[Update: The Blazers announced tonight that Thomas Robinson suffered a torn ligament in his thumb, and is out for the rest of 2014 Summer League. -- Tim]
In their third game of the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, the Portland Trail Blazers paid off their potential, riding electrifying performances from their Big Three to a 91-76 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. It was everything Portland fans could have imagined from this relatively experienced, relatively lottery-heavy group.
The first part of the first period looked like another slog-fest for the Blazers. They couldn't score off the dribble. Most of their attempts came from outside. Meyers Leonard starting in place of Joel Freeland cut down on their rebounds. The Hawks don't exactly field a powerhouse Summer League lineup and the Blazers were playing right along with them.
Will Barton started the magic flowing, shaking free and paying off with the mid-range game. The bigs--Leonard and Thomas Robinson--helped him out. Leonard set screens deep and high. Robinson pocketed boards. He accounted for 13 of Portland's 22 points in the first period. It seemed like we would finally see one of the star-level wing performances for which Summer League is so famous.
Indeed we did. It just came from a different source.
Beginning with the second period and continuing throughout the game, C.J. McCollum torched the nets, foiling Atlanta's defense every time they gave him even a glimmer of daylight. As McCollum's three-pointer started falling his confidence rose like a Vegas thermometer. Triple after triple fell through as the Hawks scrambled, not even to keep up anymore but to avoid the orange hailstones pelting their heads.
Once the Hawks got befuddled they became easy prey for Portland's defensive strength: forcing turnovers. The middle periods of this game featured poke-aways and run-outs enough to fill a highlight reel. Every time you turned around 2-3 Blazers were running the break and setting up dunks with fancy-pants passes. At that point you could feel the Hawks saying, "It's just Summer League" while the Blazers went, "SUMMER LEAGUE...RAAAAWWWWR!"
49% shooting, 46% three-point shooting, an 82% clip from the charity stripe, and 21 turnovers forced followed by a cornucopia of easy buckets propelled the Blazers to 91 points. The Hawks shot well themselves (48%) but couldn't get anywhere close. This game was a much-needed laugher--and demonstration of prowess--for the guys in black and red.
The stats we just listed speak for themselves. Most everything worked for Portland today. There's an asterisk: jumpers falling early make everyone look good. What's true of the big league team is true of their proteges. They're spectacular when they're not missing. When the shots aren't falling easily they have a hard time compensating. But that's not the whole story. Portland's plays worked well today, setting up those nice shots. After a brief settling-in period Portland ran cuts and screens crisply. They passed willingly. The offense looked planned instead of 20 seconds of half-running it followed by a late-possession bailout.
As we've said multiple times in the past year, this team lives or dies together. Everybody looks good or nobody looks good. Today everybody looked really, really good...just the way a day in Vegas watching your favorite team is supposed to go.
C.J. McCollum's 10-16 shooting, 6-9 from range, and 28 points led the way for the Blazers. Put the stats aside, though. It was good to see C.J. comfortable in his own skin. He played withing the confines of the offense without hesitating. He saw the lack of defensive pressure and made the opponent pay. He made 2-3 right decisions well before he got the shot. In some ways the swish was just confirmation of what he had done in the set-up phase. Finally we got to see what McCollum looks like when he's just playing ball instead of thinking and reacting...the confident McCollum. Hopefully he can hold onto some of that even when the initial jumpers don't fall.
Will Barton shot 9-14, connecting everywhere but the three-point arc, behind which he fired 1-5. His initial burst got the Blazers rolling. After that he made a couple nice set-up passes and generally kept loose. His 6 turnovers may indicate he was too loose, but it's Summer League. Had Barton been more selfish this could have turned into a 30-shot, 30-point performance for him. Instead he, like McCollum, played mostly within the team concept. Comfortable Barton is way more unpredictable than comfortable McCollum, but he's also fun to watch.
Thomas Robinson is the unsung hero of this game. Most of my non-Barton first-quarter notes involved negative observations, save one: "Robinson is ACTIVE!" He didn't touch the ball much on offense but he rebounded and keep the game in motion. Pretty soon that motion turned into steals (5) and assists (5). It produced some fancy finishes but no turnovers. His personal defense wasn't perfect but Robinson's activity on the defensive end flustered the Hawks as much as McCollum and Barton frustrated them on the other end.
Meyers Leonard started this game. He played 21 minutes. Guarding perimeter-oriented centers on one end and playing outside on the other helps to explain his 0 rebounds, but only barely. His 7 fouls stand testimony to his defense. He tried, but the instincts still aren't there. Or if the instincts are there, he gets in one good stand. If that doesn't end with the ball in Portland's possession, he's out of it for the rest of the play. Leonard did set good screens. Mirroring his teammates, he looked as comfortable as we've seen in the offense. He ran plays well. Results will have to wait for another day.
Joel Freeland gave up minutes to Leonard, finding a few behind Robinson at power forward for 18 total. He wasn't a statistical whirlwind but you can see the difference between him and his younger counterparts whenever he takes the floor. He knows what he's doing. He does it. That is all. The choice for the Blazers looks pretty clear. Do you go with the guy who will produce at a certain level consistently or do you go with the higher ceiling and far more up and down jags? My guess right now is that Robinson will sneak above Freeland in that equation while Leonard falls below him, but we'll see.
Summer League is not Allen Crabbe's friend.
Here's the Boxscore for this game. Tournament seeding and scheduling will get sorted out once today's slate of games is through. Tournament play begins tomorrow.
Random Finishing Note #1: Seeing Thomas Robinson poke away the ball and start to run out on the break with Will Barton and C.J. McCollum alongside evokes the same feeling you used to get hearing the music of the ice cream truck coming down the street. Get your dimes together and come see...this is gonna be sweet.
Random Finishing Note #2: I don't like the idea of calling the winners of the tournament the "Summer League Champs". It's too predictable and overstated. They should come up with a different name for the winner. Maybe give them cool shades to wear, make them dance at midcourt to funky music, and give them some random Japanese-pop-culture inspired title. "Super Cool [Something Something]" and such. We'll take suggestions for that [Something Something] in the comment section.
Random Finishing Note #3: I've liked Mike Muscala since before he was drafted. Can the Blazers get Mike Muscala?
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard