The New York Knicks defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 71-69, during Game 1 of Summer League at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Saturday.
Barometers are important: there's tall for a skyscraper, tall for a giraffe, and tall for a first-grader.
By most any standard, the Blazers played poorly in their Summer League debut, a mess of regrettable passes, clanked jumpers and missed free throws that ended with a late-game collapse. They played poorly compared to what we just witnessed during the playoffs, they played poorly compared to general expectations for a team with six non-rookie NBA players on it, and they played poorly compared to a number of the other teams here in Las Vegas.
They played poorly enough that multiple Blazers openly admitted to frustration about the performance, and yet, by and large, they looked much better than the 2013 version of this same crew.
"Last year, I didn't know much about our team, the offense," Blazers guard CJ McCollum told Blazersedge. "It was kind of like a chicken with his head cut off. Now, I'm a little more poised, I know what areas I want to focus on."
That goes for many of his teammates too. Saying the Blazers are better than they were last year, when they were largely atrocious, might be damning with faint praise, but that is the most relevant benchmark. After all, a first-grader riding a growth spurt will still look microscopic next to the Willis Tower.
Portland wasn't steamrolled in this one, producing a number of worthwhile highlights and smart plays to go along with the mistakes. The biggest difference was that they acted like they belonged, which often wasn't the case in 2013. That shared confidence manifested in a belief that they gave away this game to the Knicks.
"If we don't turn the ball over, we win the game by 10," Thomas Robinson said, after posting a team-high 17 points (on 6-for-9 shooting) and seven rebounds.
Robinson committed five of Portland's 18 turnovers, which outnumbered the team's 12 assists. The Blazers committed three turnovers and failed to make a field goal in the game's final three minutes, conceding an 11-3 Knicks closing run that concluded with a game-winning baseline floater from Shane Larkin. It was a mess on the other end: Robinson lost the ball out of bounds, Barton coughed one up, and then Bobby Brown stepped on the sideline on the Blazers' final possession.
Even during that forgettable stretch, though, the first thought on the mind was that at least they weren't getting blown out by 20 points like last year. That's a barometer available only for outside observers to wield, and the Blazers had no interest in moral victories.
"We're all disappointed," McCollum said, after scoring 16 points on 4-for-11 shooting overall and 7-for-13 shooting from the stripe. "We have six NBA guys here, we're getting paid a good amount of money. We don't want to lose these types of games. We want to win. We want to put on a show and show that we've improved."
There were some marginal improvements but no breakout stars.
Neither Will Barton nor McCollum excelled as lead ball-handlers, and Brown, a well-traveled veteran, did most of the heavy lifting. Allen Crabbe had one of the worst games you'll ever see -- registering two points and seven fouls in 24 minutes -- while Meyers Leonard watched from the sidelines with a shoulder strain.
Robinson's stretches of strong offensive play were mixed in with head-slapping moments, literally. Seated courtside, Blazers coach Terry Stotts buried his face in his hand when Robinson fouled a three-point shooter late in the fourth quarter, and the arena collectively groaned when Robinson blew a reverse in transition.
Joel Freeland moved well, looking fully recovered from his knee injury after months removed from playing major minutes, but he was unable to deliver on a late-game lay-up after taking a nice pass from Barton. He continues to look overmatched against superior athletes.
Still, there were steps forward. Barton looks stronger in his upper body. McCollum has definitely cut down on what some have called "baby fat." Robinson's energy was more refined than last summer, when he was trying to do too much. As a team, Portland was able to get into plays more consistently instead of burning clock early and finding itself stuck. As a team, Portland's defense succeeded in forcing 17 turnovers.
"The ball pressure is always better in Summer League," Blazers assistant Nate Tibbetts told Blazersedge. "When you're playing four games in seven nights during the season, the defensive pressure starts to back up. In Summer League, you watch all these games, the pressure is good. I thought our guys did a great job of picking up, instilling some pressure, putting [the Knicks] in some tough situations. I was pleased with our defense from our guards."
McCollum led the way with four steals, and he said his offseason focus has been on improving as an on-ball defender. The second-year guard has sought to improve his lower body strength through leg lifts, and he's tapped Wesley Matthews, who was seated courtside on Saturday, for tips.
"I'm trying to use my hands more," McCollum said. "Make it difficult for guys to handle the ball in front of me. It's a process. I'm not going to be a great defender overnight. I'm going to try to give effort, listen to Wes and those guys that have proven themselves as good defenders."
Put me pretty firmly in the camp that believes Barton is not equipped to handle point guard duties during the regular season, but he did make a pair of nice plays down the stretch: he found McCollum open on the perimeter and then he dished to Freeland inside. Either of the passes could have produced decisive baskets in Portland's favor. Instead, McCollum missed his look and Freeland couldn't finish in traffic.
"Will made two good plays," Robinson said. "You can't be mad at that. But it shouldn't have come to that. At the end of the game, we executed two good plays. That's facts."
Maybe the best way to describe the difference between this year and last is in the eyes. In 2013, the Blazers' eyes seemed permanently glued wide open, as they tried to contend with opponents that dissected them game after game. In 2014, Barton addressed reporters with a stern face and eyes that were sharp enough that he looked borderline angry, to the point that one reporter asked him if he was really taking a Summer League loss so seriously.
"Real upset about losing that game," Barton said, after posting 11 points (on 4-for-11 shooting), seven rebounds and three assists. "We shouldn't have lost. We should win the game. I'm not out here to lose, I'm out here to play. If I'm not going to take it seriously, why be out there?"
It's always better to wonder "What could have been?" rather than "What the hell just happened?" These summer Blazers now fall into the first camp, rather than the second. They let a win slip away, but they also built a lead, even though no individual player delivered an "A" performance. They were competitive in a way that produced Stotts' face-palm, and some animated reactions to the officials from GM Neil Olshey, and kept owner Paul Allen engaged throughout. All of that counts as progress. So does the fact that the afternoon's takeaway feeling was "OK, let's see some more," rather than "Please, make it stop."
Random Game Notes
- Summer League gets a little bit bigger every year, but it feels especially grown up this summer. Media demand is so high that they've introduced assigned seating, and Friday's game between Cleveland (Andrew Wiggins) and Milwaukee (Jabari Parker) was standing room only, with some fans getting turned away at the door. There's a new videoboard in the arena, a new title sponsor in Samsung, and some other minor tweaks here and there. For those planning to attend Portland's games this summer, be sure to get there early for prime seating.
- My hope for future Summer Leagues is that the NBA will stagger the free agency moratorium and the start of summer play more effectively. Getting stuck tracking major signings instead of solely watching the hoops action all day is a mild bummer. I guess we can blame it on LeBron James taking so long to announce his decision this year and write it off as a one-time thing. Wait. What do you mean? He seriously can become a free agent next summer and the summer after that? Oof.
- The Blazers had a really good number of supporters on Saturday, especially considering the roster's lack of a 2014 first-round pick. Both Portland and New York always draw well.
- In addition to Allen, Olshey, Stotts and Matthews, other courtside attendees included Kenyon Martin (who spent much of the game "mentoring" Jeremy Tyler) and the Morris Twins (Marcus and Markieff), who are friends with Thomas Robinson.
- Of course, just moments after Martin offered a piece of advice, Tyler received a pointless technical foul. Martin was wearing a shirt that said "#Winning" by the way.
- Summer League doesn't feel quite right without the Morris Twins playing for Phoenix -- their trash-talking, shot-jacking style is just a perfect fit here -- but at least they showed up to Saturday's game wearing matching shirts, pants and chains.
- Meyers Leonard's shoulder injury is not deemed serious and he seemed in a good mood overall. It wasn't a great sign that many observers, unaware of his injury, were wondering deep into the second quarter whether he was receiving a Summer League DNP-CD.
- I'm most interested in the development of Leonard and McCollum this summer. It's time for the former to show some real progress, and it's time for the latter to justify his lottery selection, something that he wasn't able to do last year due to his foot injury.
- Nate Tibbetts said the Blazers plan to juggle their starting lineup around. I questioned initially whether it was wise to start Bobby Brown and leave Allen Crabbe on the bench, but those doubts were quelled pretty quickly by their play relative to each other.
- Below, Tibbetts implies that Will Barton and McCollum won't be getting a ton of time as lead ball-handlers next season.
- Tibbetts also had some praise for Joel Freeland's conditioning and the amount of work he's put in to bounce back from his knee injury. Of the five Blazers roster guys that played, I agree with Dave that Freeland had the best debut relative to expectations.
- Everyone had a number of chuckles at my expense when Rodney Carney went flying into the baseline seats after a loose ball, spilling my coffee everywhere in the process. About eight hours later and I still smell like coffee. The coffee managed to stain three layers of shirts!
- Here's a grainy photo of Carney's hustle play via @B_Double_Ya on Twitter. As the photo clearly shows, I was coolly staring down imminent doom in perfect position to take the charge while Kevin Pelton, seated to my left in a black shirt, was completely panicked, out of position and in clear violation of the rule of verticality. I seriously can't believe ESPN charges people money to read that guy's thoughts on basketball!
- In a clear sign that it's 2014, I got a number of tweets worried about whether my computer was OK and zero tweets wondering if I was OK. Our society's priorities are just so messed up these -- OH MY GOD look at this Vine, it's a sheep hugging a hamster!
- Barton said he wasn't sure if he's put on weight or not, but his shoulders definitely look bigger: "I've been trying to lift a little more, get stronger. I'm never going to be a huge guy, [but I feel] stronger, more explosive. Hopefully it keeps translating to games."
- Note that the picture of Barton used above for this post is from last year's event.
- Portland's best stretch of play came in the fourth quarter just before its meltdown. Freeland drew an and-one, Robinson had a nice power move across the paint, and then McCollum attacked the basket hard.
- The Blazers' next game is on Sunday at 5:30 PM against the Rockets.
- Big congratulations to Blazersedge contributor Dane Carbaugh, who was hired into a social media position by Sporting News. Really happy to see his hard work rewarded with a job that really fits his skillset.
Nate Tibbetts' Post-Game Comments
We missed some shots. Defensively I thought we did a good job. The big thing in camp this week was defensive transition. I thought our guys did a good job focusing there. And our shell, we're trying to help one another. Defensively we did a good job. We just missed too many free throws, we turned it over too much early.
I thought we got two good looks. I thought Will [Barton] did a good job of getting into the paint, made a great pass to CJ [McCollum], had a good look. The next possession, Will got into the lane and dropped it off to Joel [Freeland], who also had a good look. That's the way they finished it out. I thought we made the right plays down the stretch.
I think this summer, him and CJ, we're putting them in a position where they have to handle the ball more, run more offense. I think both of those guys did a good job.
Impressed by anyone in particular?
All of our guys showed flashes. Thomas did a good job there in the third quarter, got going. CJ got to the free throw line, he's going to make most of those free throws, he didn't shoot them today. I thought Will did a really good job early of guarding [Tim] Hardaway.
What are you trying to do coaching-wise?
We're going to keep the same system that coach [Terry] Stotts has put in. We want this to be a continuation, this is a process. These guys have just watched 85, 100 games, they haven't played in big moments, key moments or long stretches. This is really important for them as far as the offense goes, we're just trying to build with our system. Defensively, the last four days at practice, that's where our focus has been. I think we did a good job with that today.
Summer League, the ball pressure is always better. When you're playing four games in seven nights during the season, the defensive pressure starts to back up. In Summer League, you watch all these games, the pressure is good. I thought our guys did a great job of picking up, instilling some pressure, putting [the Knicks] in some tough situations. I was pleased with our defense from our guards.
McCollum/Barton improving as ball-handlers as game continued
Yeah. The game is going so fast, these guys want to play well. They've put in a ton of work this summer. I'm sure they had some nerves right away, but they settled in as the game went on, they got us into stuff a little bit easier, had a little more balance, it's a credit to those guys.
You're going to see changes in our starting lineup all week. Our guys will rotate in and out. Bobby Brown did a good job for us. He's only been around us for a week or two, he got us into all of our stuff. It gave Will and CJ an opportunity to handle the ball but not be the primary ball-handler. That's probably how it's going to be during the season for those guys. Bobby came in and played a good role for us.
Joel Freeland moving well after injury
Joel has really got it in here the last month. He's getting extra work in. This is good for him to build that confidence back and that strength. The work that he's done, where he can feel more comfortable, fly around like he was before he got hurt.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter