The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz, 120-114, in an exhibition game at the Rose Garden on Monday night, improving their preseason record to 3-3.
In their final home game before Halloween's regular season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, who now have All-Star center Dwight Howard back healthy, the Blazers scored 70 points in the first half, shooting 69.2 percent from the field, all while playing without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and with starting point guard Damian Lillard sent to the bench early with two quick fouls. All five starters shot above 50 percent in the first half, forward Nicolas Batum and center J.J. Hickson both put together their best stretches of the preseason, and the Jazz, a team most analysts are projecting to make the playoffs in the West, simply couldn't stop the onslaught.
It was a night, even with all preseason disclaimers applied fully, for a young team to feel like world-beaters.
"They're human, we're human," Hickson told Blazersedge, when asked about the upcoming opener against the Lakers. "They bleed just like we bleed. No team has gone undefeated since the NBA was invented."
"It looks good on paper but [the Lakers have] got to make a team now," Batum told Blazersedge. "It's not easy because you've got one ball only. One ball [for] five good players."
"No, I didn't," Lillard said when asked if he had watched tape of Howard's impressive debut with the Lakers on Sunday. Then he added: "I heard he got dunked on." (Indeed, Sacramento Kings rookie forward Thomas Robinson climbed Howard's back for a big slam.)
Life is an adidas commercial in the preseason -- anything is possible -- and this team seems eager, so far, to write its own history rather than having it dictated to them by deeper, more experienced opponents. There's an "any given night" precociousness, even as coach Terry Stotts incessantly juggles the bottom half of his rotation. This group could wind up taking some true beatings in the near future, especially on longer road trips. But the "You'll have to beat us, we won't beat ourselves" attitude is there, never more so than Monday night.
There was also a special glow to this game: everything went in, especially early. Batum shot 5-for-6 in the first half and 9-for-15 overall , finishing with a game-high 27 points, two rebounds and two assists. Stotts said he made a point of running more plays for Batum with Aldridge taking the night off to rest, but the coach also credited his forward with creating offensive opportunities on his own.
"I probably ran more plays for him tonight than I usually do," Stotts said. "He was getting some in the flow. I think he got in a rhythm."
"I needed this game because I've struggled over the last couple games," Batum said, referencing a 4-for-10 shooting night against the Golden State Warriors on Friday and a 1-for-8 night against the Denver Nuggets last Wednesday. "Just to get back on track, get my confidence back, my rhythm back... I tried to score in different ways tonight. Post-up, transition, one-on-one, come off screens."
He scored in all those manners, a locked-in performance that was so assertive it almost appeared selfish at times. It wasn't, really, but it appeared so relative to his default setting with the Blazers and his pedestrian preseason play to date.
"He got going early," Lillard said of Batum. "I recognized that he was aggressive and making shots so it's my job to make sure he keeps getting [the ball] so he can stay in that mode. He stayed in that attack mode all night, made shots and he led us in scoring tonight."
Stotts called it Hickson's "best game of the preseason."
"He played well at both ends," Stotts said. "He had activity. He sustained it for a long period of time. I didn't think he took very many possessions off on either end. That's the way he needs to play and the way we need him to play. To have that energy and activity makes it difficult for the opponent on both ends.
Hickson, who finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals on 8-for-9 shooting, agreed with Stotts' "best game" assessment.
"I think it was from an individual standpoint," he said. "I just felt like I was very active. I'm starting to get the fact that I'm not going to get many plays called for me. I'm OK with that. I think I'm able to do other things on the court which I showed tonight. Whatever it takes to win, I'm going to do."
Asked if perhaps he had solicited the coaching staff for more plays to run his way, Hickson smiled.
"Not yet. I think I'll get around to it. I understand where we're going with this team and the things we're trying to accomplish. Whatever decisions coach decides to make, I know for a fact we're behind him 100 percent."
