I’ve spent quite a bit of time around the team since I was hired back in 2007, so I can usually pick up on when someone is in a bad mood. It’s an important sense for someone in my position to learn quickly, as asking a question when a player is in no mood to answer is a waste of everyone’s time.
So I made a note of it when I saw Nicolas Batum looking unlike his usual cheery self prior to the scrimmage at Garfield High School on Thursday. He looked troubled and, with his hair messed and his facial hair uncut, a bit disheveled. He didn’t look like the person I’ve known since the Trail Blazers drafted him in 2008.
I followed up with him the next day after practice, though he looked much more normal than he had the day before. The anger had subsided, but there was still something bothering Batum that had not yet been rectified.
“I was mad about my game,” said Batum, sitting on a bench after that practice last Friday. “For me, I play bad so I didn't feel good for myself. I don't help this team right now. I don't do my job.
“It can't be worse, because I've played bad. I got to bring more energy. My first four games I didn't bring energy, I didn't play my defense like I used to do and I've got to take more rebounds. Much more rebounds. I don't help the team right now.”
It would have been tough to disagree with Batum’s statement. He averaged a respectable 8 points per game through the first four exhibition contests but averaged just 2.3 rebounds, 0.3 blocks and 0.3 steals. And the defense that earned Batum a starting role in Portland had become a little less than lockdown.
Batum may have already had a feeling that his game wasn’t where it needed to be, but things got real when he was told point-blank by Nate McMillan that his preseason performance wasn’t nearly good enough to meet the organizations expectations.
“We talked about it and (the coaches) told me I have to bring much more energy,” said Batum. “I'm in the same lineup with B-Roy, LA, Camby and Dre; I have to be the guy who brings energy, go on the floor, try to block shots, rebound. Camby can't take every rebound, so I have to help those guys and bring more energy.
“I've got to play defense, grab more rebounds. I think I only have two rebounds per game for the first four games. That's not enough. I've got to be at least five or six. So I've got to bring much more energy and to everywhere.”
The message, as is often the case with Batum
, was taken to heart and acted on right away. With a fresh shave and haircut, Batum had his best game of the preseason the next night, scoring 19 points on 8 of 14 shooting. But more important than the points were the rebounds (9), assists (4) steals (3) and overall hustle Batum displayed against the Warriors.
“I've got to get back to where I was,” said Batum. “I have to be myself. I try to do too much sometimes and I lose what I have to do. I have to play defense first, be more aggressive in offense but don't do too much, don't force anything.”
All of which he did Saturday night. In short, he got back to playing the style of basketball that has made him one of the most important pieces of Portland’s championship puzzle. And as a result, the person I saw in the postgame locker room late Saturday night looked a lot more like Nicolas Batum than the guy I saw on the court last Thursday at Garfield High.