He doesn't pay all that much attention, but Luke Babbitt knows the generalities of what people say about him. He's too smart not to notice. He knows often times he's the butt of the joke, the easy target, the recipient of sarcastic and/or ironic kudos, but he also knows these things come with the territory. He's always had a good sense of humor about what is often times less than good-natured ribbing, even as those who find his presence on Portland' roster so detestable seem to be of the opinion that it was Babbitt who drafted himself with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, which one must assume, at the very least, would be a clear violation of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.
And while it would be easy to say he's never had doubts about his place in the league or bouts of self-consciousness, that's likely not the case. You can only hear the catcalls and dismissive remarks so many times without considering their veracity, if only in the weakest of moments. But in general, Luke has never lost faith in himself. And neither have his teammates. That much was on display in Monday night's thrilling, come from behind overtime victory against the Bobcat in Charlotte.
Babbitt had already made one three-pointer to bring the Trail Blazers within four points of the Bobcats with a little over two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, but even so, you wouldn't expect someone averaging less than seven minutes a game to get a look with the game on the line.
Nicolas Batum, who himself provided the late-game heroics two nights prior in Cleveland and has been rather vocal about his own desire to have the ball in his hands in the deciding moments of games, grabbed an offensive rebound with 24 seconds to play and the Trail Blazers down three. There was enough time for Batum to get what would have likely been a relatively easy putback, after which the Trail Blazers could begin the dance of intentionally fouling the Bobcats to extend the game and, hopefully, tie the score or take the lead. But rather than take the path of least resistance, Batum quickly scanned the floor and found Babbitt open on the perimeter. The decision, despite Babbitt having airmailed his first three-pointer of the night, was a simple one.
"I don't really think about like a putback or get two points," said Batum, who missed what would have been a game-winning three-pointer earlier in the season against the Spurs, noting somewhat in jest afterward that his reason for going for the win instead of the tie was due to being too tired to play overtime. "I saw (Babbitt) wide open. I didn't even have to think about it… We know, if you hit him wide open, it's BANG! Money. That's what happened tonight."
When the opportunity came, during what Batum referred to later as "money time," Babbit didn't have to think either. As he's done so many times in practice, Babbitt took a half second to collect himself before shooting an effortless set shot from the right side of the court, netting the game-tying three-pointer in one of the most improbable comebacks you'll see in the NBA this season.
"(Batum) sucked the defense in and I was just wide open so that's the shot I'm supposed to make," said Babbitt. "That's why I'm out there."
The make and the confidence with which he took it might have surprised even his most steadfast supporters, but not his teammates nor coaches, who would not have been particular disappointed in him if he had missed the shot, only if he had turned down.
"Every time in practice he gets the ball we want him to shoot because we know how well he shoots the ball," said Damian Lillard. "We always see him make 25 out of 25 threes, so why not put it in the air? Tonight he made not only shots that we know he can make but shots we needed him to make in big situations."
In this instance, Babbitt only had the opportunity to be on the court in such a critical situation because of his defensive performance in the fourth quarter. And in fairness to his detractors, there has been reason to question Babbitt's prowess on the defensive end. But in the fourth quarter and overtime Monday night, he showed that, when put in the right situation, he could be not only a non-liability, but an asset.
"Obviously (Babbitt) made the threes and he spaces the court, which opens up things for Damian and LaMarcus," said head coach Terry Stotts, "but what he did defensively when we started blitzing the pick and rolls, he was very active with his feet, got a rebound. It's easy to see the shots he made but his presence on the court at both ends made a difference."
What might have been the most telling indicator of Babbitt's steadfast confidence occurred after the game was over. With his one shining moment certified by the final buzzer, Babbitt could have basked in the glow of self-satisfaction. He could have been as snide about his achievement as so many others have been in recounting his failures. But instead, he deflected praise and the opportunity to thumb his nose, if only for one night, at those who would never pass up the chance to do the same.
"We made the adjustments so, to me, you've got to give the credit to the coaches," said Babbitt. "The adjustments are what turned the game around. We started blitzing the pick and roll, we started scrambling on defense and we went small on offense. I thought that was the key to the game."
Despite the existence of players like J.J. Redick, Ryan Anderson, Jeremy Evans, Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak and Matt Bonner, players whose value took a couple seasons and the right situation to be discovered, those who seem to be the most offended by Babbitt existence on this earth refuse to believe he will ever be anything more than what he is at his worst. If nothing else, this affords one the opportunity, however played out it might be, to come up with a wisecrack more clever than that of the last guy, which, in some circles, has seemed to surpass "enjoyment" as primary reason to watch sports. Babbitt's 15 minute performance Monday night against the Bobcats isn't likely to change that, and maybe it shouldn't. "That which doesn't kill us" and so forth. But as we've seen on this road trip, especially when it comes to the play of the bench, past performance, while still the best predictor of future performance, is not carved in granite.
There's a two-word dictum that is often used in sports to describe the ability of players to see what those of us on the outside cannot. It's "players know," and it means that, while we who simply watch can be rather versed in the intricacies of a particular game, we don't have the same ability to gauge competence as those who make their careers competing alongside each other. We can make very educated hypothesis, but they know. And in the case of Luke Babbitt, at least Monday night, his teammates most definitely knew, even when the rest of us didn't.