The Sacramento Kings defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 99-80, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, dropping the Blazers to 8-12 on the season.
This was 64 ounces of high fructose corn syrupy water on ice, a personal soft drink keg. Super big gulp.
In the iPad/iPhone app Temple Run, your character jogs endlessly, amassing points for not falling off of cliffs or for tripping over tree stumps and getting devoured by ravenous monkeys. The best method for maximizing your high score is to regularly use speed bursts and invincibility wings. The former helps you cover ground rapidly, gain points along the way; the latter provides a sense of relaxed ease and confidence in a high-paced environment. Jogging naked, without either, leaves you vulnerable to a "game over" at any second. Turn left when you needed to turn right. That's your life. Finger accidentally slips off the screen, that's your life.
Against the Kings, the Blazers essentially played without their speed burst, Nicolas Batum, because of a sore back, and then lost their invincibility wings when Wesley Matthews "heard a pop" in his left hip flexor. The result, after a 9-for-16 shooting fourth quarter by the Kings, was, swiftly, game over.
This Blazers team, totally bench-less and over-reliant upon a good but not great starting five, entered the season one injury away from potential calamity. On Saturday, they were dealt two potentially serious blows and the impact in the locker room was predictably pessimistic. Batum and Matthews, understanding their immediate availability is now in question, looked equal parts shocked and downtrodden. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, faced with the possibility of playing without the pair, had the look of a pair of kayakers, paddling the wrong way through whitewater.
Batum, who originally tweaked his back during a Wednesday loss to the Indiana Pacers and sat out practice to rest and receive treatment, gave it a go in both the first and second halves. It was evident quickly that his courage exceeded his capabilities and he admitted afterwards that it would have been better if he hadn't played.
"I wanted to go on the court to help the team," Batum said. "I felt I could bring something but no. Tonight, I feel like it's kind of my fault because I didn't help the team when I was on the court."
"He tried, he just didn't have it," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "You could tell he wasn't as aggressive as he normally is."
Batum finished with just five points, two rebounds, two assists, one steal and four turnovers in 17 minutes; he told reporters after the game that he aggravated his injury while stretching out to finish a play in transition. If you watched the play and his facial expression afterwards, you already knew that.
"It's worse than before the game," Batum said. "Maybe [I will sit out a game]. Maybe. I don't know what's going to happen for the Toronto game [on Monday]. I'm hoping to be back for San Antonio [on Thursday]."
"I wouldn't be able to play tomorrow if we had a back-to-back," Matthews said after dressing slowly and carefully following the game. "I can't pick my leg up. You see me dragging it."
This was a different type of pain, he said, because of how it limited his mobility. He's played through ankles and wrists as a member of the Blazers but he hasn't dealt with something quite like this.
"Not to this degree," he said. "Not where I couldn't finish a game."
While Stotts said in his post-game comments that Matthews had suffered a "left hip contusion" the team later indicated that Matthews had also sustained a "left hip flexor strain." Technically speaking, then, this was not just a bad bruise, but something worse.
"I really can't speak on Monday right now," he said. "I have no idea. I'm still trying to digest tonight. I'm going to treat it tonight again. Take care of it tomorrow. See where it goes... I initially went out in the third quarter, rested, iced it, stretched it, felt good. Tried to make a cut in the fourth. I just felt a pop. Just went down. It was like I couldn't pick my leg up."
There's been a lot written about Portland's developing identity recently, especially after the back-to-back comeback wins on this recent road trip. Personally, I don't yet see a formed identity with this group. I see a team that plays its best basketball when desperate. I see a young team. I see a team that can hang with a majority of the league when its top eight players are healthy and the three-pointers are falling. Those are descriptive attributes but that's not enough for a full identity, or at least one that doesn't start with the words: "The worst defensive team in the NBA with the worst bench in the NBA." In early December, you hope not to write that sentence in permanent marker about any team.
This particular group's identity this season, if it is to be positive, will come from Matthews. He's the invincibility wings, the player with sufficient confidence, consistency, work ethic and elder brotherly instincts to coax over-achievement from the team's younger members. He's always given a rip and he is fully invested in leadership. He has shortcomings as players but he has the ability to see outside himself and provide a realistic self-diagnosis.
"We were playing too casual, playing too cool," Matthews said, beginning a train of thought that will cause you to nod vigorously by the end of this paragraph. "That's our problem. It's almost fool's gold in some of the wins we've had because we've shot the ball extremely well. But teams still shoot over 50 percent. We come back from 17 down, 15 down, put it into overtime to win games, it's like we trick ourselves to think we can always do that. When we play against a tough team... we can't do that every night. It's not realistic in the NBA. You're going to have a few games but you've got to be able to shut teams down when you're not scoring. You've got to be able to get the rebounds, make them miss. You're not going to have a great shooting night every night."
He is accountability embodied, a buffer between a young team and calamity. He is the shocks when a car rolls over a speed bump. No shocks? Your fenders are jacked, bro. He's the invincibility wings, the crisis preventer, and he's always been there. He's not a superhero, not by a long shot, but as with all of the starters, the alternatives without him are much worse.
"I'm going to hook this stem up to me, relax, pray and go about it in the morning," Matthews said, finally. "Don't worry about me. I'll be alright."
If both Batum and Matthews can't go on Monday, Stotts will surely be tempted to go with a starting five of Lillard, Lillard, Aldridge, Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. Worry about Matthews, but also worry about Lillard and Aldridge, who both played flat on Saturday.
"I started out kind of sluggish," Aldridge said, after finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two turnovers. "I just felt like it was one of those nights were I couldn't find my legs. I was tired."
This is where I'm obligated by sportswriting laws to mention that Aldridge is currently No. 6 in the NBA in minutes per game and No. 3 in field goals attempted.
"I did [feel flat] a little bit," Lillard said. "It was kind of a dead game for both teams. We both shot low percentages. It was a grind it out game and they found a way to turn it up and we didn't."
Lillard is No. 7 in the NBA and No. 1 among rookies in minutes per game and No. 15 in attempts. He finished with 12 points, nine assists and four turnovers on 5-for-13 shooting. Those numbers dwarfed his impact; he never controlled the game's direction or pace as he should against a player like Aaron Brooks and a team like the Kings.
"You just hope that they're OK," Aldridge said. "You don't need those two guys out for any time. You don't want to have those guys to have anything serious wrong with them."
Lillard added: "It's tough. Nic and Wes on the wings, teams have to honor their ability to knock down threes and their ability to get into the paint and make plays for other guys. When they went down, it was kind of like, every time I got in the paint, more attention was on me without them on the floor. Of course it was tougher."
Random Game Notes
- The announced attendance was 19,454. Short of a sellout. There were large sections of unoccupied seats in both the 200 and 300 levels. The crowd never had much of a chance to influence this one.
- Former Blazers forward Travis Outlaw finished with 11 points on five-for-seven shooting, including three-for-four in the fourth quarter. He was asked afterwards whether he felt more comfortable shooting the ball in Portland. His classic response: "To be honest with you, I like to shoot. I was going to shoot no matter where I was."
- Schedule-wise, the timing of these injuries could be worse for Portland. The Blazers play six of their next seven games at home and four of those seven are against weak opponents (New Orleans Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Kings two more times). Whether Batum and/or Matthews misses time or plays in a limited fashion, this isn't a murderer's row. Stotts will surely need to do some rallying of the troops and he can do it here with a straight face and conviction, even if Batum and Matthews miss an extended period of time.
- Lillard's poise has drawn praise and his steely demeanor is a big, big plus overall. In the second half, with Batum lagging, he needed to hit the attack mode button. He had two or three consecutive drives into the paint, one that he finished with a pretty lay-up, but he needed to keep going to that again and again. One free throw attempt for him in a game where he plays 38 minutes and Portland doesn't have another reliable off-the-dribble attacker isn't going to cut it. Shifting modes like that is a learned skill at this level. Keep an eye on his improved ability to do this as the season progresses.
- There were pros and cons to Luke Babbitt's night: nine points, seven rebounds and two assists. His catch-and-shoot cubby hole is the place to be. Anything more than one-dribble, especially anything going towards the rim or into traffic, needs to be eliminated from the playbook. He couldn't effectively complete those plays during Summer League and, while the Kings often resemble a Summer League team, he couldn't complete them here either. Sticking to the basics, even if his minutes pick up in the wake of possible injuries, is key, both for his confidence and the team's offensive efficiency.
- I've been watching and reading a ton of Civil War documentaries over the last few months after randomly visited the Lincoln House and his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, this fall. (Not too far from Meyers Leonard's hometown, by the way.) Anyway, the Ken Burns documentary does a great job of totally destroying Union General George McClellan for his performance anxiety without being cruel about it. Methodically, Burns points out time after time, battle after battle, in which McCllellan didn't fight, didn't fight long enough, stalled, or made excuses. It's a total takedown over the course of like six hours of the documentary.
- I mention this because Burns navigated some very tricky material: slavery, Sherman's March to the Sea, the effects of the war on civilians, the terrible conditions at the Andersonville prison, and all sorts of military failures. Throughout, Burns is as fair as fair can be. It's clear, though, that McCllellan just bugs the living crap out of Burns. It's not quite to the level where he's screaming "I don't care if you commit a war crime, just do something!" but it's going that direction. That's where I'm at with Babbitt. The drives to the hoop often seem hopeless and counterproductive but, in a way, they are better than the crippling self-doubt and they might just represent a tiptoed step towards sticking long-term in this league, a possibility that is still on the table. "I don't care if you get stuffed in the paint by someone's elbow, just no more giving up the ball after a half-hearted pump fake."
- And, if I'm Babbitt's agent, I'm calling him immediately after this game and saying the following: "You haven't played that well (or that often) this season but you've clearly shown more than Nolan Smith, Joel Freeland, Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavlovic. The next week/month represents an excellent opportunity for your career. Build on the positives and Carpe Diem!"
- Speaking of Leonard's hometown, Robinson, an Illinois television station did a feature on his rookie life during this week's Pacers game. Hundreds of fans from Robinson went to the game as was noted on the broadcast.
- And speaking of Leonard, Stotts ripped into him during a timeout. Stotts explained what exactly drew his ire below.
- A cool sign in the crowd read "BATUM" with the "A" in the shape of the Eiffel Tower.
- My head might explode if I have to read one more tweet about how many double-doubles Hickson has accumulated this season. Meaningless with a capital "M."
- The highlight of the night was a man proposing to his girlfriend on the jumbotron. The couple was seated courtside which tells me this marriage will work out. Not only did he make the effort to treat her like a queen, he selected a game in which courtside seats would be affordable, showing he understands the concept of value too. I couldn't help but exclaim: "He went to Jared... Jeffries." Congratulations to the happy couple.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Sacramento played harder and better than we did. We were out of sorts offensively all night, turnovers, finishing at the rim, spacing. It was just a rough night, both ends.
What concerns you most?
Nine turnovers in the first quarter, got us off to a bad start. That set the tone for the rest of the game. We battled back and tied the game. It was a loose, complacent start that... I don't know if we thought we were going to come back from that, but that set the tone. We struggled offensively all night, except a little bit of a spurt. That was the most disappointing part.
Wesley Matthews injury
He has a left hip contusion.
He tried, he just didn't have it. You could tell he wasn't as aggressive as he normally is. I wasn't sure if he was going to come back in the first half. Loosened it up in the second half, he gave it a go but he just wasn't right.
He needs to be a defensive presence. He needs to have a presence in the paint. I thought on the one play he could have bothered a shot and then the next play, go after a rebound a little bit harder. He needs to be aggressive in the paint, rebounding, blocking shots, changing shots.
Disappointing to start homestand with loss
Long homestands are tough. You like to think you can go in and rattle off some wins. It's not that easy. Coming back from a trip is tough. That's not an excuse. Just like we want to get off to a better start on the road trip, you want to start the homestand with a win.
Will Barton and Victor Claver will be recalled from D-League?
They're coming back tomorrow anyway. The plan was that they are going to play two games. They will be back tomorrow.
Nicolas Batum is officially "day-to-day"?
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter