The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 99-93, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, improving their record to 24-27 on the season.
When Blazersedge: The Movie finally gets the green light from one of the major studios, this game will be the film's climactic scene, because this is what dreams are made of: Luke Babbitt career-high points, Luke Babbitt making post-game Chalupa jokes, Raymond Felton blowing an otherwise solid night by missing back-to-back Chalupa free throws and then defensively explaining that he choked because of fatigue and not pressure. Young basketball players close their eyes and picture the perfect game, taking Michael Jordan off the dribble, hitting the final shot as the buzzer sounds. Young writers close their eyes and search their imagination for hours, attempting in vain to find something original and maybe even gleeful. But drama like this can't be imagined.
"I'm from the dirt, I planted my seed on unfertile land," Jay-Z once said. "And still I grew, somehow I knew that the sun will shine through, and touch my soul, take hold of my hand, look man, a tree grows in Brooklyn."
This tank-fest against the lowly wreck of the injury-ravaged New Orleans Hornets was the dirt; this wreck of a season is the unfertile land; the Taco Bell Gods are the sun; Luke Babbitt is the tree. Out of squalor came a night thousands of hours in the making; out of a shelled exterior came a glimpse of a personality for the first time in two years.
Babbitt finished with 16 points off Portland's bench on 5-for-8 shooting, including 4-for-6 from deep. He added three rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block in 17 minutes.
"Luke's been working his tail off at practice," Canales said. "Happy for him. He's getting the opportunity to play. We've always believed in Luke. He really helped us with his shooting. We thought defensively he made the right reads and rotations."
"He made his first two," All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. "After that, guys wanted him to keep firing. He's a great shooter. He's been lacking confidence out there but tonight he played with confidence."
"The guy is hot, we're going to find him," Felton said. "Luke is a great shooter. He's been doing that all year in practice, since Day One. he's getting his opportunity and taking advantage of it. As a point guard, I love to see Luke over there in that corner or popping when I'm coming off the screen and roll because he can shoot the ball. I'm going to look for him because he knocks it down."
Babbitt uncorked his shot with such unexpected braggadocio, it seemed inevitable that his night would end with him peeling off his shooting sleeve and using it to lasso a cheerleader before riding off into the sunset. The tense, jittery, second-guessing Babbitt we've seen since the 2010 Summer League -- when he was visibly shaken and so down on himself after multiple games that it was a bit awkward -- was long gone, replaced by a quick-jacking, fist-pumping, touch pass attempting marvel.
"We really believe in Luke," everyone in the organization has said for years. Maybe they saw this at some point. The public certainly didn't. But Babbitt got to work on forming his NBA reputation on Thursday, telling me that his performance was the highlight of his season.
"Yeah, yeah sure," he said. "Except when I hit that Chalupa shot."
He did what only veterans usually do. He beat the writer at his own game. I bit hard on the deadpan line, asking if he was serious. He couldn't help but smile: Got him.
"Nah, this was better."
The Chalupa shot, of course, came against the Sacramento Kings in January when he delivered a three-pointer to push the Blazers over 100 points, thus bestowing a coupon for the free treat to every fan in attendance. It happened to be his first basket in an NBA game in 285 days, an astronomical number made possible by limited playing time under former coach Nate McMillan, an extended lockout and some serious battles with a lack of self-confidence. Of course, after he hit the shot, Babbitt delivered the most unforgettable quote of the season.
"It felt good to give the fans Taco Bell," he said famously.
"Luke is our go-to Chalupa man," teammate Wesley Matthews added later. "Designated."
That shot and his spontaneous one-liner spawned amazing artwork and, Babbitt said on Thursday, has led to regular comments from fans across the city.
"Oh yeah," Babbitt said when asked if he still hears about the Chalupas. "They say, 'Hit me another Chalupa shot.' The fans are real knowledgeable here. They care a lot about the team. They know I hit a Chalupa shot and they ask me about it. It's just one shot, it's not a big deal. Everyone's hit Chalupa shots here, I'm not sure what the big deal is."
Babbitt is a typecast perfectionist with an obsessive side. The mind games, and their effect upon his performance, have been in full view since he was drafted in 2010. There's no hiding in the NBA. Everyone is naked, and the sharks -- whether opponents, media or fans -- circle at the first sign of blood.
"You always care about that," Babbitt admitted, when asked about criticism that he's received. "You want people to appreciate you and respect you. That's just the nature of the NBA. If you're sitting on the bench for as long as I did, that's going to happen. I understand how it works. I'm not really thinking about that. I'm just trying to do the best I can."
The best he can has come under interim coach Kaleb Canales, who has added Babbitt to the regular rotation since taking over after McMillan's firing on March 15. Babbitt said that the knowledge of regular, steady rotation minutes under Canales has totally changed his mental outlook.
"It does help a lot," he said. "I thank Coach K for that. He's giving me an opportunity since he got hired, I thank him for that. It really helps, knowing how to prepare. It's easier coming off the bench knowing you're coming off the bench [every night] as opposed to once every five games, or whatever. It helps."
McMillan was hard on young guys and preferred veterans. That's self-evident and not in dispute. For Babbitt, that meant picking up garbage time minutes behind a rotation that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum.
"I mean, in my situation, I would have loved to play more," he said. "A lot of guys probably feel that way. We had Nic and Gerald and those are good players. I think I learned a lot from them. I'm thankful I was able to get that experience behind them and play against them in practice."
Asked if perhaps it wasn't just the minutes, though, if maybe Canales was more player-friendly to a person in his position than McMillan had been, Babbitt took a second to gather his thoughts, speaking slowly.
"I want to be careful with how I say that but they definitely have different styles," he said finally. "I'll just say that everyone likes Kaleb. He's a guy that has everyone's respect. We're trying to play hard for him. That's about it."
Like just about everyone who comes into contact with Canales, Babbitt remembers the first time they met, and said without hesitation that Canales has had a major impact on his development.
"He was my Summer League coach when I got drafted," Babbitt recalled. "Known him since the day I was drafted. He's helped me a lot. He's in the gym late at night when I'm there. We go to the same church. He's done a lot for me. I'm just thankful he's given the opportunity with these minutes."
We've heard at length about Canales' ability to connect with All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge but his impact on Babbitt is arguably just as intriguing. Babbitt came to the team with the expectations that go with being a first round pick, a sweet stroke that seemed to immediately evaporate and an apparent desire to get away from the media as quickly as possible. Canales' message to Babbitt was, as you might expect, one of patience. But it was also about developing NBA fundamentals.
"It was more a skill thing, he's trying to improve the skills of every player," Babbitt said. "He knows what guys are going through, whether a shooting slump or me sitting for awhile or young guys sitting. He knows how to say the right things to each individual guy. He's good at reading players and telling them things they need to hear. Me specifically, he's been supportive, told me to stay ready, he's believed in me since I was drafted. He was a big fan of mine. I'm thankful."
Babbitt was selected No. 16 overall in the 2010 Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and sent to Portland in exchange for Martell Webster. The Blazers acquired him expecting to try him at both the three or the four, with the stretch four initially seeming to be a better fit match-up wise from a quickness perspective. Since then, Babbitt said Canales has mostly worked with him on developing small forward skills and assignments.
"As a three man, improving your handle, improving your catch-and-shoot on the move, off the dribble," he said. "Defensively, he's watching film with you, helping you with assignments, rotations. Just everything."
"Any time our guys have good games, it's great to see from a coaching staff perspective," Canales said after Thursday's win. "We know how hard he works... Any time you see their work ethic translates on the court, it's a great sign and a great lesson [for what happens] if you continue to work hard."
While Babbitt has dealt with punchlines and skepticism, the Chalupa Shot and his shooting stroke in general have made him a bit of a Rose Garden cult hero. If he hits his first shot after checking in, he receives extra cheers. One fan even brought a truly brilliant "Babbitt is a habit" sign on Thursday.
"I'm not sure," he said, when asked if he had noticed the reaction. "I appreciate that. I don't really know how they feel. I hope they just care about wins. It's nice for the fans to like players but we have to win."
Babbitt's slow, staggered metamorphosis has included the addition of a shooting sleeve on his non-shooting hand, a quirk that provides an endlessly entertaining visual. To clarify, this isn't an Allen Iverson-inspired accessory statement. This is function, not fashion.
"I shot with it in the preseason and I was hitting so I didn't want to take it off," he said. "I like it because it's got an elbow pad. I've hit my funny bone a bunch in games and it's a painful thing."
[Does this guy give quotes or does this guy give quotes?]
As painful as banging one's funny bone? Watching Blazers guard Raymond Felton blow back-to-back opportunities to deliver Chalupas at the free throw line with 16 seconds left, leading some fans to boo at the final buzzer, despite the win, because the Blazers were stuck on 99 points.
Felton, who started slow, finished with 12 points, 10 assists, 3 steals and 2 turnovers on 5-for-10 shooting in 33 minutes, playing less than 24 hours after returning from South Carolina, where he had flown to be with his mother during heart surgery. Felton said the procedure went well but the travelling left him exhausted.
"I was tired," Felton said. "I couldn't make no excuses out there because once I step on the court, it's time to play. Jet lagged. Traveling, driving in the car, really not getting too much sleep, being up with my mom. That's stuff you have to do. My mom comes first. She's my only mom. I have to take care of that first. We pulled a win through. We got a W. That's all that matters."
Sensing the next question, Felton preemptively delivered an apology for missing the free throws.
"Sorry to the fans for the Chalupas," he said, unprompted. "I was tired, man. I'm not making no excuses but I was dead tired. I tried to put it in there for them. I was done. I was hoping the first one was going to go in."
Felton recoiled when asked if perhaps the pressure of the moment was as big of a factor as his fatigue.
"No, heck no, it wasn't no pressure for that," he said, to much laughter. "The game was over with, pretty much. I was just trying to get the Chalupas for them. I'm sorry, fans, I was tired."
The Chalupa Man, unfortunately, was on the bench during the game's final minute. Did Babbitt want another shot at glory?
"Nah, I was happy with where we were at," he said. "I just want to be ready when my number is called. I don't really care what the score is."
Really, he couldn't be happier that his number is finally being called.
"That's what the NBA is all about," Babbitt said. "Getting the opportunity... This was the most minutes I've played so I was able to put up some better numbers but that doesn't mean I played any better. I still made a lot of mistakes out there, I'm still kind of rusty, making some careless turnovers, missing some assignments, I'm just trying to improve and do what I can.
"I'm happy but this isn't like a big moment. I want to build off this. I'm not really satisfied with this. It's just one good game."
One good screenplay. Get at me, Hollywood.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout.
- I mentioned this on 750 AM The Game on Thursday morning with Chad Doing but Larry Miller's recent decision to re-open the GM search process leaves Acting GM Chad Buchanan in an unusual and unnecessarily uncomfortable position for the time being. Those working for Buchanan in the basketball operations department sing his praises, pointing to his loyalty, his endless work ethic, his positive personality, his ability to communicate with owner Paul Allen, his love of basketball and his steadiness throughout what has been a trying period for the Blazers. Many continue to feel he deserves the fullest consideration for the GM job.
- Regardless of the organization's plans or targeted candidates, the proper next step for Miller is to publicly state clearly that Buchanan will receive an interview for the position. Considering the circumstances and the waffling over the last two years, that is a mandatory gesture. It should happen immediately. If you're the Blazers staffer stuck reading every single word of these 3,300 word recaps just in case I slip in an inappropriate Jody Allen / Amazon Ashley Adair joke, I apologize. On this night, your job was worth it. Forward this up the chain of command. This is a no-lose, do-right-by-your-people move. Get it done.
