The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 89-85, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving to 15-14.
The sense from this one, heavily influenced by the calendar's circumstances, was completion. Even with an injured center with an unknown recovery timeline, even with a starting two guard still out, and even with a second daunting road trip approaching, the Blazers wrapped up 2012 satisfied and free of regrets.
Looking back on the last 12 months, one could argue that, despite a demoralizing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, Portland enters January at a point higher than any other over the last 10 months. As of New Year's Eve's Eve, the 15-14 record is a few games ahead of expectations, the summer's big contract decision (Nicolas Batum) has paid off nicely, the Draft's biggest decision (Damian Lillard) currently has virtually zero second-guessers, the offensive system is playing out essentially as expected, and the defense, still not superior, is improved a tier or two from November. There's been a pleasant surprise in J.J. Hickson, an interest piquer in Will Barton and some highlight reel action from Meyers Leonard.
With the benefit of hindsight, an ultra-condensed rundown of the 12 months of Portland's 2012 look something like this. January: Hype. February: Controversy. March: Blood-stained. April: Pointless. May: Empty. June: Hope. July: Titillating. August: Crotch punch. September: Feeling out. October: Halloween surprise. November: Trying. December: Promising.
"Promising" is the right word both for short-term and longer-term developments. The Blazers went 9-4 in December after a 5-10 November, reeling off five straight wins following a month that featured two four-game losing streaks. The play was increasingly steady throughout the month, thanks in large part to homecourt advantage against weaker teams, but there were earned peaks: beating the San Antonio Spurs, beating the 76ers at their own slower game, beating the New Orleans Hornets in the game's final second, and tearing apart the Toronto Raptors. Injury adversity hit on multiple occasions but merely rocked the boat rather than sinking it. That's all promising.
Bigger-picture, Lillard's continued strong play is the most promising indicator of all. His December numbers were very similar to his November numbers, he's handled huge minutes and responsibility without injury or major fatigue, he checked off the game-winner from his bucket list, he has emerged as a top scoring option without ruffling any feathers, and he has shown that he will be a capable player against varied defensive schemes. His three-point shooting has cooled slightly but it remains very good overall and he's helped subsidize that drop from his scorching November by getting to the free throw line more often, including two games of 10+ free throw attempts this month. He will easily take home his second consecutive Rookie of the Month Award.
LaMarcus Aldridge's play picked up considerably too. His December scoring and rebounding numbers are both up from November, his shot distribution is better and, as a by-product, his field goal percentage is up significantly. He's digging out of what was a fairly unsightly hole; Some of his best work has come against the worst competition but that's long been the case.
The fit between Lillard, Aldridge and Batum is coming together fairly naturally. Batum's shooting numbers have come back to Earth in December but he's distributing far more than he did earlier in the year -- or at any point in his career -- and he's making a larger impact defensively through aptitude as well as energy.
Both developments were on display on Saturday against the 76ers, when Batum took over defensive responsibilities on Jrue Holiday, who was essentially having his way with Lillard. Through three quarters, Holiday had 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 12-for 18 shooting.
"He was tough," Lillard said of Holiday. "He makes the right play, really crashes the offensive rebounds, plays really hard, makes tough shots. He's a really good player."
In the fourth, with Batum checking him for the majority of crunch time, Holiday shot one-for-five and the Sixers shot just seven-for-25 as a team in the final quarter.
"He's hard to take out of the game," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Batum. "He takes on the toughest perimeter defensive assignment in the fourth quarter, he's facilitating, he's getting rebounds. He's really been able to hold things together especially with Wes [Matthews] out."
Holiday, aggressive and physical all night, seemed ill at ease with Batum on him. Batum's quickness and length can give point guards problems and here he was influencing not only shots but decisions, as Holiday couldn't figure out exactly how he wanted to unlock the new defensive puzzle being thrown at him.
"He's our best perimeter defender," Stotts continued on Batum. "Like we've done in the past, when there's a player going, Nic usually ends up on him. Nic with his athleticism and length makes it difficult. Those shots that [Holiday] made [earlier in the game], he may not make with Nic on him. Nic has the ability to control penetration, contest shots and stay with guys. I thought he did a terrific job on Holiday."
This win felt "complete" in large part because Portland handled another end game defensive situation with smarts and confidence. It was telling that Sixers coach Doug Collins, his team without star center Andrew Bynum for the entire season, took the loss in stride, as if the end of a relatively close game was actually a bit of a formality.
"We haven't been a team that's come back in the fourth quarter yet this year," he said. "I think we've won one game when we were behind after three."
The Blazers have already gotten in plenty of repetitions in crazy finishes this year, including some wins to their name, and they did well to keep their heads despite some late misses and a tough turnover -- not to mention the gut punch of losing Leonard to an ugly ankle injury with nine minutes left in the fourth. They put themselves in a position where they were able to concede five straight points in the final two minutes and still win the game thanks to one bad decision on Philadelphia's part.
Down three with the ball and 40+ seconds remaining in the game, the Sixers opted not to go for a quick two towards the basket and instead put the game in the hands of center Spencer Hawes, who launched a corner three with 26 seconds remaining. While it was a wide open shot, Hawes is a career 30.5 percent three-point shooter, he has made only 11 three-pointers combined since the start of the 2011-12 season, and he hadn't made a three-pointer in four games (eight days).
"Those are opportunities you look forward to," Hawes said. "To be able to be in the game and have the opportunity to take those kinds of shots and make those kinds of shots. Unfortunately, tonight it didn't go in."
Holiday's decision to feed Hawes seemed influenced by his own inability to generate a clean look or find a clear driving path against Batum. It was almost as if the blanket coverage from earlier had smothered those ideas.
Collins had no problem with the shot or the decision-making that led up to it. "We ran a nice little thing and Spencer got a wide open three that would have tied it," he said. "We had an opportunity."
I guess. Whatever. To live and die by that shot is a fairly good way to lose. The Sixers were forced to foul down after Hawes' miss that was a wrap for the game, and December.
"Other than the Sacramento loss, we couldn't have done much better I don't think," Stotts said. "It was one loss at home in December, right? So yeah, I would say we took advantage of [the schedule]."
Brandon Roy weighs retirement? Best wishes but, more or less, someone else's problem. Greg Oden loses weight to attempt a comeback? Deep background noise. Raymond Felton isn't shooting well and could miss a month due to injury? 3,000 miles away physically; light years away on the priority scale. The calendar flips on Tuesday but the page turned, for good, this month thanks to the emergence of a "new team" that was only a marketing slogan until a strong December offered tangible flickers of the future.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout. The crowd's most memorable moment came when Meyers Leonard went down in the fourth quarter. A collective cringe and gasp swept the Rose Garden when the replay was shown on the jumbotron.
- The official word on Leonard: he sustained a sprained right ankle and post-game X-rays were negative for a break. He did not return to the game, obviously, and did not speak to reporters post-game. Note: LaMarcus Aldridge did speak to reporters recently when he suffered his sprained ankle. The Blazers announced that Leonard will not travel with the team to New York City on Sunday. His availability for the road trip -- which also includes games against the Raptors, Grizzlies and Timberwolves in the next week -- is to be determined. One school of thought would be for Leonard to rest up at home for the week-long trip. The sprain looked to be the type that would require a walking boot.
- Aldridge said that he couldn't bring himself to watch the replay of Leonard's injury: "I didn't want to see it. I don't know why people like to look at those things but I heard it was pretty bad."
- Damian Lillard did not register an assist for the first time this season, finishing with 20 points on eight-for-18 shooting. He also had no rebounds. Lillard continues to play off the ball for stretches alongside Ronnie Price. Nicolas Batum, as mentioned, has also taken on new distributing responsibilities.
- Here's Lillard outlook playing off the ball: "I think I can be effective. When I've got the ball in my hands all the time, it's easier for teams to guard me and develop schemes to make things tough for me. When I'm off the ball, it's harder for them to get into what they want to do, when I'm coming off pindowns, screening, getting handoffs. It was something that was working for us, working a little better so that's what we went to."
- Many have compared Lillard to Brandon Roy and there are definitely some similarities. Make no mistake, Roy was not afraid to share his desire for having the ball in his hands as often as possible.
- Lillard on the zero assists: "I knew I didn't have one. I made the same plays I always make, the same passes. All I do is make the pass. The times that I did, the shots just didn't go in. What's important is that we won the game."
- Two of Twitter's NBA diehards -- Nate Jones (who works with Lillard's agency) and Haralabos Voulgaris (a professional gambler) -- were getting after Blazers broadcaster Mike Rice for misidentifying Philadelphia's players during the broadcast. A few examples here and here. While we're on that subject, Aldridge actually referred to Jrue Holiday as "Collison" (in reference to Darren, I'm assuming, and not Nick) during his post-game interviews.
- Best Rose Garden sign of the night: "Philadelphia is creamed cheese."
- You've got to give the Blazers credit for their incessant "double-double" campaign for J.J. Hickson. Even the super intoxicated luxury box dwellers are now aware of just how "spectacular" and "historic" Hickson's December run has been. Pretty fitting way for that streak to end against the Lakers on Friday.
- Surely you have seen the insanity of +/- numbers on the in-game box scores lately. At one point in the second quarter, Batum was a +44 according to the messed up box score even though it was an eight-point game and neither team had scored 44 points.I swear, John Hollinger leaves ESPN.com for two weeks and all heck breaks loose stats-wise. (Yes, I know Yahoo's box scores have been jacked up too.)
- Career-high eight points from Victor Claver, seven of them in the first quarter. I thought his best offensive play of the night was reading the defense as he attacked the paint ("attacked" being used loosely as he kind of loped), and deciding to call his own number and finish at the rim rather than pass off to a teammate on the block or get timid and kick it out. Picking and choosing those opportunities will be important for him.
- Nick Young has been a player I've been hard on in previous years because of his lackadaisical approach to warm-ups and games. He didn't leave a huge imprint on this one: he finished with seven points on three-for-seven shooting. For the first time I can remember, he went through a rigorous pre-game routine.
- I chatted with Young for a few minutes for an upcoming SI.com players roundtable and he said the "cherish the game while you have the chance" message he's been hearing from some of his older teammates has sunk in along the way. Asked what he would change about the NBA if he were commissioner for a day, though, he did suggest 2-3 day sabbaticals "every month" so that players could go home and "chill." Gotta love the honesty.
- Will Barton will be included in the roundtable too. He said that if he were commissioner, players would be paid higher salaries across the board. He also expounded on his appreciation of Kobe Bryant's game.
- Sixers coach Doug Collins was the talk of the media room for casually referring to Young by his "Swaggy" nickname in his pre-game comments.
- This message was on the Blazers' locker room white board after the game: "Remember to bring passports tomorrow or you won't get in to Canada."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was good to bounce back after last night and play better. It's good to be home. I thought we played a solid game for the most part without too many let-ups. I thought Nicolas Batum, he's hard to take out of the game. He takes on the toughest perimeter defensive assignment in the fourth quarter, he's facilitating, he's getting rebounds. He's really been able to hold things together especially with Wes [Matthews] out.
I thought he made some tough shots. He hit a three I thought was well contested. He hit a baseline shot with one on the shot lock. I thought he made some tough shots. The reason to put Nic on him is that he's our best perimeter defender. Like we've done in the past, when there's a player going, Nic usually ends up on him. Nic with his athleticism and length makes it difficult. Those shots that he made, he may not make with Nic on him. Nic has the ability to control penetration, contest shots and stay with guys. I thought he did a terrific job on Holiday.
Nic shooting more
I've talked about this a little bit in the past, at the beginning of the season it seemed like he was trying to score a lot. Now when he has eight assists, it used to be a career high, now nobody thinks of it. Now it's blending them both and doing what the game dictates. He's doing what the team needs, whether it's facilitating, scoring or rebounding.
Philly does a nice job of dictating their tempo. It's hard to get out and run. We tried to with our rebounding and transition. We can only dictate half of the possessions in the game. What we have to do is, when a team is slowing down their side, we can't let that affect our side. We have to stay solid defensively but we can't get the ball and hold it and walk it up. You spend a lot of energy defensively against a team that plays slow possessions, the tendency is to take a breather but we can't afford to do that.
He's getting X-rayed.
Meyers Leonard going down
I didn't see the replay. I guess it sounded like a sprain. I still haven't seen it. I thought Meyers was playing a good game, one of his more energetic games in the last couple of weeks. When a guy goes down you never know what the issue is. Hopefully it's just a sprained ankle. You always hate seeing a guy go down.
Did you take advantage of December schedule?
I would think so. We're 11-4 at home. Other than the Sacramento loss, we couldn't have done much better I don't think. It was one loss at home in December, right? So yeah, I would say we took advantage of it.
Going on the road
The road is a challenge. The road is a challenge for everybody in the NBA. We've got a very good home record. Top-10 in the league. I think we're about 20th with our road record. There are a lot of teams that struggle. We've got our challenge. We play four good teams, four games in five nights on the road. We need to bring it every night. Come back here, I don't want to say how many wins, I hope we win all of them.
Ronnie Price defense
Ronnie was good. He was very active and he came up with some loose balls. He covered some ground on rotations, he came up with the ball. Defensively he took his individual challenge. I don't think he necessarily got scored on. We did some switching. His activity and alertness, aggressiveness, toughness, made an impact on the game in the fourth quarter.
4-2 in second game of back-to-backs
Sometimes it's best not to question things. 4-2, I love it. We can talk 4-10 road record, 11-4 at home, 4-2 on back-to-backs, whatever. Some things are what they are. You just have to go and try to win the next one.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter