The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Atlanta Hawks in overtime, 70-69, at the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League on Wednesday, improving their record to 1-3.
By and large, most people here in Las Vegas seem opposed to Summer League's new tournament format, if only because it creates total schedule uncertainty for pretty much everyone involved. A good chunk of the media that was here during the first three games has already packed up and headed home. It's hard to imagine anyone will be flying in this week specifically to catch the final rounds of the tournament, and it will be interesting to see how many folks stick around all the way until Monday to see the final.
That said, at least one person loves the new format: Will Barton.
The second-year Blazers guard came back from a knee strain, rather than shut down his week early, and then played well over his minutes restriction against the Hawks, scoring 16 points (on 8-for-17 shooting) in 36 minutes and hitting what proved to be the game-winning basket with nine seconds remaining in overtime.
"[My knee] was banged up, you've got to play through it," he said. "I told coach before the game that I wanted to go. I was only supposed to play 15 or 20 minutes but I told them if I'm going to play, just let me play. It's the playoffs, I know it's Summer League, but I'm a real competitive guy, I like to win."
That type of drive is always appreciated, and it's a characteristic that's defined Barton since he was drafted last summer. He might not always know where he is supposed to be, he might not always know where his man is, he might not be able to consistently knock down a three-pointer, he might get loose with the rock, and he might not always play under control, but he is going to max out during his minutes, for better or worse.
That defining urgency seems to have been kicked up further by recent circumstances, namely the addition of two backcourt shooters -- CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe -- in the draft, and a third shooter -- Dorell Wright -- in free agency. The Blazers' roster already included three capable perimeter options in starters Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, so the three new additions indirectly pointed a finger at Barton's glaring weakness. Shooters are being collected like stamps and treated as high priorities immediately following a season in which Barton shot just 13.8 percent from deep. What other conclusion is there to draw except that the train is leaving the station and Barton must show that he should have a spot on it?
Earlier this week, Barton made his presence felt through the junkyard dog hustle plays that got him drafted in the first place. On Wednesday, he also served as a primary ball-handler and pick-and-roll initiator, with the Blazers' coaches continuing to search for ways to generate good offensive looks without asking McCollum to do everything on every single possession.
"it's good to have two ball-handlers on the floor," Blazers Summer League coach Nate Tibbetts said. "Him and CJ can both handle, and there's a reason why NBA teams run pick-and-roll, because it's the hardest thing to guard. The more guys that you have to do that, [it] increases your output offensively."
Barton is not an ideal candidate for this role but he's pretty firmly the "best option available" on this roster. What he lacks in control and polish off the dribble, he makes up for in assertiveness going to the hoop and streetball confidence in his abilities. He committed seven turnovers along the way but helped the Blazers prevail in a game in which they shot just 35.1 percent as a team, with McCollum shooting just 5-for-14 to get his team-high 19 points. One of Barton's four assists on the night set up Thomas Robinson for a crucial bucket late in regulation.
"Not just scoring but [making] plays," Barton said, when asked about his role with the ball in his hands. "I'm a guy that gets to the rim easily, when I get there, if no one steps up, I finish. If not, just find someone to make a shot. It's not just necessarily scoring but making plays for our team."
Much like Robinson's green light to go one-on-one, Barton is enjoying a bit of an experimentation phase in Las Vegas. There are problems -- perhaps insurmountable ones -- with the notion of using him as a lead ballhandler during the regular season. His loose handle against NBA defenders is a major one, as is the fact that most teams will simply back off him completely, denying his driving attempts and daring him to shoot.
What's interesting is that Barton seemed to take his expanded role not as a sign of future strategic developments but as a milepost marker for his development to date. Getting the ball here, he seemed to suggest, was validation of the extra work he's done in recent months and the progress he made over the course of his rookie season.
"I'm more comfortable now, I'm a year in," he said. "I'm reading defenses, I'm watching a lot of film. ... I feel much more poised, if you pay attention I think you can tell. Not just offensively, defensively, reads now, I'm not hugged up on my man any more. I know my assignments. I know how to play gaps, play in space, offense, read defenses, knowing the plays -- I know all the plays now -- it feels good to be out there at ease, just do my job. ... I don't care who you are. You've got to get experience to excel."
It's hard to go all the way to "poised," but there is -- at least -- an increased awareness in progress. Combine that with the desire mentioned above, and it was surely gratifying for the Blazers' coaching staff to see Barton deliver this victory in overtime, on a spinning, leaning, running attempt that danced on the rim before finally settling into the net.
"Coach drew it up," Barton said. "Told me to come off the screen, rip it right, don't even hesitate, no matter what, rip it right and finish, make a play. ... I knew it was going in. I didn't know it was going to do all that bouncing. As soon as I let it go, I said, 'This is in. We're going home, we're going to win.'"
It wasn't a photogenic game-winner -- a la Damian Lillard against the New Orleans Hornets -- but it worked. Barton maneuvered past Hawks guard Jared Cunningham as he worked to free himself, returning to his calling card herky-jerky style.
"He's slippery," McCollum said. "He slipped off, Cunningham was defending him pretty well. Just good touch around the basket. Good touch."
Tibbetts said he opted for Barton on the decisive play as a treat for his overall night, which included an early hustle play to break up a lob, the added offensive duties, and some extra-effort plays during Portland's second-half comeback from a double-digit deficit.
"[I drew up the play for Barton but] I didn't draw up the three spins and then that bounce," Tibbetts said. "I wanted to go to him because he kind of got us going in the third. He played a good third and fourth quarter, I kind of wanted to reward him and he had been making plays. He came through in the clutch."
Random Game Notes
- By winning, the Blazers qualified for the round of 16 knockout tournament and avoided the loser's bracket. Portland will now face the Phoenix Suns on Thursday at 5 PM PT, in what will be a rematch of their first Summer League game, which Phoenix won handily. If Portland wins, they will advance to the round-of-8 on Saturday, where they will face the winner of a game between the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets. If Portland loses,
their 2013 Summer League will be completethey will be eliminated from the championship round but will play one final consolation round game on Friday at 7:30 PM. Apologies on the error on this one; I swear the tournament format gets more complicated day by day.
- CJ McCollum was dealt another tough match-up in Dennis Schroder, a 2013 first-round pick who has played hard, intelligent and effective basketball all week. The two traded crossovers and dribble fakes throughout, and McCollum's prettiest play was probably a touch floater over Mike Muscala. He also had a nice lob to Thomas Robinson for an easy bucket.
- McCollum on his shooting: "My percentages are awful right now. I'm shooting terrible from the field, I'm getting good looks, that's the most frustrating part. I can get to the rim, it's just about finishing when you get there, knocking down open threes. Just missing shots. Sometimes it happens. Ray Allen has slumps, the best shooters in the world, sometimes the ball doesn't drop for you. ... You're going to have slumps. Damian [Lillard] had a game this year where he went 0-for-19. It happens to [Michael] Jordan, Kobe [Bryant], they all -- you're going to have struggles. 82 games is a really long season."
- McCollum on his Summer League overall: "I'm playing OK. For rookie standards, it's decent. I've got to shoot the ball a little bit better and take care of the ball more. This is my fourth game since January so I'm getting back into things, getting back into a rhythm and choosing when to pick my spots, when to get aggressive and when to sit back and let other guys take over. I would say I'm playing OK."
- Meyers Leonard finally delivered on his promise to show off his new-found three-point range after a number of misses this week, and the timing couldn't have been better. Leonard cashed in a three from the right wing to bring Portland within two with less than two minutes to play.
- Poor Joel Freeland took a basketball to the face in another frustrating outing for him. Three points, six rebounds and two turnovers in 16 minutes.
- Victor Claver had seven points and seven rebounds. He went 2-for-12 and airballed a three-pointer late in the fourth quarter that felt like it just might suck the wind out of Portland's comeback sail. It wound up having no such effect.
- Barton on his most recent game-winner before Wednesday: "I had a couple of them at Memphis. The last one I probably remember is Southern Miss at home. I came off a tight screen and nailed a jumper to close it."
- The Blazers dodged a bullet when Schroder shook McCollum and collapsed the Blazers' defense perfectly, setting up shooter John Jenkins in the left corner for a chance to win at the end of regulation. Jenkins shot 38.4 percent on threes as a rookie last year but he missed here, on a night in which he shot just 5-for-17 overall.
- Thomas Robinson finished with 13 points and 17 rebounds, highlighted by this putback dunk. Video via YouTube user NBA.
Nate Tibbetts' Post-Game Comments
Getting first win
We're off the schnide. I'm happy for our guys. They put in a lot of work in Portland. Then we added some guys and kind of got messed up. We've had a couple of shootarounds here, it's helped us offensively, just to kind of have a look at knowing what we're doing a little bit. I'm happy for the guys that stayed with it, we got down in the first half, and just kind of kept competing. Kind of starting feeling good about ourselves.
Drawing up play for Will Barton on the game-winner
I didn't draw up the three spins and then that bounce. I wanted to go to him because he kind of got us going in the third. He played a good third and fourth quarter, I kind of wanted to reward him and he had been making plays. He came through in the clutch.
Will Barton's comfort in pick-and-rolls increasing?
it's good to have two ball-handlers on the floor. Him and CJ can both handle, and there's a reason why NBA teams run pick-and-roll, because it's the hardest thing to guard. The more guys that you have to do that, increases your output offensively.
Two second-half comebacks in a row
When you make shots you get yourself going a little bit more defensively. We started to make shots last night in the second half, and we made shots in the second half here tonight. We just stayed with it.
Did you work with Will Barton after you were hired this summer?
All of us did. Will, credit to him and especially our medical staff, because he didn't play yesterday. He didn't play yesterday, they got him back ready to play. His minutes were restricted but he felt really good, so it's a credit to Will and our medical staff to have him ready.
Will put in a lot of work in June like our other three or four young guys.
Areas of development for Will Barton
I think he's comfortable with the ball in his hands. His overall confidence is good. I wasn't here last year, so i didn't get to see what he did on a day-to-day basis, but he came to work every day in June and a lot of that stuff paid off for him today.
Meyers Leonard's late three-pointer
Meyers can make shots. Coach isn't going to put any restrictions on him when it comes to that shot. He's got great touch for a big guy, moving forward throughout his career, if that's a shot he can make, that's going to be an asset.
Will Barton's health/availability
We had a good feeling going into shootaround, we wanted to see how he was. He said he felt great in warm-ups and he gave it a go.
Dennis Schroder on CJ McCollum
I think he handled it well. CJ is going to play some back-up point guard minutes for us this year, he's going to play some two also. Typically, back-up point guards are bulldogs. They are guys that get after the ball, that's what Schroder did tonight. I thought CJ did a good job. I think he maybe had a couple too many turnovers, but he knew that. He's doing a better job, he's getting more comfortable getting us into our stuff.
Will Barton as primary ball-handler
CJ is going to play off the ball during the year. It's been something that we want to do more of here. The first couple games CJ handled it a lot. It's not going to be like that all year for us. We wanted to give [McCollum] more of a look at what it's going to be like during the season.
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