With three minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's 112-109 loss to the Spurs, Nicolas Batum did something that Trail Blazers fans have been begging for since he got to Portland.
With Manu Ginobili at the line preparing to shoot free throws with the Spurs up 101-94, Batum walked with purpose toward Terry Stotts, who was surveying the situation from half court as NBA coaches often do. What was different though was Batum. Rather than slumping over at midcourt with his hands on his knees, using a few spare seconds to catch his breath after having already played 35 minutes, Batum approached Stotts and, in no uncertain terms, demanded to have the ball put in his hands with the game on the line. For years, coaches, fans and the media have noted that, while Batum shows flashes of brilliance, he is too passive and willing to defer to his teammates. It seemed to some that Batum was waiting for something to be given rather than going out on to the court and taking it.
That was not the case Saturday night. Whether Stotts actually called for Batum to have the ball in his hands late in the fourth or if Batum simply took it upon himself is hard to tell, nor is it all that important. What matters is that he took control, arguably for the first time in his NBA career.
On the ensuing possession after Ginobili's free throws, Batum drove from the top of the three-point line, drew two defenders, and subsequently found Wesley Matthews open under the hoop. Matthews was fouled on the play and received free throws thanks to Batum's aggressiveness.
A few plays later, Batum blocked a shot by Tim Duncan, corralled the rebound, and ended up taking and making a three-pointer after trailing the play. On the next offensive possession, Batum drove the lane again, only this time found Matthews open on the perimeter for a three to bring the Trail Blazers to within one. Twenty-two seconds later, LaMarcus Aldridge would find Batum for yet another three, which brought Batum's point total to 33, tying a career-high.
Those would be Batum's last points of the night. Coming off a pindown out of a timeout, Batum would miss what might have been a game-winning three-pointer with seven seconds to play. Stotts noted after the game that he would have preferred Batum drive and attempt to tie the game rather than take a three, a point Batum did not argue.
"What we talk about is when I come off of pindowns, not to shoot every time," said Batum sheepishly. "And he's right. I should drive this. I will next time, take my time. I learn from it."
While it would have been nice for the Trail Blazers to grind out a victory, especially in a game in which they led at one time by 14, the long-term impact of Batum demanding the ball might prove more important than any one victory this season. The Trail Blazers matched Minnesota's offer to Batum this summer with the expectation that the lanky Frenchman would be a cornerstone of the franchise for the foreseeable future. If that is to be the case, Batum has to demand his place at the table, rather than waiting for someone to pull out a chair for him.
"I have to change a lot of things this year, to show more leadership maybe," said Batum. "That's what I try to do, on offense and defense."
It's still a work in progress. Batum is mistaking taking difficult shots for being aggressive too often and still has a tendency from time to time to float, especially on defense. But by insisting on being a more important cog in the current system, Batum is already further along after six games under Terry Stotts than he was in his first four seasons in Portland.