By Candace Buckner
Columbian staff writer
PORTLAND –The Portland Trail Blazers did not need to depend on Hack-A-Howard for their season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers.
They didn’t need to hold their breath when Kobe Bryant, under a rain of boos, jogged onto the Rose Garden court or send for Rick Carlisle’s how-to beat L.A. guide.
Everything the Blazers would need for their rousing 116-106 win against the Lakers would be found in the most unlikely places.
In the undersized center making the Laker bigs feel small. In the role player who came to Portland on the cheap but showed his undervalued worth. And in the rookie demonstrating his promise by accomplishing something only Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas had done before.
In other words, the Blazers only needed to be themselves on Wednesday night.
“We know what we can do,” said Nicolas Batum, who scored a Blazer-best 26 points. “We know what we can bring every night.”
“We know nobody expects nothing from us this year. We’re a young team, and a new team, everything. But we’ve been working for the past five weeks to be ready for this season.”
They were ready, and who would have thought it?
The fact that the Lakers played without Steve Nash for most of the second half – the 38-year-old point guard limped off the floor with the a left leg contusion at the 10:44 mark of the third quarter and never returned – will be a forgettable footnote in Blazer lore. The Lakers still had the ‘A’ squad available in former MVP (Bryant), a guy who’s won three Defensive Player of the Year awards (Dwight Howard) and an Olympic silver medalist (Pau Gasol). Yet, these Blazers with a roster full of rookies and castoffs still dictated the flow.
“I thought our guys played great tonight,” LaMarcus Aldridge said after his 19-point, three-rebound performance. “Everybody stepped up.”
After 48 minutes of Blazer basketball, this much was revealed:
• Lillard has the confidence of a veteran and a ceiling that reaches past the cheap seats of sold-out Rose Garden.
Lillard waved hello at history, dazzling as he directed the offense with 23 points and 11 assists. He joined hall of famers (Robertson and Thomas) as the only man to reach the 20 and 10 plateau in his NBA debut.
“For him to have 23 and 11 in a game like this,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, “was pretty impressive.”
• Although the 6-foot-9 J.J. Hickson will be outsized against almost every center he matches up with this season, his skill set will still give the Blazers an inside presence.
Hickson did the dirty work during the Blazers’ third-quarter masterpiece. On one play, Hickson roamed free and ripped an offensive rebound out of Gasol’s grasp and sprung back up over his flat-footed opponent for the close-range bucket. Moments later, Hickson scored another bunny off a Lillard assist to give his team the 77-66 lead midway through the quarter.
“We executed the game plan,” Hickson said after his 13 and 10 double-double night. “It’s just Game 1. We have to play this way when it gets to Game 60.”
• And one final lesson: the bench will produce both moments of understated importance as well as rollicking fun.
Rookie Meyers Leonard checked into the game with the belief that he could bend his knees and match Howard muscle for muscle. Although the Blazers sent Howard to the free throw line for 14 attempts by the second quarter – matching his total from the Lakers’ opening night loss against the Dallas Mavericks – when Leonard got his turn, he only strategically hacked Howard to stop open layups. Otherwise, Leonard held his ground.
There were times, however, when Howard had his way.
Leonard was on his own in the second quarter when nearly every Laker offensive play ended in Howard’s hands. And on this low-block island with Howard, the rookie needed a life saver.
During the Lakers’ last stretch of good basketball, with 3:26 remaining in the third quarter, Howard caught a deep pass and spun around, catching Leonard in his chops before scoring. The baby hook pulled Los Angeles within 79-76 and Leonard walked to the team huddle with a sore face.
Still, Leonard was able to tug on Superman’s cape and live to tell about it. Late in the third quarter, Howard worked the paint and once again, bullied Leonard’s body. This time, a whistle for offensive foul ended the abuse. Leonard, woozy but smiling, received a hug from Lillard and a roar from the crowd. Howard, frustrated and complaining, earned his fourth foul.
While Leonard, subtly made an impression off the bench, Sasha Pavlovic was the bench.
Pavlovic, who was basically given away by the Boston Celtics this past offseason, scored his seven points through the Blazers’ third quarter. When Portland called timeout after Howard’s bucket that sliced the lead to 79-76, a dangerous spell for a young team, play resumed with Pavlovic still on the court. After 580 games played in the NBA, Pavlovic knew how to handle the moment.
Impacting quickly, Pavlovic stole a pass and bounced it ahead to Lillard for the dunk. Blazers led 81-76.
Then, Pavlovic stepped around Leonard’s high screen and drilled a mid-range jump shot as Howard closed in too late. Pavlovic went to the line for a potential three-point play and although he missed the free throw, he beat several Lakers frozen in place to the rebound. Howard could only stretch out his arms and frown at teammates after Pavlovic followed his own miss with an uncontested layup. The four-point possession gave the Blazers the 85-76 advantage and highlighted the team’s 13-0 run that closed the quarter.
“Sasha, that little stretch that he had really kind of opened it up,” Stotts said. “Our bench was solid. Guys coming off the bench were all solid and had a solid role… (but) that little sequence just energized our team when we were kind of wobbly and it could have gone either way. It turned the game at that point.”