But with the Blazers reeling from a season-high four-game losing streak, and with star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge out with a bruised back, the team needed to rely on lesser-known players on Friday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
What they received was a masterful performance from small forward Nicolas Batum, who helped lead Portland to victory with 22 points, 18 rebounds and five assists.
While Batum's stat line may be surprising to the casual viewer, there is no doubt he has displayed the ability to pick up the slack when Aldridge is out of the lineup.
Per NBA.com (subscription required), Batum has averaged an impressive 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes without Aldridge, compared to 6.8 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks with Aldridge on the court.
Batum may not be an elite scorer, but this Blazers team didn't need scoring. They needed someone to crash the glass and help center Robin Lopez anchor the defense in the absence of their All-Star big man. Thanks to the gritty play of Batum—and several of his less-heralded teammates—Portland was able to stop the bleeding, at least for one night.
A Rally and a Team Effort
The Blazers seemed to be a group looking for answers following Wednesday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs. They were humbled by a Spurs team that had evened the season series by taking two games from Portland in the span of a month after the Blazers had beaten them twice in the first half.
The losses were symptomatic of a team that was struggling now that the league's elite knew not to take it for granted. The Blazers could no longer sneak up on team's like San Antonio, and they were paying the price in the loss column.
Even worse, they had lost Aldridge to a nasty fall and would lose their top scorer for at least a few games.
I would say it’s the most adversity we’ve had to go against as a team. We lose in L.A., Mo [Williams] being out tonight, four losses in a row for the first time, it’s a really tough stretch...Playing against good teams, closing in on the Playoffs, it’s the end of the season. Teams are fighting for their playoff lives. We’re getting everybody’s best shot, and we’re in a tough stretch. That makes everything harder.
Lillard then called a players-only meeting, according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes (h/t Ben Golliver of Blazer's Edge): "Earl Watson, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright were amongst some of the players to vocally address what was going on and what needed to change from here on out, we’re told."
Portland could not count on Aldridge for Friday's game. And the rest of the club did not respond well initially, falling behind by two at the half to the sub-.500 Pelicans.
With the score tied going into the fourth quarter, Portland needed a team effort to claim victory. The Blazers needed Lillard, their lone remaining All-Star to have a vintage Lillard performance down the stretch. And the point guard delivered, scoring 16 of his team-high 27 points in the final frame.
But a point guard like Lillard cannot handle all of the crunch-time responsibilities of a big man like Aldridge, and that was where Batum came in. The lanky forward grabbed nine rebounds in the fourth quarter, as Portland maintained a 15-10 rebounding edge over New Orleans in the period.
Lillard and Batum were not the only players to step up for Portland. Dorell Wright, starting in the place of Aldridge, tied a season high with 15 points, while Lopez also matched his season high by chipping in 19.
This was an "all hands on deck" type of game for the Blazers, and the players did what they had to do to claim a hard-fought 111-103 win.
Not Out of the Woods Yet
Of course, Portland should beat a team like New Orleans, even without Aldridge. The fact that this team struggled so mightily to put away such a mediocre team does not bode well for the Blazers' chances in their next matchup: Sunday, against the Golden State Warriors.
That is a crucial game, as Golden State is currently one spot behind the Blazers in the Western Conference standings. Portland might not have Aldridge back by then.
Once they get their power forward back in the fold, the Blazers must fix their suddenly suspect offense. They spent much of the year with the league's most efficient scoring attack, but they have begun to struggle over the past few weeks.
Since Jan. 26—a span of 22 games—the Blazers have scored an average of 104.0 points per 100 possessions. Far from leading the league, that number places them a paltry 17th.
For a team that has always struggled to defend—Portland rates only 19th in defensive efficiency this season—this recent stretch of shoddy offensive execution has turned the once-mighty Blazers into a thoroughly mediocre group.
If the Portland Trail Blazers want to make some noise in the playoffs, they're going to have to remember how to score as they did to start the season.
*All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats.
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