Solid Start in SoCal
The final box score, and even the final score of the game, don't mean too much in the exhibition season. What I watch for are signs of rhythm, confidence, flow, comfort, and organization. So, while I usually have the final stats sitting in front of me during a blog about a particular game, I haven't even taken last night's out of my bag.
I don't mean to imply that the win wasn't nice, because learning to win, especially for a young team, or a newly-reconstructed team, is an important part of the growth process. But, there were more important things on this night.
As we mentioned on many occasions during the first week of training camp, Trail Blazer practices have been very well organized and at times have sounded like a symphony of dribbling balls, squeaking shoes, and whistles. Every move in camp, every drill, meeting, and mock scrimmage has taken place with a very specific direction in mind. It isn't always that way. In short, Terry Stotts and his coaching staff have been impressive.
While last night's victory over the Lakers doesn't count for much, it was a chance for the Trail Blazers to face a mini-exam.
I always remember teachers I had in school who would issue us a test on the first day of class. While that was a lot less enjoyable than an NBA preseason game, the results served the same purpose- to establish a baseline. It told us where we stood, and what areas needed extra attention.
This was just one of seven exhibition games, and while the win was enjoyable, other things were just as pleasing.
Yep, Kobe and Dwight Howard were sitting behind the Laker bench in expensive clothes. No one is pretending this game was in any way a measuring stick for that team. But, at least in some ways, it was for the Blazers.
I didn't really pay that much attention to LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, or Wesley Matthews. We know what we've got there. Even J.J. Hickson, outside of getting very winded during a couple of stretches, is not a concern. His effectiveness has been established.
This was about Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard, and some other guys who are trying to crack the roster and still others who are trying to make the team. And, as mentioned above, it was interesting to see how this team is taking to this new offensive and defense system, as a whole.
Fortunately, we got good indicators, all the way around, about all of these questions- not rock-solid answers, but good indicators.
Lillard admitted to me after the game in our TV interview he was nervous in his first preseason game, going up against Steve Nash. I liked that. He's got a great sense of humility and sky-high confidence at the same time. So, just speaking individually about him, it was a very good night. Yes, it was just one preseason game, but I couldn't help but think afterward that he is what we thought he was.
Nash is never going to be confused with a lock-down defender, but it was nice to see Lillard get him on his heels on many occasions. While a bit tentative early in the game, you could see Lillard getting more and more comfortable as the game went on. During a stretch in the second half, when Portland had lost its lead, Damian took charge of the offense and the Lakers didn't appear sure how to deal with him.
As Stotts promised, we saw Lillard at the point and at the shooting guard spot. This probably won't happen in every game, and he'll certainly play a lot more at the one, but Lillard's deadly outside game gives Portland some real flexibility in terms of what they want to do with him. And, as you know, just because he can have a scorer's mentality, it doesn't mean he's not a great distributer. He is a very good pick-and-roll player, and because of his shooting range, you can't go behind the screen. This won't only greatly benefit Aldridge, but Matthews and Batum are going to find themselves with a lot more open shots because of the threat Lillard brings at the point.
After getting on the team bus after the game in Ontario, I sat behind Blazer assistant coach Kim Hughes. Hughes is basically in charge of Portland's big guys, and has been glued to Meyers Leonard's hip since the players returned. So, I was very curious to see what Hughes thought of Leonard's first outing. He seemed pleased, but also said there's a lot of work to be done. Leonard picked up two quick fouls, and that's going to be an issue for him. But, it was nice to see Leonard quickly adjust and play some pretty solid defense on Pau Gasol.
Leonard's ability to run the floor has been well discussed, and we saw a few examples of that against the Lakers. He caught a lob pass and jammed it through on the break on one occasion, and got another bucket in transition later. Just the threat of Leonard busting back down the floor will have an effect. I'm not going to say it'll cause his man to leave the offensive boards to run with him, but it will make a difference.
While the bar was set a little higher for Lillard going into last night, we just really wanted to see Leonard in control, with an understanding of the offense, and basically wanted him to look like he belonged. Remember, he's not nearly as experienced as Lillard, and is younger. The fact that Meyers was efficient, and was a presence, was enough for me in this one.
A couple of other individual notes-
Adam Morrison has a long way to go if he wants to make this roster, but he was solid last night. He was aggressive, and hit his first two shots. The coaches know he can shoot. The fact that he was interested in defense, and in the right place most of the time, was more impressive.
I'm not at all concerned that Joel Freeland didn't have a greater impact on this particular game. He had a nice spin move for a bucket late in the game, and will be in the rotation.
As I've said for a few days, Ronnie Price has perhaps surprised me more than anyone so far. I always knew he was a capable backup for Deron Williams in Utah, but didn't realize he's as tough as he is. The fact that he's already been a great mentor for Lillard, and has a firm grip on the offensive this early, there are no worries here.
Luke Babbitt has shot the ball as well as anyone during camp, but struggled from the field against the Lakers. It was nice to see him rebound, and show his improved strength. He's going to play the power-forward spot exclusively, according to Stotts, so he's got to continue to do these things to get minutes.
Nolan Smith was playing with a sore knee, but showed the aggressiveness at times that we saw early in summer league.
Victor Claver may not get many minutes early in the season, but I thought he looked like he belonged on an NBA court as well last night. He's got to be more aggressive when he gets minutes, but should learn that.
Jered Jefferies will be in the rotation. He does a lot of little things, and can play multiple positions. Seeing him draw a couple of offensive fouls, and grab a few rebounds, showed you what he does with his time. Good mentor, and knows what he is.
Camp continues in Phoenix, as the Trail Blazers will practice today and look to take another step on Friday night against the Suns.