The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Miami Heat, 81-55, in a Summer League game at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Saturday afternoon, improving their record to 4-1 to close out 2012 Summer League play.
On Friday, I noted that Summer League has a point where the play descends from interesting to uninstructive. On Saturday, that descent continued to "utterly pointless" when the Blazers opted to rest 2012 NBA Draft Lottery picks Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard, plus forward Luke Babbitt, who banged knees during Friday's win over the Denver Nuggets.
If you're still keeping track, that meant a total of seven of the top eight Blazers who came to Las Vegas were not in action, as the trio joined Elliot Williams (rehabilitating from shoulder surgery), Nolan Smith (concussion), Wesley Matthews (college freshman back on winter break cruising through the high school parking lot for one game) and Jon Diebler (traded to the Houston Rockets and subsequently eaten by sharks at Mandalay Bay, never to be heard from again) as out of action. The only man left standing was 2012 second-round pick Will Barton -- who finished with a game-high 27 points -- but he wasn't standing the entire game, thanks to a flagrant foul from Heat center Dexter Pittman, the basketball world's leading connoisseur of flying elbows.
While Barton didn't feel Pittman's punishment as badly as Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson during the playoffs, Portland's skinny wing did hit the deck hard after Pittman spiked him out of the air during a baseline dunk attempt. The foul occurred with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter with the Blazers leading by 23 points. Perhaps everyone was a bit jumpy after Smith's concussion, but the wind was sucked out of the gym for a few seconds before Barton dusted himself off and strode to the free throw line.
Pittman told me afterwards that he didn't think that he deserved the technical foul.
"I don't know, I didn't think I fouled him that hard," he said. "I was just going for the ball. I swiped through. I shouldn't have swiped through, I should have stayed straight up."
The Blazers led by as many as 28 points during the game and even executed an off-the-backboard alley-oop in transition, a play that caused Summer League coach Kaleb Canales to stare straight ahead and then lecture his players about playing the right way. Pittman said that he wasn't instructed to put anyone on the floor in that situation and that he wasn't intending to send a message, that he simply wanted to do his rim-protecting job.
"That's my whole mentality," he said. "Ask anyone who went to Texas, Corey Joseph, Avery Bradley, Kevin Durant, that's how we're bred there. No free baskets, protect the rim at all times. It's a pride thing."
Barton, for his part, didn't take issue with the foul, flashing a toothy grin when asked about it.
"Me and Dexter is cool but I didn't think too much of it," he said. "As long as I didn't get hurt. I've been hit harder than that before. I'll be fine."
"That's basketball," Canales said. "He took it aggressively, they made a hard foul. It's just a basketball play."
The hit broke up the monotony of a game that had a "go through the motions on the final day" vibe to it. Lacking so many teammates, Barton carried much more of the offensive load, shooting 10-for-17, including 4-for-8 on threes, and dishing two assists. The performance came the day after he scored 21 points against the Nuggets and he said his strong finish salvaged a week that started slowly for him.
"As far as getting better, I would give myself an A," he said. "I learned a lot. I just got better each time out. As far as overall performance, probably about a C-. My first two games, i started off real slow, learning and adjusting. But I got better."
"I think he's really showing his versatility, rebounding, deflections, getting a lot of steals and finishing," Lillard said of Barton. "I think he's done a little bit of everything. With me, Wes, Nolan, he probably didn't get a chance to show it but the last few games he got a chance to show it."
Lillard and Leonard watched from the sidelines, sharing jokes during the game and mingling with fans -- some of whom were grumbling with disappointment about not getting to see the pair play -- before and after the game. Canales and the team's staff seemed to sense some disappointment, and many members of the Blazers front office stayed late to accommodate media requests as an olive branch. The Blazers had a game Tuesday, a scrimmage Wednesday, games Thursday and Friday, and less than 24 hours between Friday game's and Saturday's game; given that schedule, the rotation decisions weren't all that shocking.
"It was a combination of things," Canales said of the team's decision to shut down its Summer League squad after four games. "We had an early game, we had a scrimmage so it was going to be six games in seven days so we wanted to be smart with it. Now with the combination of the guys who have worked so hard at the end of the bench, giving them an opportunity to play. It was a combination of different factors."
With five games in the books, it's time to take stock in State of the Union style. Back in March, right after the Blazers were first blowing up the 2011-12 team, I unveiled the NBA Expectations chart.
Here's the rundown in case you were busy bleaching your eyes and tuning out basketball back in March (no one could blame you).
First, the upper right hand corner. You can deliver wins while dealing with high expectations. That's the best case scenario. You're good, you know it, and you prove it. Go team. Note: This requires a team that can win. The Blazers are not a team that can win. This corner is not an option for the Blazers.
Second, the upper left hand corner. You deliver losses while dealing with high expectations. This is the worst case scenario! This is what the Blazers were doing from January through early March. There's disappointment, frustration, confusion, regret, blood. Lots of bad things. No matter what, you want to avoid this option. The Blazers made drastic changes to avoid being in that corner.
Third, there's the lower right hand corner. You deliver wins while dealing with low expectations. This might sound good at first! You might talk yourself into it! It's fool's gold. If your roster does not have the pieces necessary to create big expectations, overachieving to reach mediocrity is self-defeating in the NBA. It will end in emptiness and cyclical frustration. This is where the Blazers could potentially be.
Finally, there's the lower left hand corner. You deliver losses while dealing with low expectations. This sounds horrible but, as the smiley face indicates, it's actually a really good thing. The NBA rewards its worst teams with the Draft lottery system. There is an incentive to lose if you're not good enough to create high expectations. You want to lose without losing face, of course, but the concept of losing is not the same as it was when there were big expectations. This is where the Blazers and their fans should want the team to be.
Four months later, the Blazers are through some of the roughest waters. Plummeting from the upper right hand corner to the upper left hand corner to the lower left hand corner can be a very difficult, discombobulating, disappointing and depressing process. Hopes and dreams replaced by uncertainty.
With rookies angling to start or play big minutes at key positions, with multiple European players added to the fold, with no major outside free agent additions taking place this summer, and with trades netting only minor assets and future flexibility, the Blazers enter the 2012-13 season firmly in the lower left corner. On paper, this is a 30-to-35 win lottery team. If LaMarcus Aldridge has a career year and Nicolas Batum's first big-dollar season goes swimmingly, an exciting push for a lower playoff seed isn't impossible. If Aldridge misses any significant time, if a thin frontline suffers an injury, if Batum plays well but not exceptionally and if Lillard deals with year one struggles ("speed bumps" is the preferred phrase these days), it could be even uglier on the win/loss column.
But this team has fun potential and its young core is night-and-day in terms of looseness and camaraderie compared to the group that was assembled back in December. They're going to take their lumps but it seems unlikely that they will point fingers. They won't take losses lying down and they'll provide some legitimate highlight reel plays along the way.
The Blazers fan contingent in Las Vegas was legitimately excited this week. Despite half the roster no-showing, chants broke out during the first half of Saturday's game, jerseys were everywhere, one diehard couple had a photo of the rookies blown up at Walgreen's to be autographed, and the Blazermaniac royal couple -- Georgia and Larry Muller -- were downright giddy as they sat behind the Blazers bench the entire week.
Much of the credit goes to Lillard, but there appear to be plenty of smiling faces in the lower left hand corner these days.
Random Game Notes
- Posting will be light over the next few days. But keep an eye out for lengthy breakdowns of the team's 2012 NBA Draft picks from Blazers head of college scouting Chad Buchanan and a look at Portland's European players (Joel Freeland, Victor Claver, Georgios Printezis and Kostas Papanikolaou) from Blazers head of pro scouting Mike Born.
- Buchanan looked as relaxed as can be, back in the gym without distractions. I tweeted at the time the Blazers hired new GM Neil Olshey that Buchanan was a big winner in the move and Saturday seemed to confirm that.
- Blazers coach Kaleb Canales dodged questions about his job status and refused to answer directly when asked whether he had been granted an interview for the team's head coaching position. He did say that he is making plans to visit with all three rookies over the next month to work out with them. He answered a bunch of other questions to close out the week. Answers are below as always.
- My Summer League grades: Kaleb Canales gets an "A"; Damian Lillard gets an "A"; Meyers Leonard gets a "B"; Will Barton gets a "B"; Luke Babbitt gets a C-; Nolan Smith gets an "incomplete"; Wesley Matthews get an "incomplete"; Jon Diebler gets a "TTYL"; In-and-Out on the UNLV campus gets an "A+"; Kevin Pelton gets an "F" for jumping in front of my rental car for no reason and nearly causing his own death; the Las Vegas Marriott gets an "A" (free wifi and friendly housekeeper); and the sun gets an "F" (something like 116 degrees on one day). Good times, good trip.
- Babbitt repeated that his knee was fine after the game.
- Here are some of the highlights from Damian Lillard's post-game comments. On his Summer League: "I thought I played well. I thought I showed that my scoring transfers to this level and that I'm more athletic than people give me credit for and that I can make plays for other guys. I give myself a B for the whole week. Just because i thought I played consistent, I scored the ball, I finished well around the rim, I thought I defended better every game and I got guys involved...I thought I could have gotten a few more deflections or steals on defense but really I thought I played solid defense. I didn't gamble a lot... Any time you have seven turnovers as a point guard, it's irritating. The last few games I wanted to value the ball more."
- Lillard's personal highlight of the week: "The dunk. That's easy. I think the dunk just because it was on top-10 and that kind of surprised people because they didn't know I was athletic."
- Lillard on his conversation with Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge on Friday: "We spoke, not too much about basketball. It wasn't my first time meeting him. We definitely talked about that we want to make the playoffs and stuff like that. I'm sure it's not the first time he watched me. I always play my game, I try not to worry about pleasing anybody but my team. Do what I can for the team. I knew that would be enough."
