Batum may start for Blazers (with video)

TUALATIN, Ore. — With two games remaining before the NBA All-Star break, Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said he is considering making changes to his team’s starting lineup for tonight’s contest against the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder.

The primary alteration may be moving forward Nicolas Batum into the first unit.

If Batum gets the starting nod at small forward, Martell Webster will likely be transferred to shooting guard to fill in for injured All-Star Brandon Roy, while Jerryd Bayless would return to a reserve role.

“I’m just looking at this team and what we need,” said McMillan, following a Monday morning workout at the team’s practice facility.

Batum is averaging 9.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 58.8 percent (30 of 51) from the field and 47.4 percent (9 of 19) behind the 3-point line.

He has been one of the Blazers’ top players since being activated after missing the first 45 games of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

And the spark Batum brings on the offensive end, combined with his lockdown defensive abilities, has shown a young talent in full bloom during recent games.

However, McMillan has hesitated to make Batum a starter since he returned to the lineup, mainly because Roy’s expected activation would have forced two major rotation changes before the break.

But Roy, who is recovering from a strained hamstring, will be out at least until a Feb. 16 matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. Portland has not set an official timetable for his return.

Thus, the possibility of turning Batum into a starter has been given new life.

McMillan said he is contemplating making a lineup change because he does not want the Blazers (30-23) to slide downward as the team heads into the break.

Following a rough 99-82 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday, the Blazers have games against the Thunder and Phoenix remaining before a five-day vacation that centers around the Feb. 14 All-Star game in Arlington, Tex.

Portland will then face a steep climb as it attempts to gain entry to the Western Conference playoffs.

Post-break, the Blazers will have 27 games remaining on their regular-season schedule.

Portland currently sits in eighth place in the Western Conference standings, and just five and a half games separate No. 3 Utah from No. 11 Memphis.

In addition, the Blazers are ranked fourth out of five teams in the Northwest Division. Portland trails first-place Denver by five games, and is a half game behind Oklahoma City.

“The race is so tight right now, you can go from being in it to being out of it,” McMillan said. “Each game you try and get better. And we’ve been able to win some games that some (people) thought we wouldn’t have a chance. And then some of these games, we haven’t been able to finish. I think that’s kind of been where we are throughout this season.”

As for Batum, the second-year forward acknowledged he had recently spoken with McMillan about moving into the starting lineup.

“I just want to do what Nate asks me to do,” Batum said.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound French native started 76 games for Portland last season. He was slated to hold down the starting forward position this year prior to shoulder surgery.

Batum said he could be matched up against Durant, who is tied for second in the NBA in average scoring (29.7). The multitalented 21-year-old forward is averaging 7.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest, while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 88.1 percent from the free throw line.

Oklahoma City — formerly Seattle — chose Durant with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft after the Blazers selected center Greg Oden with the No.1 pick.

“Each year (Durant’s) getting better and more confident out on the floor,” McMillan said. “He has become an All-Star.”

Meanwhile, Batum hinted that he did not start during Portland’s loss to the Lakers because Kobe Bryant was held out of the lineup.

After an initial interview, McMillan was asked if the spark-filled change he was considering involved inserting Batum into the first unit.

McMillan smiled and replied: “I just think we need balanced scoring off the bench.”

Today’s Game
Thunder vs. Blazers, 7 p.m. at Rose Garden
TV: Comcast SportsNet Northwest (37), NBA TV
Radio: 95.5 FM
Probable Starters
Blazers (30-23)
Position/player Ht. Pts.
G Andre Miller 6-2 13.2
G Martell Webster 6-7 11.0
F Nicolas Batum 6-8 9.3
F LaMarcus Aldridge 6-11 17.1
C Juwan Howard 6-9 5.8
Coach: Nate McMillan (5th season, 178-203)
Thunder (29-21)
G Russell Westbrook 6-3 16.2
G Thabo Sefolosha 6-7 6.0
F Kevin Durant 6-9 29.7
F Jeff Green 6-9 14.4
C Nenad Krstic 7-0 8.1
Coach: Scott Brooks (2nd season, 51-67)

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