When told how many minutes he played Sunday night against the Thunder, Gerald Wallace didn't complain that he was sore from all the pounding one incurs when playing just three minutes shy of an entire NBA game. Or that he was worried about whether he would be able to bounce back in less than 24 hours for the next game against the San Antonio Spurs.
His only complaint was one that even we mere mortals, including those of us who couldn't keep up with a tortoise for 45 minutes, let alone the likes of Kevin Durant, could easily identify with.
"I played 45 minutes?" said Wallace with a genuine tone of disbelief. "I feel pretty good. I'm hungry, but I feel pretty good after that."
After watching his 40-point, 7-rebound, 7-fouls drawn effort against the Thunder Sunday night, one might assume the hunger Wallace was referring to wasn't necessarily the kind which could be satiated by ribs, macaroni and cheese and collard greens, which happened to be the meal served on the short flight from Oklahoma City to San Antonio. He could have just as easily been referencing his hunger to lead the Trail Blazers to victory in the first of a crucial three-game road trip. And considering the final result, it's no wonder he felt unsatisfied, despite scoring just two points short of his career high.
"It wasn't enough," said Wallace of his scoring outburst. "I'd rather take the win than take the points. It was a great game. We had some crucial moments in the game when we didn't execute and things didn't go our way."
Wallace played like a man driven to fulfill some kind of primal craving Sunday night, but the desire to satisfy that hunger might not have been the only thing powering his performance against the Thunder. It likely also had something to do with his opportunity to play extended minutes at small forward, his preferred position, for the first time since joining the team at the trade deadline. Wallace had spent the majority of his court time at power forward since joining the starting lineup in place of Marcus Camby seven games ago, but with Nicolas Batum hobbled by a quad contusion Sunday night, "Crash" was granted what he has desired since his arrival in Portland: a chance to play at his natural position.
"That's my comfort zone," said Wallace, "playing the wing, playing the 3 position, getting out running, guarding wing players. I wasn't uncomfortable at all with that. It gives us a bigger lineup out on the floor, better rebounding lineup and a more aggresive lineup, so I think it looked pretty good."
The benefits of Wallace playing small forward, with both LaMarcus Aldridge and Camby reassuming their roles as power forward and center, respectively, were not isolated to the offensive end. Once free from having to check bigger, post-oriented players, as was the case when he played power forward, Wallace was able to employ the lockdown defense on all-world scorer Kevin Durant that he's become known for throughout his 10 seasons in the NBA.
"I think the main thing about guarding a guy like (Durant) is they can't score if they don't touch the ball," said Wallace. "So your main thing is trying to keep the ball out of his hands, try to face guard him, deny the ball as much as possible. Guys like that, four or five trips without touching the ball, they kind of get frustrated. I think he forced some shots, but all in all, I think we played great team defense on him."
With Wallace taking up residence in his hip pocket, Durant was held to 21 points, nearly seven off his average, on 5-of-18 shooting. And when you consider that three of those makes came in the first quarter when an injury-slowed Batum was still assigned to Durant and that the reigning scoring champion went 0-for-8 in the second half once Wallace was switched to Durant full-time, one could have gotten the sense Wallace was trying to show McMillan what he had been missing by using him out of position, even if it was out of necessity.
"We certainly have known about it," said McMillan of the lineup he used to start the second half Sunday night. "We may have to go to that. Gerald tonight at the 3 was really good. We're not big, physical guys but we do have some length. Camby in the lineup, we certainly have to look at that."
McMillan wasn't unaware of the benefits of playing Wallace alongside Aldridge and Camby, but he's had his reasons for using Batum and Wallace together in the starting lineup. The need to bring Camby back slowly from arthroscopic knee surgery and the hesitance to remove Batum from the starting lineup due to quality performances by the young Frenchman probably had more to do with McMillan's decision to play Wallace at power forward than anything else, but after seeing Wallace torch the Thunder for 40 while holding one of the most effective scorers in the game to his third-lowest shooting percentage of the season, it's no wonder the head coach is strongly considering a changing tack, even this late in the season.
"If (Wallace) doesn't shoot the ball as well as he does, we're not in this game," said McMillan. "He got hot. We moved him to the 3 and he did a good job of coming off screens and knocking down some shots and making Durant work."
We'll know soon enough whether Wallace's performance Sunday was enough to convince McMillan to make yet another change to the starting lineup, but even if he doesn't, don't assume it's not necessarily the right decision. After all, as we saw against the Thunder, there are benefits to keeping Wallace hungry.