Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Nicolas Batum, Portland's Bench, and More

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Who will step up off the Portland Trail Blazers bench against San Antonio? Have the Blazers regained their form? What can Nicolas Batum do to influence the series? Is Damian Lillard now bigger than Brandon Roy was? Answers to these questions and more in the Blazer's Edge Mailbag!

Time to clean out the Mailbag inbox before the next series starts!  Thanks to everyone who sent questions and apologies for all those I didn't get to in time.  The final days of the Houston series were a little bit intense.

Hi Dave,

I'm curious what you think about the Blazers' bench after Mo Williams. Without the threat of Howard does Freeland reemerge or has Robinson done enough to secure that seventh spot? Or, will the Blazers turn more to Wright, who's at least something of an outside threat? Or might someone like Barton suddenly get time? I'm guessing Stotts goes with Robinson for seventh highest in minutes, but I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Shawn

Freeland should be the big beneficiary in this series.  He matches up better with the Spurs' bigs and he provide the potential for offensive rebounding, one of the 2-3 ways to ruin San Antonio's day.  Robinson could be interesting for tempo-change and moving defenders around, though the Spurs will likely make him prove he can hit shots before chasing him too hard.  I could see Dorell Wright and Will Barton having moments but they're not as obvious as the bigs.

Dave,

Would you say that the Blazers are back to playing first half of season basketball when they had their fast start and the national media considered them to be early title contenders? New playoffs, new season?

Richard

In spirit, sure.  The fresh start was great for the team, as was having an opponent they were motivated against and maybe semi-hated for a while.  But it's nearly impossible to compare forms between November tune-up games against lesser opponents and April-May playoff games.  Both schemes and demands will be far different against Houston and San Antonio than they were against Sacramento and Toronto.

The Blazers have proven that anything can happen, even in a seven-game series.  In that sense hope springs forth just as much as it did after their marvelous start.  They can make the Conference Finals.  That's an amazing position to be in and would have been considered a significant step even in the midst of those early days of the season.

Dave,

What advice can you give Nicolas Batum that will help him really excel against the Spur? He is extremely talented and I feel he can be much better!

Blessings, Mongol Blazer! (from Mongolia)

We've had conversations with people from many different countries but Mongolia is a new one!  This makes me happy.

The Blazers will depend on Batum for defense in this series.  He'll be the fireman, reporting to wherever San Antonio blazes hottest.  If that's Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green, or Manu Ginobili, Nic will be right alongside.  If he slows down his man enough to keep single coverage intact and hits any open threes he gets, he'll have done plenty.  Those are two of Portland's keys.  Anything more he gives will be gravy...which Portland will take, of course.  But Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams have the potential to make up offensive ground in this series even if Batum remains more selective on that end of the floor.

Dave

Will we look back at Damian Lillard's Game 6 shot as the moment he won the hearts and minds of Blazer fans? Could that be the moment he took over the special place last occupied by Brandon Roy? We all know how great Aldridge is, and there have been fan favorites even when the team wasn't very good, but fans embraced Brandon Roy unlike any other and made him the face of the city and the franchise. Do you think Lillard's shot and "Rip City!" shout out will catapult him to "Brandon Roy" status?

Thanks!

-JonathanPDX

I suspect it's more the moment Lillard and the Blazers won the hearts of the national audience than the moment Lillard won Portland's heart.  He'd already done that prior...maybe not as condensed into a single moment, but it was there.  Everybody loved Roy when he was healthy but his departure was like the end of a marriage.  You mourn it, then you move on.  I don't think Blazer fans were holding a candle for Brandon much anymore.  If anything they're more apt to forget him.  There's little danger of that with Lillard.  The Shot will probably cement the fondness for him but it didn't create it.

Dave,

I agree with Mark Cuban, I believe, that the owners forcing Sterling to sell the Clippers may set a dangerous precedent. With so many people already lining up to form groups to purchase the team, what do you think about selling the team to the "fans," similar to the ownership of the Green Bay Packers? I can't see the NBA wanting to do that, at least not without a vetted/selected majority owner, but the Clippers do seem like a market that could pull it off.

Cheers,
Andrew

In this case I think the precedent only needs to be as dangerous as the owners want it to be.  The Commissioner can't force an owner to sell.  The owners have to vote to do that.  It's highly unlikely that Commissioner Silver would have taken steps as quickly and stridently as he did unless he knew that the owners would support the ouster.  Had they hemmed and hawed, he likely would have delayed until they could build consensus.  They were still in control.

We saw the Commissioner exercise the never-used power of indefinite suspension of an owner.  That power could be abused, I suppose.  But at the end of the day the owners vote for the Commissioner and he serves at their pleasure.  Were Silver to go on a mad tirade they could always dispense with him.  There's little danger of that power being misused because of this incident.

For more on the "Slippery Slope" argument read JelaniGNatural's Fanpost if you haven't already.

Digressing a tad, I'm guessing there are three ways we can absorb the Sterling incident.

We can take the academic approach, arguing legal points and systemic consequences and such.  This can be fruitful but it's a little detached for my taste.  In the end, this was about human beings.  I'm not sure any of us can stand above it and judge its consequences.  We have to be enmeshed in the culture through which Sterling's words reverberated in order to experience them...and even then we must admit that culture isn't monolithic, that none of us can know it completely.  But just because we can't understand the situation from all angles is no reason to remove ourselves from it.

We can take the emotional approach, using Sterling as a target to get mad at.  Some of this is also appropriate, but it doesn't end up very satisfying.  Momentary anger directed against a single target won't change anything even if that target suffers consequences because of it.  If all we get out of this is, "Let's get this particular guy!" we haven't got a real handle on the issues involved.  Dismissing Sterling was an appropriate step but not a satisfactory solution.

I don't think this was an occasion for systemic tinkering, nor for personal anger, as much as it was a declaration that we've all had enough.  This kind of thinking doesn't find purchase anymore for most of us...enough of us that engaging in it is going to render you anathema if those thoughts become public.  The NBA's action may not have made sense as a precedent and it may not have been satisfactory as an all-encompassing solution, but it did succeed in declaring that big, "No" that we all needed to express.  We're not tired of the discussion of racism, nor will we shirk the burden of examining and compensating for its effects, nor can we really absolve ourselves of its stain.  But at least we're tired of people thinking they can say these things and have it be considered normal or even slightly acceptable, let alone justifiable by any defense.  People can think whatever they want, but if it gets to other people's ears, those other people are going to respond with appropriately with a somewhat-weary, yet firm, "No more."  Then you don't get to hang with those people anymore, nor influence them.  You don't get to drop the mic on that kind of talk, it just gets unplugged.

As far as fan ownership, even with the Packers it's kind of a token thing.  Fans get to pay for the privilege of owning but they don't get to run the team.  I don't see the NBA eager to muddy the waters like that.  They'd prefer to keep the ownership group select and well within the culture.

Hey Dave,

Your recent article about the role of the refs in the NBA got me thinking back to my old psych 101 days in college, especially the part about "putting yourself at the mercy of the refs" because of a mistake. This sounds a lot like what social psychologists call victim blaming. In this case the refs are absolved of responsibility and their mistakes are blamed on the player. Are you familiar with this term and do you have any thoughts on why this case does or does not fall under this category?

Alex

I can see a superficial comparison but in order to make that work you have to assume that the refs are victimizing players to begin with.  The perpetrator-victim description from which the completely unfair practice of victim blaming emerges assumes two active parties, one innocent and the second with malicious intent.  Victim blaming explains that you can't attach peripheral details to the victim and then substitute those for the malicious intent of the perpetrator as a root cause of the wrong that occurred.

If the object harming you is mostly inanimate and no malicious intent is possible then it behooves you to take as much responsibility to make sure you're not interacting with it in a risky way.  If you see a hot stove, you know it's hot, and you touch it, it's not victim blaming to suggest that you avoid doing that again as much as possible.

Most human interactions fall between these extremes.  Referees are closer to the stove on this scale than they are to the perpetrator.  They're paid to make calls.  They have to make the calls they see.  They're forced to use interpretation in judging those calls.  They try to be as consistent as possible in those interpretations.  None of that is evil, nor does it make the recipient of those whistles victims.  You know if you leave a play up to a ref, you're going to fall under that system.  As much as possible, you want to avoid that situation.

The example I used in the piece was a team giving up a turnover leading to a breakout for the other team in heavy traffic.  Under those circumstances the ref is probably going to make a call because they see the fast-breaking team with the advantage.  Part of the criteria for a foul is, "Did this illegal-looking motion give one team an advantage or rob the other team of one?"  Under those circumstances they're likely to answer, "Yes".  You can't control that.  You can't change those criteria, nor would you want to.  The only solution for you is to avoid as many of those situations as possible, taking care of the ball and making sure you look like the team with most of the advantages to be robbed.

You want to say refs make mistakes on those calls AND teams make mistakes putting themselves in those situations?  I'm good with that.  They both do.   But that's not the story we get.  We hear how lousy the refs are without hearing how the team contributed.  So now only the refs are making mistakes, not our heroes.  Say that enough, multiply it 80 times per game, and pretty soon our team looks innocent and blameless while the refs look guilty as heck, perhaps intentionally so.  Now the victim-perpetrator model starts to make sense.  Now fans start chanting profanities not just at the obviously bad calls, but at the decent ones as well, as "wrong" gets measured not by rules or standards, but by what you're doing to our team.  At that point you don't have a sport worth watching anymore.

In the end, a little logical integrity should resolve this matter from Portland's perspective.  Plenty of Portland fans were complaining that the refs were unfair to them and were potentially costing them games during the Houston series.  Plenty of Houston fans were doing the same on the other side.  The Blazers won, 4-2.  Are Blazer fans now prepared to say that the referees and their mistakes gave Portland that series, that the Blazers didn't really earn it?  If not, then can you honestly, with a straight face and clear conscience, say that the referees would have given Houston the series if they had won it, or even that they gave Houston games within the series as it was?  If we are not willing to put emphasis on the former possibility we probably should not fall so hard upon the latter.

Personally I don't think that the officials gave Portland their wins.  But I don't think they officiated particularly poorly against Portland either.  They made mistakes.  So did the teams.  In the end, the mistakes were either few enough or balanced enough between the two teams that a genuine result showed through.  That's all you can ask of your sport.  Perfection is beyond the human capacity.  Having things go your way without fail makes it not a sport anymore.

Dave,

How good are the Houston Rockets? Before the series they were picked by most experts to beat us, considered at least a second-tier contender. Everyone said they have a higher ceiling, more talent, more star power, and could make a deep playoff run.

[Now that the series is done] what do you think of the Rockets?  And what does the victory say about us? Are we better than expected, or are they worse, or is it pure luck that the ball bounced our way in a few very close games?

Jonathan

I'm not sure the Rockets were picked to get past the second round even though they were acclaimed favorites to pass the first.  But you're right about the higher ceiling, more talent and star power part.

I think some of those descriptions still fit Houston.  I also think that their execution, spacing, and chemistry forced their natural talent down while Portland's let more of their ability show through.  This is the beauty of sports.  It doesn't matter what you have theoretically, only the talent you demonstrate counts.  The Blazers ended up the more talented team while the Rockets get to play, "What If?" all summer.  That's happened to Portland in past eras.  It's more fun to be on this side of the fence for sure!

I think the victory says a ton about Portland.  It's not easy to execute under pressure, to get more out of everybody when a star or two on the other side is beating you down.  The Blazers showed determination, commitment, poise.  Think of those like x2 and x3 multipliers in a video game.  You and your opponent may have a relatively equal ability to get points, but getting those multipliers changes the game to such an extent that acquiring them becomes the real contest.  In that sense the Blazers are light years ahead of the Rockets right now.  Thus I have no qualms about the wins even though the games were close.

Of course bounces went Portland's way sometimes.  But teams make their own luck.  The ball bounced Houston's way on the next-to-last play of Game 6.  The Blazers had fingertips on a defensive rebound, couldn't secure it, and it fell into Chandler Parsons' hands for an easy layup.  Most of the time teams get defensive rebounds.  Houston was fortunate to get that opportunity...or rather they made enough room for fortune to bless them and it worked.  They proceeded to blow all of that fortune and then some on the very next play when they couldn't guard the most important player on the floor for 0.9 seconds...couldn't even stay close to him, really.  Was that a lucky break for Portland?  Sure.  But it's not like Portland got all the breaks and managed to win while Houston got none.  The Rockets got theirs and the Blazers got theirs.  Portland ended up taking better advantage.  They made their breaks worth more.

Watch long enough and you realize that these things aren't really luck.  They all fall under the umbrella of basketball.  Good basketball takes every twist that favors you and magnifies it.  Bad basketball takes every twist that favors you and throws it down the drain.  Franchises that play good basketball eventually learn how to make those breaks happen and take full advantage.  Franchises that play bad basketball blame the results on everything but themselves as if fortune were the only thing determining the outcome of a given game.

Dave,

With so much "underdog" talk this year, as far as the reason for the Blazers' motivation and success this season, it got me wondering... What if we advance to the 2nd round, the 3rd round, or even the Conference Finals and, dare I say it, Championship? How will this affect next season? How will THIS particular team deal with their status? They seem to thrive as underdogs. What if this current carnation of Blazers become stalwarts in the post-season? Where will the 'fight' come from?

Jeff

The young underdog motivation does have a shelf life, but the Blazers are in no danger of it expiring this year.  Usually teams on their way up ride that momentum and emotion for a while.  During that stretch of good play they identify habits that lead to success.  Pretty soon they're able to duplicate those habits without relying on the underdog motivation and they've arrived.  It's no different than anybody starting to climb the ladder in their field.  Most of us start with some kind of external, "Us against the world, gonna do this better than anyone expects" motivation.  When we get more familiar with success we realize its source didn't come externally but internally.  It's not about us having to kick the world's butt and prove haters wrong but about us showing who we are, who we were always meant to be, and making a difference in doing so.  The Blazers will get there.  But remember that few people start climbing that ladder in the first place without feeling like they have something to prove.  For the stage they're in, Portland's approach is totally appropriate.

In any case, I don't think you have to worry about them showing up next year saying, "Errrr...how do we do this?  We have no motivation now."  Nor do I think you have to worry about them not being able to fight when necessary.  Because, you know...Houston.

I do hope they do test your theory by winning the title though!  That seems like the only fair experiment.

With games every second day now Mailbag time will be harder to come by, but we'll manage somehow.  Keep those questions coming to the e-mail address below!

Also if you just can't get enough of Dave answering questions make sure you check out our latest Videocast.  Or you could listen to clips from Chad Doing on Portland's Flight 750.  Or listen to the Phil Naessens Show:

Plus we've got even more coverage to take you up until game time and beyond tomorrow!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com AND @DaveDeckard

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