Lillard: Did what we've been doing all season
SALT LAKE CITY – Has Joel Freeland toughened up this year? It appears he has from a production standpoint, however his teammates maintain he’s the same ol’ Joel.
“Joel is probably the toughest European player that I’ve played against,” LaMarcus Aldridge told CSNNW.com. “I never questioned his toughness at all. He’s just getting a chance to show it now.”
As a member of last year’s Portland team that featured one of the worst benches in NBA history, Freeland, who struggled with the speed of the game and was unable to crack the rotation.
That’s not an encouraging sign considering the team bolstered its reserve unit over the summer.
A couple of problems Freeland grappled with last year: his shot was constantly batted away in the paint, he was often pushed out of position on the defensive end and quite frankly, he wasn’t feared. He wasn’t feared by his opponents and apparently, he wasn’t feared by one of his former teammates.
That would change, however.
On March 20 in Chicago last season, Portland was practicing the day before they squared off against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center and things got a little heated.
Freeland and former Trail Blazer Luke Babbitt got into a scuffle.
According to some onlookers, Babbitt was repeatedly fighting through screens using his elbows. After being struck a couple of times already, Freeland warned Babbitt in a not-so-friendly way that that would be his last elbow.
A play later, Babbitt did it again, resulting in a physical altercation. According to an eyewitness, a fired-up Freeland literally picked up Babbitt and threw him to the ground. The two eventually ended up on the floor exchanging blows before teammates intervened and separated them.
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It was made clear on that day: Freeland was not to be disrespected.
“Yeah, you don’t want to mess with Joel,” Aldridge said while shaking his head left to right.
The tough, rugged Joel Freeland we are witnessing today might have derived from that very practice session squabble in Chicago. Freeland says he wouldn’t go that far, but he acknowledged it could have been a turning point from a mindset point of view.
“You can’t back down to anyone in this league,” Freeland told CSNNW.com. “That’s the way I’ve been always brought up and that’s the way I’ve always lived. It wasn’t so much anything to do with that incident, but you stand up for yourself.
“I’ve always played the same way but maybe I wasn’t being as a aggressive as I should have. I’ve always played tough. I’ve never shied away from contact. I wouldn’t put it down to that one incident but I’m just getting comfortable in my place.”
And the league is seeing that his place isn’t to be violated.
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Freeland’s summer regimen is well-documented on how he transformed his body in order to have a chance at playing when it mattered for this Portland Trail Blazers’ squad. But he also got back to being an enforcer on the court, a trait he carried well while playing in the Euro League.
The scuffle with Babbitt simply reminded him that he needed to get back to being himself.
“I’m not trying to come into the league and suddenly think I’m a tough,” he said. “I’m just getting back to playing how I like to play.”
And just to make one thing clear: Freeland isn’t some type of loose cannon looking for trouble. He’s on the edge, but it’s controlled.
For example, when Golden State’s Andrew Bogut threw an elbow to Freeland’s chest in a November game, Freeland did not react, figuring Bogut would be the one getting tossed, thus hurting the Warriors' chances of winning that game.
It was a mature, veteran move. Unfortunately the referees didn’t see fit to throw Bogut out. That’s not the point, though.
As the backup center with his combination of smarts, new-found athleticism, defensive awareness and renewed role as an enforcer, Freeland is finally comfortable in the NBA. And all it took was possibly a fight to get him going.
“I know how to stay under control when I need to,” Freeland said. “A game is one thing but if something like that happened somewhere else, it’s another situation. I’m just being myself and I play better that way.”