Practice Thoughts & Observations (Saturday, Oct. 6)

Reporting for Tualatin, Ore. or as I’d like to call it ‘Comedy Central.’

Today, I learned that Coach Terry Stotts got jokes. Before coming here, I asked around to several NBA beat reporters “what’s Terry Stotts like?” Got the same response: He’s a good guy. I can see that now. In my limited dealings with him since taking the job, he’s been courteous and taken time to answer questions with complete sentences consisting of nouns and verbs (which is all I could really care about, to be honest). Today at practice, there were only a few of us media folks, no cameras. In the previous days,’s Chris Haynes has been on top of rookie Will Barton’s injury (sore right groin) that has caused him to miss four days of practice. So when Stotts walks over for us to jam digital recorders up to his chin, he surveys the crew and before anyone could get out the first question, he looks at Haynes and calmly announces: “Uh, Will did not practice.”

Rim shot! …. canned five-second laughter from the gallery
He’ll be here all week, folks! Try the veal.

Okay, so let’s get into some observations.

Practice No. 8 in the books, No. 9 coming up The Trail Blazers returned to the practice facility this morning for 10 a.m. session, which lasted just a shade over two hours. They’ll go again later today – I’m thinking with the first preseason game on Wednesday, this will be the team’s last two-a-day of training camp – and Stotts said it’ll be a “no contact” affair.

Scrimmage So, this is how it works when you’re a credentialed member of the media covering the team. In the morning, you’ll get a text message from a Blazers PR staffer. The message will tell you what time practice starts and when media availability begins. Reporters will then head to 7325 SW Childs Road in Tualatin and posse up inside a little waiting room off the side of the practice floor. There’s a door leading to that floor but it remains locked, and the one window is shielded by blinds on the other side of the glass. So, we sit and wait and listen to what allegedly are the sounds of practice. I can’t confirm if those are the actual Blazers or just a tape recording of men grunting that they put next to the door. There’s no way of me knowing because we don’t see a thing… until (!) the Blazers PR opens that magical door. Trust me, I’m not complaining. I just would like to let you all get an inside look at what’s going on with your team. So understand that’s why practice reports may seem redundant or blah from time to time.

The last few days, once the door has opened, we’ve only witnessed the team stretching or shooting threes and free throws. But today, the door opened and lo and behold, we caught the end of a black team vs white team scrimmage. Black: Damian Lillard, Nolan Smith, Adam Morrison, Luke Babbitt (at the four) and LaMarcus Aldridge. White: Ronnie Price, Demonte Harper, Sasha Pavlovic, Jared Jeffries, and Meyers Leonard. The scrimmage was just about over but I caught Leonard drilling a mid range J, Lillard making a bounce entry pass to Aldridge who was posting up on the left block (he kicked the ball back out) and two Nolan Smith free throws. Jeffries put an end to everything, scoring the 21st point with an emphatic dunk. Pavlovic was sticking him on D and Jeffries made a quick and simple spin move to his right to attack the rim and throw down a two-handed slam. No one was under the rim, and Pavlovic made one of those “where’s the help?” gestures toward a teammate. You know, the kind of shrug that NBA players tend to make when they get beat. Jeffries yelled and pulled himself up over the rim. No technical called. The three refs in shorts seemed more than happy to scoot off the court and head out on this beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Preseason expectations Players and coaches don’t always think alike. Stotts and the coaching staff aren’t exactly concerned with getting a W next Wednesday in Ontario, Calif. against the Lakers
“You always like to win but that’s not the prioritiy. You want to win, you want to be competitive. You want to be in position to win a game, always. But getting guys on the court and getting better and teaching through mistakes, all those things, at this stage, are more important. I’m more concerned about how we’re playing and how we need to get better right now.”

But Wesley Matthews comes from a different mindset. His one and only goal for Wednesday?

“Win,” he said succinctly.
Even if it’s a meaningless preseason game?

“Still win,” Matthews repeated. He then pointed at the dry erase board located on the far end of the practice court. It read 7-1, marking the number of victories (7) that Matthews’ black squad had won that morning. It may be a Saturday morning scrimmage, or even a preseason game in Ontario, and winning still matters.

For Whom the Bell Tolls You might have heard about the new bell hanging on the side of the wall at the practice gym. Near the end of practice, players go around the world on five spots beyond the arc. If they make 20 of 25 3-pointers, they get to ring the bell. Through many instances on my digital recordings, I can hear that ding ding! interrupting an interview. But today, the bell was ringing during scrimmages.

“When you heard the bell,” Stotts said, “that was for a charge. We got to get the defensive bell.”

This training camp, Luke Babbitt and Matthews are leading the bell rings. Makes sense because they’re both good shooters, plus they’re the hustle men doing the little things that coaches like to see. More on Luke, The Oregonian’s Mike Tokito started a line of questioning to Stotts about the 6-9, 225-pound Babbitt playing a ‘stretch-4’ role this season. A power forward that does not necessarily have a back-to-the-basket game can open up the floor, allowing Lillard to penetrate and L.A. to go to work inside without a double team barreling down on him. It’s a role that Babbitt and even Matthews approve.

Babbitt: “I like it. I’m getting a lot of good looks.”

On facing traditional big-man lineups like season-opening opponent Lakers: “When you’re playing bigs like that, it’s hard for them to get out and guard smaller guys. You have the advantage offensively when you can spread them out. The one thing the Lakers want to do is pack it in tight… sometimes it’s good to spread them out.”

Matthews: “He’s a problem out there because he’s not your typical four man. He can stretch the defense out, he can shoot the ball deep. He can drive it. He can make plays out there. He’s not a bad (fit) at the four spot.”

To prove his point, Matthews brought up the lineup the Miami Heat played during the playoffs to great success with LeBron occasionally dropping down to the four.

“His offense will have to be on that night,” Matthews said, predicting what Babbitt would have to do against the Lakers. “We’ll take threes over twos any day. Pau Gasol goes in and gets a two, Luke steps out and hits a three. It’s going to be who bends first as far as switching their lineups.”

Injuries Although Barton missed practice again, he was shooting baseline Js at the end of the session. He’s got that little strange release to his jump shot (it looks like he jumps, but releases on his descent) so that action obviously does not bother a groin injury. Also, Coby Karl (knee), George’s boy, missed practice.

Per Stotts, Karl practiced a bit on Friday but bruised his knee and had to sit out the rest of the session. For a 29-year-old NBA journeyman who was invited to camp at the last minute, this injury sure doesn’t help out Karl’s chances of making the roster. Plus, there’s the reality of being the 18th man in a camp where 15 guys already have contracts. Just makes his ordeal more difficult than Liam Neeson’s in “Taken 2.” Which by the way, if Liam has another “… a very particular set of skills” monologue in this movie, then yes, please. I will see this flick for that alone.

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