The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 96-91, at the Rose Garden on Sunday night, dropping Portland's record to 33-44.
Blazers rookie guard Will Barton didn't deliver the comeback victory, not quite, but he succeeded in injecting a redeeming respectability that his team had lacked over the last two-plus weeks.
"I don't believe in moral victories," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said afterwards, words that stood in contrast to maybe the most jubilant losing NBA locker room I've ever seen. Just as there is a clear difference between winning and losing, there's no comparing losing to humiliation, and there's no comparing humiliation to repeated humiliation.
"Of course not, we don't [believe in moral victories]," All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who was all smiles, told Blazersedge after finishing with 18 points (on eight-for-16 shooting), six rebounds and three assists. "I think right now we've lost by 20 four games in a row, right now it's about being competitive out there. I thought tonight was a lot better."
Sorry to go back to the pretenses bit for the third game in a row but here we are: as the winning percentage drops, the pretenses drop, and the measuring stick drops too. Entering Sunday, this was a group dealing with injuries, struggling with poor play, offering shaky effort, regularly playing pathetic defense and -- maybe most of all -- lacking a bright spot: Damian Lillard hasn't played his best of late, Meyers Leonard hasn't played consistently, and there's just not much else there to get the blood going during pointless mid-April games, as coach Terry Stotts continues to refuse to dip both feet into the youth movement pool.
Enter Barton, who tallied a career-high 22 points (on seven-for-11 shooting), a career-high 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals in 32 minutes, pouring in 12 fourth-quarter points to help the Blazers claw back from a 26-point deficit. His spinning alley-oop dunk was the Blazers' best pure highlight in quite some time, but it was the "Is he really doing this?" quotient that built through the final period that wound up exciting the Rose Garden.
"I told Sasha [Pavlovic] and Jared [Jeffries] that I was going to have a career night tonight, not even knowing if I would get in the game," Barton said afterwards, laughing at his own words.
Barton saw 32 minutes of action on Sunday, the most he's played this season, in part because starter Wesley Matthews sprained his right ankle in the second quarter and did not return. X-rays were negative, but Matthews left the Rose Garden on crutches while wearing a walking boot. The least bashful Blazers player was ready when called upon to fill the hole.
"I know that I'm good," Barton said. "I don't need a media guy to tell me, my coach to tell me, or anybody. I have so much self-confidence that I feel like it's not my fault I'm not playing. I feel like I can go out there and compete with anybody. When it's my opportunity, I'm going to go out there and do that, that's what always keeps me uplifted."
"Will's always had confidence in his game," Stotts said, chuckling, when asked if perhaps the flashes Barton showed during a Friday night loss to the Houston Rockets had a carry-over effect on Sunday. "I don't think he needed that."
Resting Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter with full confidence after pushing out to a 56-32 halftime lead, the Mavericks looked caught off guard by Barton's aggressiveness. The dunks built his confidence and he was off, getting to the free throw line repeatedly and finding little resistance as he turned the corner on drives.
"I'm always aggressive," Barton said. "I might not always be efficient, but I'm always aggressive."
It was a brilliantly self-aware crack -- I think -- from a player whose PER of 7.00 ranked No. 414 out of 465 players in an ESPN.com database on Sunday night, lower even than Nolan Smith, which nine out of 10 scientists surveyed didn't believe was mathematically possible. Of course, Barton's 35.0 percent shooting and 13.0 three-point shooting -- entering Sunday - - are going to look disgusting no matter how advanced your statistical preference.
This is the promise of April: take players who average 10 minutes a game, give them 30, and see what happens when there are no stakes. This is what should be happening every single night with Meyers Leonard -- who played just 14 minutes -- and Joel Freeland -- who never touched the court -- but, hey, one battle at a time. The lesson for those two couldn't be clearer now: carpe diem.
"[My teammates] see me in practice, see me in workouts, they always believe in my ability and tell me to be patient," Barton said, singling out Aldridge and J.J. Hickson, who both kidded him endlessly in front of reporters after the game. "Everyone on the team says I have a special talent, you just have to wait your turn sometimes."
Barton, and interested observers, have been waiting for something from the 2012 second-round pick. His statistical output on Sunday was historically unusual: his stat line -- including his field goal and free throw numbers -- hadn't been done by a member of the Blazers or a reserve player anywhere in the NBA since 1993 and his points/rebounds/assists combination hadn't been put up by a rookie since Grant Hill in 1995.
"Understatement," Stotts said. "Will Barton had a terrific game and was the catalyst for the second half."
Aldridge added: "He's always going hard. He has that different game, iso, herky-jerky game, it's been good for us."
Keep in mind, all this from a player who scored 45 points, grabbed 24 rebounds and registered 10 assists combined over the last month. Where did this come from?
"Yeah," Stotts said, when asked if he had seen this from Barton in practice, before catching himself. "Not consistently. He finished, he was around the ball, he's shown flashes of that but certainly not extended periods. My hat's off to him that he was able to sustain that level of energy and focus for the entire half. We've seen patches of that throughout the season but he sustained it for a whole half."
The timing couldn't have been better. Had Barton's explosion not happened, an eighth straight defeat and the loss of Matthews to injury would have been a brutal one-two punch to the gut for a team whose morale likely wouldn't have withstood the blows.
The defense was disastrous yet again in the first half and the lack of early intensity suggests that there are already some mental countdown clocks ticking. Barton's clock isn't one of them, of course, as he would surely play another two months of basketball sans playoff implications if it meant regular burn. Staying ready has been "real hard," he said, but he should get solid minutes down the stretch assuming Matthews' ankle is as serious as the crutches/boot would seem to indicate.
"I'm a guy who loves to play," he said. "One year removed out of college, used to be the big man on campus, everybody knows who you are, you're producing. Then you come here and you're just the little guy stuck on the bottom. You've got to just keep working in the gym and find something that motivates you."
Portland's comeback wound up short after a final possession saw Lillard attack the hoop and miss a lay-up that the Blazers couldn't rebound. The decision to go for the quick two rather than a three was a bit curious, given that the Blazers set up out of a timeout with just 12 seconds remaining. Stotts and Lillard both said that the play was designed with Luke Babbitt as the first option -- if he was wide open for a three-- with Lillard getting the ball, to attack or shoot a three, if that didn't pan out.
"We couldn't run a pick and roll because they had Shawn Marion, they were just going to switch it," Stotts explained. I wanted him to be aggressive. I thought he was very aggressive, I thought he got pushed in the back on the drive. There was no foul. The idea was to get the ball to Damian and be aggressive, it wasn't necessarily for a two or a three."
"I was setting a screen to see if they could get Luke and, if not, I was coming off a screen from L.A.," Lillard recounted, after finishing with 15 points (on six-for-19 shooting) and four assists. "If I had a shot, take the shot, if I didn't, try to get a quick two. Drove to the rim, didn't get nothing."
Portland's options on the play were hampered meaningfully by the absences of Matthews and Nicolas Batum, two of their top three three-point shooters, and the decision to turn things over to Lillard was logical. His decision to drive, after using some of the clock, was less so. He was frustrated, again, with the officiating after this one. His body language and tone of voice screams "What more do I have to do?" even as he continues to avoid criticizing the officiating when the cameras and microphones are on.
"Obviously not," he said pointedly, when asked if he was fouled. "It's nothing I can say. I'm falling on my knees, getting bumped, hit in the head, if the call doesn't get called, I'm assuming it's not a foul. All I can do is keep playing. It makes no sense for me to complain about it when nothing is going to change."
That Lillard remains so results-focused on a night when progress was made and a glimmer of promise was restored is a positive long-term indicator. That just about everyone else -- including his coach -- was willing to settle for the moral victory reflects more on the depths of the recent lows than it did on their collective character as competitors.
"All the leaders on the team [were] saying [that] we can't go out like this," Barton said, echoing Matthews' post-game message Friday night. "We can't keep losing games, getting blown out, especially at home. Our fans deserve more. Our coaches and the rest of the guys on the team, we have to step it up, just play hard."
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout: 20,228. A little inflated.
- Rarely will you see a crowd go from zero-to-60 like this one. Dallas took timeout when the Blazers cut the Mavericks' lead to 86-72 with a little under eight minutes remaining, and it was essentially dead silent. Then Barton happened over the next five or so minutes and the Rose Garden immediately turned it up to 11.
- If you're somehow late to the party, be sure to read up on Will Barton's remarkable life story (posted last August).
- Please check out the awesome results for Blazersedge Night, which is coming up a week from Wednesday. Thanks so much if you donated.
- Lillard on Barton: "He brought a lot of energy. He basically carried us in the second half, scored a lot of points, rebounded, passed the ball, got big steals. He was big time. He did what we needed from him at that time. That says a lot about Will, to play the limited amount of minutes that he has all year and in the game towards the end of the season, we call him and he comes in ready, sparks us to almost win."
- Lillard to Blazersedge on whether he's tried to make adjustments or plans to make adjustments to get more favorable treatment from the officials: "I'm going to play my game regardless. I'm not going to change anything I'm doing based on that. I'm just going to keep doing the same things all year that have been working for me. So it doesn't make sense for me to change because I might have gotten fouled or might not."
- Wesley Matthews, who lit into the Blazers on Friday night, sounded much happier on Twitter, despite the injury, after this one: "Appreciate everybody's thoughts and well wishes. Proud of the fight we showed tonight. Way to ball Will Barton."
- While Stotts continues to defend his team's effort level, Lillard told reporters that the coach brought it up during his halftime speech: "Coach basically told us to have more heart, play with some more pride, and we did."
- Chris Kaman just dismantled JJ Hickson in the early going, on his way to a season-high 26 points and 11 rebounds. Brutal.
- Luke Babbitt played 26 minutes, finishing with 10 points and six rebounds while knocking down two three-pointers in the same game for the first time since March 19.
- Fairly nice bounceback night from Maynor after a rough Friday night. Unfortunately, his two missed threes were both momentum-killers.
- Dirk Nowitzki sat out down the stretch because of a foot injury that didn't sound like it was serious. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle: "We held Dirk out because he's got something in his foot that's bothering him. We just felt like, either way, it was more important to keep him out, get this thing looked at and hopefully get him ready for Wednesday." Nowitzki indicated that he expected to play against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, Anne Peterson of the Associated Press reported on Twitter.
- More Lillard on the result: "Being happy that we came back and played well and gave ourselves a chance is better than what we've been doing, [but] we want to win the game."
- Thanks for the kind words at halftime to the man wearing a great Drazen Petrovic t-shirt jersey. Don't see those every day.
- Wednesday's game between Portland and the Los Angeles Lakers is huge. The Lakers are now a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed and the Jazz hold the tie-breaker. Utah has four games to play and L.A. has five games to play. Utah plays Minnesota twice, which should be two victories. Winning only those two would take them to 43-39. In other words, the 40-37 Lakers would need to finish 4-1 to make the playoffs against a schedule that includes Portland, the New Orleans Hornets, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. The final three teams are all still involved in various seeding races, although it's still a touch too early to know whether any/all of them will play all of their guys during the final week of the season.
- To boil this down: a Portland win on Wednesday wouldn't eliminate the Lakers from the playoffs but it would make their lives absolutely horrible and it would completely remove their margin for error unless the Jazz slip up in one of their games against the Timberwolves. If the Jazz steal just one more win like they stole at the Warriors on Sunday night, the Lakers would be toast with a Blazers loss. Note: L.A. will be coming in on the second night of a back-to-back while the Blazers will be rested.
- Standings watch: the Blazers are 1.5 games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 11 slot in the 2013 NBA Draft order and five games up on the Mavericks for the No. 12 slot.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was glad we bounced back after halftime. Obviously the first half is not what you want to see. I was proud of the way guys responded after the half. Understatement: Will Barton had a terrific game and was the catalyst for the second half. I wasn't sure what was going to happen at halftime but I was glad we were able to come back and be in a position -- I don't know if we would have won it or not -- but at least be in a position to have a chance to tie it. My hats off to the guys, particularly the guys who played in the second half.
Did you get a glimpse at the future with Damian and Will?
I already know what the future is for Damian, he's already proved that over the course of the year. Will is terrific. We opened it up, it was an up and down game, a lot of flow, not a lot of halfcourt sets, just go out and play and defend and he was terrific. he did a little bit of everything. Can't say enough about what he did.
Wesley Matthews' ankle
He had a sprain, the X-ray was negative, that's all I know.
We looked for Luke if he was wide open but it was probably going to come to Damian. We couldn't run a pick and roll because they had Shawn Marion, they were just going to switch it. I wanted him to be aggressive. I thought he was very aggressive, I thought he got pushed in the back on the drive. There was no foul. The idea was to get the ball to Damian and be aggressive, it wasn't necessarily for a two or a three.
Seen this from Will Barton in practice?
Yeah. Yeah. Not consistently. He finished, he was around the ball, he's shown flashes of that but certainly not extended periods. My hat's off to him that he was able to sustain that level of energy and focus for the entire half. We've seen patches of that throughout the season but he sustained it for a whole half.
Carry-over confidence for Will Barton from Houston game?
No, I think Will's always had confidence in his game. I don't think he needed that.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com |Twitter