The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 95-82, in a Summer League game at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Friday afternoon, improving their record to 3-1 during 2012 Summer League play.
There's a point in every Summer League where the play descends quickly from new and interesting to repetitive and uninstructive. Friday afternoon was that point this year. With Wesley Matthews scratched, Nolan Smith injured and Jon Diebler thrown into the Mandalay Bay shark tank and told to swim for his life, Portland's trio of 2012 rookies pressed on to a routine-feeling blowout victory.
The word about Damian Lillard has spread quickly this week and the Nuggets took a new approach in defending him, regularly jumping the high pick-and-rolls to force the ball out of his hands and to encourage him to make quick reads. For the most part, Lillard counterpunched successfully, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 6-for-16 shooting with seven assists and just two turnovers in 31 minutes. He got to the free throw line eight times, including four times in the fourth quarter, avoiding the most common reaction to that type of pressure, which is to freeze and turn passive rather than make the defense work.
"It's a level of respect for what he's shown this week and what he's shown to us during training camp," Canales said of the extra defensive attention that Lillard drew. "We're going to put the ball in his hands and have him be our care-taker offensively. It's just a game of adjustments, everyone is here scouting and everybody knows next time we play, tomorrow when we play Miami, it's going to be a different look."
Lillard did a nice job of quickly stretching the bigger defenders before hitting the open man and also taking the initiative to thread the cross-court pass to the corner if the defense over-committed to him.
"He's drawing a lot of attention," Blazers forward Luke Babbitt said. "He's doing his job as a point guard. He's making reads. He's scoring when he has a one-on-one and when they bring two he's kicking it. He's doing a great job. He's making it easier for me and other guys out there to get easy looks."
Whether it's because of the preparation that he's undergone with coach Kaleb Canales during minicamp and earlier this week, because of his innate personality or because of his skill level relative to the competition so far -- or some combination of the above -- Lillard looks as if he expects what has been thrown at him. His mistakes, generally, have been careless and self-inflicted rather than panicky or created.
"He knew when they were jumping him what his progressions were," Canales said. "It's a quick pass. And then come back. I thought he did a good job today of making his reads. He only had two turnovers which is really good."
The ever-present caveat here is that opponents haven't had time to put in real defensive schemes. Plus, the Blazers caught a bit of a break in that Nuggets big man Kenneth Faried did not play due to a coach's decision. Faried has been non-stop this week, just as he was during an excellent rookie season, and he would have been an interesting match-up for both Lillard and Meyers Leonard. Alas, that didn't happen and Friday's Faried-less defensive pressure wound up being another test passed successfully by Lillard at this level.
With Lillard continuing to motor towards what is starting to feel like an inevitable MVP award, teammate Will Barton emerged on Friday with his strongest performance of the week. Barton really stands out in scramble situations, whether that's loose balls, transition opportunities, offensive rebounding attempts or helping from the weakside on defense. Something about his combination of quickness, length and wiry frame -- and his playground knack for reading intentions -- finds Barton making more little plays than just about anyone on the court.
"I'm so versatile, I can score, active, rebounding, defend, I feel like I have to fill up the stat sheet to have a complete game," Barton said. "I don't just have to have 30 points, I just have to do a little bit of everything."
On Friday, he reversed a week of struggling with shots by hitting 8-for-11 from the field for 21 points to go with nine rebounds and two assists. He got out into the open floor as Portland pushed its lead up well into the double digits and he showcased some leaping ability as well.
"That's my game," he said. "Having the ball in my hands and making plays for myself and others. I'm not a guy who likes to sit in the corner and spot up for threes, settle for jump shots. I'm a guy who gets the ball and pushes it to the rim.
"Ever since training camp we've seen his activity on both ends," Canales added. "He's shown that today. He ended up with nine rebounds, almost had a double-double. Hit his free throws tonight. I think it's just rhythm. He's a very rhythm player. For him it's a weapon when he can grab a rebound, he can lead us in our running game and I thought he showed that tonight."
Portland led by as many as 22 points in this one, exploiting its clear talent advantage to make this a bit of a snoozer. It's been a long day (...week... month...) so we'll call this good here.
Random Game Notes
- Poor Jon Diebler. Some idiot makes one suggestion that the Blazers' "shooter" should consider alternative plans for next summer after he goes one for his first nine this week and then new GM Neil Olshey goes and trades him less than 48 hours later. Guillotine status.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was in attendance on Friday, hanging out with the team, doing an in-game television interview and meeting with reporters after the game. Here's a shot of him in the post-game media scrum.
- As mentioned, it was yet another busy day here and posts went up kind of sporadically and at random times, so be sure to check out the following: Nicolas Batum's press conference transcript | LaMarcus Aldridge's Las Vegas interview transcript | Blazers officially re-sign Nicolas Batum | Jon Diebler trade details
- Also, in case you missed it: a longer look from Thursday at Lillard and Canales.
- Prior to the game, the Summer League held a moment of silence for the victims of the tragic movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The Nuggets all wore black headbands to honor them as well.
- Zach Lowe of SI.com took great pleasure in Faried sending some trash-talk to Meyers Leonard after he missed a mid-range jumper. "We'll take that all day," Faried said.
- Leonard finished with 11 points and 5 rebounds, not his biggest line. Canales made a point of noting that Portland was +14 as a team on the glass and held the Nuggets to just four offensive rebounds. Barton and Luke Babbitt combined for 17 rebounds so Leonard can get a bit of a pass on this one.
- Babbitt banged knees during the second quarter, forcing the Blazers to call a timeout to attend to him after he limped around for a bit. He told me after the game that it was painful but that he will try to play during Saturday afternoon's Summer League finale.
- Babbitt told me he's been working out this summer in Portland and Ohio, where his parents live. "I'm working a lot in the weight room," he said. "My athleticism, all parts of my game. Trying to improve defensively, trying to gain a little bit of weight. Really, all areas."
- Babbitt looked dejected and frustrated after this one, shooting 4-for-10 and just 2-for-6 from deep. I'll run the risk of having Bill Simmons of entertainment, pop culture, modern living and sports website Grantland.com -- also known as the "Sports Guy" -- call me a soccer mom in saying that it's been a bit of a bummer to watch Babbitt this week. He doesn't look like he's particularly having fun, he hasn't shot the ball to his standard (17-for-45 from the field; 9-for-31 from deep), he's struggled taking the ball off the dribble and he's been attacked fairly relentlessly on the defensive end. "I haven't shot the ball well," he admitted. "I think I can definitely shoot it better. I try to not let that impact other parts of my game. It's still good for me to be out here and working and I'm using this as a development tool. Trying to get better."
- This is just me writing out loud, but playing in front of a new boss in Olshey, one who doesn't have the ties that come with drafting and cultivating him over the past two years, might have Babbitt feeling a little bit of added pressure.
- Here's how Babbitt sees his role next season: "My strength is being a shooter. You always need guys to stretch the court especially with this roster that we have. We don't necessarily have a lot of those guys and we need space for L.A. He's our best player. I'm just going to come in and do the same thing I did last year and the year before and do what they ask. Hopefully build off a good shooting year last year and shoot even better last year."
- Will Barton on what he wants to improve heading into the 2012-13 season: "Just get a litle more strength, try to stay more consistent with the jump shot, keep defending as hard as I can."
- Barton on his thoughts about his NBA position after four games in Summer League: "I was always a shooting guard, that was my bona fide position. I'm versatile, coach likes to play me at the small forward, do a little point forward, it depends what he needs. I can a lot of things... It really doesn't matter. Whatever he needs at the time, I'm going to do."
- The Blazers' Summer League wraps up with a 1 p.m. game on Saturday against the Miami Heat.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
Keys to game
They only had four offensive rebounds, that was a big key, that's been a big point of emphasis for us today, this whole week, this training camp. I thought today we had five guys committed to rebounding. I think that led us to our running game offensively, we run really well. I hope tomorrow we can put together a 40 minute game. I felt tonight we put together a 30 or 33 minute game, we had some breakdowns defensively that we can correct and be ready to go tomorrow.
Will Barton -- what position?
They're wings, he's a wing. 2/3 for us moving forward in our offensive system, it really doesn't matter too much. Ever since training camp we've seen his activity on both ends. He's shown that today. He ended up with nine rebounds, almost had a double-double. Hit his free throws tonight. I think it's just rhythm. He's a very rhythm player. For him it's a weapon when he can grab a rebound, he can lead us in our running game and I thought he showed that tonight.
Luke Babbitt a little frustrated with his shot. What have you seen with him compared to expectations
We're putting him in a position to make quick decisions in terms of our offense. He's our best shooter on the team and we want him to continue to take shots. It doesn't matter if he goes 0-for-6, you have to make sure you hit the next one. I thought today he did a really good job of that -- he missed some early, he went to his one or two dribble game, a couple of attacks to the basket, his growth for him is that he needs to be in a position where he can make quick decisions because that's what's going to transfer to the regular season.
They were jumping Damian on the high screens
We talked about it yesterday, it's like a boxing fight. We talked about it this morning with Damian, what we were going to expect. But at the same time we want people to adjust to him and to us. His same mindset, coming in, being our caretaker of our offense, throughout the game we can adjust offensively, what we want to exploit, and I thought he did a good job of that today. He got to the free throw line. He knew when they were jumping him what his progressions were. It's a quick pass. And then come back. I thought he did a good job today of making his reads. He only had two turnovers which is really good.
What kind of respect does it show that they jump him
Absolutely, it's a level of respect for what he's shown this week and what he's shown to us during training camp. We're going to put the ball in his hands and have him be our care-taker offensively. It's just a game of adjustments, everyone is here scouting and everybody knows next time we play, tomorrow when we play Miami, it's going to be a different look. We have to be ready to make in-game and post-game adjustments.
Is he the Summer League MVP?
You know what, I've gotten a chance to watch the teams we're playing. I haven't had the chance the whole menu of teams here. For us, I know he's playing really good basketball.
So you won't campaign for him?
[Laughs] I know for us, he's playing really good basketball.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter