While one game doesn't make a trend, can you imagine the rest of the NBA's nervous eye when looking at the Trail Blazers' 108-87 win over Dallas on Thursday?
Oh, they've seen LaMarcus Aldridge's 20-point efficiency before. And Damian Lillard's slashing. And the inside defense of Robin Lopez. And 62-point halves can happen in coach Terry Stotts' flow offense.
But that Blazers' bench?
Nobody in the NBA wanted to see this: CJ McCollum hitting his first three three-pointers; Steve Blake having another error-free game; Will Barton coming in and executing assists on his first two possessions; Thomas Robinson using his defense to neutralize Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman hitting all six of his shots.
"That's what we are going to need from them if we are going to be our best,'' said Lillard, who had 18 points and six assists.
An off-season priority, the Blazers bench has been fortified with the free agent signings of Kaman, the heady and steady big man, and Blake, the measured and meticulous point guard.
But outside of those two veterans, Stotts admits that on any given night, he doesn't know who, or how much, he will use the rest of his bench.
He says it will depend on matchups, and the flow of the game, whether McCollum, Barton, Robinson, Freeland, Dorell Wright, Meyers Leonard or Allen Crabbe play.
"Nobody is in the doghouse, nobody is guaranteed a rotation spot,'' Stotts said. "I've got seven guys who are going to play every night.''
It's a tough balancing act for everyone: Stotts, the players and the front office.
Long-term decisions are looming at shooting guard, and the front office would like to see what it has in McCollum. Stotts has contractual stability, but he knows he has a roster that can win, and win now, so he's interested in stacking victories. And the players, particularly Robinson and Barton, are trying to balance being team players with chasing their next contract.
"It's a tough balance, and there are tough decisions,'' Stotts said. "I have to balance any decision I make ... and I told this to the players ... any decision I make is what I think is in the best interest of winning games and what is in the best interest of the team.''
On Thursday, Stotts made all the right decisions.
The most dramatic change to his substitution pattern against Dallas was starting five reserves at the start of the second quarter, something he hasn't tried all season. Trailing 24-20, he sent out Blake, McCollum, Barton, Robinson and Kaman to go against JJ Barea, Devin Harris, Al-Farouq Aminu, Dirk Nowitzki and Brandan Wright.
Kaman backed down Wright and scored inside while getting fouled. McCollum hit back-to-back threes. Robinson bodied and bothered Nowitzki. Blake hit a three-pointer.
When the smoke cleared, that unit not only held its own, it erased the deficit, outscoring Dallas 13-7 before Stotts started filtering in the starters with 8:19 left.
"It felt good,'' Barton said of the second-quarter burst. "All the guys got out there and contributed, made a little run. It's good for us to get those good minutes and show that we can extend a lead, or keep the game even. That way Coach can trust us in big games or later in the season, because we are going to need it.''
At the start of the fourth quarter, Stotts again looked like a genius, using a three-guard lineup of Lillard, Blake and McCollum and seemingly within a blink, the game was over as Dallas coach Rick Carlisle surrendered with 7:38 left and Portland leading by 21.
A key to the fourth quarter kill shot was the defense of Robinson on Nowitzki. The 7-footer made 1-of-2 shots and had two turnovers in the first four minutes, hardly the stuff to ignite a comeback. Robinson said he was motivated to go against the former MVP.
"I like it when I get guys like that, so I can show that I can guard elite guys,'' Robinson said. " Me being a young player, being a defender is something I want to build into my identity. So I love the challenge of that. I messed up a couple of times, or got a couple fouls, but I just wanted to be aggressive so he had to think about me every time he touched the ball.''
In the fourth quarter, Lillard played 5:56 while no other starter saw the court, a fact Aldridge noted in his postgame address.
"It's good because the starters got rest, and it's always good to see those guys play well,'' Aldridge said.
Probably nobody on the bench has more eyes on him than McCollum. He missed the first part of last season with a broken foot, and by the time he returned, it was as if he missed the Blazers' streaking comet.
But as the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and the player Lillard says is poised to breakout this season, McCollum holds an intrigue unlike the other Blazers reserves.
When he started the season getting first half minutes, only to see that evaporate in the last two games (three minutes versus Golden State, one minute versus Cleveland) I asked Stotts what was going on with McCollum and his place in the rotation.
Bad question, it turns out. Stotts apparently is sick of answering questions about the guard.
"The squeeze on minutes for the bench players is difficult because the starters are going to play, and they are going to play starters minutes,'' Stotts said. "So I think CJ has a lot of game ahead of him, and he has to be ready for the opportunity.''
I asked how I should explain his minutes decreasing from 16 to 10 to 3 to 1.
"I don't know if you can explain it,'' Stotts said. "I think Will has played well. You can ask me why CJ hasn't played, or you can ask me why Will is playing. I'm going to play 9-to-10 guys in the first half, and sometimes it's going to be CJ, sometimes Will, sometimes Allen Crabbe. So there isn't a clear explanation. The decisions I make are to win games.''
The yo-yo effect in McCollum's playing time is something the second-year guard is getting used to, both mentally and physically.
"It's tough; you never know when you are going to play,'' McCollum said. "Coach talked to me a little today after shootaround, just telling me he's noticed me working hard over the course of the summer. I've improved, I've gotten better, and it's more about translating it to the game. You know, some games I'm going to play, some games I'm not, but he said the biggest thing is to stay ready.
"As a professional athlete, that's what you have to do,'' McCollum said. "Your job is to come in and be ready. ''
He said he had "no idea" whether he would play Thursday against Dallas, but McCollum did show that he was ready. He led the Blazers' 42-point bench effort with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. He also added three assists and two rebounds in 21 minutes.
"You never know what's going to happen based on the rotation,'' McCollum said. "But if you do the right things and you work hard, it will pay off.''
By Jason Quick | Oregonlive.com | November 7, 2014