Trail Blazers fans know all too well how injuries can completely derail a player's season, or in extreme cases, a career. It's gotten to the point where every time a Trail Blazer grimaces, hearts in the Rose Garden skip a beat, or stop all together. And for good reason.
But for maybe the first time in franchise history, Portland's play was improved, at least in part, thanks to a Trail Blazer injury.
Nicolas Batum's back had been bothering him for a couple of weeks when the Trail Blazers flew east at the end of November for a seven-game road trip through the Eastern Conference. He was averaging decent numbers despite nagging pain in his lower back, though he was shooting a poor percentage from the field. Portland start the trip 0-4, which included losses to the then-winless Wizards and a struggling Pistons squad, before beating both the Cavaliers and Bobcats in overtime. Batum played a crucial role in both games despite the pain in his back getting progressively worse, but the responsibility that comes from being both tenured and one of the highest paid players in the locker room kept Batum in the starting lineup.
It wasn't until the Dec. 5 loss to the Pacers in Indianapolis that Batum finally succumbed to his balky back. After playing 45 and 46 minutes in the preceding games against the Bobcats and Cavs, Batum logged just 29 minutes in Indy after a pain shot up his back after landing awkwardly while trying to secure a rebound. He tried to give it a go in the next game against the Kings, but played only 17 minutes after it became obvious his back was limiting his ability to make even the most routine basketball plays.
Batum sat out the next game, a win against the Raptors, before returning to the starting lineup for the Dec. 13 game against the Spurs, despite the fact that his back was still far from 100 percent. He knew he need to play, but knew just as well that his back wasn't going to let him do the things athletically that he had become accustomed to.
So he decided to changes his emphasis. Up until injuring his back, Batum fell into the trap that many players who sign large contracts do by focusing primarily on scoring. With his ability to drive and shoot severely limited, that focus had to change.
"My back bothered me a lot. I won't lie to you, it bothered me a lot," said Batum. "But I try to play smart, still have some to contribute to the team and do something for the team, because I can't really attack. When I try to attack, jump, dunk the ball, I can't jump. I'm short on every shot because I can't really push it. So I try to find a way to do something else, have an impact on the game."
That something was playing the role of facilitator. In the 13 games since returning to the lineup after sitting out against the Raptors, Batum has been on fire when it comes to assists, logging a ridiculous 6.5 assists per game, more than double his already respectable 3.1 assist per game average through the first 20 games. He's tallied eight assists in five of the last 13 games, and has twice hit his career-high mark with 10, including in tonight's 125-119 overtime win against the Magic.
You can't credit Batum's bad back with all of his improvement setting the table for his teammates. An increased familiarity with the newer players on the team, particularly JJ Hickson, resulted in a better on-court chemistry, which has lead to passes becoming assists rather than turnovers. A couple discussions with Terry Stotts in which Batum's role was clearly defined helped as well. But it took having his athleticism taken away by that bad back before he finally realized he had become his own worst enemy.
"I was focused on scoring too much in the first month, first couple of weeks," said Batum. "Since I hurt my back, I've tried to slow down. Before, when my shot didn't go in, you couldn't see me on the court. I don't have a great percentage this month. I shoot the ball very bad the last 10, 15 games but I still effect the game in other ways. That's what I've tried to do. I know my percentage going to go back and my shot going to go back but I just try to do something else. On defense, try to guard, make a difference."
Batum's increased focus on the parts other than scoring is one of the main reasons why the Trail Blazers are outperforming even the most optimistic predictions going into a difficult January. He didn't have a great night shooting against Orlando, making just five of 14 shots, but he finished with 10 rebounds, a steal, a block and a plus/minus of +13, the best such mark Monday night by any player on either roster. His back is feeling much better, but the lesson that infirmity taught him remains.
"Since I got my back I'm more like, I need to do something else. Rebound, assist, steals, I try to do everything. I can effect the game in different ways on offense and defense, and that's what I try to do."