In a game that saw Portland build a 27-point lead and then allow Utah to score 68 second half points to make the final score presentable, the only other real intrigue came in the play of training camp invite Coby Karl. Specifically when placed in contrast to Stotts' decision to sit Nolan Smith (along with Will Barton and Sasha Pavlovic). Smith said that he had not been informed of the decision in advance, according to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, while Karl told Blazersedge that he didn't know he would be the first point guard off the bench until Stotts told him to check in for Lillard early in the first quarter.
He also wouldn't reveal his back-up plan should he be cut but said he would converse with his wife, his agent and his father, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, if he is released. "It's not for me to say," Karl told Blazersedge, when asked to assess whether he had done enough to land a Blazers roster spot. "I've done as much as I can. I think I've played well. I think I've helped my team. That's all you can ask for. Help your team and try to play winning basketball and I think I've done that."
Asked later what he planned to show during Thursday's preseason finale, he said honestly: "I don't even know if I'll play."
The odds are stacked against Karl (and the other non-roster invites, for that matter). Normal protocol in this situation is to stick with the guaranteed contracts, the cheapest route, and give as many minutes of seasoning as possible to younger players on rookie deals, in hopes they might develop into regular rotation guys down the road.
Keeping four point guards doesn't make a ton of sense, and Smith certainly has an incumbent advantage. The easiest method for Karl's retention would be for Blazers GM Neil Olshey to find a team with cap space and an open roster spot where he could offload Nolan Smith. The Blazers could then, theoretically, use the 15th spot to sign Karl. The Blazers could also simply release Elliot Williams, out for the season with an Achilles injury, but Olshey said at Media Day that he wouldn't do that, and insurance will kick in later this year to help cover Williams' salary.
Stotts, who earlier this preseason had promised that his rotation would begin to crystallize, continues to be evasive on his plans. Roster cuts are coming next week, he told the crowd at Fan Fest, but he said Monday that there's nothing that he is specifically looking for between now and then to influence the decision-making process.
"Every player needs to play his game within the team framework," he said, as vaguely as humanly possible. "Do what they do well. Know the plays, execute, play hard, compete. I think guys who are trying to make rosters need to do what they do well and not do things they aren't comfortable doing."
"This business is a deadline business, anything can happen," Karl said finally.
So we all wait and see, counting the days until the blood bath on Halloween.
Random Game Notes
- Mostly just a few extra locker room quotes from this one.
- Hickson on not giving up first half leads in the second half: "In situations like that, we've just got to put our foot on teams' necks and not give them any momentum."
- Damian Lillard's self-assessment: "I thought I was efficient shooting the ball. Thought I tried to make a few more plays than I should have. A little of aggressive with a couple of passes. I thought I made some good plays also. I tried to focus on the defensive end, getting over ball screens, getting more active with my hands. I thought I did a good job of that, better than I have in the past."
- Lillard on dealing with his two early fouls: "That was the second time I did that in the preseason. Against the Lakers, I had a similar situation, two early fouls. The first thing I thought was to keep my composure. The worst thing I could do was get two fouls, check out of the game and let it get to me mentally. I just had to get to the bench and re-group... I'm smart enough to recognize when I do something wrong or mess something up. I look to myself first."
- Lillard had one of the plays of the night with a pretty juke to set up a step back three to close out the first quarter. Video here.
- Meyers Leonard had a defensive gem, swatting a DeMarre Carroll shot hard off the glass. He wasn't able to control possession, though, and Enes Kanter swooped in to clean up the mess.
- Coby Karl on having George Karl, famous NBA coach, as his father: "Throughout my career and my life, I've gotten, 'You're where you're at because of who your father is.' I don't think I'm at where I'm at because of who my father is, but at the same time I have advantages that a lot of players haven't had. Being around great coaches, great players, seeing their work ethic, seeing the flow of the game."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Obviously the first half was fun to watch. We got a lot of flow, a lot of rhythm on the offensive end. Everybody was worried about Nic's shooting and Nic took care of his shooting. It was a good half. The two things that concerned, as I told the team, was that we gave up 50 percent shooting for most of the night. Utah was over 50 percent. It's easy to enjoy a win when you're shooting 75 percent. The basics of holding teams to 45 or 44 percent is still something that we need to be concerned about. Then, the 11 turnovers in the third quarter, we got loose with the game, loose with the ball. You have a 25-point lead, you can't fall prey to that. Big picture, we still have to do a better job defensively and we have to take care of the ball better.
