In L.A. the Blazers started slow. They came close to recovering at one point before fading. Tonight against the Spurs they again started slowly, shooting in the low to mid 30s throughout the first quarter.
But on this night they would not fade away. With contributions across the board, Portland led most of the way while gradually improving their shooting percentage. It all began with their post game.
They started well, going to LaMarcus Aldridge inside against Kurt Thomas. It took Aldridge just one possession to get a feel for what he wanted to do. Throughout the night the Spurs would send a variety of defenders against him, from Thomas to Tim Duncan to Ime Udoka. It would be to no avail.
Aldridge showed the range of his game. He got assists on fast breaks. He scored facing up to his defender. He scored with mid-range jumpers. He even drained a corner three, draining one of his two attempts. But the most impressive move of the night came when he backed down Duncan and, as a second Spur came to defend, gave a move reminiscent of the great Hakeem Olajuwon's Dreamshake that had the fans standing and screaming.
Meanwhile, he was also a difference maker defensively. Twice in the first 3 minutes and nine seconds he blocked Tony Parker, once on a lay-up and once on a jumper. Though those would be the only two blocks he was credited with, he had set the tone. San Antonio would not drive at will.
Brandon Roy also had his fan-pleasing moments. He started slow, but once he hit his groove he was money. He also showed the breadth of his game. Ace defender Bruce Bowen was no match. Above average defender Ime Udoka got lit up. And time and again Roy posted up Roger Mason and time and again made him look foolish. And he hit a trey with less than a second left in the first half to give Portland a nice 51-45 half time lead.
Roy scored inside and outside, from mid-range, off the drive, and on stop and pops. He distributed the ball. He tipped balls on defense. He did all the things that make him special.
With their leaders showing the way, the Blazer role players stepped up. Channing Frye had an electrifying dunk where he shook Duncan at the top of the key, drove by a falling-down Duncan for the emphatic throw down. He also played some rugged defense, a nice switch for a guy sometimes criticized as soft.
Outlaw struggled from the field but was everywhere on defense. He tipped a lot of passes, picked off three steals, had a spectacular block and altered numerous others. He looked lost at times on offense, but that is to be expected with his changing role.
Rudy Fernandez had a weak stat line as he scored just 6 points on 1 of 5 shooting but as will be usual for him, he contributed in other ways. For example, in the first half he had 7 rebounds. He also made sure the ball was moving when and where it needed to move to.
At one point in the first half when Outlaw was holding the ball, Fernandez started directing him, got the ball moving and the Blazers ended up scoring on that possession and going on a little run. These are the types of moments that matter for this Blazer team. Outlaw is a valuable player for the Blazers but sometimes does get a little lost. Having players like Roy and Fernandez who are "coaches on the floor" should keep them from completely stalling as they sometimes did last year.
But the real unexpected contribution came from a guy who was not expected to get any time at all for this Blazers team. Nicolas Batum was a difference maker in this game. His stat line is pedestrian...12 points on 5-9 shooting, just 1 rebound, 1 assist, one steal, 1 turnover...but 2 blocks. And that is where he really made the difference, on defense.
Batum guarded almost the entire Spur line-up. He slowed down a Michael Finley who turned back the clock to when he was a 28 year old stud. Batum guarded Tim Duncan briefly. He guarded a red-hot Roger Mason. Most telling, at key points in the game he even guarded lightning quick Tony Parker.
Parker scorched the Blazers all night. He made Steve Blake look positively foolish several times. Not that there is any shame in that...Parker can make some pretty good defensive players look foolish.
So it was revealing indeed of how far Batum's stock has risen when he was put man on man on Parker with 3 minutes left in a 1 possession game. And when he was on the floor for that purpose with less than a minute left.
Batum did not lock him down, per se, but he did make Parker's life more difficult. He showed his athleticism and versatility. On one drive, Parker eluded him and drove into the teeth of the defense. Batum recovered so quickly that he was one of three defenders who surrounded Parker. When Parker kicked the ball back to the center Batum was there to force a second pass. This pass went to the corner for a trey. Batum somehow got there in time to contest the shot. In about 4 seconds he made as many changes of direction and single-handed forced the Spurs to take a contested three. Parker beat him a couple other times, but not as often nor as badly as he was beating Blake.
Batum was spectacular all night. His block of a Duncan dunk attempt was awesome. His tip of a pass which he recovered led to his redirecting 2 Spur defenders and converting a 1 on 2 fast break with ease. He tipped balls, he forced tough passes and shots, he redirected the Spurs offense.
It was a clinic. It was the type of performance the Blazers need with Martell Webster out until January. Suddenly the Small Forward spot looks a whole lot better.
This game was what Portland needed. Had Finley made the final shot, it would have hurt badly. Portland got big numbers from their stars...Roy had 26, Aldridge 23 including a clutch deuce from just inside the three point line with 34 seconds left for Portland's final points of the night.
They also got scoring from the supporting cast. Outlaw hit for 11, Batum for 12, Frye for 10. They rebounded well, piling up a 37-31 advantage and picked off 11 balls to only 1 for the Spurs. It was a close game because the Spurs got great shooting...56% from the field as a whole and from the 3-point line...and 14-15 from the line.
The Blazers finally got the Spurs monkey off their back. They found a reliable defender in Batum. They got Aldridge and Roy back on track, survived bad shooting nights from Outlaw and Fernandez, and showed they can play with the Spurs.
The biggest disappointment of the night however has to do with Batum. He is a budding star for Portland and as such needs a nickname.
Greg Oden is "G.O."
LaMarcus Aldridge is "L.A."
Okay, those are so-so. But then you get:
Brandon Roy with both "B-roy" and "The Natural."
Joel Przybilla with "The Thrilla" and "The Vanilla Gorilla".
Travis Outlaw is either "T.O." or "Trout".
So Batum should have a name. "Batum-shaka-laka" is gaining steam as a play off of Brian Wheeler's signature call, and it works. "Boom Boom Batum" also works to an extent. It is alliterative, it rhymes, and alludes to his surprisingly good range and tendency to provide the spectacular.
However, with his being French and wearing 88, it just feels wrong to not reference the classic German flak gun that rained bombs on Paris back in the Great War. So we will keep working on that. Under the radar local stars need great nick-names. Still working on it for Batum.
Meanwhile, it was a great win for Portland and has them right where they need to be after 2 games: 1-1 and looking for more.