PORTLAND — Two minutes into the second quarter, Nicolas Batum, the Frenchman who has established himself as the Trail Blazers’ premier outside shooter, passed up a wide open 3-pointer … and fed the ball to Luke Babbitt.
“I was already running back on defense when he shot it,” Batum said. “I knew it was going in.”
Portland beating New Orleans 99-93 Thursday night is far from a compelling story on its own — especially considering the depleted Hornets’ roster which listed just eight active players.
But when you look at the stat sheet, and see that 16 of those 99 points came from Babbitt, the Blazer who just two hours earlier was best known for knocking down an otherwise meaningless 3-pointer that gave the fans free Chalupas two months ago — then it becomes a tale worth telling.
Nearly two years ago, when Portland selected Babbitt with the 15th overall pick in the draft, an anonymous poll revealed that the University of Nevada product’s peers considered him the best shooter from their draft class. But when Babbitt followed with a rookie season in which he shot 27.3 percent from the field, 18.8 percent from 3-point distance, and an absurd 33.3 percent from the foul line, it would be hard to argue he was one of the top 50 shooters from his draft class.
It’s a much more sound argument now.
Babbitt knocked down four of his six 3-pointers Thursday — including his first four — en route to a career-high 16 points. He has now made 11 of his last 13 3-pointers and is shooting 51.5 percent from deep on the season.
Once a punchline, the second-year forward is suddenly giving the Blazers’ offense a much needed punch.
“That’s what it is, getting an opportunity. All year I feel like I’ve played pretty well,” said Babbitt, whose minutes have increased exponentially since Kaleb Canales replaced Nate McMillan as the team’s head coach. “There’s nothing different with my confidence … but I’m not satisfied with just one game. I want to build off of this.”
Babbitt’s 11 first-half points — which included three 3-pointers — helped keep the Blazers (24-27) in a game in which they trailed by three at the half. The Hornets (13-38) were getting easy looks offensively despite being without Chris Kaman, Jarrett Jack, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
Canales said the halftime message to his team was to pick up the defense, a directive players seemed to embrace as they held New Orleans to 16 third-quarter points.
But Babbitt’s hot hand also played a role, and few of his teammates were surprised.
“Every time there is a 3-point contest in practice, we’re playing for second place,” Batum said of the left-handed Babbitt. “I used to tell him, ‘if you don’t shoot, I’m not going to pass the ball to you anymore.’ He’s the best shooter on this team. Trust me. Now all he has to learn to do is go right.”
LaMarcus Aldridge added that he is seeing a more confident Babbitt than then one from the previous year and a half.
Speaking of Aldridge, the All-Star forward underwent a precautionary MRI on his hip Wednesday. Aldridge said there was no specific incident, but that the joint has been bothering throughout the year and that the pain has not subsided.
That, however, did not prevent him from putting up 25 points and 12 rebounds on 11-of-18 shooting.
Jamal Crawford, on the other hand, was not quite as efficient. The 32-year-old guard went 0 for 6 Thursday and is now 2 of his last 23. Asked how is stroke is feeling, Crawford said fine.
“It’s good. A lot of scorers may miss their first six or seven and get their chance to shoot their way out of it. I don’t have that luxury,” Crawford said. “When you see 1 for 10 here, 0 for 6 here, it can be misleading. I’m still thinking the same. I’m still looking to shoot when I’m open.”
Raymond Felton added 12 points and 10 assists for the Blazers. Yet despite a strong performance and a team win, he found himself apologizing after the game. The point guard missed two free throws with 15 seconds remaining where one make would have given Portland 100 points and, in turn, the fans Chalupas.
“I’m sorry about the Chalupas,” Felton said before even being asked about it. “I was dead tired.”
Portland is still in 12th place in the Western conference and trail the eighth-place Rockets by three games with 15 to play.
The Blazers will take on the Clippers at Staples Center on Friday.