- Another possible way for Miller to defuse some of the awkwardness of this situation, two executives of NBA teams have independently suggested to me, would be to publicly state that Buchanan will remain with the organization through the 2012-2013, regardless of the results of the GM search. Doing so would nip a bunch of questions heading into draft season in the bud and would keep the focus where it should be: draft preparation.
- Matt Calkins of The Columbian won three first-place APSE awards it was announced this week. Congratulations.
- One of my favorite Felton plays of the year came late in the game, when he hit forward J.J. Hickson with a great zip pass as he dove to the hoop after a high screen, finishing the play with a dunk. "Just open," Felton said. "I had an open three. I saw him wide open. Being a point guard, I don't always need to score, I was up in the air for a jump shot. Saw him rolling to the basket wide open, threw him the pass."
- "I'm excited to have him," Felton said of Hickson, who finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds on 6-for-10 shooting in 28 minutes. "He brings another athletic guy who is aggressive on the boards, aggressive offensively, you know he's going to show out on screens, put pressure on the guards. As he continues to play with us and get better, he's going to be good. I like J.J."
- Hickson should play 30+ minutes every game the rest of the way. Within a week, he's pushed Craig Smith out of the rotation and been responsible for a DNP-CD for Kurt Thomas on Thursday. As it should be.
- Blazers Broadcasting television color commentator Mike Rice is "running for Mayor" in a Willamette Week contest. Vote for him here if you would like.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
In terms of what we want to accomplish as a team going forward I thought the third and fourth quarter defensively, that's where the game was won tonight.
Luke Babbitt's impact on win
Luke's been working his tail off at practice. Happy for him. He's getting the opportunity to play. We've always believed in Luke. He really helped us with his shooting. We thought defensively he made the right reads and rotations.
Seeing him break out after working out with him in the morning. How nice is that?
Any time our guys have good games, it's great to see from a coaching staff perspective. We know how hard he works, how hard Nolan works. J.J. and Jonny are part of that breakfast club you mentioned. Any time you see their work ethic translates on the court, it's a great sign and a great lesson [for what happens] if you continue to work hard.
What was holding Luke Babbitt back?
I don't think anything was holding him back. I just think he's going out there, understanding, getting better at what he needs to do defensively and offensively.
Kurt Thomas DNP-CD
In terms of rotation, we talked about it, we're approaching it game to game. All the guys on the bench know that we've got to be ready to play. As a staff we're in constant communication with our guys.
No injury to Kurt Thomas?
Jamal Crawford struggling
I'll continue to say we believe that Jamal's next shot will go in, as a staff and as a team. I felt in the first half he got to the line twice. We'd like to see him be more aggressive and get there so that every shot is not a tough shot. We have to do a better job as a staff to get him in those positions.
Too many tough shots
I think tonight he had some clean looks. When it comes to shooters it's about rhythm. If he gets to the free throw line, he's being aggressive, that will continue to build.
We needed to play defense. Coach Monty and his staff do a tremendous job. Those guys are going to play hard every single night. They did. 27 point first, 27 point second. At halftime we talked about it, we needed to stay committed to the defensive end of the floor.
I thought LaMarcus has a great game. From a stat perspective -- 25 and 12. He's our All-Star, our go-to player down the stretch. The thing about LaMarcus, he's growing and improving. He's making basketball plays, reads, in the post.
Hornets played hard but had a lot of injuries. Does thast concern you?
It's an NBA basketball game. it's no concern in terms of who we are playing. We are trying to control what we can control and that's our defense and rebounding. You've seen the Hornets throughout the year, coach Monty has those guys ready to play every single night, hard. They showed that tonight.
Finishing lineup with J.J. Hickson one you'll go to again? Will we get used to it?
Used to -- I don't know if that's the right word. That's the lineup we feel comfortable with right now going down the stretch. Like I said, guys, this is a team win. This was a team win for 48 minutes.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter