LAS VEGAS – The Trail Blazers summer league team, with six players on the roster who have all played at least one NBA season alongside each other, was expected to be one of the best teams in Las Vegas. Portland lived up to that billing in a 91-76 victory versus the Atlanta Hawks at COX Pavilion on the campus of UNLV in their third and final game of round-robin play.
“I thought our defensive pressure in the first half was really good,” said Trail Blazers assistant coach Nate Tibbetts. “I thought we set the tone. We caused some turnovers and we got out on the break and we made some good decisions in transition.”
The Trail Blazers finish the round-robin portion of summer league with a 2-1 record and are currently tied for fifth-place, though they’ll have to wait until the remaining preliminary round games are completed Tuesday afternoon to find out their seed for the tournament. The top eight teams in the standings get a first-round bye to start the tournament, which was instituted at the 2013 summer league.
Both teams struggled in the early going, combining for seven turnover in the first six minutes of the contest. But the Trail Blazers, with an extra day of rest after playing a back-to-back to start summer league, would be the first team to find their rhythm, using a 13-4 run late in the first quarter, sparked by three-straight layup and an alley-oop dunk finish by Will Barton, to take control of the game in front of a largely pro-Portland crowd.
“I told my teammates early I was going to set the tone in the game,” said Barton. “Offense, defense, just bring energy and get my team off to a good start. I feel like I did that.”
Portland rattled off another late-quarter run, this time of the 11-0 variety, to take a commanding 16-point lead into the halftime intermission. The rally would feature back-to-back three-pointers from McCollum and a between-the-legs alley-oop from Barton to Thomas Robinson in a highlight that one only typically sees in an environment like summer league.
“That’s what we do, baby,” said Robinson, who finished with eight points, seven rebounds, five assists, five steals and zero turnovers. “Once I got the steal I knew Will was in front of me and he always tells me ‘If you worked for the play, I’m gonna give it back.’ Knowing him, he a little crazy, I knew he was gonna do something wild. I just got to go up there and finish it.”
It wasn’t the only highlight of the afternoon for Barton, who is beloved by fans due in part to his flair for the dramatic. The second-year swingman out of Memphis pulled off a steal-turned-acrobatic layup when Hawks power forward Mike Muscala made the mistake of trying inbound the ball to Dennis Shroder, who was tying his shoe at the time.
“I saw him tying his shoe and I initially was going to go (for the steal) but I’m like ‘He’s not going to throw this,’” said Barton. “Then I went back and I was like ‘Oh, he really about to throw it!’ and then he threw it. I was like, I might as well go get it.”
Barton finished with 17 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals in 31 minutes.
With Barton at his most opportunistic and McCollum shooting light’s out from three, Portland was able to build a 16-point lead going into the halftime intermission. Portland would push the lead to 22 in the third quarter before cruising to a 15-point victory while allowing the free agents on their summer league roster to play the entirely of the fourth quarter.
McCollum, in his best performance of the 2014 summer league, shot 6-of-9 from three and 10-of-16 from the field for a game-high 28 points in 29 minutes.
“I went 1-for-7 (from three versus Houston) and all of them were catch-and-shoot threes,” said McCollum. “Today I got a couple off the dribble just because I was in more of a rhythm in transition. But they don’t worry about me making shots offensively and I don’t either. That’s going to happen. Obviously you guys want to see it, so I was glad I was able to show you guys that I can still make shots today.”
After shooting 37 percent from the field and 18 percent from three in Portland’s first two games in Las Vegas, McCollum’s sharpshooting Tuesday afternoon was a helpful if not surprising development going into the tournament portion of Portland’s schedule.
“When he’s open he has the ability to make shots,” said Tibbetts. “He just kind of got in that zone in the third quarter and he just kind of took what the defense gave him. He had some really good looks and knocked them down.”
Meyers Leonard played his first game of the 2014 summer league after missing the first two contests with a shoulder strain. He started in place of Joel Freeland and finished with seven points in 21 minutes.
“My shoulder felt alright, I didn’t have any pain out there,” said Leonard. “I think the main thing for me is I haven’t done anything for like a week, so my legs were pretty sluggish and my lungs were burning, but I’ll gain that back pretty quick.”
Robinson left the game early with an apparent hand injury, though he said after the game that he expected to play in Portland’s next game, which will either be on Wednesday or Thursday depending on the outcome of Tuesday’s remaining games.