The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 86-74, at the Rose Garden on Monday night, improving their record to 19-18.
If LeBron James did his best Michael Jordan impression last week, then the Hornets did their best impression of the guys who got beat out by the guys who got beat out by the guys who got beat out by the Bryon Russells and Craig Ehlos of the world. New Orleans is a good four or five degrees from great; Portland is average, and won comfortably despite playing corpse boring basketball. Fans showed up late, left early, missed nothing and there were no Chalupas. Sweet.
To call this Hornets band of misfits and bottom-of-the-bag cheeto dust an NBA team wouldn't be right. It would be so wrong that even coach Monty Williams doesn't pretend.
"The whole season would raise a red flag," Williams said, when asked if he was concerned by his team's back-to-back double-digit defeats. "We've got D-League guys out there, and two young guys who have never been in this situation before."
Translation: "We suck and we're not really going to stress about it."
Stop fronting like you want me to write about that game. I check the numbers sometimes. The numbers say you want to know about trade rumors and the latest with Raymond Felton. I already played the French bank robbery card this weekend so I'm going to go ahead and cave to public demand.
This team feels the deadline as much as the upcoming 7-game road trip. The only difference is that they are collectively pretending to be in denial about the trade deadline. No huge surprise, as that's a popular route to take when a team is so obviously at a crossroads, but it made for some funny, memorable and awkward exchanges on Monday night. Let's dig right in.
"I've already addressed that," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said, coming out hard in response to a question about the upcoming deadline and the fact that some members of the team might not make it through the road trip as Blazers.
"There's going to be a lot of rumors and a lot of conversation in the media and from different people about what's going to happen with this team. If the players have anything that they're concerned about, come to me. Come to [Acting GM] Chad [Buchanan] and we'll let you know what we know. It's out of our control. They need to focus on playing."
Then, buried in that talk, a nice, honest admission.
"This is something that happens every year and certainly with us dropping some games and not really playing well, [the rumors] are going to be flying all over the place," McMillan said.
A reporter then prodded: "Has anyone come to ta-----"
"No," McMillan said.
The players provided a full spectrum of responses to McMillan's address.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge confirmed that it happened.
"He just said, 'If it's anything serious he would talk to us about it.' That was about it," Aldridge said. Was there any response from the team? "No, it wasn't nothing," he said.
Forward Gerald Wallace smiled and shook off the idea that he would meet with McMillan to discuss the subject. "No," he said. "I have an agent for that. Y'all want his number? You can ask him that."
Blazers guard Jamal Crawford was dressed and out of the locker room before anyone could get a full reaction.
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum at first tried to deny that McMillan broached the subject, apparently because he is sick of talking about trade rumors, but eventually he relented.
"That's not our job. We don't say, 'You're going to be traded.' Our job is to be on the court," Batum said. "Every year. Every year. Every year. Every year it's the same. Since I get here, every year. For everybody, even for me. My name is on the trade rumors every time."
But then there was a genuine break in tension with Batum easing back in his chair a bit, reflecting on the progress he has made since his rookie season.
"Now I'm OK," he said. "My rookie year, it was pretty scary, like, 'I'm moving now!' I'm OK now. If I get traded, I get traded, what can I do?"
Batum copped to some sleepless nights in 2008-2009, saying that he called his agent regularly and was generally just stressed out like anyone might be if their professional life hung in the balance.
"The last two days [I would stay up at night], 'I don't want to get traded! I don't want to get traded!' Now I know what the NBA is. If I get traded, I get traded."
He then let out a real laugh at the idea that he might throw a party on the day after a deadline, once his future is secure.
"No [party] but it's a feeling of relief [though]," Batum said. "You're like, 'Now I can move on, settle in, finish the season and relax.' Trade deadline, I don't really care about it now."
Batum is one of a few with the luxury to laugh about these matters. Declared one of just two firm building block pieces by president Larry Miller last week, his future is more secure than that of anyone except Aldridge, who was officially deemed "untouchable."
The same can't be said for guard Raymond Felton, who moved back into the starting lineup after getting benched before the All-Star break. During his pre-game comments with the media, McMillan did his best to explain why he was opting to undo Felton's benching, despite continued struggles.
"That's our starting point guard," McMillan said. "That's who we brought in for [that job]. Part of the reason for taking him out of the lineup was that I thought he was pressing. Wanted to give him some time to come off the bench. I think with the time coming off the bench and the All-Star break, those days off, and the fact that we've dropped three in a row, it's time to get him back in that lineup to see what we can get from him."
I asked him if Felton had changed or developed in some way during the time off that helped lead McMillan to making his decision.
He turned his palms up and repeated, "We've dropped three games."
Message received. No compliments until they are earned. This was a forced move based on weighing the lesser of two evils, nothing more.
