Batum gives Blazers' opponents more trouble

There's more than just two offensive stars on the court

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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Nicolas Batum suffered an avulsion fracture of his left middle finger in the Portland Trail Blazers' loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

Batum will continue to play, listed as probable for Tuesday's game in Sacramento.

It comes at a bad time for the Trail Blazers as they've found themselves relying more heavily on Batum offensively.

Teams have been sending double teams at LaMarcus Aldridge since early in the season. But after Damian Lillard started taking over games in December, teams have been working hard to take Lillard's pick and rolls out of Portland's attack.

Enter Batum, who is third on the team in touches per game and in the top 25 in the NBA, according to NBA.com's player tracking data.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said that during their Dec. 26 game against the Clippers they tried to take Lillard's pick and rolls out of the game and that Batum's were "very important."

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown has seen Batum for many years, through his experience coaching the Australian Olympic basketball team and as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs, coaching Batum's good friend Tony Parker.

Batum has had the tools, the three-point shooting, and the body, says Brown.

"I think his body is one of those ones you step back and you say 'That's a basketball player,' " he said. "And he's getting older and all of those things have added up into pretty special player."

Over the last five games, Batum has averaged seven assists per game, nearly two assists more per game than in the 29 games before. He's also been averaging slightly fewer turnovers.

"Having Nic be able to run pick and rolls has been very helpful," Stotts said. "He's a good decision maker and that frees up the roll man, it frees up Damian off the ball and Wes (Matthews) so having that versatility of having a three man being able to initiate the offense is just a different look for us."

It's nothing new for Aldridge, his teammate for six seasons.

"I told Nic the other day I watched some film from maybe like two or three years ago, he plays the same way," Aldridge said. "He used to make those plays and those passes three years ago, but I think now it's just more noticeable because he's doing it more frequently."

Batum works on ball handling daily with assistant coach Nate Tibbets, something he's focused on improving. Batum knows that the traps are coming on Portland's stars, so it's on him to pick up the slack.

Batum had a great start to last season as well and now with the finger injury he's faced once again with a midseason injury.

Winning, Batum said before he got hurt, has created a different feeling this season.

"We won 27 games. We won 33 last year. When you win, the spirit is different. Practice is different and when you keep winning you're more focused," he said.

The Blazers have corrected their mistakes quicker, he says, and their belief has helped them rarely lose control of games like they did frequently last year.

The Blazers have needed him more than ever as of late and he's also been a boon for Robin Lopez the whole season. Batum has assisted on 34 of Lopez 135 field goals, 20 more than the next closest player.

The Blazers have exceeded all expectations this season, but teams are trying to take away their two stars and force the rest of the Blazers to beat them.

Over the last two weeks, they've needed Batum, now with a fracture in his left middle finger, as much as ever.