TORONTO — The Portland Trail Blazers almost lost it. They almost let it slip away. Their 17-point fourth quarter lead against the Toronto Raptors vanished on Sunday and they found themselves in overtime, trailing by three in front of a raucous road crowd.
First, the forward swished a three-pointer on the right wing with one and a half minutes to play. Next possession, he shadowed and smothered Raptors forward Rudy Gay, forcing a miss in the paint. Finally Batum converted a cool corner three to make it an eight-point game. With just over a minute left in OT, the Toronto fans who were dialed in started to file out.
Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge make most of the headlines for the Blazers. The reigning Rookie of the Year had 25 points and eight assists in the 118-110 win, the all-star power forward 25 and 11 rebounds. The less decorated Batum, though, was as important as either of them.
"He was huge for us," Lillard said. "He made shots early, he made shots late. He defended Rudy, he defended DeMar [DeRozan], he defended Kyle Lowry. He was all over the place."
Batum ties the team together. He's a supercharged glue guy, asked to guard the opponent's best player in crunch time, rebound and make plays for himself and his teammates.
"He's Mr. Everything," Lillard said.
When Batum hit that first overtime three, he hadn't scored since the third quarter. In the meantime he moved the ball and stretched the defense. You might forget about Batum when watching Portland, then he'll issue a loud reminder of his presence. Sometimes it's a clutch shot. Other times, it's a pretty pass or a block.
Sometimes, it's a violent dunk you could have never seen coming, like the one he crammed on Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas in the third quarter.
"That's who he is," Aldridge said. "He always blends in, then he stands out."
Batum and the Blazers have won six straight games and eight of 10 to start the season. It's their best start since 1999-2000, the last time they made it to the conference finals. Portland's carving out an identity based on an offense both beastly and beautiful. There's a dynamic point guard, a power forward who demands a double team and an almost always perfectly spaced floor. The ball movement is what makes the team so dangerous and so damn fun to watch.
Against Toronto the Blazers made a season-high 15-for-32 three pointers, including 5-for-8 from Batum. This season they've out-assisted their opponents in every game but one and made more threes in all of them.
"It's a lot to handle for 48 [minutes]," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after his team tried to deal with it for 53.
Portland isn't stacked with superstars, but it has a lot of weapons. Head coach Terry Stotts keeps three long-distance shooters on the floor at all times, sometimes four.
"I think that's the key thing," Blazers guard Mo Williams said. "The good thing about this team is I have just as much confidence in Nico as I do in [Aldridge] if one of those guys is open. Same with Dorell [Wright]. You can go down the bench ... you're not looking past a guy like, ‘He can't make a shot, so I'm not going to make that pass even though it's the right play.'
"You get in those situations and that's when team chemistry gets messed up. Guys start doing their own thing and that's when everything kind of goes south."
You could say that Portland's precision and poise reflect the personalities of Aldridge or Lillard. That wouldn't be wrong, but the Blazers also are defined by playing an unselfish and balanced game, which describes Batum perfectly.
Batum finished with 24 points on 8-for-15 shooting, plus six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal against Toronto. The points were a season high, as were the attempts: he isn't one to force it. Once purely a spot-up shooter, he's been empowered to create and facilitate in Stotts' system, which he brought over from his days as a Dallas Mavericks assistant. Averaging 5.4 assists per game, it's no longer a surprise when Batum is in triple-double territory.
"He likes making an assist as much as scoring points," Stotts said.
At the Air Canada Centre, Batum had a bit of a flashback. Several sections were greener than others for Lithuanian Heritage Night. The last time Batum had seen Valanciunas and his Lithuanian fans was two months ago at the Eurobasket gold medal game in Slovenia. Batum scored 17 points and led France to its first ever major basketball championship.
He called it the best moment of his career.
"I said to Jonas, it reminded me of good memories of that," Batum said. "He was like, ‘I know, I know.' "
After the biggest win of his life, Batum wants more. He wants to build on that title and on the season he was having last year before his wrist injury. Batum won't get ahead of himself, though, saying he isn't satisfied and Portland needs to stop letting teams creep back, then making reference to Aldridge's post-game speech after Friday's win in Boston.
"I just told everybody that we've had a great start but we haven't done anything," Aldridge said. "We've put ourselves in a good position but it doesn't mean nothing if we don't continue doing what we're doing."
It's about to get tougher to keep it going. While the Blazers were able to survive against the Raptors, they likely won't have the same leeway when they face Chicago and Golden State at the end of the week. Same goes for Indiana and Oklahoma City in early December. This was the sort of game that good teams find a way to win, but they're still in a soft stretch of the schedule.
While Portland's attack has been phenomenal, its defense has been merely good enough to win. Toronto shot 63 percent in the first quarter, had 62 points in the paint and scored on their last nine possessions of regulation. The roadmap for the Blazers' success will be being great offensively and decent on the other end. They'll still need stops in big moments, and they'll be relying on Batum to fill in the gaps.
"He has to do it all," Aldridge said. "I don't feel like that's too much to ask of him."