The Golden State Warriors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 99-88, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's final record to 33-49.
Some saw the positives in the season, some remembered the negatives, some acknowledged both, but on the season's final night all agreed that rookie guard Damian Lillard was the place to find redemption after completing a franchise-record tying 13-game losing streak.
Moments after the final buzzer, a group of three-star Russian generals formally submitted a request to parliament for $400 million in additional military funding.
"Portland has taken tanking to new heights," Colonel General Boris Draftski said in a prepared statement. "We can no longer look our citizens in the eyes and say that we are equipped at a world-class level. We have fallen behind in the arms race."
LaMarcus Aldridge was in the midst of a 30-point, 21-rebound effort against one of his favorite rivals, David Lee, and the Blazers were trailing by just three points and making a real run at their first win since March 22, when coach Terry Stotts elected to pull his All-Star forward from the game at the 11 minute mark of the fourth quarter. Aldridge sat the rest of the way. The benefits -- more ping pong balls and a better chance at not forfeiting the pick-- were clear. The losing, by this point, was both assumed and a bit of an afterthought. The rewards outweighed both the risks of playing with one hand tied behind their back and the obvious ill appearance.
"I wanted him to get to 30 [points] and 20 [rebounds]," Stotts explained. "I wanted the young guys to play and I wanted the young guys to close it out. They were playing well and playing hard and I wanted them to play."
The young guys conceded a 33-point fourth quarter, Portland lost yet again but, hey, at least it was mercifully over. At least help -- the two or three or four additional players needed to make this a real rotation -- isn't too far down the road now.
The chins were up and the heads, especially the younger ones, were spinning. Over already? Now what?
"I'll be watching the playoffs, I know that," Lillard told Blazersedge, regarding his plans for the next few days after leading the league in minutes played. "I haven't gotten a chance to play the PS3 for a long time, I'll probably get on that a little bit. I really don't know because this took up so much of my time."
His "this" was playing 82 out of 82 games, averaging more than 38 minutes per game, running an offense, finding his niche as a lead scorer while being the youngest member of the starting lineup, handling endless media interviews, trying to establish himself with the league's officials, starring in a national television advertisement, winning five straight Rookie of the Month awards, taking on extra obligations at All-Star Weekend, going head-to-head against Kobe Bryant, working through some shooting slumps, and making the lifestyle transition from study hall in Ogden to primetime on TNT.
No time for PS3? No kidding.
Lillard wraps the season as the presumptive 2013 Rookie of the Year, with some influential voices suggesting he should win it unanimously. Aldridge went out of his way, multiple times, to refer to Lillard as Portland's "franchise point guard" on Wednesday, and he highlighted Lillard's season as the biggest development for the organization this year.
"Hands down Rookie of the Year," Aldridge said. "He gets my vote. He was good all year, on and off the court. His leadership at the point guard position was big for us. ... Being here seven years, our one up-and-down spot was the point guard position. Now we have a guy that's really good."
Wesley Matthews has been the team leader in disappointment and frustration recently. An ankle sprain that requires crutches will do that to you; a long losing streak can be a particularly tough blow to someone whose glass is permanently half-full. Matthews told Blazersedge that the season leaves him feeling "a little empty" and that it was ultimately "unfulfilling" because "there was more in the tank for us." Asked about Lillard, though, his mental clouds parted.
"He had a very, very good rookie season," Matthews told Blazersedge. "He didn't play like a rookie at any point, he played with a lot of confidence, a lot of confidence. He just was like a veteran out there. He listened, he was intuitive to the game and he was a fighter. That's the thing I think most about him. He competes."
Daps from one workaholic perfectionist to another.
The boss man, owner Paul Allen, was also in the house for the season finale and he met with Lillard on Wednesday; the point guard said that they only exchanged brief greetings. Speaking with a small group of reporters before the game, though, Allen went straight to praising Lillard as his first positive takeaway of a "rebuilding" season.
"Damian is a better player than even we anticipated," he said. Much of his conversation was essentially conducted in monotone; that part was not. Allen's assessment of GM Neil Olshey, similarly, was Lillard-centric, first and foremost.
"In terms of what Neil did, we did very well in the draft, there's no question about that," Allen said, in response to a question by Blazersedge.
Nearly a month straight of losing has ripped away the pretenses, lowered national expectations for the franchise heading into next season, and humbled what was a very confident team and coach back in December. Perhaps more importantly, Lillard's presence on the court down the stretch, when many of his teammates cycled in and out of the lineup, has served to elevate his status that much higher, and it was sky-high from Day One.
He feels those expectations -- of course he does -- and he pointed to his handling of that adversity as a major factor in why he believes he has "done his part" to make "a strong case" for Rookie of the Year.
"Through the ups and downs, me individually, I stuck with it," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I didn't go off and do my own thing when I didn't play well, I still helped the team even if i wasn't scoring or if I was turning the ball over. Just my impact on our team. I think that's what made my case strong. I was consistent, I played in every game, I played a lot of minutes in every game. I thought my job was tough. Playing against point guards night in and night out, I think it's the toughest position to go up against and I was out there every night doing it."
I interviewed Tim Grover, trainer to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, last Friday. He's got a new book coming out, titled Relentless, which winds up reading as a competition addict's lifestyle manual. Winning never satisfied Jordan or Bryant, he explains in detail, it just made them want it more. He argues that there's no such thing as "clutch situations" in the NBA, because truly elite competitors try to make their brain approach every touch, every possession, every time down the court as a do-or-die moment. Every slight is remembered as fuel for the fire; every accomplishment is forgotten immediately. Most of all, Grover writes, getting there mentally is a learned process that requires development; he even believes LeBron James hasn't quite gotten there yet, but could be there soon.
Lillard appears to possess the relentless desire for self-improvement that Grover so cherishes. The questions about his ceiling are very real; the questions about whether he will leave anything on the table when it comes to reaching his potential are non-existent. His answers in response to questions about his awards,statistics and records have been bland and brief all season long; his answers to what he needs to improve, and what the Blazers need to improve, were the opposite.
"I need to improve my defense, my pick-and-roll defense," he said, with all of his teammates already cleared out of the locker room. "Playing defense consistently, instead of having a couple good possessions and then a couple of possessions not as good. I think [my] in-between game, floaters, drawing contact. I think I could be a more consistent shooter. I could sit here and tell you a bunch of stuff. I can tell you I'm going to improve."
His vision for what Year Two needs to look like from a team standpoint was made crystal clear by loss after loss to playoff team after playoff team down the stretch.
"We need to be a better defensive team," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I think we need to play with energy more consistently. We won a lot of games when we played with energy and guys had the next man's back. We just had that swagger about us and that we belonged, we felt like we should win the game. We didn't have it every night. We need to bring it every night, have that same mentality defensively and we need to have more passion in games to get the fans into it, get our teammates into it. That's how we'll start going uphill."
The Warriors put away the Blazers, claiming the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, as Aldridge's big night and Lillard's 21 points (on seven-for-13 shooting) and three assists weren't enough to overcome five Golden State players in double figures. Stotts has run the gamut this year in his post-game press conferences, from overjoyed, to snippy, to defensive, to exhausted, to defeated. He said goodbye to the season with an extended thank you to the fans and even offered words of gratitude to the assembled media.
He has droned on about improvement and hard work after wins and losses alike this year but he closed things out reflectively.
"I have a lot of fondness for this season," he said. "Obviously we've lost 13 in a row, but when I look back on a lot of the things we did, particularly in the first 50 or 60 games, some of the wins we had, how we played, some of the close games, I'm going to have a lot of fondness for this entire season. The losing streak at the end, you can't wipe that off the record, that's obviously part of it, but I'll remember more of the first two-thirds of the season than the last 13 games."
This wasn't exactly the message you expected to hear from a coach who just finished the fifth losing season of his five-year coaching career. Then again, Lillard, and the possibilities his future represent, can have that effect on people.
Random Game Notes
- The game was announced as a sellout. Some empty seats. Really, really loud to start. A fair number of Warriors fans, a fact that makes you appreciate the team's color scheme. Pretty solid.
- Blazers owner Paul Allen presented Damian Lillard with his latest Rookie of the Month award before hte game.
- A full transcript of Allen's pre-game press availability is right here.
- Lillard also received the Blazers' internal Maurice Lucas Award for being the player who "best represents the indomitable spirit of Maurice Lucas through his contributions on the court and in the community."
- Lillard offered a pre-game address to fans: "On behalf of myself and my teammates, our coaching staff and the entire Trail Blazers organization, we want to thank you for the support all season long. You guys have been our sixth man. We can't thank you enough for being there for the losing streaks and the winning streaks and we're going to do everything in our power to get better."
- Blazers founder Harry Glickman and longtime broadcaster Bill Schonely presented retiring statistician Chuck Charnquist with a piece of the court that the 1977 NBA Finals was played on. Talk about an awesome going away present. The Blazers also held a pre-game party with cake to honor Charnquist's 43 years of service.
- Warriors guard Stephen Curry set an all-time NBA record with 272 three-pointers in one season. Mind-blowing.
- Blazersedge Night was a giant success as always. Lots of happy faces as I cruised up to see Dave at halftime. The Blazers made an announcement on the jumbotron about the event and flashed the site's logo too. Here's a look. For some reason I immediately had the strange urge to either kiss or propose to someone. A fan with a "Thanks Blazersedge!" sign also made it on the big screen. All in all, another great night for the site and a very gratifying time for those who contributed to the event's success.
- Right up there on the list of improvements for Will Barton, just after his broken three-point shot, is learning how to foul someone in transition. Just a pet peeve, but man alive. He's out there tickling people with feather fingers on the and-ones.
- OK, lots of year-end notes and quotes with more coming on Thursday following exit interviews.
- Here's Will Barton, who finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists and played all 48 minutes, on what he wants to improve: "Mostly my shooting, my three-point shooting, trying to get consistent with that. Really, work on my overall game. I'm a guy who likes to improve in every aspect so when I come back next year you'll notice the improvement in my game. I'm a guy who likes to fill a stat sheet up and play a complete game."
- Barton on the biggest surprise of his rookie season: "Probably that the season would go by this fast. In college, all I could think about was getting to this level, playing, now I'm already through my first season. Life goes fast."
- Nicolas Batum said he planned to take a few weeks off to get his shoulder and wrist fully healthy. He said there is no surgery in his future to address either ailment. He's looking forward to joining the French National Team in July. His areas of desired improvement: "Work on my game. ball-handling, creating my own shot, add some muscle too."
- Wesley Matthews also said rest was in order and that he had received orders from doctors and trainers to give himself about a month off from contact stuff after his ankle roll. He said waiting a month would be tough: "At this point, today, is the longest I've ever given my body a chance to heal. That's what all the doctors and trainers were telling me I needed to do. Getting healthy and busting my [expletive] this offseason to get better. ... Everybody is telling me I need to take a month off, I don't know if I can do that. I'll have to plan some vacations or something. My goal is to do nothing contact-wise, pounding, until [May] 7th."
- Matthews said that he didn't think that the 13-game losing streak defined the season for him but acknowledged it will be a big part of the narrative. "That's probably what it's going to be remembered by. It's up to us that we erase that as soon as possible next season."
- Meyers Leonard, who finished with seven points and three rebounds in 25 minutes, reflected on the season's end: "It was tough. We went on a big losing streak, never a good excuse but we were down a lot of guys. We didn't have Nic, we didn't have Wes, we didn't have L.A. for a period of time. When you lose starters like that, big-minute guys, guys that score for you and have been around the league longer than us rookies, [it's tough]. For me, it was good for my growth and development in the sense that I got more minutes. I was able to be on the court, recognize more things and be in more situations which will definitely help me for next year. Individually I really think it helped me out. We would have loved to win some of those games."
- Asked by a reporter whether the season would be defined by the losing streak, the usually cordial Leonard said, "No, [by] how hard we played," and abruptly ended his media session.
- LaMarcus Aldridge had no problem with not being reinserted into the game: "I didn't ask [why I was sitting]. I did my job and I just came out. I thought I was [going to go back in]. It's fine. The young guys had time to play."
- Aldridge on the season's end: "A lot of ups and downs, we started early doing better than everyone thought and we kind of stalled at the end with injuries and guys being out. I thought throughout the whole year guys tried to get better, the young guys came in every day and tried to learn the game. That's all you can ask for. ... You've got to [remember that] we basically cleaned house and started over."
- Aldridge on what needs to change during this offseason: "We definitely have to add some pieces this summer to make us better. We played kind of small and we played a lot of young players, we'll definitely make some changes this summer."
- Lillard on the losing streak's impact on the season: "It takes away a little bit from the type of season we had. We had 33 wins 13 games ago. It's bittersweet that we couldn't get a couple more wins with that many games left. Going out with a 13-game losing streak is definitely going to leave a sour taste in our mouth."
- Lillard did tell me that he will give himself some real rest. "I'm going to take some time off, I don't know how long. Everybody been telling me that I need to give my body a break. I haven't been through it yet, this will be my first time. I'll sit out as long as I can until I feel like I'm back to normal and I can get back to working again."
- Lillard on increasing his leadership role late in the season: "Being a point guard, it should be natural for me to be more of a leader. With all of our guys being out at the end of the season, I had the most experience on the floor. I felt like the guys out there hadn't played a lot of minutes. They needed me to speak up and help guide them through what I've been through all season."
- Standings watch: as noted above, the Blazers finished in the No. 10 slot in the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery order. Slipping that hard was no easy feat and no small task. The Russians should be jealous.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was pleased the way we played the last game. I wanted our team to play hard, our fans have been great all season. What I told the team before the game, it was important for us to play hard. Win or lose, play hard because I really have grown to appreciate the fans here. I'm not just saying that. I have a big appreciation for what the fans of Portland mean for the team. I've been in this league 20 years and the fans here are exceptional. I wanted our team to play to a level they expected. Obviously it's disappointing to lose, but more importantly I liked the way we played for the last game of the season.
I've said this before but I think he's under-appreciated. I think he's the best power forward in the league and he showed it tonight. He's had an outstanding season and he's had just one of many here. I have the utmost respect for what he's been able to do.
Why sit Aldridge out in the fourth quarter?
I wanted him to get to 30 [points] and 20 [rebounds]. I wanted the young guys to play and I wanted the young guys to close it out. They were playing well and playing hard and I wanted them to play.
Was playing Will Barton 48 minutes by design?
Pretty much. I had my mind kind of made up. Eric Maynor is a little banged up. I didn't play Eric the second half last night because he had ribs or some issues with his side. That's why he didn't play in the second half. I didn't want to extend his minutes at all, the only minutes he got was as a back-up and that's why I didn't play him and Damian [Lillard] together.
Paul Allen said he thought you had a "very good" first season as Blazers coach. Your response and how would you assess the season?
My response would be thank you. It's nice when your boss thinks you're doing a good job. This season has kind of been... I have a lot of fondness for this season. Obviously we've lost 13 in a row, but when I look back on a lot of the things we did, particularly in the first 50 or 60 games, some of the wins we had, how we played, some of the close games, I'm going to have a lot of fondness for this entire season. The losing streak at the end, you can't wipe that off the record, that's obviously part of it, but I'll remember more of the first two/thirds of the season than the last 13 games.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter