The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 91-76, in Game 3 of Summer League at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Portland improved to 2-1.
The indelible moment from this one-sided cakewalk came early in the third quarter, shortly after Hawks forward Adreian Payne made the mistake of telegraphing an outlet pass to Stephen Holt that Thomas Robinson was able to intercept. Robinson and his Blazers cohorts were already in full highlight-seeking mode, and the deflection turned into a behind-the-back dribble, and the behind-the-back dribble turned into a no-look shovel pass, and the no-look shovel pass turned into a skying Meyers Leonard dunk over poor Dennis Schroder, who managed to jump high enough to contest Leonard's armpit, but not his attempted slam.
Collecting the ball, Schroder stared rage-y daggers at Payne, looking right through him in a combination of "Thanks for nothing" and "What the hell were you thinking?" and "Are in-game forfeits legal in basketball?" It was the type of look you don't soon forget, the type that evokes pangs of guilt on first contact. A winless Atlanta team had been a mess from the opening tip, but this was the silent breaking point, with Schroder's chest visibly heaving as he flipped the ball towards the baseline in anger.
One team's pain is another's pleasure, and Portland skipped gleefully through this comfortable victory. After no true breakout performances in either of the first two games, both CJ McCollum and Will Barton can claim that tag on Tuesday.
McCollum tallied 28 points (on 10-for-16 shooting), looking like the prospect everyone saw on the pre-draft workout tapes last year. Barton almost singlehandedly overwhelmed the Hawks early, as he scored 13 of his 17 points (on 8-for-14 shooting) in the first period, nearly matching Atlanta's team total of 15 points.
"I told my teammates that I was going to set the tone early," Barton said. "Offense, defense, get my team off to a good start. I feel like I did that."
There wasn't all that much resistance from the Hawks, who simply didn't look ready to go for the early 1:00 p.m. tip, but the Blazers made life that much more difficult by shooting the ball well, especially from the perimeter. The result of the energy advantage and the prime shooting was the best all-around performance, easily, that Portland has displayed over the last two Summer Leagues. The Blazers built a double-digit lead quickly, led by as many as 24 points, and never looked back in the second half. They led from wire-to-wire.
"Everybody was hitting," Barton said. "CJ was hitting, I was hitting, [Robinson] was making plays. Meyers [Leonard] did some things, Rodney Carney came off the bench and gave us good energy. It was fun to play, everybody had smiles on their faces. It was just a good feeling. ... We dominated this game from the beginning. We controlled it, never had any real threat or real worry."
Indeed, the biggest worry for Barton was how to add a little spice to his open-court highlights. In the Summer League version of a Jamal Crawford to Blake Griffin alley-oop, Barton went through his own legs in mid-air before teeing up Robinson with a lob pass that ended in a strong slam. This was in the second quarter, mind you, and yet Barton's general precociousness and the Hawks' wimpy effort combined to make the play seem harmless from a sportsmanship standpoint.
"That's what we do, baby," Robinson told Blazersedge, even though I am no one's baby. "[Barton] always tells me, if I work for the play he's going to give it back. You know him, he's a little crazy. You knew he was going to do something wild. I just had to go up and get it."
There's a Deion Sanders vibe when Barton hits daylight in transition, and he draws the crowd to its feet early unlike anyone else on Portland's roster. The theory of Barton in Summer League had, prior to Tuesday, been better than the reality, but that changed for good with his audacious toss to Robinson, a play that combined tight mechanics and a total lack of fear at the possible negative repercussions should something have gone awry. Finally, the guy who has been labeled as the ultimate pick-up player brought down the house in the closest the NBA gets to a pick-up like environment.
"Getting out and wanting to have fun," Barton said of his play. "[Robinson] worked hard, he got the steal and I got ahead of him. I'm not going to lay it up. He's working hard, let me reward my big man for running hard and playing defense. ... I'm the Thrill. I told y'all. That defines me. I've got to live up to it."
Leonard enjoyed the sequence enough to watch a replay on the arena's new videoboard. "Thrill makes plays," he nodded in affirmation.
Robinson's dunk and Leonard's own dunk were only part of the onslaught. Barton also stole an inbounds pass as Schroder bent down to tie his shoe, tossing in a ridiculous reverse lay-up to complete the cheeky sequence. Video of the play shows one observer on the Hawks bench face-palming, almost in slow motion, after the ball went in, a fitting reaction to the entire afternoon. Later, after a series of Blazers baskets, Robinson helpfully gestured for timeout on behalf of the Hawks, because they surely needed it.
During the Terry Stotts Era, Portland has broken far more backs with its three-point shooting than with its above-the-rim acrobatics, and a night of excellent marksmanship from McCollum kept the Hawks from anything resembling a comeback. The second-year guard nailed six of his nine three-point attempts -- he never made more than three in a game during his rookie season -- and he did it all quite easily.
"[The coaches] don't worry about me making shots and I don't either," McCollum said. "Obviously you [media] guys want to see it. I was glad I was able to show you guys I could still make shots."
It's possible to appreciate his even-keel nature while also believing that it was about time he put together a signature night. I noted recently that McCollum and Leonard were the two players I was most keen on watching this summer, and here was McCollum delivering what he was drafted to deliver.
McCollum told reporters that he recently reviewed some tape of his shooting motion to check on his mechanics, concluding that he needed to do a better job of keeping his legs underneath him. Assistant coach Nate Tibbetts said the real key to McCollum's success Tuesday was his efficient decision-making. When he was open beyond the arc, McCollum hauled in the pass and trusted his shot without hesitation. In isolation situations, he got straight to the point or he moved the ball.
"What you're seeing from CJ is less dribbles," Tibbetts told Blazersedge. "Catch-and-shoot. Straight line drives. He did everything. The one thing he's doing a really good job of is passing the ball ahead and trying to play the right way. He did that today."
After a loss-heavy 2013 Summer League, Portland now enters the tournament stage of this year's event as the No. 6 overall seed, thereby earning a bye on Wednesday. The Blazers will rest until Thursday, when they face the winner of a game between the Hawks and the Golden State Warriors.
Whether or not they make a run in the tournament, the Blazers left Tuesday satisfied with what McCollum called their best overall play during either of the last two summers.
"We got stops early and were able to run out once we secured the rebound," he said. "That's when we're playing our finest basketball, when we're in transition, making highlight lobs for dunks, Will can go through his legs to T. Rob for SportsCenter's Top 10 plays. That's how we enjoy the game."
Random Game Notes
- Unfortunately, the good vibes from the game didn't totally carry over into Thomas Robinson's post-game media availability, which was disappointing. Robinson left the game with an apparent hand injury and did not return. It was clear afterwards that he had undergone testing on the undisclosed injury. Afterwards, Robinson was asked directly on multiple occasions whether he was injured and he replied multiple times that he was "fine" and. He also said: "Everything is good right now."
- Robinson initially indicated that he would be receiving some sort of follow-up examination on Wednesday morning, but later dodged another question about whether he would receive further testing. Although he wasn't wearing any sort of protection on his hand, he seemed less than forthcoming throughout the interview, which I think contributed to the number of follow-up questions he was asked. Blazers coach Nate Tibbetts, meanwhile, said he was unaware of the specifics of the injury.
- Very shortly thereafter, it became clear that something more serious was up, as Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reported that Robinson was going to be out for the rest of Summer League. Within a few hours, the Blazers confirmed that Robinson tore a ligament in his right thumb and that he will not play during the balance of Summer League. What's more, such an injury can often require surgery.
- It is in no one's best interest for misinformation about a player's health to spread, and in this case Robinson was the guilty party by indicating repeatedly that he was not injured while also being evasive in discussing his treatment plan. Yes, I realize it's Summer League so this isn't the end of the world, but things shouldn't be this complicated and murky, especially when the eventual diagnosis was fairly serious.
- Speaking of injuries, Meyers Leonard returned from missing the first two games with a shoulder strain, finishing with seven points (on 3-for-6 shooting), zero rebounds and seven fouls. The highlight of his night was a three-pointer. The lowlight of his night was fouling the referee on the opening tip and then getting called for two fouls (make-up calls?!) on Portland's first defensive possession. Seeing how Portland as a whole responded after a poor Game 1 is good reason to give Leonard a few more chances to show what he can do here.
- Leonard said he feels more at home playing team defense, despite his foul trouble: "The calls have been coming easier. Understanding how far back, how far forward, how far laterally I should be. Squaring up the guard, guarding the point guard for about two seconds and then getting back. I'm feeling much more comfortable in those situations. That's what they want from me: defense and rebounding."
- McCollum on Portland's energy advantage: "These one o'clock games are tough."
- McCollum jokingly called out Haynes and Dwight Jaynes for making some comments recently that the Blazers' younger players had regressed: "Where you at Haynes? He said we were on a downfall, regressing. We had a long June. We had a long June. We're focused on defense. On offense, we have that talent and ability. Chris Haynes. What's the other guy's name. Dwight Jaynes? Jaynes and Haynes, whatever their names are."
- By that point, Haynes had already regressed his way out of the gym for a late lunch, or maybe he was getting ready to posterize some hopeless saps during Tuesday night's media basketball game.
- McCollum was asked about the upcoming minutes battle that could take place in Portland's backcourt: "I'm just focused on myself right now. I don't worry about what other guys are doing. I just have to put myself in the best position to be in shape. It's going to be up to the coaches, we have to put them in a position to make it tough."
- Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune with a nice feature on McCollum.
- Barton on the Blazers' improvement this week: "We've gotten better every game. We've put more and more stuff together. Our defense has been good from the start, it's been better every game. Offense, I feel like we're starting to sync. Everybody is starting to know their role. Everyone is feeding off each other, and we looked pretty good out there for most of the game."
- Barton on his shoe-tying steal: "I saw him tying his shoe. I initially was like, 'He's not going to throw this?' I went back, and I was like, 'He's really about to throw it!' Then I was like, 'I might as well go get it.'"
- Here's video of Barton's steal and lay-up finish. Look for the reaction from the guy in the white shirt on the Hawks' bench. Classic!
- Barton said he's not wearing a headband right now as a tribute to Penny Hardaway: "I've been watching a lot of his film, he's a big guard, I want to work on my point guard skills. I'm a tall guy, I have that lanky frame. I wanted to wear the armband for him. Just a tribute to him. You'll see the headband again."
- Here are the game highlights.
Nate Tibbetts' Post-Game Comments
I thought our defensive pressure in the first half was really good. We set the tone. We caused some turnovers, we got out on the break, and we made some decisions in transition.
Jelling as a team
We've got six guys who have played together. It's good having Meyers [Leonard] back to help our rotation. We've got to continue to do things the right way. It helped today that we made some shots. CJ [McCollum] got hot today in the first half. Will [Barton] got out on the break. I think we're playing better and our guys are really trying to do what we ask. That's what's important.
I thought the first quarter he started a little bit slow. He had a really good camp, then he hurt his shoulder, and he hasn't done anything live action, only a little bit yesterday, 2-on-2. I thought after the first quarter, that's when he played his best basketball.
Will Barton's early impact
Will brings a lot of energy, he made some good decisions, he maybe turned it over a little too much. That's just him trying to create for others. He set the tone today.
We shared it better, and when he's open, he has the ability to make shots. He got into that zone in the third quarter, he took what the defense gave him. he had some really good looks and he knocked them down.
I'm not sure what happened. He did something to his hand or thumb. I'm sure we'll get all the tests taken care of but I haven't heard.
Calling late timeouts to win the fourth quarter for the standings
I told [assistant coach] David [Vanterpool] I was going to get booed in the fourth quarter, for sure on the first timeout and the second one. It's like the old CBA, you're trying to win quarters. Give our guys credit. They came in during the fourth quarter, haven't played much at all because we are trying to play our guys. As you can see, after we made that shot, we were excited. We wanted to make that shot and win the quarter because the third quarter got away from us.
We're getting better. Defensively I thought we were really good in the first half. In the third quarter, we got up 21 or 22 and maybe relaxed a little bit. Defense is a big focus for these guys. When it comes to the regular season, we have a lot of guys who take big shots and do stuff for us offensively. We need guys that are going to work hard and do it right every possession.
Will Barton's showtime highlights
That's just Will. He brings excitement to the game, a flair. That's who he is. You've got to let him be.
CJ McCollum's well-rounded offensive game
What you're seeing from CJ is less dribbles. Catch-and-shoot. Straight line drives. He did everything. The one thing he's doing a really good job of is passing the ball ahead and trying to play the right way. He did that today.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter