There comes a time in many NBA seasons when reaching postseason play becomes an impossible task. At that point the priorities of a team shift—winning games is still at the top of the list for all because NBA players are a rare breed of competitor and fans want W’s, but for a young, inexperienced team like the Trail Blazers exploring the capabilities of rookies and guys who didn’t see much time on the court earlier in the regular season becomes paramount. For Portland, that means using the final stretch of play to see how Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver, Will Barton and Joel Freeland react and capitalize on in-game play.
“I would say I have expectations in that I want to see improvement,” Head Coach Terry Stotts said of the increased time the younger players have seen. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily quantifiable, but you want to see improvement, you don’t want to see them make the same mistakes over and over, so you want to see the growth there. I don’t think it’s a question of seeing how many points, rebounds and assists they get, it’s more about how they play, how they recognize things at both ends of the floor.”
Leonard was the first to see extended minutes, and he did so when Portland’s playoff hopes were still in full swing—he filled a starting role after LaMarcus Aldridge was sidelined with a sprained ankle. The exuberant center went on a streak of five games in double-digit scoring, including a 22-point, 10-rebound night at Golden State, all the while garnering confidence, knowledge, experience and a hefty amount of game film for further study.
Next on the call sheet was Victor Claver, who since returning from injury has averaged more than 20 minutes per game and seen consistent minutes that were hard to come by earlier in the year. Granted, he also got the first crack at serious run by filling the starting role of injured Nicolas Batum, but that in no way takes away from his performances. Claver may not be the guy who fills up the box score, but he’s a consistent contributor with a strong feel for the game and a solid basketball IQ.
“Victor has been playing the way he’s been playing,” Stotts said. “He does a nice job at both ends of the floor, he understands the game and I was pleased with the way he played.”
Most recently, Barton has made the case for the importance of getting rookies late-season burn. Wesley Matthews left the game against Dallas early after sustaining an ankle injury, paving the way for Barton to play. A self-proclaimed “rhythm player,” he made the most of his extended minutes and tallied career highs in points (22), rebounds (13), assists (6), and steals (3) in 32 minutes of play while sparking a Trail Blazers rally that would close a once 26-point deficit to just three in the final minutes.
After his performance, Barton spoke about patiently waiting for his chance to shine, saying “at times it gets real hard. I’m a guy that loves to play. One year removed out of college, used to being the big man on campus and everybody knows who you are, you’re producing and then you come here and you’re the little guy. You gotta keep working in the gym and find something that motivates you. Cheer on your teammates and just be ready when you’re called.
“I go into every game thinking I’m gonna have a big game, it’s true,” he continued. “And tonight (Sunday, April 7) it happened, so now I just want to build on it. I might not have 20 (points) or anything like that, but my whole thing is to come out there and compete, know our sets, know our strategy and go out there and execute. That’s my biggest thing right now is doing all the small things and making sure I know my assignments so that way I won’t give coach any reason to take me out. Cover the small things and then worry about scoring and doing everything else.”
The education of the extended roster is the value of this late season basketball. It’s not the wins and losses, but instead the intangibles. It’s Leonard and Freeland working on their spacing under the basket and defensive skills, it’s Claver making the effort to knock down shots with a defender closing, it’s Barton making smart decisions and passing out of a collapsing defense to the open man, it’s all of this and more. And more can only come from the invaluable experience they see during the stretch run.
What are you hoping to see from the young players as the season comes to a close?