The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets, 75-67, in Game 2 of Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Sunday. Portland improved its record to 1-1.
"Experience" and "chemistry" are major factors at Summer League about as often as you hear people say "What a modest outfit" and "I love my hotel's understated decor" while walking up and down the Strip. While Portland had a talent advantage against a Houston team that has struggled this summer, both here and in Orlando, this game turned on the Blazers' ability to calmly withstand a third-quarter flurry before counterpunching in the game's final period. They rode the wave with controlled play, holding the Rockets to just six fourth-quarter points while running off a 12-0 closing run.
The night's biggest highlight -- an out-of-bounds lob dunk from CJ McCollum to Will Barton with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game -- was as much a product of their shared time together as it was Barton's raw athleticism. The two guards simply dipped into a familiar bag of Terry Stotts' tricks, while their opponents looked helplessly and cluelessly unprepared to defend the play.
There wasn't any particularly complicated about it. McCollum set up on the baseline. Barton lulled his defender into relaxing before bursting-slash-curling towards the front of the rim, where he hauled in the pass with two hands and finished the slam over the top of Donatas Motiejunas.
"That's the same play we've had for awhile now," McCollum said. "That's the first option. I knew we were going to get it. We gave each other the look, that it was going to be wide open. The biggest thing for me was to get over far enough so [the pass] wouldn't hit the side of the backboard. It worked out well. When you have a guy like Will who can jump, all you have to do is throw it up. Luckily he converted it."
The rim-shaking dunk reverberated throughout the arena, as Motiejunas ducked his head to avoid danger and embarrassment. Too late.
"It was big for us, big momentum, got us hyped up, got us pumped," Barton told Blazersedge. "It's one of our regular season plays that we run: '42C.' We come off and look for a lob or we run some action under the rim, some curls. I told CJ to put it up and I went and got it."
Barton's dunk put Portland ahead for good, 68-67, and Houston didn't score again the rest of the way. It was, simultaneously, the icing on the cake of an excellent bounceback stretch and the straw that broke the camel's back.
The Blazers dictated the action for most of the game before conceding an 18-0 late in the third quarter. On a night that saw plenty of bricks -- both teams combined to shoot just 10-for-46 from deep -- Houston managed to sink four three-pointers in less than two minutes late in the third. Andre Dawkins hit three of the triples, thereby accounting for all nine of his points on the night in a 73-second span, and Portland entered the final period trailing by seven.
Three-pointers are much harder to come by at the Summer League level than during the regular season, and the mini-barrage had the potential to send the Blazers' chins into their chests. A seven-point lead can feel like a 15-point lead when Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews aren't part of the comeback corps. Here, Portland was undaunted.
"I'm going on my third season, I've seen worse than that before," Barton told Blazersedge, when asked about Houston's 18-0 run. "You just keep composure, stay resilient, keep executing and you'll put yourself in a position to win. We did that. Buckle down on defense, stay in it, don't get too lost."
Instead of breaking, Portland responded by treading water until the game's final four minutes, when coach David Vanterpool returned his starters to the court.
"Great coaching from coach Vanterpool," Thomas Robinson said. "He sat some of us down going into the fourth when they had their lead. He didn't panic, and then he put us back in there during the end and we made our run."
All five members of the starting group -- Bobby Brown, McCollum, Barton, Robinson and Joel Freeland -- finished in double figures, and they didn't concede a single field goal in their final shift.
"We needed that win for our own morale, to know what it's like to win a basketball game," Vanterpool said. "It's important for the guys. I's very important that we play the right way, and I think we did that down the stretch. Defensively, we did a great job."
Their collective response helped mask another game in which no individual truly shined and the offense ran at far less than peak efficiency. Barton (5-for-15 shooting for 15 points) was too eager launching contested jumpers, McCollum (a game-high 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting and 1-for-7 three-point shooting) couldn't find his stroke from outside, and Robinson had an uneven night (14 points on 4-for-10 shooting), 12 rebounds, seven fouls, three turnovers) with a few flashes of dominance. The bench managed just four points total (some things never change).
Portland's split weekend proved, if nothing else, that it's better to be victorious in unspectacular fashion than it is to fall in unspectacular fashion.
"We didn't want to lose two in a row," Barton said. "With the talent we have on this roster, we feel we should win every game. We just locked in, everyone was managing each other, telling each other to get this one, not letting each other slip."
Then, in a simple bit of philosophy that led his fans on Twitter to compare him to both Socrates and Yogi Berra, Barton added: "I always need a win after a loss."
Random Game Notes
- Sunday's game was played in the big gym (Thomas & Mack) rather than the smaller gym (Cox Pavilion). The change of venue always has the effect of spreading out the crowd and making for a less intense atmosphere. Still, Barton's dunk got a really nice response.
- There were some tried-and-true Blazermaniacs seated near my media section. I saw something like four Pinwheel tattoos and three beards combined in a group of three friends.
- I also saw a 5-foot-10 guy who I thought looked like a dead ringer for a bald and bearded LeBron James. No one else totally agreed with me. I wanted to tweet a photo of him with something like "LeBron made it back from the World Cup final in Brazil just in time for Hawks/D-League Select Summer League game" but I didn't have the nerve.
- Speaking of the Hawks and D-League Summer League game, it somehow went into sudden death double overtime, delaying the start of Blazers/Rockets. The players seriously took sudden death to mean sudden DEATH, as bodies sprawled everywhere, seemingly on both sides of the court at the same time, during a wild end-to-end-to-end sequence. I'm not sure how the NBA could incorporate sudden death into its usual gameplay (preseason? All-Star Weekend?) but it was really, really entertaining. In case you were wondering, they went to sudden death when the game was still tied after a two-minute overtime period.
- Anybody else have Troy Daniels flashbacks during Andre Dawkins' barrage?
- One simple, great Twitter reply when I noted Houston's 18-0 run: "Not in free agency." The poor Rockets are getting routed when it comes to offseason moves, agreeing to trade away Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while also losing Chandler Parsons. In return for those departures: Trevor Ariza. Rockets coach Kevin McHale, James Harden and Terrence Jones were all in attendance on Sunday, and they didn't look particularly shaken. Still, Rockets GM Daryl Morey has his hands full salvaging this one.
- Both David Vanterpool and Will Barton were preaching the "morale" angle of this victory, which definitely produced a lighter post-game atmosphere compared to Saturday's loss.
- CJ McCollum, however, wasn't totally buying it: "This is Summer League. I don't know about a morale victory, but I understand because we need to win. We have a lot of roster guys, we shouldn't be losing these types of games, we should have won yesterday, but at the same time it is Summer League. We could go 6-0, 7-0, all average 20 a game and that doesn't mean we're going to contribute during a real NBA season. The biggest thing for us is to work on our weaknesses and show improvements."
- McCollum was down on himself for his two fourth-quarter turnovers, and the one that occurred as he tried to split the defense on the perimeter was particularly rough. On the whole, though, the Blazers committed just 12 turnovers and executed more cleanly than they did in Game 1.
- The bigger issue in this game was a little too much one-on-one play. Hopefully someone reviews the tape with Barton and reminds him that just because he can create a shot doesn't make it a good shot.
- Thomas Robinson was also a little down on himself, or doing a good acting job of being down on himself afterwards. His answers were clipped and his eyes were wandering. "I played bad again. I keep tricking off 20 and 10 easily. I mean, easily. Make a couple of free throws and it's 20 and 10, both games."
- The end of the first quarter produced one of the greatest Summer League moments in Summer League history. Robinson, a power forward who has never made a three-pointer during his NBA career, was fouled while launching a 90-foot desperation heave with just 0.2 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Yes, you read that correctly. To complete the insanity, Robinson then proceeded to miss all three of his free throws, with the third one barely grazing the front of the rim. "Only in Vegas."
- Damian Lillard, who has been conducting a basketball camp in Portland this week, popped down to make a quick appearance in Las Vegas on Sunday.
- Meyers Leonard did not play for a second straight game due to a shoulder injury. He was shooting around during warm-ups and is expected to return on Tuesday, when the Blazers face the Hawks.
- Here are the game highlights.
David Vanterpool's Post-Game Comments
Importance of win
It was very important, to be in that type of position, we needed that win. Also for our own morale, to know what it's like to win a basketball game. It's important for the guys. Like I said from the beginning, it's very important that we play the right way, and I think we did that down the stretch. Defensively, we did a great job, holding them to six points in the fourth quarter, that's how you win basketball games.
What happened in third quarter?
Andre Dawkins happened. I don't know if anybody knows that he can shoot it a little bit, or will shoot it, but he hit a couple of shots in a row, they opened the floor up. They made a run. This is the NBA, these guys are all hungry to be a part of it. If you get opportunities and get a chance to step up, that's what you're supposed to do. He did a good job of making us spread out a little bit more because he hit so many shots quickly, and he got them back in the game.
Basically we got a little stagnated defensively as well as offensively, we started to let our lack of making open shots offensively affect our defense. We can't allow that to happen. We have to be more disciplined in that and I think we will be.
10 assists because of missing open shots?
I don't know if it made us tense as much as it affected the other end of the court. We have to do a better job of not letting anything affect our defense. Defense is just energy and effort. We have to communicate, we have to make sure we give the proper energy and effort, no matter what happens on the offensive end. At times that gets difficult, because everyone wants to score and look good, have the ball in their hands.
Response to Houston's run
As a team we took control of the game. They made some shots, they made a run, they were energetic, they were into it and we didn't get ratted by it. We looked at the score, we knew there was plenty of time left, we knew we had a whole notther quarter. We knew had to make sure we shored up a couple of things defensively. And we knew we were getting open shots, we just weren't making them. We had the confidence to continue with what we do, stay in the process, and the guys did a great job, especially defensively in the fourth quarter. We took control of the game, even before we took the lead. They were still winning at a certain point but our guys looked calm, under control, it was like we had control of the game. It was a matter of time.
Closing 12-0 run
We were getting to the free throw line, we were being aggressive, we were being confident with every cut, every move and every shot. We made a couple of shots, getting to the free throw line definitely helps. Referees usually reward the aggressor.
Cleaning up mistakes from first game
You get those first game jitters out. At times, it's difficult to be under control, things are going 1,000 miles an hour. Both teams played yesterday. It's a back-to-back for both teams. We did a good job of playing under control. We kicked the ball ahead, we found the open man, when you make the right play a lot of the times the Basketball Gods smile upon you. You don't have as many turnovers, you get more free throws, certain things work in your favor.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter