Blazing Babbles: The day after, D-League assignments and Damian, Damian, Damian
The Trail Blazers are taking a break today. No practice, but according to the postgame note scribbled on the team’s dry-erase board, players received treatment at the training facility at 11 a.m.
Since there’s no need for me to make the drive to Tualatin today, I decided to empty my notebook from last night’s Blazer 98-90 win over the Spurs. Plus, it’ll force me keep the television off. Much rather listen to this today…
My sincere condolences go out to victims of the Connecticut elementary school tragedy, as well as those from the our own Clackamas Mall shooting.
There’s no good way to transition this back into a basketball blog, and I won’t try to force one. So, let’s just start right here.
Damian Lillard scoffs at your pressure
That rookie. I’m still trying to figure him out. Can he really be this unconcerned about the spotlight? This unflappable to pressure? This good? Well, after 22 games, the simple answer is “yes.” I’ve observed Lillard on the court, while sitting on the bench, after team practices, even in the locker room after games when he’s taking his good, sweet time getting dressed while a crush of reporters inch closer to his stall (seriously, the kid takes the longest of any Blazer to put on his clothes and won’t talk until he has fastened in his last diamond stud earring) and I come away with the same impression: Lillard is always in control. Can’t shake the guy. He doesn’t move when you want him to. Lillard remains as the captain of his own ship.
And it is in his steady and calm hand that the future of the Blazers franchise should rest. Last night’s performance against the Spurs proved as much. The Spurs have shaken that clamp-down defensive persona for a more offensive identity, but they’re the second best team in the Western Conference for a reason. And for Lillard to go for 29 points against coach Gregg Popovich’s aggressive tactics and still shoot 50 percent, shows the leaps and bounds this rookie is making in a matter of weeks.
Lillard scored when necessary – he stayed aggressive when the Spurs cut the lead 91-88 near the final two minutes, and rammed inside for a layup to prop up a five-point lead.
He gave up the ball – Lillard finished with six assists, including half of that total in the second quarter when he returned to the court after picking up two early fouls.
Lillard even coached a bit – late in the third quarter, when Meyers Leonard grabbed a defensive rebound but couldn’t walk the tight rope of the baseline and stepped out of bounds, Lillard walked up to Leonard. Judging by his gestures, Lillard must have been demonstrating to Leonard how to balance himself while securing a rebound near the baseline. Lillard wasn’t big timing his fellow rookie, but rather helping as a good teammate should. Leonard intently watched and listened and after the conversation, the Blazers got a big defensive stop.
To get a sense of the respect Lillard is gaining across the league, check out this quote from Popovich:
“We started to blitz him in the fourth quarter because we weren’t handling him very well,” Popovich said. “He was smart enough to get rid of it, get the first open man and play with his teammates. That’s a sign of an intelligent player.”
Spoken from the man who knows intelligent basketball. Again, I can’t say how big his performance was in this game … against this team … on that platform. But ask Lillard about it, he gives the verbal equivalent to a yawn wrapped in a shrug topped with a “McKayla is not impressed” impersonation.
“I didn’t even think about it that way. I just wanted to come out and try to help the team win the game and focus on what I need to do to make that happen,” Lillard said about playing on the “NBA on TNT” nationwide stage. “Our whole team knew that we needed this win, we went out and got it done.”
Understated, for sure.
Lillard may be a dry quote when the cameras are on, but I believe he’s honest. And to be fair, I’ve seen enough personality out of him – away from the pack of us reporters – to know he’s got a lighter side beneath that too-cool-for-school force field. Good thing for the Blazers, the only side he shows on the court is the one that counts. Leadership and confidence.
More on Meyers
Leonard’s guffaw in the third quarter does not denigrate his game on Thursday. Looks like Leonard’s been working on his rebounding and against the Spurs, he pulled down 8 boards, the second most on the team.
And before that third-quarter turnover, Leonard found himself in a similar position but made an intelligent play that showed great basketball instincts. Lillard missed a long jumper and Leonard worked himself under the offensive glass for good position. Leonard grabbed the rebound but lost his footing and fell to the floor. A couple things could have gone wrong. However, instead of rolling there and possibly committing a travel or making a panicked decision to throw a wild pass, Leonard quickly called for timeout. Leonard saved the possession and after the huddle, Luke Babbitt knocked down an 18-footer to give the Blazers the 63-59 lead.
Plays like this buoyed the Blazers every time the Spurs tried to make a run.
Batum’s back… and his back still hurts
Happy birthday to Nicolas Batum who turns 24 today. But I get a sense that today will be less about popping bottles for him, and rather resting up. Oh, to be young!
Batum played 38 tough minutes last night while recovering from a sore back. Batum didn’t look like a man who needs a heat pad today; he had one of his patented chase down blocks and threw a little conniption – bending at his back to slam the ball – when he was called for a foul after he thought he cleanly swatted Tony Parker’s shot. But, Batum was hurting. Just had to look harder to see it, like when he opted to rest on the floor instead of the bench whenever he came out.
“Pretty sore,” Batum said after the game. “Second half was tight. First half was okay.”
“I still wasn’t 100 percent. When we started the second half, I was like ‘oh, no, I can’t.’ But I have to play through it. We really needed this game.”
Batum also described the last five minutes of the game as being “tough on me,” but it was in that stretch when he nailed his only 3-pointer of the game. A clutch shot that closed the door on the Spurs.
“I think he was 0 for 5 at that point, and he comes off with the catch-and-shoot ont he three with somebody trailing him,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “They scored points at the right time and they made shots at the right time. They did enough to keep us at bay.”
Batum finished with 11 points (4 for 11) and a team-high eight assists.
My first Popovich experience
Although I’ve been a reporter for 10 years, this is my first rodeo on the NBA beat. So here’s my journalistic equivalent to first-year player Will Barton leaving his feet darn there every time to pass the ball – what Sarah Hecht so eloquently refers to as a “rookieism:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does not suffer fools gladly – especially those fools with digital recorders in their hands. So, last night, I knew I had to have come up with something semi-thoughtful to ask him, or face the wrath of Pop. I noticed that the Spurs’ second team bus arrived to the Rose Garden at 6:06 p.m., only 84 minutes before scheduled tipoff. Figured maybe the team got caught in one of the notorious Portland traffic jams, and if they did, there’s a little nugget to possibly work into my notebook. But if you indulge me, I’d like to correct a fallacy from our youth. Remember when they used to tell us that there’s no such thing as a dumb question? That’s a lie. There are indeed dumb questions, and this… is a dumb question.
Me: “Just curious, Coach, were you guys caught in traffic coming over here?”
Popovich (without missing a beat): “Yeah, it was really – lights forever, ya know.”
Then, a pause and an “are you kidding me” expression painted Popovich’s face.
“Are we late? Am I going to get demerits?”
Laughter from the reporter gallery. I laughed, too.
Claver and Freeland headin’ to Idaho
Victor Claver started the last two games for the Blazers, made just two of 16 shots and grabbed five rebounds through 38 minutes on the floor.
From the Blazers’ starting lineup to the Idaho Stampede, Claver now returns for a second assignment in the D-League. Fellow international rookie Joel Freeland will also make the trip.
Claver spent last weekend with the Stampede and just this week, he told me that he did “not want to be there again.” However, it’s clear that his adjustment to the NBA will take time. He’s been stung on many layups, it’s like a lid is over the rim when he’s shooting. Before the consecutive starts, Claver had been inactive for nine straight games so some rust should be expected. That’s where the D-League comes in; he’ll have more than enough time on the floor to shake off cobwebs.
Long as Claver doesn’t view this as a demotion – which may be difficult for a player who has professional experience overseas – he may get something out of this trip to Boise.