PORTLAND – When the Trail Blazers survived another threat from a man named Crawford on Saturday night, Nicolas Batum grabbed the rebound.
Actually, that doesn’t do it justice.
Batum secured, caressed and hugged that leather basketball like he was protecting a small and frightened puppy.
The ball belonged to him – soon to be immortalized inside the Batum home library – and the night belonged to the Blazers as they survived the Los Angeles Clippers, 101-100 in front of a sold-out Rose Garden Arena.
The exhales from the crowd turned into joyful screams as the Blazers (22-21) defeated the third-best team in the Western Conference – albeit without the services of its injured All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
“It’s big,” said Batum, who collected the triple-double with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. “To win this one, especially in a back-to-back with the same team twice in two nights, this one was huge for us.”
Batum produced his second triple-double of the week – and of his career. Only he and Boston’s Rajon Rondo have recorded two triple-doubles in the same week this season. And this one, in the mind of Batum, actually happened.
Last Monday night, Batum recorded 12 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds against the Washington Wizards. However on that night, Wizards guard Jordan Crawford drilled the game-winning shot as Washington shocked the Blazers. Sore about the loss, afterwards Batum would not acknowledge his triple-double feat.
“I’ll think he’ll count this one,” coach Terry Stotts quipped. “He was terrific.”
Batum played every second during the Blazers’ fourth-quarter comeback and though he proved to be the No. 1 offensive option, he played just as capable on the defensive end.
Jamal Crawford, the Clippers’ lights-out sixth man, had a chance to break thousands of hearts with another game-winning jump shot – replacing Jordan Crawford as the new black hat of the Rose Garden. Crawford had the ball in the closing seconds, a fearsome sight because he had spent the fourth quarter scorching the Blazers. Still, Batum knew his former teammate would not drive for a closer shot, so when Crawford rose, Batum soared with him.
All Batum could do was stretch out his hand, contest the 19-jumper and hope for the best.
“I tried to guard him,” Batum said. “If he makes it, he makes it. Just try everything I can.”
When the jumper missed the target, Batum chased down the basketball and never let it out of his sight. After the game, he completed his live on-air television interview while clutching it. Inside the locker room, he placed the ball near his feet. When Joel Freeland tried to pull a fast one and walk away with it, Batum, his jovial tone quickly turning serious, held out his palm until his teammate returned the ball safely. Even while dressed and ready for the flight to Los Angeles, Batum held that ball – not his girlfriend – as he strolled through the hallway.
This game, too, was something to hold on to for the Blazers.
“I think we’re finding out what it takes to win ball games and finding out what it takes to win close ball games,” center J.J. Hickson said. “That’s something that we struggled with earlier in the season, but I feel we’re starting to get it.”
Portland opened a 14-point lead in the second quarter with help from its bench. The Clippers have the best group of reserves in the league, averaging 41.5 points per game while the Blazers’ crew scores a full 25 points off that mark as the worst in the NBA.
So, nothing could have predicted their impact as the Blazers substitutes scored 12 second-quarter points, beginning with the wirily rookie Will Barton showing his Batum-like ability for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. After LaMarcus Aldridge finished a layup through a foul and converted the 3-point play, backup point guard Ronnie Price sped down court, squared up behind a Meyers Leonard screen and floated in a triple from behind the left arc.
The Blazers then went up by 13 points on the unexpected Price-Barton connection. Price remembered a play during the Washington game when he missed an opportunity to get Barton a good look. So, he more than made up for the previous mistake by throwing a behind-the-shoulder lob to Barton for the thunderous dunk.
“You got to give credit to the wide receiver,” Barton joked. “I think that was more of a better catch than a throw.”
At the 6:46 mark of the quarter, Batum drained a 3-pointer and the Blazers held the largest lead, 43-29. But even without Paul, the Clippers worked back into the game and recaptured the lead by the fourth quarter.
The string of close games snapped after the blowout win over the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, but the Blazers know action-packed finishes and needed another to outlast the Clippers.
Trailing 100-91 with 2:38 remaining in the game, the Blazers closed out with 10 unanswered points.
“That’s the identity of this team,” said Wesley Matthews who finished with 18 points. “We play hard every second. We try to compete every possession and we just came out with a win. They’re a tough team. We kinda let a lead slip but we didn’t hang our heads.”
“We just kept going.”
More than any of Batum’s career-high dimes or Damian Lillard’s 3-point shots (4 of 7 for the game), the team defense propelled the Blazers through the fourth quarter – especially with Matthews working tirelessly against Crawford.
Teammates just a year ago, Matthews and Crawford would stay after practice and play one-on-one. The winner of those battles will remain under lock and key but on Saturday night, Crawford, who finished with 19 points and 11 in the fourth quarter, seemed to be getting the better of Matthews with his patented shake-and-bake moves. However, Matthews got him in the end – staying with Crawford and raising a hand in his face to force a long 3-pointer as the Clippers failed to build on their 100-96 lead.
Batum clutched the rebound after the defensive stop and sent a long pass to Matthews as he leaked out for a fast break. While taking the Matt Barnes foul, Matthews finished the layup and converted the 3-point play.
On the next Clippers’ possession, Crawford once again had Matthews one-on-one beyond the top of the arc but had to pass the ball and Lamar Odom missed the long jumper. When Hickson, only a 65-percent free throw shooter, made a pair of foul shots with 45.2 seconds remaining, the Blazers took over the lead and then held on for dear life.
For the final play, Batum switched on Crawford but the defense remained just as steady and the Blazers prevailed.
“We don’t quit, we bounce back, we’re resilient,” Stotts concluded.
The Blazers will face the Clippers again tonight at the Staples Center for a 6:30 p.m. game.
Candace Buckner covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-735-4528 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Twitter handle is @blazerbanter