The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Charlotte Bobcats, 122-105, at the Rose Garden on Monday night, improving to 28-31 on the season.
In the final two months of Rich Cho's GM tenure in Portland, the Blazers went 20-10 to enter the 2011 playoffs. In the nearly 21 months since he was hired to the same position in Charlotte, after an abrupt firing in May of that year, the Bobcats are now 20-106. The Rose Garden's sound system played Drake's "Started from the bottom" before the start of the third quarter and you get the sense that the Bobcats likely know the words by heart. Byron Mullens might even have a verse tattooed on his back or something.
This season hasn't been a total loss for Charlotte. There are plentiful ping pong balls in their future and Mullens, Michael-Kidd Gilchrist, and Gerald Henderson have all thrown down top 10 "Dunk of the Year" candidates. This just isn't an NBA quality team -- not even close and intentionally so -- and everything that was said about the undermanned Minnesota Timberwolves' defense on Saturday night goes double for the Bobcats.
Charlotte couldn't keep guards out of the paint, they couldn't stop the free ball movement, they couldn't protect the rim, they couldn't keep Portland off the glass early, they couldn't consistently push tempo the other way to make Portland pay for its rare misses and they, ultimately, couldn't offer much in the way of resistance as Portland accumulated a season-high (in regulation) 122 points, shot a season-high 59.8 percent and made a season-high 49 field goals.
The only semi-meaningful tension came when Nicolas Batum made a curious decision with just under a minute remaining in the first quarter. After leaking out in transition with Ramon Sessions trailing well behind him, Batum opted against simply laying in or dunking the ball, and instead underhand tossed a high lob pass to trailer Meyers Leonard, who was outside the free throw line when the pass hit the glass. Catching the ball while still on the ground, rather than with his head at rim level as would be the norm in these situations, Leonard easily secured the pass and finished a two-handed slam, bringing loud cheers from most of the Rose Garden.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts, predictably, was not one of those cheering the play, and he was clearly not amused by Batum's looseness given the time (first quarter) and score (Blazers up seven).
"I didn't care for it in the fact that it was kind of messing with the game a little bit," Stotts said. "I think he had a breakaway lay-up. I understand doing those things sometimes but I didn't think it was the play to make at that time."
What was Batum thinking? Even he's not quite sure.
"I just received the ball, saw Meyers running behind me, I was like, just throw it," he recounted, after finishing with 20 points (on eight-for-11 shooting), five assists and four rebounds. "Then I thought, 'Why did I do that?' We do that in practice every time. In practice and shootaround, we do 5-on-0, I'll throw that little pass to J.J. [Hickson] or Meyers, they go get it. I don't know why I did that in [a] game. For me, it was like I was in practice."
Batum didn't mean to insinuate that playing the Bobcats was like playing 5-on-0 but there was a preseason vibe to this one. I usually get my knickers in a twist over the slightest breaches of etiquette but lax competition requires a relaxation of standards, at least to a degree. This game was played at a practice-level intensity.
"He's like, you're lucky on this one," Batum said of Stotts' message to him after the toss. "[It] better [have] worked. Next time I kill you."
It's easy to see where Stotts is coming from on this. He coaches a young team that's under-.500 and headed for a looming gauntlet on the road. Basketball karma has a way of catching up on this sort of thing.
Leonard said that he initially was planning to trail the play at full speed and actually request that Batum throw it off the backboard, only to opt against that plan and ease up. He was surprised but still ready when Batum executed his initial plan.
"[Batum] makes plays, probably a little risky, but hey," Leonard said, smiling.
There's a consistency of discipline dynamic at work here, too, as Stotts can't exactly harp on what he feels are excessive dunk celebrations from Leonard if he turns a blind eye to a casual play that easily could have led to a turnover. Leonard said that Stotts addressed the play at halftime, within the larger context of playing through to the end against a clearly weaker opponent that has now lost seven straight games.
"[At] halftime, [he said] don't mess with the game," Leonard, who finished with a career-high 15 points (on six-for-eight shooting) and six rebounds in 20 minutes, said. "Play it the right way. This was kind of a trap game for us... Respect your opponent. You never want to quote unquote showboat. You just have to play the game the right way."
Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge could only laugh at Batum's adventure.
"I don't know what was happening there," Matthews said. "I'm glad it turned out for us... It wasn't even executed well."
Aldridge, who tallied a game-high 23 points (on eight-for-16 shooting) and 14 rebounds, added: "I was very surprised he did it. He did it and it's over with and I don't think he'll do it again... It [worked out], but not pretty, though. It wasn't pretty like it could have been."
His double emphasis on the "not pretty" was a good-natured dig, and the Blazers leave for a three-game road trip in very good spirits after winning three out of their last four games at home and scoring 109 or more points in three straight games.
The addition of Eric Maynor and the emergence of Leonard on offense has allowed Stotts to settle into a fairly regular rotation that has played some of the steadiest basketball of the Blazers' season. Whether his team's recent losing streak is still fresh in his memory or if his thoughts have already turned to visiting the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, Stotts was cautious in praising his team's play over the last week.
"I wouldn't want to say that," Stotts stated with emphasis, when asked if his team was playing its best ball of the season. "We've beaten two teams that are struggling. I don't want to go overboard on that."
Compared to Dec. 3, though, when the Blazers needed a massive, improbable comeback and overtime to erase a monster deficit to these same Bobcats in Charlotte, he surely appreciated the fact that his players didn't mess with this game so severely that it made this one any more interesting than it needed to be (which was not interesting at all).
"We shouldn't have beat them the last time we played them so our antennas were up," Lillard said. "We were prepared to play."
That's all it really takes, on a vast majority of nights, against America's tankingest disaster.
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden crowd was announced at 18,330. Generous.
- Nicolas Batum on whether he would throw another pass off the glass in the future: "Not in the first quarter. Maybe up 40. [Not] in the first quarter after five minutes."
- Batum said that he understood what Stotts meant by not playing with the game: "Of course. I can't do that. I can't do that. It worked, can't do that in the first quarter."
- The overwhelming reaction from fans on Twitter was that Batum and his teammates should continue to play with the game if it means highlight dunks.
- In the six games since the All-Star break, Lillard is shooting 45.1 percent compared to 38.6 percent in the six games leading up to the break. He attributed his uptick in shooting percentage to the arrival of Maynor and the increase in his quality of looks. After scoring 20 points against the Bobcats, he cracked 20+ points in three straight games for the first time since early February. He added seven assists, three rebounds and two steals in 38 minutes.
- Lillard: "I'm getting better shots, better looks at the rim. A lot of that is probably a credit to [Maynor]. When I'm not on the ball so much, it's harder for teams to load up and stop me, get the ball out of my hands. A lot of times it's me and one man, my shots [have] been coming a lot easier."
- The Blazers were collectively happy with how they moved the ball in the first half, tallying 68 points and shooting 65.1 percent in the opening periods.
- Lillard on the early offense: "We made a lot of shots. Any time you make a lot of shots, everything flows, everything seems like it's coming easier. We did a good job of not depending on that too much." By that last part, he meant that the Blazers finished it out by continuing to find high-percentage looks.
- Leonard on the early offense: "We're an unselfish team. We have been all season. There's stretches where guys get hot and [look to] create their own shot, but for the most part we come out play together, play hard. ... [Tonight,] just moving the ball. Guys played unselfish. I thought we ran a little bit more than usual, guys made the extra pass tonight."
- Aldridge on the team's developing eight-man rotation, which includes heavy minutes for Maynor, Leonard and Claver. "[Stotts] has definitely found a rotation he's liking right now. Me coming out in the second [quarter] and sitting for awhile."
- Poor Luke Babbitt is not a part of the rotation, having ceded his spot to Claver. Babbitt has played just nine seconds combined in the last five games. Even Jody Allen's Giraffe Skeleton is above him on the depth chart these days.
- Hard to argue with that call, though, as Claver has brought better defense and awareness, and his shot has looked a little better in recent games too.
- Despite holding firm control of the game throughout, Stotts didn't empty his bench until there was a little more than one minute remaining with the Blazers up 16. He wanted to do it slightly earlier but a lack of dead balls kept the substitutions from getting in. It felt a touch paranoid but Stotts argued that it "wasn't a big deal." Aldridge thought going with the starters made sense: "They were making a run. We need wins right now. I stayed in until he felt comfortable."
- Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap took no offense at Stotts' late-game handling of his players: "I had no problem with that at all. This league is so nasty that people can come back on you. ... Terry would never do that. I've known Terry for awhile."
- Former Oregon State Beavers running back and current NFL player Jacquizz Rogers was in the stands.
- Rookie forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the clear bright spot on this Bobcats roster, arguably the only one depending on how much you like Kemba Walker and how much patience you have for Bismack Biyombo. The No. 2 overall pick finished with 17 points (on eight-for-11 shooting) and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. He doesn't quit on either end and worked his way to a number of baskets he probably shouldn't have had, making Portland pay for inattentive defensive rebounding. He also got back nicely to break up a possible Leonard dunk, saving his team two points on a night when they gave up 122.
- Aldridge on Kidd-Gilchrist: "He's good. He plays active, crashes the boards. Plays with energy. That's good for them."
- If Batum's off-the-glass pass sparked a minor (minor!) controversy, nobody was complaining about Lillard's left-handed behind-the-back pass to Batum, who touch pass dumped it to Leonard for another dunk in transition. That was pretty. Up there with the best highlights of Lillard's season.
- There weren't too many signs in the smallish crowd during this one. One lady had a sign with Lillard's face that read: "We could not be any prouder." Another kid had simply: "LOL @ Bobcats."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
For the most part we were pleased to get the win. I was disappointed with our defense in the first half. We gave up way too many things, energy plays, hustle plays. On the night, I don't know if it was a good defensive night but it was a good win. I thought we played well, particularly offensively, which is probably an understatement.
He's playing well. He's playing with confidence, playing with energy, figuring things out, where to be. I like the progress he's making.
More playing time for Leonard because he's playing better or strategic?
Everything I do is strategic. He's playing well. He's kind of got a little bit of a rotation going. He's playing well, deserves to stay out there. It's not necessarily, let's get Meyers 20 minutes tonight, he's playing well and he deserves to be on the floor.
Anything beyond Leonard being more comfortable?
You'd have to ask him. It does look like he's, particularly offensively, he's reading the game well, reading the ball. Having Eric [Maynor] helps. We have good spacing when he's out there. It's probably a combination of things.
Is your team playing its best top to bottom since Maynor has arrived?
I like the way we're playing. We had some really good wins against some really good teams, and we were playing really well. I wouldn't want to say that, we've beaten two teams that are struggling. I don't want to go overboard on that.
I'm glad with the contribution off the bench. Our bench was criticized early in the season but we were winning and playing against good teams, playing them well. I'm not ready to go there. I'm pleased with the contributions from the bench and how they are playing.
Execution and Patience offensively in first half
We shot the three well. I think we had 30 points in the paint, 20 points in the paint. I thought we passed the ball well, we had good rhythm shots, we were active on the offensive glass. I thought it came from a lot of different areas.
Leaving starters in
I had the guys at the table. I wanted to get the win. Two minutes with a 13-point lead. I didn't think it was that big of a deal.
Nicolas Batum's pass off the glass
I didn't care for it in the fact that it was kind of messing with the game a little bit. I think he had a breakaway lay-up. I understand doing those things sometimes but I didn't think it was the play to make at that time.
Luke Babbitt's minutes, anything other than Victor Claver's role increasing?
Would you expand Meyers Leonard's role?
He asked to be taken out. He was a little tired. It's hard to say. J.J. [Hickson] has been pretty good. It's hard to overlook what J.J. is doing. It's nice to have both guys playing well. A lot depends on the game, how it's going, who is on the floor. It's hard to predict that.
Carry-over to the road
Memphis is a physical team. They're arguably one of the hotter teams in the West right now. They didn't have Zach [Randolph] the last time we played them. They're a good defensive team. Execution is going to be important. Matching their physicality is going to be important. San Antonio, with or without [Tony] Parker, they're a machine and they're great at home. New Orleans kicked out butts the last time. I don't want to get too high about this. I'm glad we won three out of four, that's nice to have. Basically all we did is what we were supposed to do at home.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter