HOUSTON — The Portland Trail Blazers were getting the best of most of their individual matchups in the first half of their 122-120 Game 1 victory versus the Rockets in Houston Sunday night. And while focusing on positional one-to-one’s isn’t the best way to gauge a player’s performance, rotations do get shorter and starters tend to play more minutes in the playoffs, resulting in individual matchups taking on an added significance in the postseason.
There was Damian Lillard tallying 12 points, three rebounds and two assists before the intermission, more than the combined output of Rockets point guards Patrick Beverly and Jeremy Lin.
Lillard’s backcourt partner, Wesley Matthews, couldn’t match James Harden’s six first-half assists. But the Iron Man outscored The Bearded One 9-7 in the first half, which was an unqualified success for both Matthews and the Trail Blazers.
And of course there was LaMarcus Aldridge, nearly 19 minutes into the most dominant offensive playoff performance in franchise history, putting up 16 points to just six for Rockets power forward Terrence Jones. Even Robin Lopez, going up against arguably the best center in the NBA in Dwight Howard, held his own with four points and five rebounds in the first half, not markedly inferior to Howard’s first half line of eight points and six rebounds.
But when it came to which team got the better from their small forwards, the scales tipped heavily in Houston’s favor. While Portland’s Nicolas Batum wasn’t playing particularly poorly, he would admit that he was suffering through a bout of paralysis by analysis while Houston’s Chandler Parsons went 7 of 10 from the field and 3 of 5 from three for 17 first-half points, 13 more than Batum.
“I was thinking too much,” said Batum of his first half performance in Game 1. “I didn’t want to lose this game so I don’t want to do any mistakes. I didn’t do any mistakes, but I didn’t do anything.”
It was undeniable that the Trail Blazers would need more from Batum in order to steal the first game of the series. But in order for that to happen, someone would have to be honest with the 6-8 Frenchman. Enter Mo Williams.
The veteran point guard could sense slippage in Batum’s first-half performance. He knew that, with Lillard, Aldridge, Harden and Howard all having advantages over their counterparts, the series could tilt toward whichever team got the better performance from their respective small forward. And in the first half of Game 1, that advantage was Houston’s.
So Williams did what he was partially brought to Portland in the offseason to do: provide veteran leadership with the credibility that comes with having been an integral piece on numerous playoff teams through his career.
“Everybody has a role on our team,” said Williams. “I just kind of saw it in (Batum) the first half, wasn’t aggressive, thought Chandler Parsons was eating him for lunch. I just had to let him know at halftime because I know he’s better than that.”
And in the second half, Batum proved Williams right. He would finish the game with 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block in 45 minutes while holding Parsons to 3 of 8 shooting from the field and 0 of 4 shooting from three in the second half. According to NBA.com/stats, Parsons would finish the game shooting 40 percent when being defended by Batum in the half court.
“My teammates, especially Mo, talked to me, said “Just play,'” recounted Batum. “I tried to go out and get more shots, be more aggressive, on offense and defense, too.”
A confident and self-possessed man, Batum has never shied away from being honest about his play, often times putting the onus on himself for losses in which he felt he could have done more. But in the high-pressure situation of a playoff game on the road, Batum could have very easily bristled at Williams’ dose of tough love or written it off as finger-pointing. But instead, he embraced the challenge rather than denying its existence.
“In the moment you can’t get mad because it’s just a moment,” said Batum. “At the end, he’s been in the league for years now, former All-Star, he’s been on big teams, played with LeBron in Cleveland, been to conference finals. He knows what he’s talking about. So every time he says something to me, I take it like it’s going to make me better.”
Which it did. But even if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t stop Williams from doing the same thing if the issue arose another time, be it with Batum or another teammate.
“Sometimes they get mad at me but I don’t give a damn,” said Williams. “It’s for the best. At the end of the day, once the emotions get out of it, they appreciate it, they understand where I was coming from. There’s only one goal. We’re just trying to win the game.”
Portland would do just that. The performances of Aldridge and Lillard would rightfully get the headlines, but they couldn’t have won a two-point game in overtime if Batum had played in the second half like he had in the first half.
“The team knows and I know what I’ve got to do to help this team to win,” said Batum. “All of my teammates talk to me if they feel like I’m not in the game. I just try to go and not think too much like I did in the first half and just play. That’s what you’ve got to do in the playoffs, on offense and defense. Just try to be aggressive and play my game.”
As for Williams, he went 1 for 6 from the field for three points while adding two assists and two steals in almost 27 minutes, hardly his best on-court performance. But by helping shake Batum out of his funk, he contributed to Portland’s win greatly while also proving that one-on-one matchups, let alone raw statistical output, isn’t necessarily the end all, be all of a player’s worth.
A happy Friday the 13th to all of you loyal podcast listeners. Before everyone goes their separate ways now that the offseason is here, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net and TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio one last time to record a season-ending edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we attempt recap the series versus the Warriors, which ended in five games with a 125-121 loss at Oracle Arena Wednesday night, and the season in general, discuss the lasting effects of the playoff run and the respect that they earned from around the league due to their performance and look forward to some of the questions the Blazers will have to answer in the offseason, particularly in regard to free agency. And as always, we finish up by answering your Twitter-submitted questions on topics such as the culture the Trail Blazers have developed, (more) free agency, exit interviews and favorite moments from the just-completed season. It’s been a fun one.
Less than 12 hours after being eliminated from the postseason, the Trail Blazers returned to their practice facility in Tualatin to meet with the coaches to discuss offseason plans, clean out their lockers and take questions from the media one last time before starting their vacations.
Here’s the audio and a few quotes from Terry Stotts and the players from today’s exit interviews…
On the 2015-16 season…
“Like I said last night, this has been a special season. This group of players, what they were able to do individually and collectively, our chemistry was really good. We had good guys, they got along, players and coaches. It means a lot and it goes both ways. It was a joy. I think players enjoyed coming to work every day and I know the coaches and staff did, too.”
On whether this was his most rewarding season as a head coach…
“No question. This was an extremely rewarding season because it kind of played out the way we wanted it to. And we’re not talking about the record or the playoffs, everything was about growth, improvement, getting better throughout the season and being better at the end of the season. I think we did that individually and collectively and from a coaching standpoint, that’s as pure as it gets. That’s what coaching is about. You don’t get to experience that very much at the NBA level.”
On whether he expects anyone on his staff to be interviewed for various open head coaching positions…
“I hope so. I can’t say enough about how good my staff is. I think Jay Triano and Nate Tibbetts and David Vanterpool are all ready to be considering for head coaching jobs. I think they’re all prepared to do a great job as a head coach depending on whatever a team is looking for. I hope they get consideration because they’re all very deserving.
On many of his teammates deciding to stay in Portland during the offseason…
“That means a lot because I stay here every summer. I’m used to coming in here like ‘I wonder when everybody else coming back to town,’ you know what I mean? The trainers are here, the coaches are here and it’s an empty gym. And even after the game last night, on the plane, I started getting worried already. I was sitting on the plane like ‘Man, we had some success this year, it was unexpected it was no pressure. Next year people gonna expect a little bit more’ and I started to get worried about too many pats on the back. ‘They weren’t supposed to do this but they did that.’ I started getting worried, but we don’t have those kind of guys. We’ve got hungry guys, we’ve got humble guys that work hard. We had a taste this season as a young group of how well we could do and what it takes. We lost to a really experienced, championship team. That makes me happy to hear that so many guys are going to be here working out in the summer because that lets me know that they see how close we are and they see how important it’s going to be going forward.”
On free agency and having a say in the process…
“I’m pretty sure they’ll communicate what the plans are with me, but like I’ve said in the past, my job is to be a good teammate, to make sure I put in my time and become a better player and that’s what I’ll do. They ask me my opinion on something, I’ll give them my honest opinion, but I love all the guys that we have on our roster now. I think going forward, if we continue to grow together, we’ll be a good team. Obviously it’s a business and rosters change, players make decisions for themselves, so when that time comes, we’ll see what happens. But when they come to me ask for my opinion or what I think about something, I’ll tell them what I think.”
On what he’s looking for as a restricted free agent…
“Any pay raise is going to be significantly higher than what I’m making now. But like I said earlier, it’s just situation really for me. It doesn’t make sense to make a lot of money and go to a team that, if you don’t fit that system, then get paid a lot of money to be frustrated? That doesn’t make sense to me. The culture here, it’s great. I know this organization well, I know the system, know the coaches, players. It’s just real comfortable here. I wouldn’t mind being here, I really wouldn’t. It’s really just coming down to situation and how I can continue to improve as a basketball player.”
On head coach Terry Stotts…
“Definitely think he should get an extension. I feel like everybody here knows that he should get an extension. He’s done a great job with this team. It’s really hard to put into words what he did with this group because nobody expected us to do what we did. Even from Day One, even through the games where we were 11-20, seven-game losing streak, he never folded and he always told us it’s all about trusting the process and we stuck with that throughout this whole year.”
On spending time in Portland this offseason…
“I think, for one, it doesn’t rain a lot in the summer, so that helps. Just being around the facility, 24 hour access, you’re able to get a lot of things done without a distraction. You go home, you go to certain cities, you either got to pay to get in the gym or you’ve got to worry about people interrupting you while you workout. I go back to my high school but sometimes I’ve got to just like lock the door so I can just workout and not have to worry about certain interruptions because you can’t get through a full workout when people are coming in, talk to you. It’s meant to be a compliment to you, it’s hard. So I think it helps that here, you just come in, the doors are locked, you’ve got your finger scan, you workout when you want, the weather is nice. You’re paying rent here anyway, so it makes sense.”
On the camaraderie of the roster and the changes that might be in store…
“I think we had a really unique group. They did a great job of putting together like minds, young guys who are easy to talk to. Nobody is really arrogant or overly cocky. We’ve got some ignorant guys on the team that you guys guys know who’s outlandish with his statements. I won’t put him out there, he knows who he is. Besides that, we all got along well, everybody spoke their minds, nobody was afraid to say certain things. If somebody played bad, if somebody wasn’t doing things the right way, you could address it and nobody would frown or look at you the wrong way. So I like the way our team is put together, I like the work ethic everybody had. This is one of the rare teams where you could hang out with players off the court. Everybody’s got their friends, but I could hang out with any one of the 15 guys off the court and be perfectly comfortable, eat dinner, et cetera… We’ve got a really good unit and a lot of guys made themselves some money this year, a lot of guy’s prices went up. Hopefully we can rekindle the flame, but if not, we had a good run, we had a good year together collectively and wish everybody the best of luck in the free agency process.
On how he’s approaching restricted free agency…
“To be honest with you, I haven’t had a real concrete conversation with my agent about this. I wanted it to be, right now, about my rehab and about supporting the guys, being there however I could, I guess more from an emotional standpoint, for the team. I certainly wish I could have been out there. With that being said, I’m sure we’ll talk within the next couple of days about how we’re going to really approach this, the timing of things, I suppose what teams are interested, what teams would maybe like to meet in person. I don’t have a concrete plan at this point. Restricted free agency, it gets a little hairy, it takes time, teams maybe don’t want to tie their money up. I honestly don’t know all the ins and outs of it. Like I said before the season when I didn’t accept an extension, I’m confident in where I’m at. It’s my agent’s job to present whatever he has on his mind and what’s on my plate from that side of things. My job right now is simply to rehab my shoulder, continue to work on my leg strength, which is a huge focus of mine for this summer, and just figure out different way in the weight room or out here, even simple things as ball handling, just trying to improve as a player and as a man.”
On why he’s going to spend much of the offseason in Portland…
“I’m coming back to Portland just because went through all that rain, got to enjoy some of the sun. I like it here. I’m renting a spot, so I’m just going to stay here. I like Todd (Forcier) and BK (Ben Kenyon) and those guys, so definitely going to put a lot of work in in the weight room. It’s always good vibes here so I don’t think guys want to get away. Some teams, you want to get away just because you don’t like certain people. It’s not like that here. I enjoyed being here so that’s why I’m going to stick around and do most of my training out here.”
On the realities of keeping a roster with multiple free agents together…
“It’s going to be tricky with all the salary cap stuff going on. I think a lot of the guys who are free agents definitely raised their value. I think everyone did. You never know. I hope all those guys get paid well, I think they will. They deserve it. You just never know with free agency, who they go after and things like that, but I hope everybody comes back, but that’s not really realistic. It doesn’t really work like that in the league. I just tried to enjoy that time yesterday because I’ve been around a little bit and I know how the business side of things work.”
On his mindset going into the offseason…
“This summer is big for me, become more of a scoring threat. I think there’s a lot to be added. I look forward, if the opportunity is there, to come back to have some stability from a staff perspective. I would look forward to coming back to a similar situation from one season to the next. I’ve played for three coaches in three years, so I think that would be something I’d look forward to as well… Once you’ve been traded, you never know.”
On being a restricted free agent…
“Free agency is something I haven’t really thought about. I’ve tried not to think about it during the season and we just finished yesterday, so it hasn’t really been on my mind yet. It’s something that we’ll have to think about soon.”
On his first season in Portland…
I loved it. It was by far the most fun season I’ve had. These guys here are great, the organization is great. I really, really enjoyed it and looking forward to seeing what happens this summer.”
On his first season in Portland…
“It’s the most fun year I think I’ve had as a pro. We had a great group of guys, high character guys, silly guys and it was a fun year. That’s without even being on the court. On the court, we had a special group. We came together halfway through, really made it a special year all the way until last night when we’re playing against the champions, gave them all we had. Played a tough series, obviously it didn’t end the way that we wanted it to, but it’s a year we’re all proud of.”
His thoughts on entering free agency and what he’s looking for…
This is my second time doing it and it’ll be a little different than the first time. I think getting a taste of what this year and this postseason was like and how much fun, how competitive it is, I think, number one, being on a team that’s a winning team. It’s obviously tough to get on one of the elite elite teams, but that could be a possibility. That could easily be a possibility here. Being on a team that is about winning and that’s a good fit for me.
On his first season with the Trail Blazers…
“It was an amazing journey of growth. We grew a lot throughout the season, personally and as a team. It was just fun to be a part of it.”
How he looks back on the season in terms of enjoyment…
The season was great. Any time you have guys that are the same age, it just makes it a lot easier to get along. It’s easy to have relatable points, different things like that. A lot of us are going through similar things in our careers so you get to relate on that note. When it came to comfortably in that sense, it was just unbelievable. And then I think that’s why the chemistry was there as well. Even our vets and the older guys like Chris Kaman, they were a joy to be around as well. From top to bottom, everybody was kind of in that same wavelength of what they were trying to do. It just made it easy to get along.
OAKLAND — Though they had every reason to do so, the 2015-16 Trail Blazers refused to give in to despair or doubt. Despite being picked as one of the worst teams in the NBA, they declared before training camp that their goal was to make the playoffs. When they were nine games below .500 before the start of the new year, they kept plugging along, never allowing themselves to take the easy road to the lottery.
When they eventually made the playoffs, they overcame a 2-0 deficit to advance to the second round for just the second time in 16 years. And after going down 2-0 to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a team that set the NBA record for wins this season, they rallied to win Game Three, forcing at least a Game Five.
And in the end, the 2015-16 Trail Blazers died like they lived: by refusing to give up.
Though facing long odds of overcoming a 3-1 series deficit, the Trail Blazers gave a performance, both in terms of quality and effort, that typified their entire season, though it ultimately wouldn’t be enough, as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to score 62 points to lead the Warriors to a 125-121 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 19,596 Wednesday night at Oracle Arena. With the win, the Warriors have eliminated the Trail Blazers from the postseason by winning the series 4-1.
“This was a remarkable season,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I’ve been in the league coaching for 23 years, it was a special year. We had all young guys who got better. They worked hard. We had success. With success being more than just making the playoffs and the success is more than winning a playoff series.”
Especially considering the circumstances at the start of the season. After replacing four of five starters and nine players in total, most assumed Portland’s 2015-16 campaign would be one devoted to developing the young players they acquired in the offseason while and giving themselves the best odds to secure a lottery pick. But instead, they formed themselves into a tough, never-say-die team that took advantage of low expectations and a weaker than expected Western Conference to shock the NBA by not only making the postseason, but by getting the fifth-seed.
“The goal at the beginning of the season was that we were going to work with the players,” said Stotts. “They were going to get better and we were going to get better as a team. I was talking with my coaches, a lot of times in this league, you don’t get that opportunity to work with a group of guys who come to work every day, there is no drama. They came to work, they got better, we got better, and we had success because of their character and their work ethic every day. So I don’t have to wait long to understand how special this season was.”
The Trail Blazers would hold an 11-point lead in the second half, but, as was often the case in the five-game series, were never able to deliver the knockout blow. The Warriors would eventually take their first lead of the game midway through the third quarter, a lead that would grow to as many as eight points, though that wouldn’t stop the Trail Blazers from hard-charging until the final buzzer. The Trail Blazers cut the Golden State lead to two with under a minute to play, but could never put together enough consecutive makes to win the game or force overtime.
“You’ve also got to take your hat off to (Golden State) and give them credit,” said Damian Lillard. “They did what championship teams do. When it was time to win games, they did things a little bit better than we did in situations where it made a difference in win or loss, and those are the things that we’ve got to grow from. We’ve got to remember these teams and remember executing down the stretch and how important one rebound can end up being.”
In a way, Portland’s play in Game Five, and in the playoffs in general, was a microcosm of Portland’s “special season.” They fought hard, comported themselves far better than most expected, had their opportunities and even looked like they might have played well enough to extend their season before falling just short.
“We went out there and put our best foot forward, and obviously we’ve got a ways to go before we’re a finished product,” said CJ McCollum. “We can all get better individually and collectively as a unit and I think we will. There are no excuses. We competed, but we’re not satisfied losing 4-1, even if the games were close. I don’t think we went into this playoffs like let’s get the gentleman’s sweep as a goal. That’s not how we approached it.”
The Blazers were led by Lillard who went 7-of-24 from the field to finish with 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 39 minutes. CJ McCollum went 11-of-23 for 27 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.
“He was tough,” said Stephen Curry of McCollum. “He kept his foot on the gas pedal, made some tough shots and took advantage of some offensive rebounds and had the confidence to keep shooting and knock them down. So he did what he could to keep his team in the game. He’s a talented player, so that’s what you expect.”
Portland got the kind of performances they needed from the role players to give a team like the Warriors a run for their money. Al-Farouq Aminu shot 50 percent from the field to finish with 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals in 36 minutes. Maurice Harkless added 13 points in 19 minutes.
And then there was Allen Crabbe, who saved his best playoff game for last, going 7-of-9 from the field and 5-of-7 from three to finish with 20 points and three rebounds in 32 minutes.
As for the Warriors, Curry went 10-of-20 from the field and 5-of-11 from three to finish with 29 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes. Thompson went 13-of-17 from the field and 6-of-9 from three for a game-high 33 points to go with two rebounds and an assist in 34 minutes. Draymond Green had one of his quieter offensive games of the series, going just 2-of-7 from the field for 13 points, though he did grab 11 rebounds and hand out six assists. Shaun Livingston came off the bench to added 10 points.
While the Warriors now move on to face the winner of the Spurs/Thunder series in the Western Conference finals, the Trail Blazers head back to Portland to begin their offseason, albeit about a month later than most expected at the start of training camp. Though they head home unhappy with the result, they can take some pride in knowing that, while their season is over, their journey as an up-and-coming team is just beginning.
“I think the experience that we got was great,” said Lillard. “Regardless of what other people expected, I think what we were able to do was reassure ourselves that the foundation that we built this year is the right thing. We did it the right way and that’s what allowed us to be in this position. So we’ve got to continue to work and continue to grow that same thing and do the same things that we have been doing all season long and try to continue going forward.”