In the closing seconds of a tie game against Northwest Division rival Oklahoma City, Nicolas Batum was poised to be a hero.
He collected a pass on the wing and drove through the meat of the Thunder defense toward the rim, with a clear path at the basket in front of him and a Trail Blazers victory in his sights. Batum elevated for the game-winner, but instead of trying to dunk, he opted for a layup as a sellout Rose Garden crowd held its collective breath.
You know how the story ends. Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook was trailing Batum and, at the last second, reached out and swatted the ball from behind as the fourth-quarter buzzer sounded. The game moved into overtime and the Blazers went on to lose, 111-107.
"I still think about that play," Batum said late last week.
It was a painful defeat in a season full of them for the Blazers and perhaps no one took it harder than Batum, who was solemn and dejected afterward in the locker room. But that play -- along with another highlight moment eight days later -- also may have served as defining events in a career that could be permanently changed for the better.
"This play, maybe something happened in my head," Batum said, pointing at his temple. "Now I know. I understand. I've got to go hard every time. I've got to be aggressive."
Over the last four games, since Batum replaced Wesley Matthews in the starting lineup, he's been as aggressive, dominant and dynamic as he's been at any point in his four-season career. It's not just that Batum is averaging 22.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game during the streak. Or that he's shooting 52.9 percent from the field, including 43.5 percent from three-point range.
It's how he's doing it all. He's driving through the heart of defenses for dunks and layups. He's crashing the rim for gritty offensive rebounds. He's taking more chances and showing more creativity on offense, revealing no hesitance to dribble and create his own shot or an open look for teammate. During this breakout four-game run, Batum has attempted 68 field goals and scored 91 points, which includes a career-high 24-shot, 33-point scoring night against the Washington Wizards. It's the most field-goal attempts and most points Batum has recorded in any four-game stretch of his career.
Not just random bursts
Throughout his career, Batum has unleashed random bursts of aggressive play, skying for an alley-oop dunk here or trailing an opponent fast break for an out-of-nowhere block there. And throughout his career, coach Nate McMillan and the Blazers have tried to get Batum to quit bottling up these bursts for special occasions and display them at all times as he roams the court.
Finally, this time seems to have arrived.
"I think Nicolas, his play and what he has done, has kind of separated him from some of the other guys," McMillan said. "You have to be aggressive and attack the basket and he's had a couple plays here in the last few games where either he's dunked the ball or he's gone to the free-throw line. I like his aggressiveness."
So why has this all suddenly emerged now? An increased starting role and more playing time hasn't hurt. And Batum says the early season distraction of his failed contract extension talks is long gone and he is "free" of the burden.
But it's more than any of that. Batum says two plays have changed his game forever.
A stunning dunk
And if the failed layup in that Oklahoma City loss was the moment that squirted lighter fluid on Batum's transformation, another play against the Wizards served as the burning match that lit the fire.
In one of the highlights of the Blazers' season and Batum's career, he drove past a defender on the right wing and into the middle of the key, where the only thing separating him from a bucket were two Washington defenders, including the NBA's second-leading shot blocker, JaVale McGee. But instead of finessing his way to the rim with a layup, as he did against Oklahoma City, Batum skied high and posterized them both with a powerful one-handed dunk.
The Rose Garden crowd went ballistic, but Batum was mostly emotionless as he walked to the free-throw line and high-fived Raymond Felton after the play.
"I had no reaction because I was like, 'Did I dunk on two guys? Yes. And a foul? OK,'" Batum said, smiling, as he recalled the moment.
One game later, he added an aggressive driving baseline dunk against Golden State. Then he scored 15 of the Blazers' first 17 points against the Los Angeles Clippers. Then, as LaMarcus Aldridge returned from a two-game absence and Felton stole headlines with a resurgent game, Batum quietly led the Blazers in scoring during a 97-77 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
All the while, McMillan has started calling plays for Batum and integrating him into the offensive game plan. Batum is suddenly evolving from a complementary piece of the franchise into a focal point.
Early in his career, Blazers fans nicknamed Batum "Batman." But in the long run, if this newfound aggressive game lasts, he might turn out to be Robin to Aldridge's Batman.
"Sometimes, in the past, I got a flash and I was more aggressive, I dunk on people," Batum said. "But I wouldn't do it every time. Sometimes I was worried about getting a block or a charge called on me. But now, sometimes I have to tell myself, 'OK, just go. Go and see what happens.' I've got to be aggressive every game. And now I know I can do it. I feel like a different player