- On his plans for the time between now and training camp: "I'll be in Oakland, working out, staying in shape, keeping my game tight. I'm going to keep lifting, I'm going to keep working on ball-handling, shooting pull-ups, all the same stuff. Conditioning, everything."
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
Thoughts on Summer League
I think what we talked about as a team at training camp, that we had back in Portland at the practice facility, we wanted to get better, we wanted to learn, we wanted to grow, we wanted to improve. From a coaching standpoint I wish we had five more games left.
Did you accomplish your Summer League goals?
I think we did. From a team standpoint, I felt we got better throughout the week, especially excited about our defense. Holding that team tonight to 30 percent from the field. They did a good job on the boards but I thought we battled enough to pull out the victory.
We put it in perspective, we understand this is Summer League but we also understand this is the first step of the ladder. We were really excited about what Damian, Meyers and Will brought to our team. The exciting part for me is that we brought it in a team concept. I was really excited because we know once we get to the regular season, that's going to be LaMarcus, Wesley. Damian coming off the pick and rolls, he made the right reads and went through his progressions the way we want him to do.
Why sit the guys?
It was a combination of things. We had an early game, we had a scrimmage so it was going to be six games in seven days so we wanted to be smart with it. Now with the combination of the guys who have worked so hard at the end of the bench, giving them an opportunity to play. It was a combination of different factors.
Carry-over for Will Barton
Yeah, except on the boards. It says zero here, he said it was a misprint. He knows. We're excited about Will, his two-way activity. Today, I really felt two games ago he hit a three in the corner that was big for his confidence and I think his shot came back to him. Just understanding the speed, he had a good game tonight.
Any problem with the off-the-backboard lob alley-oop?
I think it's in the flow of the game. We just have to be smart with it. Being OK with it, being not OK with it. We want to play basketball the right way. We addressed it. We've just got to be smart, understand time/score situation. There's a lot of time left in the game, if that doesn't go in, and they come back and hit a three, you just never know the momentum of the game.
Any problem with Dexter Pittman's flagrant foul?
That's basketball. He took it aggressively, they made a hard foul. It's just a basketball play.
What do you want to see from the rookies over the next month?
They're Blazers so we have certain standards and expectations in terms of work ethic and our expectations being gym rats, which I think they are. They did a good job this week, identifying our style of play. Our systems defensively and offensively, they really picked it up on the fly. We got better and we'll keep working with those guys, improving every day.
Plans to visit rookies in August?
Absolutely. I'm making my schedule now. I'll make sure I go visit all three guys.
Aldridge and Matthews showing up
That goes back to our end of the year exit meeting with them. Leadership. People lead vocally and by actions and I think they both led by actions this week. Them showing up here, they understand what we're about, who our leaders are going to be going forward, and what's expected from them. I really, really appreciate LaMarcus and Wesley both coming, Wes went through training camp, just wanting to be a part of it. Elliot here, Luke here, the whole team basically here. That's something exciting for us going forward.
Damian gave himself a B.
I don't give letter grades but what I do know and what I was excited about, I felt he made big jumps defensively all week. We talked a little bit about the weakside defense, I thought his ball pressure got better. Offensively, he's going to be our care-taker, making the right reads. I thought he got better as the week went on and that's something from a coaching standpoint, now we have some film tape, go back and make some corrections. We've talked about what we were seeing on the fly. We're excited about it.
Lillard had less turnovers
I think he had two the last game. Him just getting his feet under him, I wish we had five more games left.
I've been locked in and trying to coach our guys to the best of our abilities. I'm focused on that. That's where my main focus has been and where it's going to continue to be in the summer. Now it's time for me to go visit our guys, help improve, develop our game-winning habits that we always talk about.
I'm just always been a Portland Trail Blazer and I'm always going to be a Portland Trail Blazer. I'm going to continue to focus on working with our guys and helping them get better every day.
You're OK if you take a step back (from interim head coach)?
Like I really haven't thought of anything but our guys. I appreciate you asking though.
Have you interviewed for the head coaching position?
I was focused on Summer League.
Any reservations about Lillard's ability to start as a point guard from Day One?
It is rare but we're excited about him. At the same time, that's not saying he's not going to go through speed bumps. That's not saying that. We know and we've talked about, why we're so excited about him making the plays he did. That transfers over. That is Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash that he's got to guard. The plays he was making this week, I felt he's going to make in the regular season games as it carries over. It's going to be a challenge for him but I know he's ready for it.
Too much pressure to call him a "franchise point guard" from Day One?
I hope the message to him is that we believe in him. This is such a confidence game. He understands that. He knows what's going to be put on his shoulders. He also knows he doesn't have to do it by himself. We have LaMarcus Aldridge, he's our All-Star. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum. We've got a great core and be who he's going to be to help us.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter