Hickson Impressive in Memphis
At times it's difficult to know exactly what to be looking for late in a season like this. Moral victories are about all you have left, and you don't usually spend much time worrying about the scoreboard.
We all know that's not the case with interim coach Kaleb Canales, and he's got his players thinking exactly the same way. They continue to play to win, and unlike a lot of the teams out of the playoff race, are approaching each game as if everything is on the line. The fact that he has his guys buying into that, not only says a lot about them, but probably says more about Canales.
Saturday night in Memphis, the Trail Blazers opened their final three-game road trip of the season. The Grizzlies came into the game with some big-time playoff positioning on the line- like the chance at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They had also lost their two previous meetings with Portland, so motivation wasn't going to be a factor there. They're also one of those teams ramping up to the playoffs, and trying to fine tune and sharpen before the second season. Given what they had to gain, and what the Trail Blazers were playing for, it would have been natural to expect both teams to play their respective parts.
But, what we saw was a Blazer team fight for 48 minutes like they were the team trying to focus and gain momentum. Playing without LaMarcus Aldridge, Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum, and Joel Przybilla, all starters, no one expected Portland to put up much of a fight. Again, they didn't win, and it would be easy to simply jot this down as another late-season loss, but that's not what the philosophy is around this team right now.
J.J. Hickson, one of the great stories to come out of this season believe it or not, is the main reason the Trail Blazers have stayed competitive on most nights late in the schedule. As much as it's evaluation time for the young guys (and Hickson is only 23), this has been all about him making a statement, and making a case for being involved in this team's future plans.
Yep, Hickson is playing for a contract. Players who suddenly start putting up big numbers at contract time are sometimes criticized, or at least looked at with a skeptical eye. I've heard that mentioned about Hickson, naturally.
But, remember, this has been a contract year for Hickson all season- even when he was in Sacramento averaging five points per game. So, even while some of the desperation of this being a job interview should be considered, I tend to look at this as more of a good player growing, and finding a role, and a team, that suits him perfectly. Perhaps we're simply seeing a guy who's motivated, is believing in his coach, and has a strong desire to make an impression on his current team.
And, it's not like this is the first time Hickson has shown flashes of brilliance in his game. Cleveland thought so highly of him that they refused include him in a potential trade that would have netted them Amare Stoudemire. We're seeing that player now, and not the guy who was quite possibly simply in a bad situation in Sacramento.
Credit once again goes to Chad Buchanan and his staff for pulling off the trade on draft day that scored them a trade exception from Houston, which allowed them to grab Hickson off waivers despite being over the salary cap. So, even if this has worked out better than many of us had hoped, these guys thought enough of Hickson that they structured the Camby deal specifically with Hickson in mind. Don't forget that.
As you also probably know, the Trail Blazers are in a good position when it comes to Hickson as well. On June 30th, they'll present him with a one-year qualifying offer that he can either accept or decline and become a restricted free agent giving Portland the opportunity to match any offer that's made to him. Obviously, he won't accept the qualifying offer. Then, the Blazers will have to decide what they'll match and what they won't. The nice thing about Hickson is that he's now a known-commodity, and that's not the case with some young free agents.
If this season has been about anything in this last few weeks, it's been about the J.J. Hickson test drive- a dress rehearsal that has gone extremely well.
Against the Grizzlies on Saturday, Hickson posted his fifth double-double in his last seven games, scoring 23 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. One of the great things about Hickson is that he's become a very good rebounder, an area he talked focusing on when he got to Portland. He'd always shown the ability to score, but hadn't been noted for having the nose and desire for the loose balls that he's shown here.
So, in Memphis, it was Hickson who led the Blazers back from the dead and helped them draw to within two points at 91-89 with over 30 seconds to go. And, he was doing this against a very active Marreese Speights and a very good Marc Gasol, another of the very talented front lines he's been going against lately, with very little help.
In the end, the Trail Blazers didn't get the big bucket to fall on that final possession, and didn't pull the upset of the Grizzlies. But, there were reasons to feel positive in an otherwise ho-hum situation late in the season. Hickson has provided so many of those in recent days.
Two more to go, and both will be chances for Hickson to continue to state his case. All he has to do is go up against the extremely-talented San Antonio Spurs, and playoff-hungry Utah Jazz, with both games coming on the road.