Playing without Nurkic: Whether Blazers' small lineup can come up big becomes question of season

Playing without Nurkic: Whether Blazers' small lineup can come up big becomes question of season

SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers’ postseason fate won’t be decided until the last week of the season, and the suspense of their late-season push for the eighth spot is now matched by a new pursuit: Figuring out how to play without Jusuf Nurkic.

The Blazers (38-40) are 1-2 since Nurkic was sidelined for the season’s final seven games with a fractured right leg, reducing their lead over Denver for the final playoff spot to a half-game with four games remaining.

In a season spent fighting mostly on a slippery slope, the Blazers with Nurkic the past six weeks appeared to have found their footing, playing with a balanced inside-and-outside attack on offense and a more imposing and staunch interior defense. 

Now, without the Bosnian big man, the Blazers have been exposed inside and have become, as Damian Lillard suggested after Tuesday’s 106-87 loss in Utah, more predictable on offense.

The defense in particular is of concern, as opposing centers have had their way inside in the three games without Nurkic. The trio of Alex Len, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have combined to shoot 26-of-37 while averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Blazers have alternated at center between playing 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, and 6-foot-9 forwards  Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu.

“I think we are still adjusting,’’ Maurice Harkless said of playing without Nurkic. “It’s different. You know, we just got used to playing with him. I think we hit our stride playing with him. Then for him to go out, it’s obviously tough … We are trying to find balance. We know what we need to do, we just have to go out and do it.’’

How quickly the Blazers figure out how to play without Nurkic is paramount in their quest to secure the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

On offense, the Blazers have talked about experiencing stagnant moments, where player movement has stalled without the anchor of Nurkic initiating pick-and-roll actions. In Tuesday’s loss in Utah, the Blazers had just five assists heading into the fourth quarter before ultimately finishing with eight.

And on defense, they have been at times overpowered by bigger centers, which doesn’t figure to get any easier with upcoming games against Towns, Gobert, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

“Right now, we are just paying a lot of small ball … (which) takes away some dimensions of our offense,’’ Lillard said. “I guess it makes it a little more predictable, easier to guard, but I don’t think it will be that way once we figure out we need more movement, more activity on that end of the floor.’’

Aminu has played admirably at center, both offensively and defensively, but he admits he is still adjusting to play calls as center after playing the last two years as a forward.

Still, it appears coach Terry Stotts is more comfortable playing small – with either Aminu or Vonleh at center – using those lineups more often than Leonard at center.

That’s why Harkless noted that the Blazers need time to adjust to their new small-ball style.

“I think it’s good for us in spurts,’’ Harkless said of the small-lineup. “But I’m not sure how good it us for us over long periods. It gives us versatility – we just have to get used to it.’’

Whether the Blazers have enough time, or margin for error, will add to the intrigue of the season’s final week. Heading into Wednesday night, when Denver plays at Houston, the Blazers own all the advantages over Denver – a half-game lead, the tie-breaker, and a more favorable schedule.

“We know we have a shot – we are still ahead of Denver,’’ Harkless said. “So as long as we just win our games we will be fine. We control our destiny right now … so I think we are in a good spot.’’

Up next: Minnesota at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT).

As Trail Blazers' only remaining center, Meyers Leonard presented with 'huge' opportunity

As Trail Blazers' only remaining center, Meyers Leonard presented with 'huge' opportunity

It was over a steak and seafood dinner on Friday night in downtown Portland when the proverbial torch was passed among Trail Blazers centers.

Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian sensation who has turned around the Blazers season, limped out of El Gaucho restaurant, with Meyers Leonard following and taking notice.

Earlier in the day, Nurkic had learned that the nagging pain he had been playing with in his lower right leg was a fracture, and it would sideline him for at least two weeks and the rest of the regular season.

About a week earlier, long before the pain arrived, and before the news spread around Portland of Nurkic’s unfortunate break, the two big men planned on taking their significant others on a double-date. And when Nurkic said he liked steak and seafood, Leonard knew just the place.

At El Gaucho, Leonard said the two barely broached the subject of Nurkic’s injury, but as Nurkic left the restaurant with what Leonard described as a significant limp, he couldn’t help but put two-and-two together:

The biggest opportunity of Leonard’s career was now before him.

“There’s no other way around it. It’s cut-and-dried,’’ Leonard said. “I’m the only (center) left on the roster.’’

If the Blazers are going to finish their spirited run to the playoffs, Leonard will likely have to play his biggest role of his five-year career – as starting center for the season’s final seven games.

“I’m going to do the best I can to seize this opportunity and help us make the playoffs,’’ Leonard said. “I feel like I can help us in a lot of ways, especially now --  there’s no looking over my shoulder.’’

Leonard described his season as “volatile” in that he has been in-and-out of the rotation and unsure when and how he would be used. And even though Leonard is the only healthy center on the roster, coach Terry Stotts said he will use a “committee” at center until Nurkic is healthy.

In the first game post-Nurkic on Saturday, Leonard started and played 22 minutes while Noah Vonleh and later Al-Farouq Aminu had stints at center.

Team captain Damian Lillard said as much as the Nurkic news was a downer, there was no reason to panic. He said that in part because the Blazers own a 2.5 game lead over Denver with six games left, but also in part because he says he believes in Leonard.

“Meyers is more than capable of getting the job done,’’ Lillard said. “And this is when we need it. We have to believe that, and he has to believe that as well.’’

In his first game with the torch, Leonard had seven points and four rebounds while making 1-of-5 shots during the Blazers’ 130-117 victory over Phoenix.

“I felt good about opportunity in front of me and still do – tonight I would have like to have made more shots --  but even with my ups and downs, I still feel like it’s headed in the right direction,’’ Leonard said.

**

As most of Portland was finding out about Nurkic’s non-displaced fracture of his right fibula on Friday evening, Leonard and his wife, Ellie, were dining with Nurkic and his girlfriend.

While much of Portland grieved, Leonard said their table was upbeat and relaxed.

“His spirits seemed fine, but we probably talked for one minute about it, maybe,’’ Leonard said. “In the middle of the dinner I said ‘Hey, I’m sorry to hear about what happened …’ because I don’t think he was going to bring it up.

 “And he was like, ‘Sometimes, things happen.’’’

Leonard said Nurkic revealed how difficult it was to play on the leg, which he figures he hurt in the Denver game, if not before. After the Denver game, Nurkic played 32 minutes against Houston, finishing with 19 points and 11 rebounds.

“He was saying that elevating off that leg in the last game was crazy,’’ Leonard said. “Everybody was saying ‘Nurk, you have to dunk the ball’ but I don’t think anybody realized how much pain he was in. I tip my cap to him, to be able to come out against a team like Houston and battle like that.’’

Leonard knows a thing or two about playing through pain. For the last two weeks he has been playing with back and hip pain that has left his right leg virtually limp.

He says he is starting to feel stronger, but still can’t explode or jump off his right leg, which has limited his rebounding and ability to finish around the rim. Still, both he and Lillard say he can still impact the game if he isn’t 100 percent.

“This is a huge opportunity for him,’’ Lillard said. “With myself and CJ, and him coming off pick-and-rolls, he is going to get shots, he is going to get looks. He’s a good athlete , he can go in there and rebound – and he is smart. He knows the other team’s plays … so he just has to put it together.’’

Lost in the traditional statistics of Saturday’s was Leonard’s team-leading seven screens that freed up a shooter for a basket, and his ability to space the floor because teams have to respect his outside shooting.

“I felt like I was solid,’’ Leonard said. “We got a win, but I have to keep moving in right direction and help us how I can.’’

He figures to get plenty of chances over the next week as the Blazers play home and away games against both Minnesota and Utah, two teams with formidable big men.

“As long as we are doing well when I’m out there – and I’m setting screens, shooting when I’m open, and making the right plays --  I couldn’t care less about stats,’’ Leonard said. “I just want to help us win and make the playoffs.’’

Never before have the Blazers needed him more. 

Next up: Blazers at Minnesota, 4 p.m. Monday (CSN).

Blazers wake up in the fourth quarter and put away Phoenix for sixth straight win

Blazers wake up in the fourth quarter and put away Phoenix for sixth straight win

It wasn’t until things got a little uneasy in the fourth quarter that the Trail Blazers woke up Saturday and remembered they were in a playoff race.

After letting a 25-point lead dwindle to four in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers went on a 14-0 run to put away the young and foundering Phoenix Suns, padding their lead for the final playoff spot in the West with a 130-117 win at the Moda Center.

It was the sixth straight win for Portland (38-38), which moved to .500 for the first time since it was 12-12 on Dec. 8. The Blazers lead Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot by 2.5 games with six games remaining. Denver plays at Miami on Sunday.

"It's been a long season, a long journey,'' Coach Terry Stotts said about reaching .500. "But we are not done yet. To battle back and be in the eighth spot is an accomplishment, but again, our work is not done.''

Phoenix (22-55) lost its 11th in a row despite 31 points from Devin Booker. 

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 31 points and seven assists and CJ McCollum had 29 points and seven assists, but it was Evan Turner, whose strong fourth quarter helped steer the Blazers out of trouble. Turner scored nine of his 18 points in the fourth, his strongest outing since returning to the Blazers on March 18 from a broken right hand. Coach Terry Stotts after the game said he liked Turner's defense on Booker even more than his offense.

Phoenix, which has shut down many of its usual starters, including Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler, was within 99-95 with 9:56 left, but Portland called a timeout then went on a 14-0 run that was keyed by a three-point play from Turner and three-pointers from McCollum and Lillard.

It was the first game for the Blazers since learning starting center Jusuf Nurkic will be lost for the remainder of the season with a fractured right leg. Meyers Leonard started in his place and had seven points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.

The Blazers looked like they would put the game away early, jumping to a 50-25 lead as Phoenix didn’t look interested in playing defense or staying focused on much of anything. But the Blazers got complacent and started settling for outside jumpers, which were off, and Phoenix closed the half on a 24-11 run to draw within 63-53 at halftime.

Noah Vonleh had 12 points and 13 rebounds, Maurice Harkless 13 points and Al-Farouq Aminu 12 points and six rebounds as the Blazers continued their season-long winning streak and completing the season series with Phoenix 3-1.

Next up: Blazers at Minnesota, 6 p.m. Monday (CSN).

Meyers Leonard limited as he tries to play through hip and back pain

Meyers Leonard limited as he tries to play through hip and back pain

Meyers Leonard’s right hip has been in so much pain recently he said he hasn’t been able to sleep at night. The hip pain, compounded with two herniated discs in his back, has left the Trail Blazers big man playing on virtually one leg for the past week and a half, he says.

“It’s a very bizarre feeling to be playing the highest level of basketball while feeling like I have one leg,’’ Leonard said Wednesday. “It’s frustrating to say the least.’’

Leonard had an MRI on the hip on Monday, which revealed some damage, but he wished to keep the issue private.

Leonard said he first felt the hip pain in Phoenix last week, and thought it was just the result of playing in a back-to-back. However, as the trip progressed, he was in nightly pain, so much so that he couldn’t sleep.

He said the combination of herniated L4 and L5 discs and the hip issue have rendered his right leg powerless. He knew it was a problem in New Orleans when he received an inside pass from Al-Farouq Aminu and was blocked as he went to dunk, unable to get his normal elevation.

Since that New Orleans game, Leonard has played seven minutes, three minutes, six minutes and seven minutes. In the 15 games prior, he was averaging 19 minutes a game while playing perhaps his best basketball of the season, with averages of 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 36.6 percent from three-point range.

“I can’t really explode to get rebounds, really,’’ Leonard said. “I’m just trying to hide it, trying my best not to let it show.’’

Against Atlanta, Leonard remembers coach Terry Stotts approaching him and asking him if he could give him three good minutes in the fourth quarter. He did – playing three minutes and hitting 1-of-2 shots while adding a rebound.

“I’m just trying to give some semi-quality minutes,’’ Leonard said. “If you watch the last couple of games it’s only been me trying to get Dame and CJ open on ball screens, get Allen open on pin downs, and get in the way on box outs … and shoot when I’m open. I’m just trying my best not to let it show.’’

Leonard, however, can be seen dragging his right leg in the limited time he has seen recently, in what he says is an effort to become tougher mentally. He said in Detroit last month he was bumped on the right hip during a pregame warmup by assistant Jim Moran and it felt like he had “been shot by a shotgun.”

He took anti-inflammatories and played 18 minutes in that game.

“I’ve just tried to hide it. I’ve got to be tougher about the situation, become tougher mentally.’’ Leonard said. “But it’s real odd to try and play on one leg.’’

Leonard said he has remained on anti-inflammatories and is under a strict rehabilitation and weight lifting regiment to build strength back in his right leg.

“Basically, they say hopefully it will die down in seven to 10 days,’’ Leonard said. “And it has gotten better. On our last trip, in Atlanta, I couldn’t sleep it was so painful. But it has died down with the medication.’’

Any marked improvement doesn’t appear imminent. On Wednesday, Leonard said he attempted a round of three-pointers during practice.

“I couldn’t get any lift off the floor,’’ he said. “It’s just odd, awkward feeling.’’

Leonard's injury comes at a time when the Blazers' already have center Ed Davis out for the season after undergoing left shoulder surgery on March 7. With Leonard's limited availability, Noah Vonleh on Tuesday played extended minutes at backup center behind starter Jusuf Nurkic. 

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (KGW)

The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

When Damian Lillard retreated to his Lake Oswego home during the All-Star Break last month, he did more than just rest his aching body.

He healed a troubled mind, and worried heart.

As much as the Trail Blazers’ 23-33 record at the time was bothering him, so too was a family matter that touched him to his core.

“If it’s really in my heart, it’s going to weigh on me, consume me,’’ Lillard said while touching his chest.

Lillard asked that the issue remain private, but he admitted it had seeped so deeply into him that it affected his sleep, his focus, his persona, and ultimately, his play.

“It wasn’t like I was going through something off the court, then it was working out on the court,’’ Lillard remembered. “It was like – we’re losing games, we’re not performing like we need to, I’m not playing my best basketball, and I’ve got things stressing me off the floor. It was kind of a tough spot.’’

So during the mid-February break, he holed up in his Lake Oswego home and did something he hasn’t done in some time:

He opened himself up and let those close to him inside.

From his home, he phoned his grandmother. His uncle. And three times he spoke with his former college assistant coach, whom he calls one of the most important people in his life.

“That was the first time in a long time that I allowed people to pour into me, to give something to me,’’ Lillard said.

By the time the break was over, Lillard said more than his ankle had healed. He had become liberated from a burden he had carried for much of the season.

“A weight,’’ Lillard said, “was lifted off my back.’’

That weight has freed him to assume a more familiar load – the Trail Blazers – and since the All-Star Break Lillard has been one of the NBA’s most dominant players, carrying the Blazers from the precipice of a disappointing season to the cusp of perhaps a memorable late-season run.

Lillard is averaging 31.2 points since the break, a mark eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook, while leading the Blazers to a 9-4 record and to within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Never was his newfound liberation more on display than the last week, when the Blazers went 4-1 on a crucial five-game trip. Lillard averaged 36 points while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 54.8 percent from three point range, which was capped by a 49-point performance Sunday at Miami.

On Monday, Lillard was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the third time in his career. 

“Dame,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “is leading the charge.’’

**

Lillard, of course, is not unique in encountering personal struggles during the course of a season.

Teammate Maurice Harkless said he has dealt with personal issues both last season and this season. And Meyers Leonard recently revealed his beloved Siberian Husky, Bella, was diagnosed with lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy.

“We all go through things; we are human,’’ Harkless said. “I’m not going to go too deep into detail, but there’s been times in my career where you have family stuff, stuff with your friends, or something happens to you, and when you wake up, if affects your mood the whole day.’’

Leonard two weeks ago was on the road when he learned of Bella’s sickness, and was so devastated that he had trouble sleeping, let alone focusing on the game. When the team celebrated a victory in the locker room at Oklahoma City, Leonard was by himself, crying.

“Almost every NBA player deals with more than people think,’’ Leonard said. “Yes, we are treated so well, but a lot of times people see us almost as robots. It’s almost like we don’t have feelings.’’

Harkless said so much goes into being a professional athlete, both mentally and physically, that it starts the minute you wake up.

“The game is not just two hours on the court,’’ Harkless said. “It’s the whole day. Preparation starts when you wake up. So when you are going through something else, it affects your mood, affects the way you prepare, affects the way you play. It’s as simple as that.’’

There were signs something was amiss with Lillard. His bottle-rocket start to the season, which put him in the early MVP conversation, tailed off amid shaky shooting and rashes of turnovers. Radio talk shows wondered if he had become content playing in the first season of his $125 million contract, or disengaged with the team’s poor start.

More tangible signs could be seen in his body language. His smile and playfulness were not as easily displayed, instead replaced by a quietness and steely stare. And his interactions with the media, where he is always one of the most cooperative and insightful interviews in the league, started becoming shorter, and more terse.

After the Blazers’ last game before the All-Star Break, in Utah, Lillard stayed in the arena long after the team had departed. With his head down, Lillard sat in the shadows underneath the bleachers with assistant David Vanterpool, engaged in a long conversation.

 “I was trying to do what I need to do on the court, but I also had some personal things with my family, and I was trying to manage all this stuff,’’ Lillard said. “It was wearing me out. It was just hard.’’

Around the All-Star Break, Lillard talked with his mentor, Phil Beckner – the former assistant coach of Lillard at Weber State who is now with Boise State. Beckner, who has travelled to China with Lillard and trains with him during the summer, said he could sense something was wrong.

“He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders,’’ Beckner recalled.

Over the course of the week-long break, Beckner said the two had three one-hour phone conversations.

Those conversations, Lillard said, opened the door to his liberation.

**

For as long as Lillard can remember, this is how he would handle a conversation within his circle:

“Hey Dame, you good?”

“Yeah, I’m good. How are you?’’

From there, Lillard would absorb the life, and sometimes problems, of those people.

“Automatically, I would always flip it to ‘what’s up with you?’’’ Lillard said. “For me, I’ve always tried to be there for people.’’

But somewhere in all those conversations, somewhere in all the goodwill Lillard was  bestowing upon family, friends and co-workers, he forgot about himself.

Beckner could sense Lillard was becoming bottled up with emotion and that it was starting to overwhelm.

“I thought where he was with how the team was doing, and with the other stuff he was going through, he was trying to get it all done in a hurry, and on his own,’’ Beckner said.

So the former coach offered some advice.

“He told me I have to allow people to pour into you,’’ Lillard said. “He said I can’t always be the one to pour into other people, because I would drain myself. So he told me to open myself up and allow people to pour into me so I can have something to give.’’

So during the All-Star Break, save for nightly workouts at the practice facility, Lillard said he didn’t leave his home. Inside, he picked up the phone and took Beckner’s advice. He opened himself, and his problems, to his family.

“Had a long conversation with grandma. We talked about it,’’ Lillard said. “Called my uncle. We talked about it. It was real helpful. When people genuinely love you, and they care about you and they know who you are as a person,  they can come forward, and that’s what my family did. Just hearing those voices and having that support, it allowed me to relax.’’

**

When Lillard and the Blazers reconvened in Orlando after the All-Star Break, it was clear the team’s star had returned to his old self.

After a sterling fourth quarter performance in a win over Orlando, Lillard remarked how his body felt refreshed. It wasn’t until nearly a month later, during a practice in Atlanta, that Lillard revealed his mind was healed, too.

“Once I was able to get to the break, I was able to check in on things, step away, and speak to my people,’’ Lillard said. “Then, I was able to move on from it.’’

Since then, he has been moving the Blazers closer and closer to the playoffs. With a series of stirring games, Lillard has carried the Blazers to wins in eight of their last 10 games.

On the recent 4-1 trip, he ignited each game with inspiring first quarters, averaging more than 12 points in the opening stanza.

“I think it’s just important to come out and establish the mindset ‘We comin’,’’ Lillard said. “As a leader, it’s important for me to spark that up, and I guess put that urgency in our minds that this is the way it’s going to be.’’

He can help establish that mindset because now, his own mind is clear and free.

Up next: Milwaukee at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)

After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

SAN ANTONIO --  When the doors opened Wednesday night to the locker room of what might be the most mercurial team in the NBA, Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was just getting around to the night’s final order of business.

With his feet soaking in a tub of ice and his eyes transfixed on a group chat with his cousins, Lillard felt a sudden urge.

He switched screens on his phone and scanned the night’s NBA scores, and as he turned to teammate CJ McCollum, he transposed himself from star performer to reporter.

“Wizards lost to Dallas … Minnesota lost … New Orleans lost …’’ Lillard said, naming some the teams fighting with Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The most important score of the night went without saying: The Blazers’ gutty 110-106 victory at San Antonio that was as stunning as it was impressive.

It was stunning because it came on the heels of a hideous 100-77 loss the night before in New Orleans, and it was impressive because it came after repelling an MVP-like performance from Kawhi Leonard, the return of LaMarcus Aldridge and the relentless chaos usually imposed by the 52-win Spurs.

It was also another reminder of how unpredictable, and dangerous, this Portland team can be as the season’s final 15 games plays out, a feeling that gained momentum after Lillard reported the scores to McCollum.

 “I was like, man, let’s see who else played tonight … and a few teams we would like to see lose tonight, lost,’’ Lillard said. “We are at that point now – Who won? Who  lost? – especially the times when we win.’’

The win moved Portland (30-37) within two games of Denver (32-35) for the final playoff spot in the West, while remaining one game ahead of Dallas (29-38) and two ahead of Minnesota (28-39).

The 2-1 start on their crucial five-game trip probably didn’t unfold the way Portland envisioned, but then again, not many this season have been able to wrap their minds around the mystery that is the Blazers.

“When you figure us out,’’ a Blazers assistant coach said on his way out of the locker room, “let us know.’’

**

As the Blazers’ late-season surge has been unfolding, so too has an interesting dynamic between Lillard and newcomer Jusuf Nurkic.

As Lillard on Wednesday was studying his phone and later reporting scores in the locker room, Nurkic sat in front of his own locker, wrapped only in a towel, repeatedly shaking his head.

He was a central figure in the Blazers’ ability to repel the Spurs’ fourth-quarter assault, but it was also painfully evident the 22-year-old center was not yet ready to shoulder the full responsibility of such an important moment.

Nurkic had 10 fourth quarter points and in a frenetic free-for-all, he chased down a key rebound with 21 seconds left. But he also had two crucial turnovers, missed two crunch-time free throws, and couldn’t connect on some close-range shots that could have buried the Spurs.

 Hence, the head shaking.

“I’m learning out there,’’ Nurkic said.

Moments later, as he headed to the shower, Nurkic passed by Lillard, who was still soaking his feet in ice. Lillard stuck out his hand and the two quickly slapped hands once, twice, three times before ending with an emphatic fourth connection. Both broke out in laughter, tickled at how such an intricate exchange could be executed with such little time together.  

Since Nurkic arrived in Portland in a mid-February trade, Lillard has studied him, and gone out of his way to not only embrace him, but as he put it, “mold” him.

“With him being young, I’m kind of able to mold him to what I want to do, and the things in how he can help our team more,’’ Lillard said.

Some of that is telling Nurkic to hold his screen longer on pick-and-rolls. And some of that is reminding him to get more power and balance on his inside shot by jumping off two feet, not one.

But he is also helping mold Nurkic emotionally. One of the knocks on Nurkic in Denver was he had a tendency to pout, or obsess when things didn’t go his way, and Lillard has been keen to the warning signs.

“I stay positive with him,’’ Lillard said. “If he throws a turnover, I grab his hand (and say) ‘It’s all right. You are good. It ain’t your fault.’ He wants to do so well and the thing that is great about him is he takes ownership. When he throws ball away he is like ‘I’m messing up’ …’’

Lillard is convinced that Nurkic’s heart is in the right place – he has shown he cares about winning and he wants to play a team game – so Lillard’s focus has been on Nurkic’s mind.

“It’s my job to be positive with him and to continue to encourage him,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard’s attention and positivity has seemingly liberated Nurkic. He often says how he has never played with such a leader, and how a teammate has never inspired him like Lillard. Meanwhile, Nurkic’s big smile and playfulness have become part of the fabric of the Blazers locker room.

On Wednesday, when Nurkic was asked about his inbounds pass with 53 seconds that went into the Spurs’ bench, he grinned and looked across the locker room at  McCollum, who was going through the buffet line.

“I don’t know,’’ Nurkic said, raising his voice so McCollum could hear, “ask CJ what happened.’’

McCollum was the intended recipient of the pass, which he called a “Meyers Leonard chest pass,” but he likened their communication to that of a quarterback and receiver.

“I stopped,’’ McCollum replied back to Nurkic, “and you threw it as a go-route.’’

Nurkic nodded, his smile still wide.

“He’s going to catch it next time,’’ Nurkic said to reporters, before returning his attention back to McCollum. “You almost made me get on Shaqtin’ A Fool.’’

McCollum and Lillard looked at each other and laughed.

“Oh, you gonna be on there anyway,’’ Lillard said of the TNT bloopers segment originated by Shaquille O'Neal.

**

The Blazers have won six of their last eight games, which includes three road victories and quality wins at the Spurs, at Oklahoma City and at home against the Thunder.

If one thing has defined the push, it has been the exceptional play of Lillard, but there is also a growing subplot: a decided growth from some of the Blazers’ role players such as Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard.

Vonleh suddenly looks more comfortable and that has translated into some assertive play underneath that has resulted in dunks and flurries of rebounds. Never was that on display more than Wednesday against the Spurs when Vonleh had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in a season-high 26 minutes.

Lillard remarked on Vonleh’s confidence, and noted how his strong play in the paint has given defenders two options:

“They either have to foul or get dunked on right now,’’ Lillard said of Vonleh’s defenders. “That’s the kind of presence we need to have.’’

Crabbe is also providing a presence as he has become more involved in the offense, in part because of a meeting to brainstorm plays with coach Terry Stotts and McCollum earlier in the month, and in part because of a revamped hold-nothing-back attitude in taking his shot.  

Leonard has also played better of late, perhaps because of a recent visit in Portland with former Blazers assistant Kim Hughes. In the locker room following Tuesday's loss to New Orleans, Leonard's phone buzzed from a text message. It was from Hughes.

"That's my man,'' Leonard said.

They stay in touch often, but recently Hughes was in Portland and the two visited, after which Leonard said his mind was in a better place. Is his improved play a result of his recent interactions with Hughes?

"I guess you could say that,'' Leonard said. 

Aminu, meanwhile, continues to make key contributions – be it with his shot or his defense – that go a long way in making up for his Tasmanian Devil moments of carelessness.

“Chief made the play of the game,’’ Lillard said Wednesday, noting Aminu’s rebound of Kawhi Leonard’s miss with 43 seconds left and the Blazers holding a 104-102 lead.

But nobody and nothing has been more important to the Blazers during this push for the playoffs than Lillard, whose impact as a leader and a performer has been substantial, if not staggering.

“When you the leader of the team, you try not to do it yourself, but lead the charge,’’ Lillard said. “You have to inspire the group, be a leader of men, and you do that by your actions before you say ‘Oh, let’s go!’ You have to give them something to get behind. That’s all I’m trying to do.’’

**

On Friday, the Blazers will get back to work, with a practice in Atlanta that will include the return of Evan Turner from a broken right hand suffered Feb. 7.

Stotts said “the hope” is that Turner will be a full participant, but the coach didn’t want to speculate on whether Turner will play Saturday against the Hawks (37-30), and he has said he is unsure if Turner will regain his starting role.

As encouraging as the Blazers’ win over San Antonio was, it didn’t come without warts, which will surely be addressed in the Friday practice. Once again, the Blazers were shaky in the final minute with their decisions and execution, giving credence to the theory that Portland  -- in its true mercurial ways – can’t help but make games interesting.

“We always do,’’ McCollum said. “You want to see a long game in the fourth quarter? Watch us play.’’

And so the final 15 games await, figuring to bring more intrigue, more ups-and-downs, and more mystery. And like Lillard on Wednesday, we all figure to be watching the scores.

Next up: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)

Blazers shoot around: Aminu to play key role in defending Davis

Blazers shoot around: Aminu to play key role in defending Davis

NEW ORLEANS – Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he will consider using a twin-towers approach tonight against New Orleans, defending Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins with Jusuf Nurkic and Meyers Leonard, but he said he will more likely go with another strategy: Al-Farouq Aminu against Davis.

“I’m open to it (Nurkic and Leonard together), but Chief is my first option,’’ Stotts said. “Chief has guarded Anthony Davis in the past.’’

Stotts said he will not start Aminu – likely sticking with Noah Vonleh and Nurkic as his frontcourt – but the Blazers’ defensive ace will likely see the most time on the Pelicans’ star.

Aminu was hurt in the first meeting between the teams,  prompting Stotts to start Ed Davis alongside Mason Plumlee. Davis is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery and Plumlee was traded to Denver in February.

New Orleans is 3-6 since acquiring Cousins. One of the wins came while he was suspended for technical fouls, another he fouled out and the latest win – in overtime against Charlotte – he didn’t play for the final 9:25.

“It’s difficult to bring a guy into a team and learn things on the fly and get chemistry,’’ Stotts said. “ What has happened with us and Nurk, is the exception rather than the rule. Like I said, both are such talented players they are going to figure out what works and Alivin Gentry is such a terrific offensive coach. That part of it will come around but for the time being they are working on figuring it out.’’

Damian Lillard said the Blazers, who have won 5 of 6, need to capitalize on the mood of each team.

“We have to use that to our advantage: us playing the way we are and them trying to figure it out,’’ Lillard said. “We should come out and prepare for them to play well, because you never know, as good as they are to come out and explode on any given night.’’

Captain carry:  In the Blazers’ win Sunday in Phoenix, Stotts praised Lillard for shouldering the responsibility of carrying the team to victory.

“We willed us to that win,’’ Stotts said.

Lillard, who scored 28 of his 39 points in the first half, said he doesn’t feel any burden or responsibility to carry the team because he trusts his teammates. He went through each teammate – from Aminu to Maurice Harkless to Allen Crabbe to Shabazz Napier -- and remarked how everyone is contributing of late.

“So I don’t feel like I have to shoulder and carry the load,’’ Lillard said. “It’s more just leading and making sure we are sharp in our coverages, and making sure we communicating and managing the game more than anything else. Just trying to control it. Last game I felt like I did a good job of it.’’

Meyers mid-range:  One of the evolving aspects of the Blazers has been the mid-range game of Meyers Leonard, who has become effective with floaters and short jumpers of late.

Leonard said he found that coming off the bench into the game and then immediately taking a three was challenging. He said he finds he can get into a rhythm better by making a dunk or a short-range shot.

“I check in and get an open three and it’s not an easy shot to make,’’ Leonard said. “So I’m looking to play more in the mid-range because then the three’s become easier.’’

Stotts said it’s good for players to change their approach, and it reminds him of how Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki was constantly adapting.

“Meyers is reading the game, and the half-roll to mid-range is there for him,’’ Stotts said. “You have to change it up because the defense game plans for certain things. You can’t do the same thing all the time.’’

Shabazz shining: One of the subtle contributions recently has been the contribution of point guard Shabazz Napier off the bench, both offensively and defensively.

“I like the way he is running the team,’’ Stotts said. “I think he is really focused on getting guys shots, looking to the run the offense. Defensively he has always been a good defensive player for us.’’

Stotts said the major benefactor has been CJ McCollum, because it allows McCollum to play off the ball more.

Tonight's game: Blazers at New Orleans, 5 p.m. (CSN).

Trail Blazers exorcise some ghosts with late rally that puts away Phoenix

Trail Blazers exorcise some ghosts with late rally that puts away Phoenix

PHOENIX – With 5:34 left in a suddenly nip-and-tuck game, and the Trail Blazers reliving the nightmare of losing a big lead, Meyers Leonard confidently made a prediction.

“We are going to win by seven,’’ Leonard said as the Blazers emerged from a timeout up 94-93.

Leonard was only partially right: The Blazers won by nine.

Led by Damian Lillard’s 39 points and a 12-point fourth quarter from CJ McCollum, the Blazers --  for a night at least – exorcised some ghosts by losing a big lead, then coming back to defeat the Suns 110-101 at Talking Stick Arena.

The win came one night after Portland squandered a 21-point halftime lead and eventually lost in overtime to Washington. On Sunday, the Blazers led by 18 in the third quarter on before Phoenix twice took a one-point lead in the fourth quarter.

Around that time, Leonard made his prediction coming out of a timeout. 

"It was understanding time, and our positive energy in the huddle,'' Leonard said of his prediction. "I felt like some of the plays weren't going our way, but we were making the right ones, and also, Dame has the hot hand. Whenever he has it going, I feel pretty confident the way the game is going.''

While Lillard scored 28 of his 39 in the first half, McCollum did his damage late, hitting all five of his shots in the fourth quarter. There were also some momentum plays from Al-Farouq Aminu -- a block thwarting a Suns fast break and a tie-breaking three pointer among them -- and a big three-pointer from Allen Crabbe that helped the Blazers close on a 16-8 run and begin a crucial five-game trip with a win.

“We have to do a better job putting teams away,’’ McCollum said after finishing with 26 points.

It was the fifth win in six games for the Blazers (29-36) and it moved them to within 1.5 games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 17 games remaining.

"I mean, we fighting, that's what it comes down to,'' Lillard said. "It's not always perfect game, not always a pretty game, but down the stretch we've had a chance in every game ... I just like that we are competing. We are playing with a lot of pride. Playing like we care about where our season goes.''

Lillard iced the game with a three-pointer with 1:01 left, pushing the Blazers’ lead to 108-99, finishing the game three points shy of his season high. He went 13-of-26 from the field and added six rebounds and two assists.

"I thought he pretty much willed us to the win,'' coach Terry Stotts said. "You could just tell how he played, his demeanor, the way he fought through some of the adversity. I thought he really shouldered a lot of the responsibilty.''

McCollum hit all five of his shots in the fourth quarter and finished with 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 11-of-20 shooting.

Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic had 12 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and Aminu pitched in nine points and 12 rebounds.

The Suns (22-45) had won four of their past six. They were led by Devin Booker (28 points) and Eric Bledsoe (19 points).

The Blazers led 82-79 heading into the fourth, but they held leads as large as 18 in the third, with Phoenix at one point forging a tie at 77.

Lillard had one of his most dominant halves of the season, leading the Blazers to a 66-50 halftime lead behind 28 points, which included 9-of-14 shooting. He closed the first quarter scoring 11 of the Blazers’ final 13 points and he closed the second quarter scoring 13 of the team’s final 22 points.

The Blazers closed the first quarter on a 21-2 run, turning a 16-12 deficit into a 33-18 lead heading into the second quarter. The spurt was fueled by Lillard, who scored 11 of his 15 points during the run, and Nurkic, who had three blocks and six points, including a coast-to-coast fast break dunk.

Phoenix, which started the game hitting seven of its first 11 shots, finished the first quarter missing 10 of its next 11.

Next up: Blazers at New Orleans, 5 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)

A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

OKLAHOMA CITY – He has become the face of the Trail Blazers’ late-season revival, so perhaps it was fitting that Jusuf Nurkic smiled on his way out of the locker room Tuesday while shrugging off a comment that he had made the season fun again.

“Playoffs,’’ Nurkic said after hitting two crucial inside baskets that broke a tie and led the Blazers to a 126-121 victory at Oklahoma City. “That’s all I care about. Doesn’t matter who scores, I just want playoffs.’’

Once a fading proposition, the playoffs are now as bright as Nurkic’s smile thanks to the big man’s blend of size, skill and savvy which has sparked a three-game winning streak.

Not since training camp, when optimism abounded and goals gushed, have the Trail Blazers felt so good about themselves, and for good reason.

Not only is the team playing its best basketball of the season, it is coming at the most important time, with four weeks left in what figures to be an intense five-team playoff push for the eighth and final spot.

The Blazers (27-35) trail eighth-place Denver by 1.5 games and lead 10th place Dallas by one-half game with 20 games remaining. Twelve of those 20 games will be at the Moda Center and 13 are against teams with losing records.

But more than a weighted home schedule and a favorable slate of opponents, the Blazers are soaring with confidence, which was never more on display than Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where they overcame an early 14-point deficit then held off a furious late-game assault by Russell Westbrook.

“I think it said a lot about where we are in the moment right now,’’ Damian Lillard said.

If there has been a more emphatic and dramatic mid-season addition to the Blazers than Nurkic, it is not coming to mind. His deft passing, burly presence inside and delicate shooting touch is bringing back memories of Arvydas Sabonis.

More important, he has changed the way the Blazers play … in a good way. As evidenced by his two post scores in the final minute with the game on the line, the Blazers have a formidable inside threat perhaps for the first time since the big Lithuanian was lugging around with the No. 11 jersey. 

He has also shored up the defense inside, where Portland was often pushed around and bullied, and nothing exemplifies that more than how Nurkic neutralized Thunder center Steven Adams the past two games after Adams made a habit of embarrassing the Blazers with dunks and rebounds.

“I’ve said it over and over: he’s huge,’’ Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that big, that coordinated, that skilled … him catching it, banging and spinning and jump hook with both hands, that’s something we haven’t had. He was just huge for us.’’

What has made Nurkic’s addition so appealing is it has seemingly come out of nowhere, giving his rise somewhat of an underdog feel that Blazers fans have long latched onto with fervor.

He was a heralded rookie in Denver, but injuries, a logjam of bigs, and some pouting by Nurkic, pushed him out of favor and set the table for the trade to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick.

In Portland, Nurkic has described feeling liberated which has translated to a palpable enthusiasm and zeal to his game that has been contagious in the locker room. Sometimes, some of the most powerful forces in the NBA are the feeling of being wanted and the opportunity to play, and Nurkic says those factors are fueling his Rose City renaissance.

“It’s all you need, man. When you play professional in the best league in the world, that’s all you need: Coach who want you; organization and fans who want you here; and the free mind to focus on basketball,’’ Nurkic said. “So, now I enjoy, and you can see on the court. We have a good team here and we are going to be in a good position if we play like this.’’

In seven games with the Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14.9  points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in 29 minutes. Portland is 4-3 in games he has played.

“Certainly, Nurk has made a difference,’’ Stotts said, while noting how many other players are also playing well. “I think the (All-Star) break did us well … and I think there’s no question he has had an impact. I don’t want to undersell that. He has infused some energy and a different style of play.’’

Stotts was wary to heap all his praise on Nurkic because the Oklahoma City victory was flush with performances up and down the roster that normally would garner headlines by themselves.

Allen Crabbe led the team with 23 points while hitting 7-of-10 shots. He did it while showing a rare eagerness and determination to shoot, which might have been sparked by a recent sitdown with Stotts and CJ McCollum to brainstorm ways to get him better involved.

“When I’m engaged like that, I feel like I can do good things for the team,’’ Crabbe said. “My teammates did a good job finding me, they kept calling plays for me. I just have to stay like that.’’

Meanwhile, Al-Farouq Aminu left his imprint all over Chesapeake Energy Arena with an impressive display of shooting, defense and grit. He hit 5-of-6 shots and had 12 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal. All three of his blocks came in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, with two of them at the rim in what were momentum-changing plays. And when the smoke cleared after every fight for a rebound or loose ball, Aminu seemed to be in the middle of it.

“His presence,’’ Lillard said of Aminu, “is everything. We need guys who want to get in the middle and mix it up, and it just felt like he was in the middle of the action a lot.’’

Aminu, who has missed 20 games because of calf, back and knee issues, has always been an unsung hero of the team because of his defense, but now with armed with a torrid shooting spell over the past two weeks, he is right behind Nurkic as the face of this late-season surge.

Also of note Tuesday was the play of Noah Vonleh, who Stotts said might have played his finest game of the season (11 points, 5 rebounds), and Meyers Leonard, whose defense and shooting helped spark the Blazers’ game-changing rally in the second quarter.

Leonard’s 12-point night, which included the Blazers being a plus-24 when he was on the court, came as he played with a heavy heart after his beloved dog, Bella, was diagnosed with kidney failure the night before. Bella, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, famously crashed coach Stotts’ postseason media address last season and is a fixture in Leonard’s life.

“It’s been tough on me. Luckily for me, this gave me a chance to escape from the real world,’’ Leonard said. “But it’s been a rough go at it for the last couple of days for me.’’

The same can’t be said for the Blazers, who are riding as high as they have since October, when they had visions of winning the Northwest Division and advancing to the conference finals.

It might be a late run, but as they say, better late than never.

“This could be a springboard for us, a confidence game,’’ Lillard said. “That’s a tough team to play against and we came here and got it done.’’

Up next: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN)

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

OKLAHOMA CITY – If it wasn’t the win of the season for the Trail Blazers, it was up there on Tuesday when the Blazers came back from 14 down, then held off a furious 58-point performance from Russell Westbrook to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 126-121 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jusuf Nurkic made two big baskets inside in the final minute to break a tie at 116 and the Blazers rode the hot shooting of Allen Crabbe, the superb defense of Al-Farouq Aminu and clutch free throw shooting from CJ McCollum to win three in a row for the first time since Nov. 30-Dec. 5.

The Blazers’ surge couldn’t come at a better time, as their best basketball is coming as the playoff race in the West tightens. Portland (27-35) moved to within 1.5 games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 games left. Twelve of the Blazers’ final 20 games are at home.

Nurkic continued to be a season-changing addition for the Blazers, as he finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and Aminu has proven to be a difference maker when he is healthy. He had 12 points and seven rebounds and three blocks, including two at the rim in key moments in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Crabbe led the Blazers with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting, showing an assertiveness seldom seen this season. He led a bench unit that turned the game around in the second quarter, as Shabazz Napier and Aminu led the defense and Crabbe and Meyers Leonard (12 points) provided an offensive spark.

Westbrook set his career-high with 58 points, and added nine assists and three rebounds, but he shot 21-of-39, which included 6-of-19 down the stretch.

Oklahoma City took at 67-61 halftime lead in a rip-roaring first half that saw the Thunder shoot 67.6 percent and the Blazers 55 percent. Westbrook had 28 points by halftime as the Blazers alternated defenders between Lillard and Maurice Harkless.

The Thunder led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, but the Blazers’ second unit opened the second quarter on an 11-0 and 14-2 run, which was keyed by the defense of  Napier and Aminu and the offense of Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard.

Notes: Damian Lillard set the franchise mark with a three-pointer in his 42nd consecutive game, breaking the mark held by Clifford Robinson in the 1995-1996 season … The Blazers announced that Ed Davis underwent successful surgery on his left shoulder on Tuesday. He is expected to be back for the start of the 2017-2018 training camp. 

Next up: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN).