play and doing so with confidence. There are a million ways to get injured playing this sport but this is the manner that leaves the fewest regrets: zero.
It was just one example of Smith in attack-mode. He flashed a spin move not seen since his Duke days and he hit a runner off the glass while playing nearly the whole game with Wesley Matthews sitting out.
Basketball reigns supreme for so many, too, because it reflects the highs and lows of life, it provides every emotion, none more important than anticipation and surprise. On a night that ended in the worst way -- neck immobilized, headed for the hospital -- Smith was also part of a play that was basketball at its finest.
As backcourt mate Damian Lillard zipped down in a transition runout, Smith turned to fire a pinpoint pass from more than half the court away. The pass was perfectly weighted and positioned, allowing Lillard to haul it in, take two steps without missing a beat (or even a quarter-beat) and leap in one, long motion to throw down a dunk at full speed. This was the grace and athleticism mentioned earlier, a point guard torpedo rising perfectly. The two players have played together for a matter of days but they connected, on the money, for one of the best plays during the day's seven games.
It would be easy to forget Smith's pass. It would be even easier for Smith to forget his pass. But let's hope someone reminds him, when the time is right. Because this night wasn't about a scary fall, but a step towards becoming the player he wants to become. One step on a road that might wind up being too long. But it was a step, one that wasn't erased by a crash to the court.
Portland thinks about basketball injuries a lot and has seen, too often, hoop dreams deflate like a true fiend's weight, careers ended abruptly with the finality of a buzzer.
On Tuesday, thankfully, the game was only suspended and Smith still has plenty of time to write his ending.
Random Game Notes
- There was a pretty humorous exchange between burly Rockets forward Royce White and Blazers center Meyers Leonard. White was hit with a technical foul for jawing at Leonard after a little shoving match. "You're 270. Get your weight up," White said to Leonard. White, 21, looks like he's 44; Leonard, 20, looks like he's 14.
- White was beastly in this game: 6 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists, including a number of big plays down the stretch.
- Portland's Terrence Jones had his best game of the summer so far, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. The same can be said for Jeremy Lamb, who scored 23 points and had 6 rebounds. Both threw down some highlight dunks along the way. The Rockets are now 3-1 on the summer and have been one of the most impressive (and the most entertaining) teams so far this week.
- Leonard really struggled with Donatas Motiejunas, a 2011 first-round pick from Lithuania who is NBA-bound for 2012-13. Motiejunas has been one of the best players in the Summer League so far and his quick, technically-sound moves down low had Leonard grasping at air on multiple occasions. That doesn't bode particularly well for Leonard's ability to handle big minutes as a rookie. It was a "brace yourself" feeling. Motiejunas finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
- Lillard showed again that he can volume score the rock, although he needed 21 shots to get his 27 points even with five threes made. It was a bit of a reversal from the first game: he shot 5-for-10 from outside and only 4-for-11 on twos. He also had seven turnovers in 34 minutes, including a few head-slappers. If you thought he was polarizing during the pre-Draft process, you ain't seen nothing yet. He is the type of player who you can't take your eyes off of, but he'll be delivering plenty of fodder for fans and critics alike over the next 12 months.
- Jon Diebler: go ahead and make other plans for next summer.
- Poor Will Barton still can't make a shot (2-for-12). He forced a few turnovers and led a fantastic 3-on-1 break.
- Smith lay on the ground just feet away from the baseline media section. To give you a sense for the proximity, I was receiving text messages from people saying they could see me in the background of the television broadcast tweeting updates as they read them in real time. Again, just an unusual, unusual day. After the stumble and fall, media members began swarming around Smith, forming one semicircle, just as players and medical personnel formed another. (Blazer executives actually came out of the stands onto the court to check on him too.) Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who is close with Smith, asked that cameramen stop filming Smith as he lay on the ground. They obliged. He also helped load Smith onto the stretcher. And that's why Matthews, a 25-year-old 3-season veteran, is on the Summer League team.
- Following the post-game media session, a number of Blazers front office staffers, coaches and media members gathered around a laptop to watch a slow-motion replay of Smith's fall. It was a fairly eerie scene although by that point it seemed clear that Smith would be alright, given the early medical reports and the fact that he could move his arms and legs.
- Funniest thing I've read in weeks.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
What happened on Nolan Smith's injury?
He went to the rack and he got fouled. I didn't see exactly where he got hit but our main concern right now is Nolan and his family.
Was he able to communicate?
The trainers were a little closer than I was. They were trying to speak to him, I didn't really get too close to him.
What did you tell the guys?
Right now, our main concern is Nolan and his family.
Nolan Smith's status?
I don't know exactly. The doctors were a little closer and they know exactly what happened with specifics.
Was he knocked out?
They just put him on the stretcher and I'm sure he's on his way to the hospital.
Describe the play again
He just got an advance pass, he attacked the hole aggressively, he just got fouled. I didn't see exactly where and how. Our main concern right now is with Nolan and his family.
Was he speaking at all?
He was talking to doctors. I wasn't really that close. The doctors were trying to speak to him and everything.
Thanks to Sean Meagher at OregonLive.com with the post-game video.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter