Nicolas Batum wasn't told by Nate McMillan that he would be coming off the bench against the Oklahoma City Thunder until Friday morning, but he already had a suspicion that the wheels which would put Marcus Camby back in the starting lineup were already in motion.
"I knew it was going to happen sometime," said Batum. "In my mind, I knew it was going to happen one time because sometimes teams are so big. The Lakers, (the Thunder), San Antonio, I know sometimes we can get beat inside, so I know maybe it is going to happen. I knew that."
Which is maybe why he didn't take the news all that hard. Then again, maybe it had more to do with this not being the first time Batum's starting spot has been sacrificed for the good of the team. Earlier in the season when Wesley Matthews was promoted to the starting five, Batum pulled an eight-game tour of duty off the bench before being called up to replace Brandon Roy, who would undergo double arthroscopic knee surgery. At the time, the third-year small forward refused to speak ill of the move in public, but privately, he was upset.
But while Batum might not have liked the decision at the time, he realizes in hindsight that it wasn't as important as he once thought.
"The last time I was mad because I used to start," said Batum. "I didn't want to be on the bench. But now I learn from it. I learn from that and now I'm ready because I know I'm going to play anyways. I'm going to be on the court and I'm going to feel the game."
Feel it he did. Batum, coming off what he called his worst game of the season Tuesday night against the Hornets in New Orleans, turned in one of his most aggressive offensive performances of '10-'11, scoring 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting while playing a large role in Portland's 98-91 victory, a victory that decreased the Trail Blazers' magic number to two with seven games to play in the regular season.
"I thought he looked relaxed," said McMillan. "He really came out. When I talked to him this morning, as I told him, we’re going to need you, whether you’re in that starting lineup or not, to play both ends of the floor. I thought he looked a little loose and played a good game tonight.”
That message might not have sunk in back in December when Batum was "demoted" to the bench the first time around, McMillan's words were heeded.
Said Batum: "Talking to Nate this morning said 'Because you come from the bench, you're going to still be the same player for us. You got to play. You've got to be aggresive. We need you on offense and defense.' So he told me 'Don't worry about starting or not, you're going to finish the game.' Like I say, I prefer finish the game. The best player on the court at the end of the game."
That mantra, that finishing the game is more important than starting it, has been a standard McMillan talking point since he got to Portland, and one that he repeated after Friday night's victory.
"Whether we start that lineup or we change it, we got to play," said McMillan. "We got to hoop. Eventually we're going to be small and our smalls got to play bigger, just because we don't have bulk. We have length but we don't have that bulk, those big guys to put out there. We're going to have to play that lineup regardless of whether we start it or bring it off the bench."
McMillan may very well go back to starting Batum before the season is said and done. After all, changes to the starting lineup over the past two years rank right up there with death and taxes as certainties in the Rose City, but Batum, after learning that you don't need to start to be an integral part of a winning effort, is only concerning himself with the big picture: playoffs.
"I want past the first round this year," said Batum. "If I come in the playoff off the bench, I won't think about myself. I think about the team. I want to win. I want to win, so if I come off the bench that's ok. I'm going to do everything I can on the court to win this game."