TUALATIN, Ore. – While his sore back improves, Nicolas Batum has played through the discomfort and returned to his roots.
In his past two starts, Batum, who missed the Dec. 10 game due to pain in his back, has worked as the Trail Blazers' Mr. Everything. On Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets, he stuffed the stat sheet like a Christmas stocking and became the first Blazer in history to post at least 10 assists, five steals and five blocks in a game.
Several Blazers out
The Blazers only had nine healthy players in practice on Tuesday and thus, the team emphasized the art of passing in 4-on-4 sets.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts came prepared for the litany of “who practiced, who didn’t” questions. He wrote down the players’ initials on a blue sheet of paper, and read it like a cheat sheet when addressing the media.
Wesley Matthews: did not practice, left hip flexor strain.
Sasha Pavlovic: did not practice, gluteal strain.
Nolan Smith: sent home from practice, illness.
Joel Freeland: did not practice and will not return for a few days, as he must wear a splint for a torn ligament in his right index finger.
The one missing from Stotts’ medical update: LaMarcus Aldridge, who sprained his left ankle late in the game on Sunday and left the Rose Garden on crutches. Aldridge has since abandoned the crutches but did not practice.
“The nine guys who practiced played hard, we got a lot of shots,” Stotts said. “So for the guys who did practice, it was good.”
Those 10 career-high assists broke Batum's previous mark of eight that he set the previous game against the San Antonio Spurs (Dec. 13).
"It was big for me. I've never got 10 assists in the NBA (before)," Batum said after practice on Tuesday afternoon. "That was kind of my game when I was in France before."
After his 2012 Olympic experience, Batum returned stateside as an inspired man.
He had spent the summer as Tony Parker's wingman, the second leading scorer in most of the French national team's games.
So, back in Portland, Batum wanted to shoulder more as a leader, which meant the additional responsibility in scoring as the No. 2 option behind LaMarcus Aldridge.
However, as the past two games revealed, the Blazers are now asking for a different Batum. The skinny, clean-shaven one who balanced his French teams with multiple skill sets.
"I'm not a scorer (who) gets like 25 to 30 points per game. I'm more of a guy like you saw the last game, like points, rebounds, assists and blocks," Batum said. "That's how I'm used to (playing). That's how I play normal."
In his previous four seasons in the NBA, Batum had not recorded averages greater than 1.5 assists a game. Now, after the recent spike of 18 assists in the past two Blazer victories, Batum's average has increased to 3.7 a night.
"Nic is a better passer -- way better passer -- than people give him credit for," J.J. Hickson said. "Nic is a guy, he can be very versatile on the court. He can make the three ball, post up, he can be a facilitator, he can also play defense. So I think depending on how we're doing as a team, he sees how the game is going and picks up where the team leaves off."
Batum the facilitator is a role last seen in the FIBA U19 World Championships. During that 2007 tournament, an 18-year-old Batum posted averages of 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists -- the highest total from his international career.
No one may enjoy this old Nico more than Hickson. On Sunday, Batum delivered five of his team-high 10 assists to Hickson, including two well-executed alley-oop lobs off set plays. Hickson set a season-best mark with 10 field goals and 24 points (10 for 14).
This Batum-Hickson connection blossomed during training camp.
Then, the team was only beginning to learn coach Terry Stotts' offense through 5-on-0 and 5-on-5 plays, but the on-court kinship was still evident.
"We have a natural connection together -- I don't know why, but a natural connection since Day 1," Batum said. "(On Sunday), J.J. tried to give me 10 assists, I tried to give him 20 points. I thought we played a very good game together. I tried to be a small scorer. My game is really to be a facilitator. That's my game. I try to involve everybody. I'm not going (to stop trying) to score points but … If I (produce) 15, 5, 5, 2 and 2 – that's me. So I tried to do that."