PORTLAND - For the third consecutive year, I was at the Rose Garden as the Portland Trail Blazers tipped off their home schedule. The Blazers and the Phoenix Suns drew the third, non-national game that was overshadowed by the debut of the Miami Heat's big three and the defending champion L.A. Lakers receiving their rings. The game made up for what it lacked in TV viewers with drama, as Portland rallied from a six-point deficit entering the final period to win going away, 106-92.
As usual, here are five observations from the game.
1. Batum Comes Up Big
When the Blazers needed buckets in the fourth quarter, the player who stepped up was Nicolas Batum. The third-year French forward, starting a season-opener for the first time in his career (he came off the bench as a rookie and was injured at the beginning of 2009-10), scored 11 of his 19 points in the final five minutes as part of an 18-1 Portland run that turned what had been a taut game into a one-sided affair.
As M. Haubs pointed out at The Painted Area earlier today, Batum's role in the gaudy statistical projections for the Blazers is understated. Because he missed half the season and doesn't put up big per-game numbers, Batum's impressive second season largely flew under the radar. At 22, Batum's potential remains enormous, and he flashed many of his skills against the Suns. In order to use Grant Hill on Andre Miller, Phoenix had to put Steve Nash on Batum, who responded by crashing the glass for five offensive rebounds among his 11 total. Late in the game, Nate McMillan put Batum at power forward to match up with the Suns' undersized frontcourt. Batum headed to the perimeter and spotted up for three game-turning makes from beyond the arc.
2. Air Ball
ESPN's John Hollinger, gamely playing through a sprained ankle that had him on crutches, made a good point before tipoff. It's bizarre that the Rose Garden persists on booing Hedo Turkoglu, who all but signed in Portland before spurning the Blazers in favor of an offer from the Toronto Raptors. That turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for Portland, which ended up using the same money on Miller (who finished with nine assists in 27 minutes of action).
After washing out in Toronto, Turkoglu had a dismal debut for Phoenix. He was a huge liability at power forward on defense, failing to contribute on the glass (three boards) and fouling the bigger LaMarcus Aldridge, but we knew that. The hope was that Turkoglu would create equivalent problems at the other end. He failed to do so, scoring six points on 2-of-7 shooting and looking uninterested throughout the evening. The lowlight was a first-half three that came nowhere close to drawing rim, backboard, net or anything else. Fortunately, Turkoglu is only signed through 2013-14.
3. Viva the Positional Revolution
This was a game that our college contributor Drew Cannon would have loved. The Suns are the NBA's most dramatic example of a post-positional team, with four players in their 10-man rotation who are small forwards by trade. Alvin Gentry had three of them on the floor at one point during the fourth quarter. McMillan countered by going briefly to a four-guard lineup of Armon Johnson, Rudy Fernandez, Wesley Matthews and Brandon Roy alongside Marcus Camby. That lineup was +2 in a little more than two minutes of action before Batum returned to the game to provide a more credible "stretch four" option. Don't expect McMillan to go so small against other opponents, but Matthews' versatility already provides a number of lineup options. He spent 12 minutes at the point and played 30 in total off the bench.
4. Nash Numbers
It was an odd night for Nash, who was the game's high scorer with 26 points yet struggled with turnovers throughout the second half. Nash ended up coughing the ball up nine times in total. Several of the miscues seemed attributable to Nash adjusting to several new teammates on the receiving end of his passes. Naturally, his connection with the newcomers is not as strong as it was with Amar'e Stoudemire after five years of playing together.
Phoenix also lacks the same kind of finishers--Gentry emphasized in response to a question about Hakim Warrick that nobody in the league is as dangerous on the pick-and-roll as Stoudemire--which means Nash might be forced to create more for himself, a role in which he is not as comfortable. Nash beat the Blazers as a scorer during the third quarter, when he had 12 points, but the defense forced the Suns to become stagnant down the stretch. Nash was the only Phoenix player to score in the last 8:55 of the game, using seven of the Suns' last 10 shooting possessions.
5. Armon Hammers Them
The performance of rookie Armon Johnson was a pleasant surprise for the Blazers. Saturday's trade that sent Jerryd Bayless to New Orleans means Johnson, a second-round pick out of Nevada, will play regular minutes this season. He was on the floor for nine minutes Tuesday and made the most of them, scoring six points and handing out three assists. Johnson did an excellent job of getting to the basket, and while future opponents will surely overplay his left hand more aggressively, his ability to create off the dribble replaces some of what Bayless gave Portland. As a defender and a ballhandler, Johnson is an upgrade. He led a gorgeous three-on-one fast break during the second quarter that resulted in a Matthews dunk and generally did not look like a 21 year old making his NBA debut.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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