A magician’s greatest asset is the gift of illusion, a distraction that takes an audience’s attention away from the mechanics of a trick. Onlookers are so focused on a given aspect, they don’t see a critical factor that makes the end result so eye-opening, so unbelievable.
The Portland Trail Blazers are banking on that.
They’re hoping one aspect flies under the radar not only because of its efficiency, but also because it could decide their postseason fate.
Portland is banking on Nicolas Batum.
His resume doesn’t grab the attention of the average NBA fan, yet the Trail Blazers’ front office contends that Batum remains a top priority for retention.
The suits at One Center Court failed to lock up Batum as late as January, making the next window to resign the fourth-year swingman after July 1.
It seems unfortunate. It seems fitting for a club that has received more negative news than positive this season and is struggling to stay afloat in the postseason hunt.
Then again, it could be the one thing that rejuvenates the Trail Blazers.
On Valentine’s Day, Coach Nate McMillan came to the conclusion that something about his lineup was missing. Something was off. He scratched Wesley Matthews and installed Batum as the starting shooting guard.
This is the key to Portland’s success as the second half of the season gets underway.
Again, Batum’s stats don’t explode off the page, but it’s the productive, efficient and viral performances that make him dangerous.
Since taking his place in the starting lineup, Batum has led the team in scoring (21.3) and blocks (1.5) per game. He’s hitting a team-best 52.1 percent of his shots, including a 45.7 percent mark from three-point range, and is on pace for a career year.
He’s become more aggressive, more confident, and, more importantly, he’s become a contagion.
Matthews, whose role Batum took over, has seen his numbers improve. As has Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Gerald Wallace. Batum was the switch that set these gears in motion, and, although its 3-3 record doesn’t reflect this, Portland’s offense has picked up.
The Trail Blazers are shooting with more accuracy and consistency of late, especially from beyond the arc. Heading into Feb. 14, they hit just 31.1 percent of their three-point attempts, but in the six games leading into the All-Star break, Portland poured it on from long range by connecting on nearly 45 percent of its shots.
What makes Batum’s emergence more appealing to Rip City is the history he has with the final stretch of games.
Through his rookie year, through an injury-plagued sophomore campaign, through an up-and-down third season, Batum has come alive following the break.
His scoring output steadily increased. He consistently crashed the boards. He became a sniper from the field, raising his field goal percentage a considerable amount each and every time out.
Batum put up solid numbers for a second-unit player. As a starter, his performance is All-Star caliber.
His presence, poise and play puts Portland in a place to string together at least seven wins in its first 10 games. After heavyweight matchups with Denver and Miami – both winnable considering Denver’s defensive deficiency and the Trail Blazers’ home court advantage when Miami rolls through – Portland will have a stretch of seven games where six wins is more than doable.
Batum is the magic maker. He’s the catalyst. LaMarcus Aldridge continues to carry the load and keep Portland alive, but Batum is the accelerant to turn any spark into an unfightable fire.