Scoring points, to state the obvious, is a good thing in basketball. After all, the team with the most points at the end of the game wins. But sometimes a bump in scoring that might be advantageous in the short term can end up being detrimental in the long term.
It was February 22 and Nicolas Batum was lighting up the Minnesota Timberwolves. In 29 minutes, the second-year forward from France scored 31 points, obliterating his previous career-high, on 11 for 13 shooting. At he wasn’t just volume shooting, as he also finished the night with seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals. He scored 22 points in the third quarter alone
, including three three-pointers. It wasn’t until there was 39 seconds left in the quarter that Batum missed a shot. Portland would go on to beat Minnesota 100-91 for their 35th win of the season.
"Today was my day,” said Batum after the win. “I think Brandon had nine assists, my guys tried to feed me. I just took my open shots and just tried to play my game."
"He was awesome tonight,” said Marcus Camby, who must have been surprised by the outburt considering it was just the fifth game he had played alongside Batum. “I knew he had talent on the defensive end, but on the offensive end he was shooting the ball particularly well, driving to the hole getting layups and dunks. We're definitely going to need him."
Simply put, Batum was in the zone.
But he wasn’t done. Two nights later in Memphis, Batum had the touch again. Against a much better opponent with something to play for, Batum went off for 21 points, which would have been his career-high three days earlier, on 7 for 11 shooting. He scored 12 points in a crucial third quarter that saw Portland rally to take an 82-74 lead after going into the half down 53-41. And he was once again lights-out from beyond the arc, going 4 for 7 from three. He also managed to block O.J. Mayo
in the waning moments of the game, helping the Trail Blazers secure a 103-93 victory.
Then things took a turn for the worse. He played just 20 minutes two nights later against the Pacers, finishing the night 2 for 8. A few days later against the Nuggets he went 2 for 7 in only 14 minutes, a strange drop in playing time considering the need for his usually stellar defense against a potent offensive squad. He bounced back with a 6 of 7 night against the Kings, but followed that up with a 2 for 5 night versus Golden State in just 21 minutes. It was then that assistant coach Monty Williams, the man credited for much of Batum’s improvement this season, had to step in.
“I had to charge him up a little bit,” said Williams. “I saw something in his game that didn’t look right. You could just look at a player and you know if he’s playing team ball or if he’s trying to get himself off. I thought Nicolas was trying to get himself off as far as taking shots he didn’t normally take, looking for himself in situations where we normally look for other guys. I just told him it didn’t look right.”
But it wasn’t Batum’s offense that was concerning Williams, at least not directly. He knows that part of Batum’s game is still a work in progress. What raised Williams’ ire was that Batum’s newfound interest in offense was having a detrimental effect on his defense.
“I told him ‘You can try to front like you’re playing defense, but you’re not,’” said Williams. “’Guys are tearing you up.’ I told him – I won’t name those guys because I wouldn’t want to put him on the spot – there were a couple of guys in our last few games who really lit him up, and I thought he played poor defense. Not average; I told him it was poor. I said ‘You can sit here and listen to everybody else who kind of cheers you on and says Nicolas is this, he’s long and athletic.’ I was like ‘I know what I’m looking at and you look like a guys who’s trying to get himself off.’”
The lecture didn’t end there.
“And I said ‘Nicolas you’re the fifth option in the starting lineup, so don’t ever lose sight of that. Brandon, LA, Dre and Marcus are the guys who are going to be getting the ball going to the basket and if you can’t deal with that you’re going to struggle.’
“But I said ‘If you defend, the offensive end will come.’ I said ‘If you defend well, you should get a couple of run outs for layups. If you defend well, that means Brandon doesn’t have to as much on the toughest guy. They’re going to double-team him, you’re in the game longer, you’re going to get shots.’ We just talked and I just told him what I thought was the truth. I thought he was slacking up a bit defensively. His game is like that; if he plays good defense his offense naturally comes. I thought he had it the other way around. I thought he was playing for offense and hoping his defense was there.”
Batum shifting his focus from defense to offense was something Williams had worried about. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see one of his wards to do well offensively; he’s always known Batum has the potential to be a force on offense. But Williams wasn’t expecting Batum to come along so fast, and in his opinion, he wasn’t ready for it.
“I didn’t think he was going to have the games that he had against Memphis and Minnesota, so I didn’t think it would happen like that this year,” said Williams. “What agitated me was I didn’t say something to him earlier. To his credit, he took it to heart. A lot of guys run. A lot of guys act like they want to hear the truth. They always say ‘Tell me the truth coach. Tell me the truth.’ You tell them, they run and hide or get mad and don’t want to talk to you for a while. It’s just one of those talks you don’t want to have as a coach but if you don’t, you know you shortchange the player.”
The message wasn’t lost on Batum.
“After those two games I just tried to play on offense first,” admitted Batum. “Try to sink a score before playing defense. That’s why I screwed up in those games a little bit, especially in Golden State. After Golden State Coach Mont grab me. ‘I have to talk to you.’ He almost scream at me. ‘You’ve got to get back to where you were, just play defense first.’ We have so many guys that can score, like B.Roy, LA. So just try to play defense first. If you play defense your going to stay on the court. Offense come easier.”
The next game, it did. With a renewed focus on defense, Batum found his offense, scoring 22 points on 7 of 9 shooting from the field and 5 of 6 shooting from three in a 109-98 win against the Toronto Raptors. Maybe more importantly, he held Hedo Turkoglu, who had lit up Batum for 35 points last season
while playing for Orlando, to 14 points.
“It’s not my game to play one-on-one,” said Batum. “I’ve never been like that. Just try to let the game come to be. I always play like this when I was in France. Let the game come to me and try to get some opportunities. Like (against Toronto), I scored 22 but I got no calls for me. When I score 31 it was the same. No call for me.”
That is unlikely to change, at least this season. With the majority of the scoring left to Roy, Aldridge and Miller, Batum will remain an afterthought on offense. Which, according to Williams, is something Batum can and will have to deal with.
“When you’re the fourth or fifth option, you can’t go out there looking to jack up the first shot down,” said Williams. “Some of our guys do that, so you can tell. Even the fan on the street can look and be like ‘What is he doing?’ That doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look natural. A couple of times he’s had situations like that where it didn’t look natural. So guys just have to know they don’t have the same leash as other guys on the team have. If they can’t deal with that, that’s their problem. He certainly has taken it to heart, for sure. He normally does.”
One of the things the Trail Blazers look for in a player is recognition of who they are. As in, does Player X know his strengths, his weaknesses and limitations, his place on a team? Batum forgot his place for a minute, but after a talking to from Williams, he’s remembered.
“Got to fit in, feel the game and just pick up some opportunities to go fastbreak or take the open shot,” said Batum. “When I can drive, I go. That’s it.”