Early on, our turnovers led to transition points for them, which helps their percentage. We gambled a couple of times in transition defense. Which gave up an easy basket. For the most part we battled on the post-ups, which is their strength. I was pleased with that. Mo Williams hit some shots at the end of the quarter, he made a nice play there. What should have been an advantage for us was an advantage for them. In general, it was more than just one thing. They're not a big pick-and-roll team. We really didn't have a lot of pick-and-rolls to defend. Our looseness with the basketball led to some looseness on defense.
Coby in the first half, he had an impact on the game, the team played well when he was in there. The game flowed. Whether it was because he's on the floor or not, I don't know. He did a nice job running the team, he was out there with the starters, that makes his job easier as well.
Why Coby Karl over Nolan Smith?
I just wanted to give Coby another look. I wanted to extend the minutes of the starters. I wanted Damian, Wes and Nic to play over 30 minutes. I wanted Coby to get a look in the first half with those players, much like Victor before, same thing with Adam. I wanted those guys to get an opportunity on the floor.
Nolan is hurt?
Was that your plan coming in to the game to sit Smith and play Karl?
Will you do the same thing again on Thursday?
I don't know.
How did your bigs -- Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland -- play?
12 fouls between them. They competed. I thought they really tried to front the post and make their big guys work in the post. Al Jefferson and Millsap are good players, they're going to get their baskets. They both competed hard defensively, they helped each other out. There was some slow reactions to some rotations. As far as the post defense, which was our main concern coming into this game, they both did a decent job with it.
Concerned about Meyers Leonard's foul trouble
Yeah. You can't ask a yes or no question. Young big men get in foul trouble. He's got to learn what he can and can't do. What's legal and what's not legal. Anticipate plays better. Not put himself in foul position. Being rookeis there's a learning curve.
Running additional plays for Nic or were his points in the flow
I'd say half and half. I probably ran more plays for him tonight than I usually do. He was getting some in the flow. I think he got in a rhythm.
LaMarcus Aldridge will travel to Utah?
Yes. He'll play and probably start in Utah.
This was J.J.'s best game of the preseason. He played well at both ends. He had activity. He sustained it for a long period of time. I didn't think he took very many possessions off on either end. That's the way he needs to play and the way we need him to play. To have that energy and activity makes it difficult for the opponent on both ends.
Mixed review. He had two quick fouls, that was tough. I thought he came back and played a solid first half. Second half he was loose with the ball. He had six turnovers. I think at least three or four were unforced, just poor decisions, where he's trying to make a great play, when we got the lead by making a lot of good plays. Obviously he shot the ball very well, made a lot of great plays. On the whole he played a very good game but he can't have that many turnovers, those type of turnovers in a game.
Why pull Lillard with two fouls
Because I wanted to get him a lot of minutes tonight. I didn't want him to get a quick third and have to sit him. I wanted to get Coby in the game at some point, so I thought that was as good a time as any, for him and for Coby.
Are you ready for next week?
Getting there. Getting there. I don't know if coaches ever feel they are ready. We'll get some work done the next two days. Utah, they'll be anxious to care of us after this game, but no we're not ready for next week but we will be when it comes.
Anything you want to see from fringe guys between now and cuts?
No. Not specifically. Every player needs to play his game within the team framework. Do what they do well. Know the plays, execute, play hard, compete. I think guys who are trying to make rosters, need to do what they do well and not do things they aren't comfortable doing.
Given how well J.J. played without LaMarcus, would you move him to the bench to capitalize on that?
I haven't thought that far ahead. We'll extend LaMarcus' minutes in Utah. If he plays his 30+ minutes, that's fewer minutes at the four spot for whoever has those minutes. J.J., Meyers and Joel will be playing the five.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter