PORTLAND — Inside the Rose Garden after every time Nolan Smith does something positive, it sounds like a tween’s iPod’s shuffle blaring through the arena.
Smith hasn’t shown many glimpses of the guy who the Portland Trail Blazers devoted a first-round pick on, so when he does, then “Party In the U.S.A.” breaks out. Smith’s song choice, by the way.
Smith’s smiling mug also flashes on the big screen – it’s rare not to see his face shaped by a big grin – and his teammates on the sideline cheer wildly. Likely because they’ve seen his struggles and his devotion to the game and just want to root on one of the good guys.
So after Saturday night’s 105-99 win over the Utah Jazz, a spontaneous party in the Blazers’ locker room broke out – all in honor of Smith.
“There he goes!” Wesley Matthews exclaimed as Smith walked out of the shower.
“Nol’!” Blazers assistant general manager Steve Rosenberry yelled and sent over a thumbs up sign as soon as Smith acknowledged his greeting.
Smith, as always, melted into laughter and smiles but this time, his on-court performance validated the happiness.
The usual suspects filled the stat sheet. Nicolas Batum flirted with a triple-double of 10 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists. LaMarcus Aldridge contributed his All-Star numbers of 18 and 11 boards. Damian Lillard, playing his first home game since winning a third straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month honor, led all Blazers with 23 points and added eight assists.
Still, Batum, Aldridge and Lillard all saved their praise for the bench and Smith, the often-criticized, second-year backup averaging the lowest minutes per game (7.3) than any other Blazer.
But on Saturday night, Smith made 5-of-7 field goals and scored a season-high 13 in leading the bench movement for 28 points. His spark during the fourth quarter – in which Smith never rested – helped seal a close game as the Blazers improved to 24-23.
After his night was done, Smith walked off the court and was greeted by a smile from his head coach. The sign of approval that Smith – who hadn’t played real minutes since a nightmare outing on January 19 – had just concluded his best performance the year.
“Our bench played well. I’m happy for Nolan that he came in and did a terrific job of playing defense and making his shots and playing like he knows he can,” Stotts said. “He’s played well in practice and he’s done a lot of good things. What he’s done tonight, he’s done before. I’m glad people got a chance to see him do it.”
The announced sold-out crowd of 20,376 fans might have forgotten about Smith’s skill set. Especially considering that Jan. 19 game, in which Smith committed three turnovers through less than three minutes during a second-quarter stretch that buried the Blazers against the Milwaukee Bucks.
That night, a rather subdued Smith raced out of the locker room. He hadn’t played more than four minutes since then, but on Saturday the Blazers would need Smith – and he knew it.
It’s why Smith left the red headband in his stall. In previous games, Smith has sported the headwear look because, “sometimes when I don’t play, I do things to keep myself happy, keep myself upbeat.” However, this was no time for goofy habits. Smith would need to fill the absence of starter Wesley Matthews and backup point Ronnie Price, who both sat out with right ankle sprains.
The depleted backcourt meant Smith absolutely had to log minutes. If fans inside the Rose Garden groaned at the sight of him checking in at the 3:10 mark of the first quarter, teammates never wavered in their confidence.
“He’s always in the gym, I think he’s played some games and he hasn’t played. Then he’s gone games without playing, so that can disturb you,” Lillard said. “It can take your confidence away. It might make guys a little bit selfish and get caught up in their selves. He hasn’t. He’s been at the gym early every day, before practice working – even some nights after games he’ll go shoot.”
Still, Smith’s initial moments on the court were shaky at best. The first time Smith touched the ball, he committed a turnover.
“I had to get it out the way,” Smith joked later. “Wes was the person who said, ‘You got it out of the way, now go play. Be yourself. Loosen up and have fun.’ That’s what I did tonight.”
So, Smith listened to the teammate he calls his “big brother,” and relaxed. On the final possession of the first quarter, Smith dropped in a short floater before the buzzer sounded. The Miley Cyrus song pumped in over the loud cheers and Portland owned the 24-23 advantage.
The Jazz answered with a surprising super sub of their own. Forward DeMarre Carroll, who averages just 5.8 points off the bench, started the second quarter and scored seven quick points on 3-for-3 shooting.
With the lead, the start of the second half belonged to the Jazz starters. When guard Randy Foye hit his fifth 3-pointer, Utah opened its largest gulf of the game at 63-53. However, the Blazers commanded the final six minutes without barely a peep from the Jazz.
Batum set up an Aldridge mid-range jumper followed by Lillard’s 14-footer before Luke Babbitt hit in a 3-pointer. When rookie Will Barton grabbed a rebound and didn’t let go of the ball until splashing it in the net, the Blazers had scored 14 straight points to take the 67-63 lead.
“I thought Will was the key for us early,” said Aldridge of his first-year teammate who finished with seven points, three rebounds and two assists. “I thought guys off the bench played big down the stretch.”
The Blazers started the fourth quarter with the lead, and sent out Smith as the ball handler. However, Smith showed his shooting touch with a corner 3-pointer with 10:09 remaining. When Smith made another, this time in front of the Blazers bench, Matthews jumped from his seat and celebrated by slapping his “little brother” hard on the backside.
Smith’s touch gave Portland the 93-87 lead and the Blazers did not squander it in the final 3:33 of the game.
Smith made all three of his fourth-quarter shots for nine points in the final 12 minutes.
“He’s always happy off the court you can’t tell if he’s unhappy with his situation,” Lillard said of Smith. “I hang out with him and he’s always happy, that’s just the type of person he is. I’m happy to see him go out there and play like that, especially after all he’s been through this season.”
For the first time after a game, a large group of reporters waited by Smith’s stall – he clutched his towel to avoid an accidental flashing for the television cameras and maneuvered ever so gently to avoid bumping into notepads and microphones.
Matthews announced his arrival, Blazers personnel waited around to offer their congratulations and Smith – as always – enjoyed the party.
“It feels good, it definitely feels good,” Smith said. “To give coach confidence and obviously give myself some confidence as well. Now I’m just excited to get back on the court next game and then continue to get better.”
Candace Buckner covers the Blazers for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Twitter handle is @blazerbanter.