“I don’t know how much you can learn from one game.”
That was Terry Stotts’ pregame response when asked what Damian Lillard would be able to learn from suiting up against Chris Paul. Blazers fans were eager to see how their newest franchise player compared against the league’s best point man, and in trying to rein in a little bit of the buzz, Stotts echoed the question that continues to be at the center of this season’s Blazers: how much can you learn from one game?
One of the more refreshing things about Stotts’ approach to this year—in my admittedly limited exposure to him— is his embrace of uncertainty. He doesn’t seem interested in fast or rigid decisions about what the team needs, or is able, to do. After the game, he told reporters “I don’t know if we have a formula for winning games yet.” And though, like any coach, Stotts has areas he wants to focus on come tipoff, he seems to eschew rigidity and embrace the idea of testing his roster’s capabilities, a quality that will serve him and the organization well if many contests resembles tonight’s loss to the Clippers
The final score reads 103-90, a solid if unspectacular win for the Clippers. But this was a contest in which the Blazers presented their fans’ worst nightmares of themselves for 24 minutes, cut their deficit to a few possessions, and then finally found themselves unable to make the crucial plays at the game’s inflection points. The first half saw a perimeter-oriented, top-heavy Portland squad fail to make up for their lack of bench scoring or ability to manufacture high percentage looks around the basket. The third quarter saw a young, fast team able to create looks in transition and cash in on their speed with momentum-changing long distance shots. Finally, in the fourth, the Blazers presented perhaps the truest form of themselves: a team currently lacking the cohesion or personnel to dig into half court offense and produce points when the opposition is similarly riding the clutch.
What will be remembered from this game is that third quarter run, which was spurred by Nicolas Batum’s defense on Chris Paul. With his limbs in the passing lanes, the Blazers ran out to runs of 26-8 and 18-4, highlighted by a deep Damian Lillard three and two emphatic Meyers Leonard alley-oops. But aside from that run, the Blazers continued their trend of allowing opposing offenses unsustainably high shooting percentages: the Clippers finished the night shooting 53.2% from the floor, which was an improvement of almost 7% from the first half.
So whither the discrepancy? After tonight, the simplest answer might be to hope Nic Batum can keep uncorking stretches of inspired two-way ingenuity. Though Lillard has lived up to and exceeded fans’ hopes at the league’s most fetishized position, Batum has been the team’s true fulcrum, rendering any skepticism of his contract (my own included) unfounded. At his best moments—the second half of tonight’s contest, the latter portion of Saturday’s victory over the Rockets—Batum is leveraging his speed and athleticism to bother ball-handlers, contest on the glass, and provide versatile finishing options on the secondary break. He has even, within the past few games, proven himself capable of delivering beautiful passes in the half court. So it seems that, as Batum runs, so will the offense, while the somewhat more specialized Aldridge and Lillard provide the rest of the engine.
The visitors, by contrast, seemed like a team whose only uncertainty seem to be their limitations. The Clippers tonight were deep and balanced, and it’s clear the team feels the effects of that balance. Asked post game about DeAndre Jordan’s monstrous play, Chris Paul quipped “That might be a fluke” as Jordan hollered “So much for team unity” and danced around in his compression shorts. Jamal Crawford, after taking responsibility for his role in last year’s woeful Blazers season, said of the Clippers: “This is the most comfortable I’ve felt since high school. I feel like I have a family.”
In the end, this was not a game that offered a panacea. The bench is still woefully thin. None of Chris Paul’s tricks osmosed into Damian Lillard through some kind of voodoo transference, and no sure-fire source of production seems closer to bearing fruit than it did yesterday. But Stotts doesn’t seem fazed by the lack of easy answers. After he played down the benefits of Lillard matching up on Paul, Stotts said something else that could extend to the rest of this youngish, semi-coherent roster: “I’m sure he’ll pick up a few things here and there, but then that’s called experience.”