So that’s it. The next one will count, which is to say it has a tangible impact on the possibility for the Trail Blazers to win the 2014 NBA Championship. The Blazers’ 90-74 win over the Golden State Warriors in Oakland’s Oracle Arena on Thursday only had a tangential impact on the possibility to win a championship, insomuch as it hopefully put the team in peak form to finish the preseason and transition to the regular season. Unfortunately though, Portland still could not get its expected regular season starting lineup on the floor together after guard Wesley Matthews experienced an irregular heartbeat at Wednesday’s practice, sidelining him for the time being. In his place, Coach Terry Stotts went with the more natural off-guard Will Barton over starting Mo Williams and Damian Lillard together. Maybe feeling the pressure of opportunity with opening day looming and the shooting guard slot open, Barton struggled with both his shooting on offense and his defense against the Warriors’ Klay Thompson, who scored 6 of his eventual 16 points in the first quarter. But more than a lack of production, Barton appeared to be playing more passively and conscious of himself, unlike his usual freewheeling and unpredictable style.
After trailing 48-41 at halftime, Portland opened the second half with Dorrell Wright in place of Barton, playing the 3 in a big lineup with Nicolas Batum sliding up to the 2. While most of the more intriguing lineups seen in the preseason have been various experiments in the realm of “smallball,” it was a refreshing change to see Stotts experiment in the other direction. Of course, it helped that it was a wild success. With 10:49 remaining in the third quarter, Marreese Speights scored for Golden State to take a 52-41 lead. From that point on though, the Warriors didn’t score again until 2:24 left in the quarter, allowing the Blazers to reel off a 22-0 run. Big third quarter runs have been something of a theme for the Blazers throughout the preseason, but normally they had been spearheaded by Damian Lillard completely demoralizing his point guard counterpart. The run on Thursday saw some more nice play from Lillard, who finished with a game-high 21 points, but it also featured a strong balance with contributions from Wright, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez – and 12 of the 22 points came at the free throw line. Aldridge would finish the game with 16 points and 12 rebounds, with Lopez adding 11 points and 7 rebounds, and Wright tacking on 7 points.
The most complete game of the night might have been turned in by the 5th starter, Nicolas Batum, who tallied 10 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal. When Batum takes criticism, which is not infrequent, it normally centers on his apparent propensity to disappear from games, despite allegedly being one of the stars of the team. But sometimes, he’s at his best when he’s not a shining star but a kind of black hole – not necessarily standing out with shining spectacles, yet the game just gravitating in his direction, allowing him to employ his varied skill-set with subtle but unrelenting effectiveness. Thursday was one of those kind of nights for Batum, who in addition to his high rebound numbers and ability to score when needed, also spent much of his time on the court—especially during the run in the second half—defending the Warriors star guard, Stephen Curry. Curry would finish the game 7-22 from the field and though he didn’t look sharp shooting the ball even when open, it’s hard to think that at least some of those struggles came from the harassing length and defensive focus applied by Batum.
So that’s it; we’re here, but where exactly is here? Lillard looks as solid as ever, with his scoring ability even deeper ingrained to go with his committed, and shown, improvement on defense. LaMarcus is LaMarcus, still filled with a bottomless supply of 17-footers and 21 and 8 nights. Batum still appears capable of disappearing into the game for both better and worse. Lopez is about what everyone expected, a big body who holds his own in the paint, attacks the glass with energy, but can’t score with any consistency. After that, though, it gets hazy. With Matthews out for now, Mo Williams has looked the better backcourt partner with Lillard, but Stotts seems wary of playing them together too much, possibly out of fear of being too undersized or maybe he feels Williams can be better served as a steadying playmaking hand with the second unit. Most alarming though is the development that Freeland appears to slated to be the backup center. Leonard didn’t play at all on Thursday until garbage time, with Freeland playing the lion’s share of the bench minutes at the 5 spot. What’s frightening there is that I feel like I’ve watched a lot of Joel Freeland and yet I still don’t even know what he does—like what is his purported specialty? I suppose he’s tall, he can get in the way of people, and he has a little jump shot that pokes its head out every now and again. I guess that I just wish that in all the lineup experimentation, Stotts had run a few more minutes with Thomas Robinson up front with Aldridge. No time left now though. Monday, it’s for real.