Blazers survive injury scare to take down the Grizzlies

Blazers survive injury scare to take down the Grizzlies

The Blazers survived an early scare to pick up the 100-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Trail Blazers were left holding their breath late in the first half after they saw star point guard Damian Lillard head to the locker room with a left ankle injury. However, Lillard being Lillard, he was on the court to start the second half and played the remainder of the game.  A game where the Blazers picked up a much needed win to start the five-game road trip.

Final Score: Blazers 100 – Grizzlies 92

 

Damian Lillard exits early (but eventually returns) after apparent right ankle injury

Damian Lillard exits early (but eventually returns) after apparent right ankle injury

UPDATE: Lillard returned to the floor and started the second half for the Trail Blazers

Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard had to head to the locker room early after rolling his right ankle late in the first half against the Grizzlies. Lillard was driving for a layup and appeared to step on the foot of Grizzlies small forward Chandler Parsons, rolling his right ankle and falling to the floor. 

After subbing out of the game Lillard tried to loosen the ankle back up while on the bench, but eventually left to be treated in the team’s locker room.

During halftime the Trail Blazers announced Lillard is PROBABLE to return with a right ankle sprain

Be sure to follow up on Twitter @nbcsnorthwest for all the latest updates.

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard defends coach Terry Stotts

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard defends coach Terry Stotts

Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard on Saturday went to the internet to defend coach Terry Stotts after fans showed frustration and offered criticism on the team’s Instagram account.

“I saw the Instagram post, and the most recent comment was about Coach Stotts, and I disagreed,’’ Lillard said Saturday before the Blazers played Sacramento.

Stotts has made several bold moves in the last week, ranging from benching starting center Jusuf Nurkic for all but 53 seconds of the fourth quarter of a loss to Brooklyn, to implementing a three-point guard lineup in that fueled a win over Orlando and Friday night inserting little-used Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard into the rotation in the first quarter of what turned out to be a loss in Sacramento.

The Blazers’ are 8-7 in what is considered a favorable early-season schedule, and have lost several close games, causing some fans to grow restless.

“People are going to talk; it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last,’’ Lillard said before Saturday’s game. “But the coaches don’t turn the ball over at the end of the game. The coaches don’t miss shots. The coaches don’t miss free throws. Coaches don’t forget and blow defensive assignments.

[NBC  Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

“Now, If we was getting beat by 25 every night and not in position to win, then maybe you need a change,’’ Lillard said. “When a team isn’t competing or a team isn’t behind the coach, then that’s when you need a change. But when everybody is on board and everybody respects him, and we in position to win games. At that point that becomes a weak statement.

“That’s why we do what we do and people are spectators,’’ Lillard said .”Because they are so quick to give up and so quick point the finger, and that ain’t fair. This game ain’t fair but I wasn’t going to sit there and look at the comment and not say nothing because sometimes people can talk stuff into existence when there really isn’t much behind what they are saying.’’

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

If one ever wondered what an example of fight, a picture of determination or a testament to the virtue of hard work looked like, people on the Trail Blazers will point you to the locker of point guard Shabazz Napier.

“I don’t know how you would put it, or what the politically correct way to phrase it is, but  …  Shabazz is a dog,’’ guard Pat Connaughton said. “He fights. All the time.’’

Added captain Damian Lillard: “He’s an every-day guy. That’s 100 percent a fact.’’

It is that fight, and that relentless work ethic that is at the center of one of the developing trends on the Blazers in the past week: the emergence of Napier in the regular rotation.

In the last three games, Napier has played 20, 20 and 15 minutes, marking the first time in his two seasons in Portland that he has played 15 minutes or more in three consecutive games.

“He’s had three good games in a row,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Getting him on the court, in various capacities, is something that will probably continue.’’

He has earned the minutes through practice, where Lillard says Napier is “a handful to go against,” and by way of his performance when called upon. Against Memphis, he went 5-for-8 and scored 12 points, and against Brooklyn he went 5-for-7 for 11 points.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 -- click to learn more and buy]

Then Monday against Denver, he had eight points and three assists, and helped direct a rarity in the Lillard-McCollum era – a six-and-a-half minute shift where neither star was on the court – during which Napier and the Blazers increased the lead from two to 12.

But while his teammates see his dogged practice approach, and fans see his ready-when-called-upon game performance, it has been something behind the scenes that drives Napier.

It’s a single voice, from back in his youth.

“My mother instilled this quote in me,’’ Napier said. “She said, ‘The easiest thing you can do in life is quit.’ That has stayed with me since I was young. I never wanted to be a quitter. I always wanted to win.’’

**

After he was the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, not much has gone Napier’s way.

He started seven straight games his rookie season with Miami after Dwyane Wade pulled his hamstring, but by the end of the season he was out of the rotation, needed a sports hernia surgery and was eventually traded to Orlando for a late-second round pick.

He never found a role in Orlando and after one season was traded to Portland for cash, where he found himself behind Lillard and McCollum, two rising stars in the backcourt who average around 35 minutes a game. His prospects for playing time didn’t improve when the team also signed Evan Turner, a play-making point-forward.

“My NBA career hasn’t panned out like I wanted it to,’’ Napier said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to quit.’’

It’s probably too early to say if Napier has secured a set-in-stone role on this Blazers team, but as the team tries to find its early-season footing, Stotts hasn’t been shy in turning to Napier to gain some traction.

On Monday against Denver, the second unit with Napier, Connaughton, Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis was instrumental in the comfortable 99-82 win over the Nuggets.

That included a seven-minute stretch to start the second quarter, when neither Lillard nor McCollum played, which Lillard figured was the longest time he has ever sat during a second quarter. It was also the first time in the past three seasons that Stotts has strayed from his security blanket of having either Lillard or McCollum on the court during a competitive game.

“It was something I actually toyed with going into the season … I wanted to give it a look,’’ Stotts said. “It worked out well tonight and we’ll see how it goes going forward.’’

If Napier and Turner become a reliable ball-handling duo, it could ease some of the wear-and-tear that Lillard and McCollum endure over a season. Last year, Lillard (36.2 minutes) ranked 9th in the NBA in minutes while McCollum (35.8) ranked 11th.

“He can do a lot of things, and he can definitely bring something to the game to give us a break,’’ Lillard said.

Part of Stotts’ willingness to experiment with the non-Dame-CJ lineup could be attributed to Napier’s steadiness. In 101 minutes this season, Napier has just two turnovers. Meanwhile, he is shooting 60 percent from the field (18-of-30) and has made 5-of-9 from three-point range.

“He’s in a tough position, because Dame and CJ play such heavy minutes,’’ Davis said. “But I think he should be in the rotation. He has proven that and given us a spark.’’

Napier would rather that spark turn into a fire, but in the meantime, he figures he will stick to his mom’s quote from his youth.

“I’m a competitor, and everyone wants to play. But this is not my first rodeo,'' Napier said. "This is my fourth year and it’s been like this the entire time, so I just keep working, keep pushing, and never lay on my laurels. I understand that if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. I just have to be ready for it.’’

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

In a loaded Western Conference that figures to be filled with knock-down, drag-it-out struggles on a regular basis, the Trail Blazers know they have this going for them:

Damian Lillard and his excellence at the free throw line.

Lillard has made 43 consecutive free throws dating back to the second quarter of the Blazers’ Oct. 30 game against Toronto and is shooting 92.3 percent for the season.

“My dad always made me shoot the ball,’’ Lillard explained about his free throw success. “He wouldn’t let me lower the hoop at home. He made me keep it up and learn how to shoot the ball.’’

This is the fourth streak of at least 40 consecutive free throws in Lillard’s career. He made 54 in a row in March of 2016, falling three short of Damon Stoudamire’s franchise record, and twice had streaks of 48, last accomplished in March of 2017.

The NBA record for consecutive free throws is 97, set over the course of two seasons (1992-1993 and 1993-1994) by Minnesota guard Micheal Williams.

“I don’t pay attention to how many I made in a row,’’ Lillard said. “I just know when I’m shooting it well.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

As the Blazers can attest, free-throw shooting figures to be a huge factor in the loaded West this season as close games figure to increase.  The Blazers have already had a buzzer beating loss against the Clippers, an overtime loss at Utah, a buzzer-beating victory against the Lakers and a nail-biting 103-99 win Sunday against Oklahoma City. The Blazers also lost in Milwaukee in the final 11 seconds.

A factor in the loss against the Clippers was a missed free throw by CJ McCollum – the best free-throw shooter in the NBA last season -- with 5.1 seconds left. Meanwhile, the Blazers helped close out the Thunder by making 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter.

With McCollum, who shot 91.2 percent last season, and Lillard, the Blazers are second in the NBA (behind Utah) in free throws this season at 81.8 percent. The Blazers also attempt the third most per game (21.6) and rank 10th in clutch free throw shooting (82.4 percent), which is measured in the last five minutes.

 “It’s not only Damian,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I’ve been on teams where you have 5 good free-throw shooters out there and you know that down the stretch you can count on them to make their free throws. It’s a real advantage to have those kind of guys at the end of the game.’’

One of those teams was the 2010 Dallas Mavericks, when Stotts was an assistant. That team included Dirk Nowitizki, who made 82 in a row that season, the third longest streak in NBA history. Jose Calderon has the second longest streak, making 87 in a tow with Toronto in the 2008-2009 season.

Interestingly, Lillard says his free-throw streaks often go both ways. Last season, after he made 48 in a row, he lost his touch and went  18-for-28 (64.3 percent) over his next five games.

“In my career typically, I have long streaks where I make a bunch of free throws in a row, and when I miss, I have a five-game streak where I’m just missing,’’ Lillard said last March. “Then, I start another streak. But I shoot free throws all the time, so it’s not like it’s something I’m concerned about.’’

Tonight, the Blazers (6-4) play host to Memphis (6-4) in what figures to be another tough, grind-it-out game. If it is decided at the line, chances are Lillard will have something to do with it. He is 25-of-28 at the line in the fourth quarter this season, which includes 15 in a row. And as a team, the Blazers this season are 63-of-76 in the fourth quarter (82.9 percent).

Today's Blazers' links:

How to watch tonight's Blazers-Grizzlies game.

My Inside the Blazers podcast, with guest Maurice Harkless.

Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune writes that Lillard will become the best NBA player from Utah school.

The Beale Street Bears blog debates whether former Oregon wing Dillon Brooks will remain in Memphis rotation.

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

As the Trail Blazers’ season settles in for the long winter’s grind, a progression that is crucial to the team’s success is worth keeping an eye on: How do the role players outside of the Big Three develop?

After the first 10 games, things appear to be settling for the Blazers. Damian Lillard is no longer struggling with his shot. Jusuf Nurkic has steadied after battling turnovers and foul trouble. And CJ McCollum is once again one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters.

But what to make of the rest of the Blazers?

Outside of Ed Davis, who has provided a consistent rebounding presence, the Blazers never quite know what they are going to get.

Maurice Harkless has been somewhat non-descript.  Al-Farouq Aminu is sidelined for at least a couple of weeks. Evan Turner, after a strong start, has become erratic. And against teams that don’t have Suns on the jersey, Pat Connaughton has been decidedly more miss than hit. 

“We play a lot, obviously through those three guys,’’ Harkless said of Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum. “So the rest of us have to just get in where we fit in. Some nights we are going to have big games, and some nights we are not. I think I’m still trying to figure out where I can be effective consistently.’’

Whether Harkless and the rest of the supporting cast figure that out will be perhaps the deciding factor in whether the Blazers are a fringe playoff team, or a contender for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, not all contributions are measured offensively. By design, much of the Blazers’ supporting cast strengths are rooted in defense.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

So even though Turner has been loose with the ball recently, he has been invaluable guarding everyone from Russell Westbrook to Blake Griffin. And both Harkless and Noah Vonleh might not shoot a lot, but their ability to switch on pick-and-rolls is priceless to an improved Blazers defense that holds the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating through 10 games (99.9).

But the long-term key this season will be whether players can identify – and accept– their niche. It is perhaps the most unique trait possessed by upper echelon teams. It requires self awareness. A selflessness. And a maturity to sacrifice stats for success.

It is also easier said than done.

From what I know of this locker room, this Blazers team has those types of players. Turner has never cared about his stats, only about wins. Harkless said he came into the season wanting to embrace a bigger defensive role. And Connaughton and Vonleh are team-first guys who want to prove they belong.

Still, it is one thing to accept a role, and another thing to thrive or contribute in it. That’s where the stars are going to need to help.

It is important for the Big Three to realize how and when to recognize the supporting cast. Like in the second quarter on Sunday, with the Blazers up 28-24, Turner had Raymond Felton pinned on the block in a mismatch. McCollum, who was playing point guard, either ignored or didn’t see the advantage and went on to try and create something for himself. It resulted in a turnover.

Later, at the start of the third quarter, Nurkic had a window to throw a lob to Harkless, but at the last second decided against it and whipped a pass to Lillard that went out of bounds.

Little plays like that – where the stars are recognizing and feeding the supporting cast – can go a long way to making a team whole.

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says Nurkic sold the Carmelo Anthony elbow like a pro wrestler.

The feeling runs deep when it comes to Blazers fans and Raymond Felton.

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, we talked about the Big Three showing up.

The Oklahoman writes that the Thunder took issue with the officials after Sunday's loss.

The Oregonian has a recap of Sunday's win.

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

Nurkic "sold" Anthony's elbow to the face like a pro wrestler and it worked

All in all, THAT game Sunday night was how I expected the Portland Trail Blazers to look this season.

The Blazers were clicking on both ends of the court, shooting 50 percent from the field for the first time this season and defending key Oklahoma City players well in their 103-99 win in Moda Center. Russell Westbrook went 10 for 25 from the floor, 3 for 10 from three-point range and just 2 for 7 from the foul line in a wacky performance -- it featured five straight free-throw misses by him -- unlike his usual MVP-quality show. The Blazers won the board battle 43-32 and held the Thunder to 44.9 percent shooting.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

All in all, it was a fine game, even though the home team walked a tightrope late in the final minutes, very nearly spoiling a nice effort with shaky ball handling.

Damian Lillard played his best game of the season with 36 points and 13 assists and was stellar down the stretch.

Jusuf Nurkic joined the party, too -- hitting 11 of 15 shots and scoring 25 to go with eight rebounds and two blocks.

And really, it makes a whole lot of difference when Nurkic is on his game. He's a difference maker at both ends of the court and the way he "sold" an elbow to his face from Carmelo Anthony in the third quarter was worthy of the best the WWE has to offer -- and it led to Anthony's ejection. Nurkic went down as if he was hit by a sledge hammer -- and maybe it felt that way.

Nurkic was motionless on the floor for about a minute after Anthony's right elbow caught his face on the way up for a shot that was originally ruled a foul on Nurkic and a potential three-point play for Anthony. But with Nurkic laid out on the floor, officials looked at replays and changed the call to a flagrant 2 on Anthony, who was ejected. It may have altered the outcome of the game.

Let me say I didn't think it was a Flagrant 2 foul and nobody deserves to be ejected for such a play. Anthony was in the act of shooting and trying to draw a foul in the process. Nurkic got a little too close for his own good and got smacked -- although how hard was open to debate. It may have been a brutal shot or a love tap, it was impossible to tell from the replays -- but Nurkic sold it like Ric Flair taking an elbow from Hulk Hogan and the officials bought into it.

Anyone who has played a lot of basketball will tell you that when you go up to block somebody's shot, you take a chance of getting caught with an elbow or arm to the face. It's just what happens. And when you do take that hit, it can often be called a foul on you. But whatever. This one wasn't.

And the Blazers got the benefit. I must say, it was a physical game -- as it always is when Portland hooks up with OKC.

And we got a glimpse of the potential of this Portland team against a group that is expected to be one of the best in the NBA.

A fun game punctuated by some controversy is a wonderful thing.

Tonight's Talkin' Ball Podcast:

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

When Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three pointer Thursday against the Lakers, it did more than end the Trail Blazers’ two-game losing streak.

It also went a long way to healing some late-game wounds that have bothered the team.

It wasn’t the first time the Trail Blazers have closed out a close-game this season, but inside the team, Thursday’s last-second victory sure felt like the end of a trend.

Lillard, whose three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left broke a tie, said the win was cause to exhale because of the clutch manner it was earned.

“If you lose this one, then you are a little worried,’’ Lillard said. “But I think the fact that we had to win it – the way we won it – I think it does something. It does a lot for us because we had to fight for it.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 -- click to learn more and buy]

The Blazers (5-4) have won close games this season, sealing a 103-93 win over New Orleans in the home opener by closing on a 9-0 over the final 3:23, then pulling away from a two-point lead over Phoenix with 1:43 left to win 114-107.

But perhaps more magnified have been the Blazers’ late-game letdowns. A loss in Milwaukee after three turnovers in the final 31 seconds erased a one-point lead. The missed free throw with 5.7 seconds left against the Clippers that allowed Blake Griffin to win the game at the buzzer. The two turnovers in the final three minutes at Utah that went a long way to erasing a six-point lead and eventually led to an overtime loss.

So never mind the porous defense that allowed 54 percent shooting, and the lack of focus that led to losing an 18-point lead. The Blazers were more transfixed on the finish, because it seemingly disproved their inability to close out a close game.

“The way we have been losing, it was good we were put in that position again,’’ Lillard said. “This is what we have to do to get it going in the right direction. It was good for us.’’

Although CJ McCollum had another late-game turnover – dribbling the ball out of bounds with 3:20 left and the Blazers trailing 103-100 – the Blazers went 4-for-4 from the free throw line and didn’t give the ball back to the Lakers over their final seven possessions. Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic recorded steals.

“It’s good to get a close-game win,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “We needed that, especially on the heels of not only (at Utah) but some of the other games.’’

Nurk credits Dame and CJ for resurgence

Nurk credits Dame and CJ for resurgence

After a start to the season when his mind, and his body, have not been right, Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic says he is back on the right track.

And he says teammates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are to thank for his turnaround.

Spurred by encouragement from McCollum, and play-calling from Lillard, Nurkic on Thursday scored 27 points to help the Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-110 at the Moda Center.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

It was his second consecutive strong performance after a puzzling start to the season that saw Nurkic battle turnovers and foul trouble while missing a bevy of close-range shots. Through it all, Nurkic has complained of what he says are injuries to his back, elbow, ankle and throat.

But on Thursday, he looked and played closer to the player who became a Portland cult hero last spring after his arrival in a trade with Denver.

“I just forgot how much fun I could have out there,’’ Nurkic said Thursday. “I just play my game, and enjoy the game, and follow the rules … Dame and CJ help me out with this.’’

Lillard and McCollum said there was never a come-to-Jesus conversation with the 7-foot center. Instead, both said their work was more a constant massaging of Nurkic’s mindset.

“A lot of stuff with Nurk,’’ Lillard explained, “is mental.’’

McCollum was the most direct. After Nurkic began the season in frustrating fashion, missing several layins and point-blank shots, McCollum said he told Nurkic to remember the emotion he played with at the end of last season, when he had 33 points and 15 rebounds against Denver and 19 points and 11 rebounds against Houston.

“I just tell him ‘Be yourself,’’’ McCollum said. “I think that’s the thing he has to understand. We don’t need him to be anything besides himself. I always tell him ‘ I will never tell you not to shoot. Just be strong.’

[Podcast: Lillard strikes again]

“Sometimes he is so finessed and so skilled he does those little lackadaisical layups and we are lookin’ like, ‘Bro, just go dunk. Go dunk the ball.’ Be Nurk against Houston when you were angry. Or Nurk against the Denver Nuggets when you feel that rage. I said be that all the time,’’ McCollum said.

Lillard, who developed an instant rapport with Nurkic after he was traded to Portland in February, said he could sense Nurkic’s frustration building over the past couple weeks. So Lillard took even more care to engage with the big man.

“We have been texting over and over. Talking. On the plane, when I watch (film) I would show him things he could do to make the game easier for him,’’ Lillard said.

The encouragement and reminders from the two stars came to a head on Wednesday in Utah, when Lillard made a vow to Nurkic.

“I told him – ‘I’m coming to you; if you go to the block, I’m going to throw you the ball … I’m going to get you going,’’’ Lillard said.

Nurkic against Utah had 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and impacted the game on both ends, one of the bright spots in a night when the Blazers couldn’t close the door on the Jazz and lost in overtime.

On Thursday against the Lakers, Lillard and McCollum both utilized Nurkic heavily in pick-and-rolls, with Nurkic cutting hard to the basket and finishing regularly. He hit 12-of-20 shots and added a season-high five assists.

For the season, Nurkic is averaging 15.0 points and 7.8 rebounds while hitting 44.9 percent of his shots.

Interestingly, both Lillard and McCollum mentioned a point of emphasis in getting Nurkic more involved offensively, which helped the big man become more engaged defensively.

“When you get the ball to the big fella,’’ McCollum said Thursday, “he is going to play better on both ends.’’

Added Lillard: “For us to be the team we need to be, we need that balance. We need him to be who we know he is capable of being and it’s my responsibility and CJ’s responsibility to be aware of it when he goes possessions and doesn’t touch the ball. And understanding the more we get out of him on the offensive end the more we are going to get out of him on the defensive end.’’

Nurkic, who went sideways in Denver when things didn’t go his way, has gushed since he arrived in Portland about his relationship with his new backcourt – especially Lillard. His appreciation for the duo goes beyond their on-the-court talent, he says, as he has welcomed their guidance and advice.

“We talk back and forth … it’s about focus,’’ Nurkic said. “CJ and Dame are a big part in what I do.’’

Now, it appears the duo has Nurkic focused and pointed in the right direction. And Nurkic says he will fight through those nagging back, elbow, ankle and throat issues, and instead focus on having fun again.

“He has to understand: We will be as good as he is,’’ McCollum said. “That’s the honest-to-God truth; As good as he is is how good we will be as a team.’’