Posts Tagged ‘Nicolas Batum’

Blazers’ would-be depth all in Vegas


VIDEO: The Trail Blazers’ young guns rout the Hawks in Las Vegas Summer League

LAS VEGAS – Two seasons ago the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench was remarkably young and perilously inadequate. Last season, the addition of veteran Mo Williams plus incredibly good health among the starting five limited opportunity for the Blazers’ babies.

As Summer League heats up, that banging sound you hear is opportunity knocking. Which young Blazers finally walk through that door will be an intriguing story line to monitor. The choices are all right here in Vegas. In fact, if the Blazers don’t boast the most players from their big-league team on their Summer League squad then they’re right there near the top.

Six of Portland’s 15 roster players are on its Summer League squad: Guards Will Barton, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum, as well as frontline teammates Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. All six players have either one or two years of league service, and all six are seeking to make a first-time impact in the Blazers’ rotation.

McCollum, Robinson and Leonard are all top 11 draft picks.

“It’s an important summer for our young bigs and and our young perimeter guys,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said as he watched Portland’s summer team beat down Atlanta, 91-76. “CJ, Will and Allen, there’s an opportunity. I can’t say how many minutes, but there’s an opportunity. Joel, Meyers and T-rob, after signing Chris [Kaman], there’s some competition.”

Kaman was granted a two-year, $9.8 million contract coming off two subpar seasons with Dallas and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet Portland felt compelled to sign him up as backup to starter Robin Lopez because they’ve haven’t been able to count on Leonard or Freeland.

The young guards won’t have to contend with Williams, who remains on the market as an unrestricted free agent, however the Blazers signed steady veteran in Steve Blake.

“In my rookie year everyone talked about the bench,” said Leonard, who took a step back last season, partly due to injury. “Last year was a much better year for us, young guys stepped up. Now we need to have even more of a deep bench, confidence from coach to put us in there and know the score isn’t  going to down, we’re going to keep it there or we’re going to increase the lead. It’s confidence in the starters and coaches that when we come in we’re going to do a good job and they can know we’re going to be all right.”

Self-confidence is a big pat of it, too. The leader in that category could be Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick two years ago by Sacramento, who was traded by the Kings and then the Rockets. He played in 70 games for Portland last season, averaging 4.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg in 12.5 mpg. He provided some high energy moments off the bench during the playoffs and now the 23-year-old says he’s discovered what it takes to be a productive NBA player.

“I am where I was supposed to be after my rookie year, making that leap to knowing what type of player you are in this league and knowing what you’re going to do for your team,” Robinson said. “That’s where I am now, where I should have been last year.”

Few expected the Blazers to end up where they did last season, winning 54 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in the last 14 years. They have a dynamic starting five with All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, streak-shooter Wes Matthews, stat-stuffer small forward Nicolas Batum and Lopez, their lunchpail center.

Bench parts at every position are on the roster. Now, with another year under the belts, the question is which ones walk through that door.

Are Blazers too stubborn to survive?

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Spurs-Blazers: Game 4 Preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — By now, everyone knows the definition of insanity.

So the question becomes: Are the Blazers are crazy enough to think they can stop the Spurs without changing the way they defend Tony Parker?

“I think our pick-and-roll [defense] is we like to keep guys on one side and when we keep it on the side our bigs play best,” said guard Damian Lillard. “We have been living all season on guys taking mid-range jump shots and that’s what [Parker] likes, so it’s been working against us.”

Yes, it has.

Parker probably couldn’t do more damage to the Blazers if he took the court swinging a sledgehammer. He comes off screens, gets into the paint and simply breaks them down. If Parker is not pulling up and sticking 16- to 18-foot jumpers right in the faces of the Blazers, then he’s dishing to teammates for easy buckets.

Through the first three games of a shockingly devastating 3-0 blowout, Parker is averaging 29.3 points and 8.5 assists per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field.

Yet the Blazers keep insisting that the solution is just to play harder, not different. It is as if they view change as conceding a weakness.

“It’s not just the pick-and-roll,” said guard Wes Matthews. “It’s everything. It’s us forcing an air ball down 11 in third quarter after being down 20 and Boris Diaw grabs the rebound and makes a layup. It’s those plays. Those are the deflating ones, not so much an All-Star and Finals MVP with pick-and-rolls.”

But it is the pick-and-roll that gets everything started for San Antonio and gives a potent Spurs offense too many easy openings.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts continues to point out that his team has done a much better job of containing the Spurs in the second half of each game. But that’s after the Blazers have fallen behind by 19, 26 and 20 by halftime.

“You can change a little,” Stotts said. “You’re not gonna make drastic changes. You have to do things that fit your personnel, do things that you’ve worked on all year. But we can play zone a little bit, do more switching. There are things that you can tweak here and there, but I think it’s more sustaining what we’re doing.

“Nic [Batum] did a good job on Parker in the second half. We’re not built to be a trapping aggressive, double-teaming team. We haven’t done that all year and you’re not going to do that against the best passing team in the league.”

While it is admirable to have a consistent philosophy, firm beliefs and a resolute will, that can also be mere stubbornness.

“I don’t know if there’s any words for it,” Matthews said with an admiring shake of his head. “They’re playing extremely well. Everybody’s playing at a high level. Everybody on their team is looking like a first option on any other team. They’re playing well together. They’re shooting the ball well. Their conversion rate on our turnovers and our mistakes is off the charts. But they’re beatable. They are beatable.”

Not if they don’t stop Parker from beating them.

Snakes alive! Spurs squeeze Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Spurs stifle Blazers in Game 2

SAN ANTONIO – It was the middle of the second quarter and the Blazers’ biggest offensive weapon had finally found a clear path to the basket.

LaMarcus Aldridge slammed his dunk attempt off the back iron.

On the next trip down the floor, Aldridge took another feed, had another open path to the hoop.

And clanked another dunk.

Snakes in the Portland locker room. Snakes on the rim.

When the Blazers eventually slithered out of the AT&T Center on the wrong end of another clubbing, they probably didn’t feel bitten by a viper as much as squeezed breathless by a powerful boa constrictor.

Aldridge can’t find room to move in the low post. Damian Lillard can’t find enough opportunities to work his shimmy-shake magic. Wes Matthews can’t find anything to do except toss up his arms in frustration and plead his case to referees. The numbers on a map say it’s just 200 miles between Houston and San Antonio, but the Blazers have discovered the brand of basketball might as well come from opposite sides of the planet.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Rockets’ played one-on-one. Now the Spurs play all-as-one.

In the first round, the Rockets played with frantic, nervous energy. Now the Spurs play with the quiet, deadly hum of high voltage power lines.

In the first round, the Rockets often treated the fourth quarters and the final minutes of games as something to give away. “Here, take this.” Now the Spurs treat the opening quarters of games as time to simply smack the Blazers and bloody their noses. “Here, take that.”

At this rate their stock is dropping faster than Johnny Football’s. Maybe even the Cleveland Browns wouldn’t take a gamble on the Blazers.

For a Portland team that just four days ago was still celebrating the first playoff series win for the franchise in 14 years, this has been a step up in class like going from kindergarten to quantum mechanics. While Houston poked and prodded and tweaked and adjusted a defensive plan to try to turn down the heat from the boiling concoction that was Aldridge, the Spurs have turned to Tiago Splitter and told him to be the lid on the pot. He bumps Aldridge. He grinds Aldridge. He bangs Aldridge. He flusters Aldridge. And then Splitter gets help in close to the basket from Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard and anybody else who just feels like taking a swipe or throwing shoulder.

“I missed two dunks and four or five layups,” Aldridge said after a 6-for-23 shooting night and just 16 points. “If those shots go in, then the whole game is different.”

And if pigs had wings, it would be tougher for us to catch that bacon.

It’s never a good thing when coach Terry Stotts is pointing out the highlights of not giving up any fast break points and holding the other guys to just 44 points in the second half. Not when his team gave up 70 points and trailed by 19 at halftime.

On one hand, all the Spurs have done is held the home-court advantage as they now head out to Portland. On the other hand, the Blazers have held the lead for a grand total of 16 seconds in two entire games of playoff basketball.

These are not the Spurs who looked disinterested and disjointed through the first six games against Dallas in the previous round. Now they are back to rolling up and down the court like a road grader, flattening anything in their path. Their deepest-in-the-NBA bench is back. So is their swagger. Manu Ginobili throwing football-style touchdown passes to Leonard on the break. Boris Diaw doing the Jell-O roll through the paint to drop in the kind of shot that was so tasty it made you want to lick the spoon.

These are not the Blazers who looked like the poised ones down the stretch against the discombobulated Rockets.

“No panic,” said the Blazers’ Nicolas Batum. “We know we’ve done bad the last two games.”

On the bright side, nobody was bitten.

Slowing Parker is job one for Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Can the Blazers bounce back in Game 2 vs. the Spurs?

SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich knows a way to slow Tony Parker down. He sat him down for 19 days smack in the middle of the season.

It’s not quite that easy for the Trail Blazers, who have to figure job one in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals is to stop the Spurs’ All-Star point guard from running amok as he did in the series opener.

While all of the very deep San Antonio lineup washed over them like a sandcastle at the beach, it was Parker’s 33 points on 13-for-24 shooting that set the pace and kept the Blazers on their heels all night long.

Parker attacked Portland running the fast break and repeatedly pulled up to knock in mid-range jumpers as the Blazers’ defense concentrated on not letting him get to the rim.

According to the Blazers’ statistics, Parker shot 5-for-5 in the transition game and 8-for-12 when he was able to get into the paint.

“He’s going to get there sometimes,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That’s what he does. We had him 5-for-12 on midrange shots. That’s a number we can live with. But 5-for-5 in transition, that’s a number we have to be better with.

“We have to keep the ball out of the middle as much as we can. The more we can keep him out of the paint, that takes away opportunities for him and his teammates.”

Those were opportunities that might have have come for the Spurs once more this springtime if Popovich hadn’t made the bold decision back on Feb. 10, following a loss at Detroit, to simply shut down his trigger man and leading scorer for nearly three weeks.

“I thought he was more mentally tired than physically tired,” Popovich explained. “He needed time away. No more shootarounds, no more game plans, the whole ball of wax. He just needed to shut down from it all.”

What looks like a perfectly logical move with a 31-year-old who is expected to carry so much of the offensive burden, was not exactly one that Parker swallowed easily. After all, Popovich did not take the same tack with 38-year-old Tim Duncan or 36-year-old Manu Ginobili.

“I [thought] it was too long,” Parker said. “At the same time, I trust Pop. He did a great job with me, Timmy, with Manu, managing us during the year to make sure we stay fresh for the playoffs. You can see the results.”

Including his Game 7 close-out performance in the first round over Dallas, Parker has rung up back-to-back 30-point games after hitting that level just three times during the entire regular season and appears energized.

The Spurs frequently ran Parker off picks against the Blazers and got him the open looks at the basket.

“I’m supposed to provide support,” said Portland center Robin Lopez, who stayed at home to guard the paint. “We’re encouraging him to take mid-range shots. Tony hit a few. In the best of all worlds, we’d be forcing everybody baseline.”

Parker was guarded during the game by Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews. While the preference for Stotts may be to use the length of the 6-foot-9 Batum on Parker, making that shift would force the Blazers to be undersized in their other matchups against Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

“If you take Nic off Leonard, it opens things up for Kawhi and shifts everything down,” Stotts said. “But we’ve done things like that in the past. We have to be able to make those changes and subsequent adjustments.”

Which leaves the dilemma of how to slow Parker?

“You have to be physical with him, like Wes did at the end of the game,” Batum said. “Wes pushed him fullcourt. That’s what you have to do.”

Underdog role suits Trail Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


Video: Spurs-Blazers series preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — So far.

That’s what Damian Lillard said when somebody asked him if that 25-foot, just-before-closing-time, crackling bolt of lightning on Friday was the biggest shot he’d ever made in his life.

It tells you all you need to know about the 23-year-old with the killer grin and assassin’s calm.

It also tells you all you need to know about the Trail Blazers, most of whom have come so far individually to become this team.

“It’s just kinda who were are. I know Damian has talked about being underdogs — Wes (Matthews) being undrafted,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Damian coming from a small school. Some guys feeling like they’ve been a little roughed up in their careers. I don’t think it’s really anything that we foster. I think it’s just grown organically.”

Grown from a chip that they all carry around on their shoulders into a big stick of righteous indignation that the Blazers have used to prod themselves to a different place.

The second round of the playoffs.

“You ask me if I’m counted out?” Matthews said. “Of course. I’m always fueled by being counted out and we’re gonna be counted out of this next series.”

The Spurs have won three of their four franchise championships, been to the The Finals four times and played in the Western Conference finals three on other occasions in the 14 years since Portland last won a playoff series.

Yet the Blazers can hardly wait to take their “nobody-loves-us” burden into San Antonio for Game 1 on Tuesday night.

It is a well-polished routine and they know it by heart:

  • Lillard was under-appreciated and under-recruited coming out of high school and had to play his college ball at Weber State.
  • Matthews was undrafted by the NBA out of Marquette in 2009.
  • Veteran star LaMarcus Aldridge had to fight for respect through five NBA seasons before he was finally selected for an All-Star Game and is still routinely overlooked in the All-NBA voting.
  • Nicolas Batum was just a 19-year-old Frenchman with no more than hope and a light resume when he arrived in Portland in 2008.

When it was mentioned that Robin Lopez isn’t even regarded as the best player in his own family, Batum doubled over laughing.

“Yes, it’s funny,” he said. “Good, not great. It’s who we all are. We all have been through a lot. We have all had our ups and downs to get here. Even L.A. was snubbed for all those All-Star Games. Nobody expects anything from us. Except for the ones in here.”

The Blazers were back on the court at their practice facility after a day to soak in the city’s joy over their accomplishment. Not that many took the plunge.

“I did pretty much the same things I always do,” said a beaming Lillard.

He went home. He relaxed. He watched replays of his shot “maybe 5 or 10 times” and he listened to an almost non-stop string of text messages buzz in on his cell phone.

“I’ve gotten so many videos of it sent to my phone,” Lillard said. “I watch it because every version is different. The thing I enjoyed the most about it was just seeing everybody’s reaction. You got to see how bad our team wanted to win that game.

“It wasn’t about me. You saw the coaches excited that we’re going to be moving on. My teammates running all over the floor. The crowd. I think a couple fans almost ran on the floor. I’m just happy we were able to get that series done. Because the last thing we wanted to do was go back to Houston.”

It was all glorious fun while it lasted. But now there is more serious work ahead against the defending Western Conference champions and the No. 1 seed.

“It’s over with now,” said Lillard. “It’s not like the moment is going to go away. We haven’t gone past the first round in 14 years, so people won’t forget it. But our team, we’ve got to move on from it, and we’ve still got games to play. Our goal wasn’t to make a big shot and be happy with that. I think, if anything, that made us want to get more done.”

The Blazers will continue to wear the underdog role as if it were an expensive fur coat, wrapping themselves up it and preaching that it’s still a cold, disrespecting world out there.

Yet beneath there is a silk lining of self-reliance and growing fearlessness.

“Anytime you win, you’re going to get confidence,” Matthews said. “To win in the fashion that we did, where the games were always tight and nothing was safe, we learned a lot. I think that was a learning process for everybody about how valuable all these possessions were and how fragile it could be and a wrong bounce could send you to a Game 7 that you don’t want to be in. Now, I don’t think there’s a limit.”

Maybe there never has been, at least in their own minds.

“We were up 3-1 on Houston,” Lillard said. “To be honest, after the first game, we felt like we were going to win the series. I think getting it done, we proved more to other people than we proved to ourselves. There’s no reason now to think it can’t go on.”

Lillard becomes one for the ages

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard joins Arena Link to discuss the big shot

PORTLAND, Ore. — Teammate Thomas Robinson says you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This was just a start for the kid.

If that’s the case, Damian Lillard‘s next trick will likely be a re-creation of that old McDonald’s commercial with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan: “Over the freeway, through the window, off the scoreboard…”

It wasn’t just a dagger through the heart of the Rockets. It was the kind of shot that defines a career, creates a legend and trails you like a permanent ray of sunshine long after the sneakers and jersey come off and the hair has turned gray.

The official play-by-play sheet called it a “25-foot, 3-point jump shot.”

And Moby Dick was just another whale.

“I’ve seen him do that kind stuff, make shots like that for the past two years,” said Wes Matthews. “From the first day you saw him out on the practice court, you could tell from the way he carried himself. He’s just, well, different.”

It’s the difference that allows a neurosurgeon to poke around inside somebody’s brain with with the sheer confidence, maybe the utter arrogance, that he just won’t slip with the scalpel.

It’s the difference that diamond cutter has when he knows that he won’t turn that big, expensive bauble into cheap rock with a bad tap on the chisel.

“I mean, I got a pretty good look,” said the 23 year old who might as well be an ageless Yoda doing tricks with a light saber. “Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”

It came after Chandler Parson‘s out-of-the-blue put-back had given the Rockets a 98-96 lead with 0.9 seconds left.

“The first thing I did when I saw Parson’s shot go in was look at the clock,” Lillard said. “I saw there was time. I knew we would have a shot. I just didn’t know what kind.”

It was the kind of shot that will replayed on the giant video screen at the Moda Center or whatever new-fangled arena comes next for as long as they play basketball in Portland. The biggest last-second shot in Blazers’ history.

It came fittingly on a night when the franchise honored the legendary coach Jack Ramsay, who led the Blazers to their only NBA championship in 1977 and died on Monday.

Rip City — R.I.P. City — indeed.

Up on the screen, there was grainy old color film of Dr. Jack in his wild ’70s disco era plaid pants and wide collars jumping for joy as his share-the-ball Blazers clinched the title.

Down there on the court, just an hour or so later, there were the linear descendants of those Blazers — who move without the ball, do all the little things and play unselfishly — leaping into each other’s arm.

“When he made the shot, I didn’t let him go for the next three minutes,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, the workhorse who carried the Blazers, averaging 29.8 points in the series.

It was not just a Portland moment, but an NBA moment, the kind that should be frozen in Jurassic amber.

Lillard’s was the first buzzer-beating shot to clinch a playoff series since John Stockton did it to the Rockets’ ancestors in the 1997 Western Conference finals.

Put it a gold frame and hang it behind a velvet rope with:

Ralph Sampson‘s rim-rattling prayer that beat the Lakers and sent the Rockets to the 1986 Western Conference Finals.

Garfield Heard‘s heave for the Suns that forced triple overtime at Boston Garden In the 1976 Finals.

Derek Fisher‘s running miracle with 0.4 seconds in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals that beat the Spurs.

– And yes, even Michael Jordan‘s hanging, leaning, drifting to the side jumper over a helpless Craig Ehlo in the Bulls’ Game 5 clincher of the first round in 1989.

That last one started a legend. To hear the Blazers tell it, their second-year guard is already writing the first few chapters of his own.

“Oh, he’s doing things all the time in practice and all season long in games that you just don’t expect and maybe don’t think are possible,” said center Robin Lopez.

“I’ve been around the NBA for 10 years and played a lot of games with a lot of players and seen a lot of things,” said guard Mo Williams. “I’ve seen shots, yeah. Have I seen a shot like that? Noooooo.”

It ended a series that had three overtime games, only one margin of victory that was by more than single figures. The only double digit lead of the night lasted just 16 seconds. The biggest lead of the second half by either team was four. The cumulative score of the entire series had the Rockets ahead by two points.

Just like they led by two with 0.9 seconds left and when Lillard zipped away from the defender Parson and came zooming wide open right toward the inbounding Nicolas Batum.

“I clapped my hands at Nico,” Lillard said. “He threw it to me and I turned. The rim was right there.”

And Lillard let it fly.

If we ain’t seen nothing yet, that next chapter will be a doozy.

Numbers preview: Rockets-Blazers

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside Stuff: Court Vision

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – At the midway point of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers were just a game behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference.

The Blazers went 23-18 from then on, winning nine of their last 10 games. But that wasn’t good enough to even secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Houston Rockets went 25-11 to close the season and edge Portland for the 4 seed.

This is a matchup of two of the top five offenses in the league and two franchises that have just one playoff series win in the last 13 years.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Houston Rockets (54-28)

Pace: 98.8 (5)
OffRtg: 108.6 (4)
DefRtg: 103.1 (12)
NetRtg: +5.5 (5)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Portland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Rockets notes:

Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

Pace: 97.5 (10)
OffRtg: 108.3 (5)
DefRtg: 104.7 (16)
NetRtg: +3.5 (8)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Houston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Blazers notes:

The matchup

Season series: Rockets won 3-1 (2-0 in Houston)
Pace: 100.2
HOU OffRtg: 114.6 (2nd vs. POR)
POR OffRtg: 105.0 (10th vs. HOU)

Matchup notes:

West Reserves: Injuries Make It Tricky

VIDEO: Debating the West All-Star reserves, Part 1

The big news is Golden State point guard and first-time All-Star Stephen Curry beat out the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul in the fan vote and Kevin Love, despite the Timberwolves’ struggles, surged passed Dwight Howard to give the Western Conference two new starters.

Now get set for big controversy: picking the seven reserves for the 63rd All-Star Game on Feb. 16 in New Orleans.

Start with injuries to Paul and Lakers star Kobe Bryant.

Despite playing only six games this season, Bryant was voted by the fans to start alongside Curry. Bryant said Thursday that someone else should play, but he also said he could play a couple minutes — if he’s able. (If he’s not, new commissioner Adam Silver will name a replacement.)

Paul is a different story. On Wednesday, Paul said he would like to play if he is able to return from a separated right shoulder that was expected to keep him out about six weeks. He sustained the injury on Jan. 3.

That makes things a bit complicated for the Western Conference coaches who will select the seven reserves. If healthy, Paul, an MVP candidate before being injured, is an automatic selection. Unsure if Paul, last year’s All-Star Game MVP, will be back in time, coaches might go ahead and select him, then allow for a commissioner’s replacement if he can’t play.

If Bryant can’t play,  an additional spot for a deserving backcourt player will open among a very crowded field of candidates, and introduce another new starter to the mix, possibly James Harden.

Frontcourt selections also won’t come without controversy. Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin join Love as the starters. Howard, who was second in voting after the third returns two weeks ago, will certainly be selected as a reserve, leaving two open spots.

Coaches will select two backcourt players, three frontcourt players and two wild cards. Some might call it Mission Impossible. (For John Schuhmann’s look at the East, click here.)

THE BACKCOURT

Let’s just go ahead and rattle off the candidates: Paul, Harden, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic and perhaps even Monta Ellis. (Imagine if Russell Westbrook was healthy.) He’d be an automatic selection, forcing  someone else off the roster. Fact is there will deserving players who won‘t get the call.

My picks: Paul and Harden. Harden is the league’s fifth-leading scorer and also averages 5.4 apg and 4.9 rpg on a contending team. Paul is averaging 19.6 ppg and his 11.2 apg is a league-best by two full assists. He’s a magician, plain and simple.

THE FRONTCOURT

Like point guard, the power forward position in the West could practically fill out an entire All-Star squad, so the process of elimination is going to be tough. Look at all the deserving big boys: Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, David Lee, Serge Ibaka and center DeMarcus Cousins (and Marc Gasol, an All-Star last year, but injured for much of the first half isn’t even in the discussion). Do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum must be in the discussion.

My picks: Aldridge, Howard and Nowitzki. Aldridge (24.2 ppg, 11.6 rpg) is having a monstrous season for a top team. Howard is averaging 18.6 ppg, 12.6 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Nowitzki was the hard choice, but he’s averaging more than 21 ppg and has surged up the NBA’s all-time scoring list to No. 13 while keeping the Mavs in the playoff hunt.

VIDEO: Debating the West All-Star reserves, Part 2

THE WILD CARDS

Coaches will chose two players regardless of position. Some coaches might use this spot to balance the roster and others might just pick the two most deserving players. Either way, this could take some time for coaches to figure out because of the number of good choices.

This is also where the injuries to Bryant and Paul make it difficult. If both were out, I would suggest Harden will start and Parker would take Harden’s spot as a reserve. Paul’s absence would allow Lillard to take his spot. My wild cards would then be guard Dragic of the Suns and power forward Anthony Davis of the hometown Pelicans.

However, since I believe the coaches will select Paul, and Bryant is a starter as of now, the above scenario is not applicable.

My picks: Parker and Lillard. It’s impossible to understate Parker’s value to the Spurs. He’s averaging 18.4 ppg and 6.3 apg and is shooting an incredible 51.6 percent. Lillard is fearless in the clutch and is draining 3-pointers at a record pace.

Durant Buries Blazers, Makes MVP Case


VIDEO: Durant scores 46 to lead Thunder past Trail Blazers

OKLAHOMA CITY – They’re piling on the Kevin Durant MVP bandwagon now as it barrels through Western Conference contenders with reckless abandon. Its latest victim, the Portland Trail Blazers, was left to dust off a 46-point onslaught and doff its cap as it rode out of town.

“The guy is the best player in the world right now. What can you say about him?” said Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, a salty defender who fended off the pain of a broken left middle finger better than he could Durant, the league’s runaway leading scorer halfway through the season. “When you watch him on TV, like, he is the best. When you guard him in the game, sometimes you have two guys on him and he makes the shot anyway.

“He’s the MVP. He’s the MVP,” Batum repeated, fiddling with his aching finger. “I mean, six years I have been in this league I have never seen a [performance] like that. Six years.”

Durant’s hot zone is the entire court. He blistered Portland for 11 points in the final 3:23, including a terrific drive through traffic and consecutive 3-point daggers from the top of the arc to give him six long balls on seven attempts. The Blazers’ 95-90 lead went up in smoke as did their lead in the Northwest Division. The Thunder (32-10), clamping down with an underrated or under-appreciated or simply under-talked-about defense, pulled out the 105-97 victory for their fourth consecutive win after briefly regrouping following Russell Westbrook‘s latest setback after Christmas.

They’ve knocked down Golden State, Houston, an improving Sacramento squad and now the Blazers (31-11).

Set up Wednesday night in San Antonio are the Spurs (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) with first place in the West on the line.

And as if anybody needs reminding about the Thunder’s potential, that bespectacled, young fellow wearing skinny jeans and a form-fitting sport coat cheering on the Thunder bench will eventually return.

For now, Durant is putting together a run for the ages. Since Westbrook was lost to a third knee surgery, Durant has padded a resume that today has him atop the MVP race he’s run a strong second for several years to LeBron James. Tuesday’s ultra-efficient 46 points came on 17 made baskets on 25 attempts.

But then that’s becoming old news, too. When he put 54 on the Warriors he did it on 19-for-28 shooting. He only needs a couple percentage points from the free throw line to again be in 50-40-90 territory.

“I’m not just being biased, he’s at an MVP-type level,” teammate Kendrick Perkins said. “Right now, if you had to give an award away today you’d have to give it to Kevin Durant.”

Tuesday’s 46 marked the fourth time in the last 10 games he’s scored at least 46. He’s also hit 48, twice. He’s scored more than 30 in the last eight games, the longest such streak of his career. In the last 14 games without his superstar buddy at the point, Durant has averaged 36.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.6 apg and just 2.9 turnovers in 38.1 mpg. He’s coming off being named the West’s Player of the Week and has already been named the conference’s Player of the Month for the first two months.

Durant, classically and predictably, downplayed his brilliance and praised teammates for doing the hard work to set him up to finish things off.

“You know Perkins giving his body up for me, Serge [Ibaka] is giving his body up, Nick [Collison] and Steven [Adams] , our bigs are doing a great job of getting me open and, like I always say, it’s on me to finish,” Durant said. “So I have to put in the work before and after practice, shootarounds, in order for me to make those shots. My teammates do a great job of setting me up. It’s far more than just me; it’s a small part actually. What I do is more so plays coach [Scott Brooks] calls and the screens being set and the passes being sent. I think the end result is just on me, just trusting in the work and believing in the work to knock those shots down.”

Most impressive is Durant, who also had five rebounds and four assists, is forcing nothing. Everything is coming within the offense. At the half, Jackson had 12 shot attempts to Durant’s 11. Ibaka had nine. Jeremy Lamb had six. Durant scored 15 points in 12 minutes of the first quarter; five points in five minutes in the second; 12 points in 12 minutes in the third; and 14 in nine minutes in the fourth.

“MVP performance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I mean, to score 46 points on 25 shots, 6-for-7 from 3s; I think he got two of his shots blocked. I mean it was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered, he took his time, he didn’t force it, he just took what was there and made some great shots.”

For much of the game, Stotts’ own star, LaMarcus Aldridge, went punch-for-punch with Durant, finishing with 29 points and 16 rebounds, but Thunder center Kendrick Perkins held him to 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter. Maybe the Blazers, who won in OKC on New Year’s Eve with a late comeback, simply ran out of gas playing a third game in four nights and the second of a back-to-back.

Even so, the Thunder took the game and again sounded the alarm that they are a team in every sense of the word — deep, together, defensive and determined. Durant is a monster and a title run is going to require a full-throttle Westbrook, a reality that now only seems a matter of time, but this is arguably the most complete team of the Thunder era.

It is, inarguably, the most ferocious defensive team in the Western  Conference. In the final moments of the Thunder win, Ibaka collected blocks four and five on the same possession. The much-maligned Perkins made a crucial block, got a late steal and buried a 14-foot baseline jumper for a 99-95 lead with 1:36 left.

“I just like our approach to the game,” Durant said. “We’re just playing hard. We’re moving the basketball. We missed some shots, but that happens. We’re just playing for each other. We just have to stick together no matter what. Defensively, I think we’re doing a good job of using our length. They hit some 3s and tough shots on us, but we haven’t gotten down on ourselves, we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves, we just kept playing and tonight is another case.”


VIDEO: The Starters discuss Kevin Durant’s MVP chances

Batum Says He’s Earned All-Star Nod


VIDEO: Nicolas Batum has 14 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists

DALLAS – Portland Trail Blazers do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum readily admits that pal Tony Parker remains France’s No. 1 NBA heartthrob. Perhaps that gap will narrow a bit if Batum is selected to his first Western Conference All-Star team, an honor he says he would relish and, in all honesty, deserves.

NBA All-Star 2014His team’s 31-9 record, and his advanced stats suggest he is right.

“I look at all the small forwards in the West,” Batum told NBA.com Saturday night prior to putting up 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting with seven assists in a blowout win at Dallas. “You know, KD [Kevin Durant], is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

In his sixth season, the soft-spoken Frenchman is quietly having a sensational season playing on the league’s most potent offense. He’s averaging 13.4 ppg, scoring in a variety of ways, and posting career bests in rebounds (6.8 rpg) and assists (5.6 apg). His 46.1 field-goal percentage pales only to his second season in 2009-10 when he shot 51.9 percent, but played in only 37 games. He is shooting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc. His lanky frame and long arms help make him a sturdy defender who often checks the opponent’s top scorer.

On any given night, the 6-foot-8 Batum will post double-digit points or double-digit rebounds or double-digit assists. On some nights he might do it in two of the three categories, if not all three. He owns two triple-doubles this season, plus one points-rebounds double-double and one rebounds-assist double-double. On many nights he flirts with — at least — a double-double of some variety.

As for the All-Star Game, the West’s frontcourt is crowded with contenders, but the majority are power forwards such as Aldridge, Kevin Love, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis, as well as center DeMarcus Cousins.

Delving into the advanced stats reveals Batum’s all-around value to the Blazers as well as his worthiness for a coveted All-Star spot. Here’s how he ranks among the league’s forwards in key categories:

> 1st: In offensive rating (113.5 points team scores per 100 possessions with Batum on the floor)

> 4th: In net rating (10.2, the difference between offensive and defensive rating) behind his teammate Aldridge, Indiana’s David West and Golden State’s Lee)

> 4th: In true shooting percentage (59.2 percent, adjusted to include the value of 3-pointers and free throws) behind Miami’s LeBron James, Oklahoma City’s Durant and Toronto’s Amir Johnson

> 4th: In effective field-goal percentage (55.5 percent, adjusted for 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than 2-pointers) behind James, Johnson and Houston’s Chandler Parsons

> 3rd: In assist percentage (21.9 percent, percent of teammates’ field goals that the player assisted) behind James and Durant

> 5th: Among small forwards in rebound percentage (10.3, percentage of total rebounds a player obtains while on the court) behind New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Dallas’ Shawn Marion, James and Durant

Not too shabby.

Here’s Batum in his own words:

NBA.com: You are a unique player in that you can fill up the stat sheet in a variety of ways. Is there a player you modeled your game after?

NB: When I grew up, my favorite player was Scottie Pippen. He was a guy that could do everything on the court, on offense and defense, and that’s what I love to do. I love to rebound, I love to assist, I love to score points, I love to play defense. I love to do everything on the court, so that’s what I try to do every night.

NBA.com: You said you would be happy to back up Durant on the West All-Star team. Do you believe you have earned the right to do so this season?

NB: I think so. I mean we’re winning, so if we’re winning games — we’re top three in the NBA — we should get at least two guys. I don’t think we’re going to get three guys, but Damian [Lillard] and L.A. will make it for sure.

NBA.com: Do you go into a game with an idea if you will attack as a scorer or facilitator?

NB: It depends on the flow of the game. When I come in and I see like is it going to be Damian’s night or Wesley [Matthews]? I don’t know if I’m going to have a triple-double every night, but if I can do it, I will do it.

NBA.com: So your goal every game is to shoot for a triple-double?

NB: Yeah. if I get like a 14 [points], 10 rebounds, 11 assists, that’s my kind of night. I don’t think I can average a triple-double, I’m not saying that, but I am the type of guy that can do the 14, 8 and 7 every night.

NBA.com: Why do you think more players aren’t as adept in filling up the stat sheet in a variety of ways?

NB: The system we do have helps me to do that. I know all the players I have around me. I know where they are, I watch a lot of video and I know who I am. I just know and read the game situation what I have to do. If I get 10 assists tonight, I get 10 assists. If I get 15, 20 points, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I just adjust my game to the other guys and the coach [Terry Stotts] told me that this season I am going to be the key to success.

NBA.com: It seems a good number of observers are waiting for the Blazers to flatten out a bit after such a first half of the season, or are still not yet ready to declare this team “for real.” Is this team built to continue at its current pace and challenge for the No. 1 spot in the West?

NB: We had a tough stretch at the end of December, beginning of January, like we lost four games out of six. But we knew we were going to go through tough times. The good thing on this team is we are, OK, we lost those four games, but we got back on track, we regrouped, we stayed together and now we’ve got a five-game winning streak. We know that this is the first time we’ve done this. OKC has been there, San Antonio’s been there. Last year we only had 33 wins and were like 11 or 12 in the West and now we are like No. 2 and we will be No. 1 if we win [Saturday]. So after 40 games people might be surprised or expect us to fall down, but we know who we are. We know what we’ve done to be in this position so far, so we are going to try to do the same thing.