The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings, 109-105, in an exhibition game at the "Moda Center" on Sunday, improving their preseason record to 4-2.
Circumstances lined up perfectly for Thomas Robinson on this night: He started because LaMarcus Aldridge was resting with a sore knee, he matched up against a micro-sized Kings frontline that was without a resting DeMarcus Cousins and he had months worth of pent up angst over the February trade that sent him from Sacramento to Houston still percolating. He also had a coach in Terry Stotts, who engineered the game's first possession for him after weighing all of this background.
The kicker, Robinson said, was simply turning off the brain that has caused his play to alternate between wild recklessness and lost in the wilderness indecision.
"[Assistant coach David] Vanterpool was telling me I'm an average player when I think, and I'm above-average when I'm just playing basketball," Robinson told Blazersedge. "[Wesley Matthews] had a talk with me also when we were in L.A. These guys are helping me, instead of just watching me do wrong and letting me sit there. I feel more comfortable. They pinpoint what I'm doing wrong, and I try to watch tape and do better."
He added later: "When I think too much, man, it's not a good sight."
Robinson's play Sunday was a bit front-loaded -- almost half of his points came in the game's first four minutes -- but that hardly mattered given the variety of his useful contributions and his lack of misplaced over-assertiveness. All told, he racked up 14 points (on 6-for-8 shooting), 8 rebounds and 3 assists in 24 minutes, and while this wasn't an ideal shot selection night, it was excellent shot execution night. Robinson knocked down multiple jumpers, including a turnaround, he had a pretty lefty lay-up, and most memorably, he threw down a left-handed put-back dunk after launching over the top of Robin Lopez.
That play brought out the old "flex and scream" celebration, a release that he said has been overdue.
"[You want to talk about] the dunk [or] the reaction to the dunk? The reaction I've been holding in for awhile now," Robinson said, grinning. "So that's what that was. I just saw a chance, man. I stretched my left hand out there, I didn't think I was going to get it. Once I felt it I just put it up."
Video via YouTube user NBAshowtimeHD2
The highlight dunks (and blocks) have been there for Robinson, even when there wasn't much else to take from his play. He joked after the game that he was pleased with the stuff that reporters might not have seen -- specifically his passing and screening -- but nothing could have been further from the truth. Those additions were both welcome and impossible to miss.
Taking advantage of a Cousins-free world, Robinson dumped off a beautiful look to Lopez for a dunk. Ahead of the play on another transition sequence, Robinson made a nice read to Wesley Matthews, who couldn't knock down the wide open three. For a night, a player whose default setting is "shoot" did well to keep the ball moving. His coach noticed too.
"I was glad he came out and played well, the first half in particular, he established himself," Stotts said. "I thought he made some good passes, which I was happy to see. I was glad he had a good game against his former team."
Portland tallied 109 points without shooting the lights out from deep, a testament to what was, at times, some pretty, unselfish play. Thanks to a strong opening quarter and a depleted Kings team, it was a good night for some experimentation. Stotts used four guards -- leaving Will Barton to sit -- and went small for stretches. Earl Watson received his first game action, utilized primarily as a full-court ball-hawker.
What stood out, in a game with so few plodders and so many perimeter-oriented players, was Portland's commitment to the early three in transition, its ability to quickly change the point of attack from side to side (guys like Mo Williams and Dorell Wright particularly looked for opportunities to throw crosscourt passes) and, yes, the persistent silly turnovers.
The Blazers committed 18 turnovers against 20 assists, including 11 in the second half as the Kings scratched out of a 19-point hole to briefly take a lead in the fourth.
"We just try to involve everybody on offense," Nicolas Batum said, after finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three turnovers. "Move the ball and be like a team, like a good basketball team. We did too much in the third quarter, we start losing the ball and taking bad shots, we let them back in the game."
Some of the turnovers seem to be kinks. Touch passes find their target one minute, and fly out of bounds the next. Hand-offs and pitches go smoothly one possession, and get bogged up the next. Ball reversals are clean for long stretches, and then, without notice, too soft to be successful.
"I think it's part of the preseason," Stotts said. "[But] we have too many turnovers."
This was a game of runs, something that will be a theme all year given the emphasis on three-point shooting and the still-developing defense, but it wasn't particularly helter-skelter. The Blazers responded well when pressed, and they put the hammer down in the fourth quarter. They gained confidence from a third-quarter explosion from Damian Lillard, who had 14 of his game-high 28 points (on 8-for-19 shooting) in a three-plus minute span in the third, after making just one field goal in the first half. He added four rebounds, three assists and one steal in 34 minutes on the night.
"In the first half I got guys shots, they loosened up on me, and I got into the paint easier," Lillard said. "I started to get the shots I wanted to get, in the third quarter that's when it opened up. Shots were falling. That was the best part about it, shots started falling and I kind of got in a rhythm."
Lillard hit four threes, but he also got to the rim at will, finishing through contact on multiple occasions. It was a positive showing, even if his and-ones were through the likes of Jason Thompson and Travis Outlaw, rather than a traditional, physical force.
Without Aldridge, Portland was surely pleased to see someone exert such influence on the game's direction. Lillard seemed mostly unimpressed with his effort, giving off a "been here before, will be here again" vibe afterwards. Really, the team's fourth straight win wasn't cause for all that much celebration, as the post-game locker room's attention immediately turned to the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football.
This was just another tune-up for everyone, except Robinson, who can probably relate to Peyton Manning right about now.
"Coach ran a play for him at the beginning of the game, he made that shot and he made a couple more," Lillard said of Robinson. "He was rebounding. That got him going. That was on top of him having some type of emotions with the fact that he got traded by the Kings. ... That's what we've been seeing since September. That whole month that we played open gym, pick-up ball, he was a beast. Making jump shots. Making good passes, rebounding the ball. Tonight I think was the first time in a game that he put it all together like what we've been seeing."
It's nice any time the NBA gets personal, but especially in mid-October and especially from a player still finding his way. Asked if he took particular pleasure from a strong night against one of his former teams, Robinson shook his head in mock shock.
"One of my former teams," Robinson said, making sure to emphasize the plural. "That's crazy. I'm still not over that."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was listed at 17,357. That seems really generous, but the crowd was pretty amped up in the fourth quarter as the Blazers staved off Sacramento's final run and closed the door.
- Tickets are still available for Portland's home opener against the San Antonio Spurs which seems... wrong.
- I've been struggling for the right words to describe the new in-arena vibe and I think the most accurate description is simply "less hip hop."
- There's now an "Air Guitar Cam" where they play a rock song and everyone jams out with their arms, thundersticks or, in one man's case, his baby. During that sequence, I believe the jumbotron showed a fan dressed up in a full Chalupa outfit.
- Damian Lillard said that he hopes a disciplined offense will pay dividends on the other end: "As long as we're moving the ball, we should get quality shots. That can limit their transition. If it's good misses off of good, quality shots, we shouldn't have as many transition points given up."
- Batum on his play-making, which was pronounced, as the Blazers involved him early in possessions with hand-offs throughout the game: "That's what I did last year and that's what I'm going to try to do this year but even in a better way. I [will] try to get less turnovers than last year but more assists and rebounds."
- Batum, who showed no ill effects from his recent concussion, seemed to suggest that Aldridge might return for Portland's final preseason game: "We're almost there, almost ready. We have to play at least one game with everybody, L.A. in the lineup and me in the lineup. Ask him [if he will play]. I think so."
- The NBA's officiating crew went through a pre-game rundown of this year's points of emphasis. Among the key items: keeping a pivot foot established, setting legal screens (no tripping, pushing with arms or hip checks), no touching the ball during free throws or after made baskets, and no hiding out of bounds when your team has the ball.
- Sunday's crew whistled a number of those points of emphasis, including two delay of game technicals (one for both teams) during the final three minutes of the game. Woof. The expectation is that players will learn to adapt soon. Let's hope so. That seems like a particularly hard habit to break.
- The signs in the crowd were all pretty weak tonight. One woman had: "Lillard all damn day."
- Robin Lopez finished with 14 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks; he didn't have the revenge storyline thing going for him, but he also beat up on the undermanned Kings.
- Always good to catch up with the guys from the Rip City Two forum, who were in attendance.
- Kings rookie Ben McLemore is blessed with a great name and a beautiful jumper. He powered Sacramento's comeback, getting 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, and looked light years more comfortable than he did at the Las Vegas Summer League.
- Sacramento's coach Michael Malone included praise for the "Moda Center" crowd in his assessment of McLemore's night: "He's a rookie but he's been through so much in his life. I think playing in a gym like this is just fun for him. I don't think anything is too big. That kid has had a tough upbringing so I love watching him out there."
- Allen Crabbe didn't play because he was sick.
- CJ McCollum was in the locker room laughing and exchanging banter after the game, with a big boot on his foot. He was using crutches to get around.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian got a great "right place, right time" photo of Robinson's putback.
- Game highlights via the Blazers on YouTube.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was pleased with the way we started the game. In general, the first half we wanted to take care of our turnovers, defensive transition, we did that in the first half. Building the lead was good in the second half, disappointed how we let that get away from us that quickly. But then in the end we made a lot of good plays, got stops when we needed to. I know this isn't a regular season game but it had a regular season feel to it. Both teams were trying to win with their guys, there was good and bad to be taken away from it.
Defense on Patrick Patterson
Patterson shot the ball better than I expected. I know he's a good mid-range shooter, I didn't expect him to go 3-for-5 from threes. In a way it was good that he did that. We'll know next time we play them to adjust our coverage. My hat's off to him, he made his shots.
That being said, we did an excellent job of protecting the rim. Their percentage of shots at the rim were lower -- below our goal, that was good, and they didn't convert. Jump shots are going to go in, the big scheme of things is protecting the rim. I'm more concerned about the threes -- I thought we gave up a lot of open threes. Not necessarily off of screens, I think we have to be more vigilant about that.
Nic plays the game easy. He obviously did a lot of good things. Offensively, at one point, he was probably flirting with a triple double. That's what we need from Nic at the offensive end. I thought he could have been a little more aggressive at times. We've got a lot of play-makers, we need him to continue to be a play-maker, not just rely on Mo and Damian.
I was glad he came out and played well. First half in particular, he established himself. In the second half as well. Both stints in the second half, he was effective. I thought he made some good passes, which I was happy to see. I was glad he had a good game against his former team.
Did you run plays for him?
I probably ran two or three plays for him. The first play of the game was for him, I think I ran another one in the second half. A lot of his was in the flow.
We're probably ahead of what I anticipated. Going into this game, our goals of protecting the rim and forcing mid-range jumpshots, and defensive field goal percentage and our rebounding, it's all going in the right direction. The players have really executed what we've changed, particularly the pick-and-roll. Tonight they made some shots, but if you look at the whole preseason, we're going in the right direction.
Gave up lead, useful to have crunch time practice?
We could choose to look at it like that. [Laughter] It was good to be able to play a tight game and have to make plays, especially at home, when you want to get a win at home in front of the fans.
Turnovers -- concerned, or just part of the preseason?
Both. Both. I think it's part of the preseason. We have too many turnovers. That being said, I think we're 21st or 22nd, I don't know, in turnovers. There's a lot of turnovers around the league. That's why the first half we only had seven turnovers, that was encouraging. I thought we were very efficient with our offense in the first half. Without LaMarcus out there, that will help as well.
Damian Lillard letting the game come to him in first half
There's probably some truth to that. I was glad to see his three-point shooting, make some threes tonight. Our three-point shooters haven't really shot -- had a night. The first half I thought we had some great threes and didn't make them, but I was glad he got on a roll there. Part of it is, for him and everybody, it's good to get other people involved but you have to take your opportunities when they're there. As a scorer, that's a fine line, especially for a point guard whose job it is to do both. He needs to involve people but he needs to have the balance of taking the opportunities when they're there too.
Going small with Dorell Wright and Nicolas Batum as forwards
I was glad to have a chance to look at it. I thought offensively you go to that lineup to have an offensive advantage and I was disappointed that we had some good looks and good threes that didn't go down. I thought it was interesting to look at. You'll see it from time to time. Like I said before, I don't want to take away from our defense. If we need to space the court and create some offense, I think it's something that we'll see.
How close are you to being ready for the regular season?
We're getting there and we'll be ready. I had a meeting with my staff today, as far as things we need to get accomplished in the next week, situations we need to cover, both offensively and defensively, special situations, tinker with the offense a little bit, some defensive coverages we need to have in our pocket. Probably our zone. There's some things that need to get done. To answer your question, we're on track to being where we need to be.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter