Patty Mills was on the court during the final minutes, which says everything one might want to know about the the competition Monday night. Still, fans wanted two things: free Chalupas and for Mills to score his first points at the Rose Garden.
In the waning seconds Rudy Fernandez hit Mills in the corner, but Mills, perhaps a bit jittery in his home debut, found himself about two-feet out of bounds when he caught the ball. It wasn't as if his heel was on the line--Mills was practically on the Bobcat bench.
Afterwards I asked Mills about the play. He was predictably sheepish, saying that he didn't really know what happened. He said that his Blazer teammates busted his chops about being so far out of bounds, but added that "it's all in good fun."
So no shot and no Chalupa (a blessing in disguise). It was about as dramatic as Monday's 98-79 victory would get.
Which is to say there was no drama. And that's just fine.
Over the last two weeks, the Blazers have teetered on the brink of catastrophe and brilliance in just about every game. They have almost no nails left to bite. As such, grabbing an easy win for the first time since Jan. 15, was an especially welcome relief. It took a little prodding to get Nate McMillan to say so, but he eventually came clean:
Really, the Blazers beat the Bobcats in just about every way. Portland topped Charlotte in rebounding (28 to 25), field goal percentage (52.5% to 43.1%), three point percentage (37.5% to 30%), fast break points (12 to four) assists and attempts. The Bobcats led in only free throws and forced turnovers (but only by one).
Larry Brown was quick to praise the Blazers and their bench in particular. (He was talking pretty quietly, so the audio may not come through. He said: "Their bench was great: Batum, Cunningham, Fernandez, and Blake, their bench was so good. I think their starters did a good job but their bench was far superior. I think they really determined the game.")
Portland jumped out to a quick lead, finishing the first quarter up 29-19. LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 17 on eight of 12 from the field, said that Saturday's wild win helped provide the Blazers some motivation tonight--that and they wanted badly to erase a two-game losing streak at the Rose Garden.
Every Blazer who got significant minutes Monday answered the call with a solid contribution. No one in Black, Red and Silver played a bad game.
After scoring 52 on Saturday, Andre Miller was content distributing the ball. He finished with 10 assists, and helped the Blazers push the tempo, at times even off made baskets. During one second quarter sequence he lofted a perfect pass to LaMarcus Aldridge, who beat the Bobcat defenders back (Aldridge missed, but Dante Cunningham was there to tip-in the miss). On the following play Miller did it again, this time to a streaking Nicolas Batum who was able to finish.
Dante Cunningham played his best game yet as a Blazer, setting new career highs in points (10) and minutes (30). His mid-range jumper is solid, and figures only to get better with time. As he gets the defensive schemes arranged better in his head, Cunningham should continue to get more minutes and more buckets as the season progresses. (Anyone doubt that he'll finish the season with a career high of more than 10?)
And, as is quickly becoming the new norm in Portland, Batum was fantastic. Each game he's flashing star-type potential. Monday Batum was everywhere--inside, out, in the lanes, bringing the ball up on the break, disrupting opposing player's shots and passes and pulling down rebound after rebound. While doing yeoman's work keeping the lid on Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, Batum scored 15 points and grabbed nine boards. Asked afterwards if he was surprised about his returning with such aplomb, Batum admitted he was. That said, the humble rookie is gone--again Batum's admission. I asked about how much his off-season in France contributed to the striking jump in his offensive play. (The video begins with a closeup of Batum's shoes, which say “Frenchy88” across the strap.)
While there is no denying Batum is quickly becoming an absolute stud, I hope it doesn't come at the expense of Martell Webster losing his consistency or confidence. Batum saw more minutes than Webster tonight—as perhaps he should have—and got all the important time down the stretch. At one point, with the win assured, Webster could be seen gnawing heavily on his fingernails. It seems the immediate emergence and exponential growth of Batum caught Webster—like the rest of us—totally by surprise. The only difference is, Batum isn't going to take our jobs.
Unsurprisingly, members of the media asked coach McMillan after the game if he was considering Batum for a role in the starting lineup. Smiling, McMillan said Batum is doing fine where he is--sort of a dodge. But strangely enough, after all these injury issues, not having enough guys to dress, the Blazers could be headed towards controversy over minutes. It's a good problem to have, I suppose, but with the inconsistent Webster, a delicate one.
So maybe there was a little drama Monday after all...
Since his return, Batum is shooting 64% from the field. That is insane. Kendrick Perkins leads the NBA with a 63% average, and he never shoots from more than two feet from the rim.