Felton finished with 11 points, 10 assists and 1 turnover on 5-for-10 shooting. I joked during the fourth quarter that the Blazers should send out a league-wide memo with that stat line and a reminder that the trade deadline was just around the corner. He played better than he has recently -- getting into the paint some, passing a bit more assertively and avoiding the truly bone-headed stuff -- but he shot 1-for-5 from deep and the quality of competition made any real evaluation impossible.
Afterwards, Felton said that his benching did have an impact on his outlook.
"That's coach's decision," he said. "I've been ready from jump but it helped. It helped. I would say that. It makes you hungry. It brings that hunger back out of you. I'm not saying I lost it but it brings it out even more."
He also welcomed the transition back to the old job.
"Felt more comfortable, felt more like myself," he said. "I'm not really comfortable coming off the bench."
Something else he's not comfortable with? Taking questions about his future. Things started smoothly enough, but as the questions kept coming his words quickened, he flashed a little defensiveness and, to my surprise, he even opened up just a touch.
"I've heard it from friends but I don't follow that stuff," Felton started. "As of right now I'm a Blazer. I understand that stuff is a business and I don't even think about it. If it happens, it happens. If it don't, it don't. I don't even mention it. I tell my agent, 'don't call me unless it's hard, unless it's something definite.' Other than that, I don't want to hear nothing. After dealing with that stuff that happened in New York, I don't deal with it."
You caught it there, didn't you? "After dealing with ... that stuff... that happened ... in New York."
It jumped out of his mouth and it jumps off the page. Felton's career year in NYC was abruptly cut short when Knicks owner James Dolan decided to land Carmelo Anthony, a second superstar to pit alongside Amar'e Stoudemire, just before last year's trade deadline. Felton headed for Denver, where he wound up on the bench, and then was traded again just a few months later.
"There's no need to talk about that," Felton said, when called on the allusion to New York. "That's over with. That's last year."
OK, sure. But you just brought it up. That was probably frustrating.
"Anything is frustrating when you're bouncing from a city to a city last minute," Felton said, his pace picking up and his tone turning more direct. "The last 20 games of a season, going into a different situation. Going to a place you don't know nothing about. That's definitely frustrating. But at the same time, I do understand it's a business. I'm seven years in so I'm not a rookie. I do understand it's a business."
He continued: "I just don't worry about it. I see guys go through it, stressed out about trade rumors. I'm not going to be that guy. Oh yeah, it bothers them real bad. It's not going to be me."
His emphasis was clearly on them and me as if to place a public divide between himself and those who might succumb to the negative thinking. Of course, over the last month or so, Felton has already expressed frustration with his play, his relationship with his coach, with the team's performance this season and, now, with the fallout from his trade at least year's deadline. A captivating scene, and one probably better left to stand on its own merits.
Before those thoughts, Felton offered a clear and forceful pledge of allegiance to the Blazers.
"Of course [I want to be here]," he said. "Of course. I still like this team that we have. We're a young team. A lot of young guys that can really play. I definitely still want to be here. Stuff like that happens. It's a tough year, it's a different season. Coaches go through a lot, players go through a lot. I understand that."
So that's where the Blazers left it before embarking on a 7-game, 2-week road trip. Coaches going through a lot. Players going through a lot. The two sides choosing not to meet to discuss the big item that will hang over everything for the next nine days.
"We needed a win desperately," McMillan said. A fast forward button on the next two weeks would be pretty handy, too.
Random Game Notes
- Nate McMillan predicted that Portland will need "around 38 or 40" wins to make the playoffs in the West.
- Hornets coach Monty Williams tried to throw Nate McMillan a bone in his post-game comments: "Those guys are playing hard for Nate. I don't understand why people are talking about division in their locker room. When those guys play that hard, they're a pretty good team."
- Asked by Jason Quick of The Oregonian if one piece of luggage would suffice for this road trip, Gerald Wallace replied, "No. I gotta pack two, maybe three. They say I pack like a woman."
- Katy Brown of KATU responded by saying that she travels with just one piece. Wallace seemed to make amends later by grabbing Brown's microphone to help interview Kurt Thomas, cracking jokes about his follow-through and saying that he wouldn't send his kids to Thomas' basketball camp.
- Here's a highlight putback dunk by Nicolas Batum via YouTube user GetBangedOn and @GetBangedOn.
LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds on 5-for-11 shooting and mostly settled for passing out of double teams rather than aggressively looking for his own offense. He told reporters that there are no physical or health issues: "I'm feeling fine.. They were double teaming me early. After I was double-teamed for so long I lost my rhythm. Teams are taking me out. I haven't had a clean post-up in like three or four games. Teams are trying to take me out."
- Nate McMillan noted during the post-game that Aldridge has not taken a free throw in three games and said that it had been a pre-game point of emphasis to get Aldridge on the foul line.
- Felton on his goal for number of wins on the road trip: "I hope all seven. That's the realistic goal for us. But at the same time, we want to win more than we lose, without a doubt." So either four, five, six or seven.
- Before the game McMillan said that Felton's promotion shouldn't be blamed for the minutes squeeze that Crawford might feel. "That was created before -- Raymond has nothing to do with that. Crawford can come off the bench as he has as the one. Raymond has nothing to do with creating a logjam at the two." Crawford wound up playing 19 minutes with nearly half of those coming in the fourth quarter when the game was decided. Obviously, a steep drop from the 30+ he averaged as a starter.
- Monty Williams went on a pretty long spiel detailing his love for Portland during the pre-game. Here it is: "I wouldn't say it's home but it's certainly a place that I'm fond of. I have so many friends here. I have more friends here maybe than any other place in this country... It's certainly a place if I had to stop coaching today I'd probably come here and live. My wife and I feel strongly about that... When you have a child in a certain place and you grow as a coach and as a person it tends to have a cool spot in your heart. Not to mention that one of my best friends in the world [Nate McMillan] is right down the hallway. Every time I come here I have to go battle against him. We like it here a lot. I'd rather come here than go to Hawaii in the summer time. 80, 85 degrees. No bugs. Stop off at the side of the road, get all kinds of fruit. Really have a good time outside. It's a place I really like a lot."
- Blazers writer and recent University of Oregon graduate Barbara Titus is moving to Los Angeles to begin an internship with Impact Basketball, the training company that hosted the "Las Vegas Lockout League" in September. Titus is on her way to big things. Follow her on Twitter here if you don't already.
- Friends of Blazersedge Holly MacKenzie and Rob Mahoney announced on Monday that they will begin writing at Bleacher Report. Two very talented writers who have worked day in and day out for years. Congratulations to both of them.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
We needed it, we needed a win desperately. You drop your first three games coming off the break. Not playing well. About to go on a 7-game road trip. Really important for us to get this win tonight against New Orleans. Now try to build off of this win on the road.
What did you like?
We established ourselves early. Defensively we didn't give up easy baskets. I thought offensively we got some movement. We forced some turnovers, we didn't convert a lot of them. We did force some turnovers off of our defense and were able to establish both ends of the floor.
Raymond Felton's play
I liked the assist to turnover ratio. 10 assists, 1 turnover, which is what we're looking for from that position.
Is LaMarcus Aldridge OK health-wise?
Part of the gameplan tonight was to get him to that free throw line. This is his third game that he goes without a free throw. He's got to work. We have to work to get him in that paint. Get him to the free throw line as I mentioned, three games without a free throw attempt.
Is it how teams are defending him or what you're not doing offensively?
It's a little bit of both. He's going to have to work a little harder to get deep into that post position. Teams are double-teaming pretty quick which is forcing him to have to pass some. We have to get him the ball and get some sets to get him deep so that he's deep enough where the double team can't get to him as quick.
Is this a make-or-break road trip?
Very important, very important. We're 28 games remaining and I'm thinking you're going to need around 38 or 40 wins to get into the playoffs so very important.
How do you approach this road trip?
We build off of this tonight. We know we have a lot of work to do, a lot of improvement. We'll take this game and look at tape and Minnesota is a team that really had our number, go out and get ready for them.
A rematch with Minnesota
We should be fired up for that game. They came in here and basically pounded us so we should be fired up for that game.
Trade rumors circulating
I've already addressed that. There's going to be a lot of rumors and a lot of conversation in the media and from different people about what's going to happen with this team. If the players have anything that they're concerned about, come to me. Come to Chad [Buchanan] and we'll let you know what we know. It's out of our control. They need to focus on playing. This is something that happens every year and certainly with us dropping some games and not really playing well, they're going to be flying all over the place. For them: focus on basketball. If you are concerned, come to me. Come to Chad and we'll let you know what we know.
Have they come to talk to you?
Assess Felton back in starting lineup and how is he handling it?
It's his first game of being back in that lineup. What I liked is that he had 10 assists tonight. He is looking and finding and making teammates better. The fact that he didn't turn that ball over tonight. If he can do that for us, defend the ball, pressure the ball, create offense for his teammates and find those guys, and take care of the ball, that's what we need him to do.
How do you create energy on the road?
With this team coming up, it's a team that just pounded us. We'll talk about some things we did well tonight. Nothing can be more motivating or should be more motivating than seeing ourselves against this team just a few days ago. We take it one game at a time. That's the challenge for us to go back in there and get that game back.
Will your approach against Kevin Love change?
We'll talk about and plan for him tomorrow but we certainly have to be closer to him, find him in transition. He's really shooting the ball well. I thought we maybe a few times dared him to shoot the ball as opposed to, he's playing like a guard. If he's faced up to the basket, he's letting it fly if he has any type of space. He wants the shot first as opposed to putting the ball on the floor. You have to crowd him and make him put the ball on the floor.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter