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.