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.’’

Blazer guards' 11 turnovers lead to overtime loss at Utah

Blazer guards' 11 turnovers lead to overtime loss at Utah

Another close game, another lost opportunity.

The Trail Blazers had a road win in their hands Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, but fumbled it away and lost in overtime. As I've said many times, when you lose a close game, you can always point to many reasons for the defeat. I mean, Portland had the ball for the last shot in regulation with the score tied and didn't score. On the road, you better take advantage of that last shot. Especially when you send the other team to the foul line a dozen times, miss all five of your three-point attempts and allow 75 percent shooting during the overtime.

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

This was an unusual night because the two players who normally carry the Trail Blazers let them down. Damian Lillard (who had a nightmarish night from three-point range) and CJ McCollum (who had a horrendous night with the ball) were a combined 18 for 47 from the field, including a 6-for-23 effort from three-point range. On top of that, they combined for 11 of their team's 17 turnovers. Ouch.

The starting Trail Blazer guards are the mainstays -- the foundation of this team. They are responsible for a lot of wins and on the rare occasions when they don't play well, they must take responsibility for the losses, too. I don't expect that to happen very often, but it did Wednesday against the Utah Jazz.

 

Trail Blazers just not getting enough open shots

Trail Blazers just not getting enough open shots

I don't want to dwell on this too long. Monday night's Trail Blazer loss to the Toronto Raptors came down to one horrendous second quarter, the worst second quarter in the history of the franchise.

So let's not go too crazy with worry. CJ McCollum summed it up best to our Jason Quick after the game:

“We have to do a better job of movement – not just ball movement, but player movement,’’ McCollum said. “A lot of times, we are standing there watching each other.’’

No question. This season the Trail Blazers have gotten away from the ball and player movement that has been so good to them during the Terry Stotts Era. At their best, the Blazers have gotten wide-open shots because of the great flow to their offense. That's not happening so much this season and the result has been many more contested shots than in past seasons.

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

During that second quarter, Portland missed some shots it usually makes but had some turnover trouble and the hustling Raptor defense made some tough shots even more difficult than usual.

Movement -- of the ball and the bodies -- will cure most of the offensive problems. It shouldn't be that difficult to fix. And it wouldn't hurt to mix in a few fast-break points. I'd even be tempted to bring former Portland guard Andre Miller into town to tutor Portland's guards on hitting ahead on the break. Andre was one of the best we've seen here in recent seasons and it's a weakness of the current guard corps. They have to work on their vision up the court and their passes to open teammates in order to facilitate a few much-needed, easy, open baskets.

Fast breaks don't happen because a coach is on the sidelines waving his arms at his players like a traffic cop, imploring them to push the ball up court. They happen because of time spent in practice working on them.

But the good thing is, this is the NBA and the next game is always just a day or two away. The mission for the Trail Blazers Wednesday night in Utah is to put together four good quarters.

 

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

After Monday’s disastrous second quarter that led to a humbling 99-85 loss to Toronto, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was the one player who was able to cut through the clichés and distance himself from the everything-will-be-fine mentality.

McCollum, who went 5-for-16 from the field and spent large parts of the Blazers’ record setting six-point second quarter playing point guard, said Portland’s sputtering offense needs to get back to its roots.

“We have to do a better job of movement – not just ball movement, but player movement,’’ McCollum said. “A lot of times, we are standing there watching each other.’’

[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 (4-3) entered Monday’s game with the NBA’s third best offensive rating, but much of those numbers were padded during the team’s rip-roaring three-game opening trip, when they averaged 116 points and shot 47 percent from the field.

But during the team’s four-game home stand, the fluent and artistic collaboration that is coach Terry Stotts’ flow offense has sputtered. Much of the concern would be alleviated, of course, if the Blazers could make even the easiest of shots. Even the Portland players have mocked their poor point-blank shooting, and as a whole, the Blazers have made only 39.9 percent of their shots at home. 

But beyond the blown layins and inconsistent close-range shooting, the Blazers’ offense has greater problems, or as Evan Turner so succinctly put it after the Toronto loss: “What we like to do ain’t happening.’’

McCollum’s assessment – that there isn’t enough movement – probably comes closest to addressing what is likely several small things gone awry, which adds to a big problem like Monday, when the Blazers missed 20 consecutive shots from the end of the first quarter until nearly halftime.

The Blazers struggled with spacing, often having three players in close proximity, played a lot of one-on-one, and had nine of their shots blocked and several others that were heavily contested.

Those were all a byproduct, McCollum said, of poor movement.

“It puts pressure on the ball handler,’’ McCollum said. “We are used to reading and reacting off each other, but when we all look at each other, it puts pressure on the guy to make something happen. That’s when we get turnovers. When we get contested shots. And late shot-clocks.’’

The one-on-one play has been particularly alarming, and is in part reflected in the Blazers low assists. They average 19.2 assists – nearly two less than last season - and are ranked 26th out of 30 teams.

The assists will go up once the Blazers start shooting better, but McCollum said he thinks everything is related. Stotts’ flow offense is predicated on movement, and sharing the ball, and that right now isn’t happening smoothly or often enough.

And McCollum said it will start with himself.

“We have to do a better job moving, and I need to set screens,’’ McCollum said. “The rest of the guards can’t just rely on the bigs to set screens. We all have to be active.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest says the Blazers need more fast breaks.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian wrote about the Blazers' offense, or lack thereof

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes about an "irredeemable" loss to Toronto.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer blogger suggests it's bad that Damian Lillard went vegan.

Lack of ball movement and fast-break points hurting the Trail Blazers

Lack of ball movement and fast-break points hurting the Trail Blazers

I say it all the time, there are no bad wins in the NBA. You win and that's all that matters. But it does matter how you're playing, particularly if it appears that things are trending downward.

I watched Portland edge Phoenix Saturday night and kept asking myself, "What's wrong? Something isn't right."

The Trail Blazers are 4-2 but two of those wins are over a Phoenix team that's not ready for the NBA heavyweights. The losses came against the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, two pretty good teams.

While Portland's improvement on defense is obvious, it has regressed some on offense. Perhaps that's to be expected to an extent because of the amount of practice time that may have been devoted to defense. But the offensive trends are alarming.

The Trail Blazers are shooting appreciably better from 25 feet and beyond than they are from inside five feet from the basket. That's pretty incredible. Portland's 42.9 percent from inside five feet is by far the worst in the league and makes no sense on a team with Jusuf Nurkic at the post and guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who are proven at-the-basket finishers. In the paint, but outside the restricted area, Portland is shooting an anemic 39.8 percent. What's saving Portland's offense right now is a 43.9 percentage from three-point range and I doubt that's sustainable over a long period of time.

Why is this happening?

I'm not sure but I'm getting the feeling that the Trail Blazers aren't moving the ball on offense the way they have in the past. They aren't as crisp as they've been. And at the same time, I think I'm seeing more one-on-one play than we have in the past. For the most part, that leads to more difficult shots. It seems as if Nurkic is rushing his attempts at the post, hurrying when there's no need for that. As a consequence, he's not finishing well. When Lillard and McCollum go to the basket, it often seems as if the entire defense is collapsing on them to the point that they not only don't have a clear shot, but not a lot of open passing options.

Another cause for the lousy field-goal percentage on shots close to the basket is the almost total absence of fast-break points. The Blazers have never torn up the league with points off the break and I think we've become so accustomed to that we seldom even notice the nights like Saturday vs. the Suns, when Portland manages only two points off the break. But so far this season it's been worse that usual. Last season, for example, Portland averaged 11.3 fast-break points per game. This season, the Blazers are getting only 5.3 per game, which ranks 29th in the league, ahead of only the New York Knicks.

Fast-break baskets are just about the easiest points in the game and if you aren't getting your share, you're cheating yourself. Against teams playing solid halfcourt defense, fast-break buckets are gold -- getting shots before the defense is set. And they're available every game -- you just have to be alert enough to transform turnovers and long rebounds into quick hoops. Portland obviously isn't doing that and it hurts.

But it's early and odds are that this team will get itself straightened out as the season moves forward. Problem is, the schedule is front-loaded to help this team off to a good start and that shouldn't be wasted. And these are trends that should be watched as we move through the season.

There was plenty of blame to go around for Portland's loss to Clippers

There was plenty of blame to go around for Portland's loss to Clippers

The Blazers took a real bad loss Thursday night at Moda. Losing by a point anytime is tough to take but leading by two at home and losing on a buzzer-beating three-pointer is even more difficult.

There are so many things you could point to that would have made a difference in the outcome. Among them:

  • The Trail Blazers made only 15 of their 40 shots IN THE PAINT! There was some real intimidation by the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan at work there. He played 38:18 and didn't get called for a single foul. You may want to blame that on referees, but really -- Portland just didn't challenge him enough. You must make shot blockers block shots. They will foul and they will get themselves out of position -- and I don't care how skilled they are. You cannot allow them to make you miss just by standing there. Yes, Jordan had three blocks. So what? The Blazers 25 shots in the paint and he got only three of them? That 15 for 40 is an embarrassment.
  • The Clippers did a solid job on the Blazers' starting guards, making their life miserable with overplays, deflections and just taking them out of their comfort zone, especially in the first half.
  • The Trail Blazer bench, which had been playing at a high level, went 4 for 20 from the field. When you lose by a point, it's pretty easy to look back and say just one more basket by the bench guys and you would have won the game.
  • There are nights when the Blazers are just too small. Sure, a lot of teams look small when they play against Jordan and Blake Griffin, but this is a problem Portland will eventually deal with. At some point, Noah Vonleh will be back and take a turn at defending Griffin. And at some point, either Zach Collins will be ready to take a shot at keeping Jordan off the boards or Meyers Leonard will somehow regain the confidence of his coaches enough to body up Jordan. There were times Thursday that Jordan was blocked off by Ed Davis or Jusuf Nurkic or somebody else and merely snatched an offensive rebound right over their head.
  • Patrick Beverley may have had his best game ever against the Trail Blazers. He had FIVE offensive rebounds, which shouldn't happen. And his defense is relentless.
  • CJ McCollum missed two free throws inside the final five minutes of the game. He owned it after the game, which is to his credit. He knows a shooter of his stature -- a man who led the league in foul shooting last season -- just cannot miss in late-game situations. It shouldn't happen and I like that he took responsibility for it.
  • Damian Lillard's shooting still isn't what he'd like it to be. But who is worried about that? It will come, as it always does
  • Nurkic isn't playing at the level he did last season in those magical 20 games after his trade to Portland. He doesn't seem as aggressive on offense and is not finishing around the basket. One would assume that will improve. For this team to reach a higher level, he's going to have to find a higher level.
  • The Trail Blazers fouled too often last season and that problem is cropping up again this year. Twenty-six fouls is too many and being minus-14 in free-throw attempts to your opponent is a big hole to dig.
  • It's very early in the season and too soon to draw any major conclusions. But at the same time, it's never too early to fret over losing home games you should have won.

Blazers' Lillard: 'Somebody is going to be in trouble' when shot falls

Blazers' Lillard: 'Somebody is going to be in trouble' when shot falls

It hasn’t been a great shooting start to the season for Damian Lillard, but the Trail Blazers star delivered an ominous prediction about his shot Thursday night.

After a 7-for-19 night against the Clippers, which dipped his field goal percentage to 37.9, Lillard said the ball has felt good leaving his hands during the first five games of the season, which tells him it’s only a matter of time before his shots start falling.

“I don’t know when, but when it does, somebody going to be in trouble,’’ Lillard said. “But I’m honestly not worried about it.’’

The same could be said about Lillard’s temperature on the Blazers after Thursday’s heartbreaking 104-103 loss to the Clippers.

As Lillard reached for the locker room door Thursday to go into the Portland night, he was far from troubled.

It has taken two Most Valuable Player-like performances – a 44-point whirlwind from Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee and Thursday’s game-winning three at the buzzer by Griffin – to beat the Blazers, and each time it took a dramatic play to do so.

And in each loss, the Blazers have stubbed their toe with uncharacteristic plays. On Thursday, CJ McCollum missed two free throws in the final three minutes, including one with 5.9 seconds left. This from the player who made 91.2 percent last season to led the NBA.

And in Milwaukee, both McCollum and Lillard – reliable and steady ball handlers – coughed up the ball in the final minute, McCollum’s turnover a curious no-call after being frisked by Antetokounmpo.

Throw in some bizarre shooting – is it possible to miss more close-range shots than the Blazers these first five games? – and it was easy to understand why Lillard left so confidently.

“I mean, I feel good,’’ Lillard said about the Blazers’ play as he reached for the door.

Lillard has been around long enough to know that sometimes in the NBA, it’s not so much about wins and losses as much as it is about how you are playing. Play the right way, and eventually, the wins will come.

And right now, the Blazers are playing the right way.

For perspective, look back to last season. The season’s fifth game was at Phoenix, where the Blazers lost 118-115. It was after that game that Maurice Harkless stood before the team and gave a speech about the need to play better defense.

At that time, the Blazers were 2-3, and as Lillard walked to the team bus, he noted they could have been 1-4 or 0-5. The defense was terrible, the second unit was lost and every night, the Blazers were giving up huge double-digit runs.

Those problems turned out to be major and would trouble the Blazers for the majority of the season.

We have watched enough of this core to know that what is plaguing the Blazers now – bad shooting and quirky mishaps – should merely a blip, a passing slump.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to keep an eye on.

Jusuf Nurkic looked better Thursday, but he once again was plagued by foul trouble and silly turnovers. He also summoned Jesse Ellis, the team’s director of player health and performance, to his locker after the game to complain of stiffness and pain in his lower back.

Nurkic finished 6-of-12 from the field and had eight rebounds and three turnovers and played some solid interior defense. He is now shooting 39.3 percent from the field and has a whopping 19 turnovers. After his 20-game cameo last season, when he could seemingly do no wrong, everything – the refs, close-range shots, passes -- seems like a struggle for Nurkic.

“I’m trying to help and make good decisions,’’ Nurkic said.

Also, the late-game execution, has to get sharper. After turnovers by Lillard then McCollum in the final 31 seconds in Milwaukee, Lillard had another crucial miscue Thursday with 1:46 left and the Blazers trailing by one. Pushing ahead to lead a 2-on-1 break with Harkless in front of him, Lillard tried to lead Harkless but his pass was intercepted by Patrick Beverley.

Two games don’t make a trend, but in a season that figures to have an abundance of close games in the loaded Western Conference, ball security is going to be magnified. 

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has the full highlights from the loss to the Clippers. 

NBC Sports Northwest's Jaime Hudson has the morning minute.

The LA Times recaps the win, with some interesting quotes from the Clippers.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman reports that Meyers Leonard had an MRI on his ankle.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has a recap and sound from the locker room after the loss.

Blazers' top story of early season: Improved defense from Lillard, McCollum

Blazers' top story of early season: Improved defense from Lillard, McCollum

No development and no story inside the Trail Blazers this season is as big as this: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have become better defenders.

One of the most talented offensive backcourts in the NBA, Lillard and McCollum have long carried with them the reputation of being poor defenders – some of it earned, and some of it a stigma that  has remained from early in their careers.

But a funny thing happened over the summer. Sick of hearing the criticism, and realizing that defense equates to winning in the playoffs, the duo teamed up and spent at least 30 minutes of offseason workout going over defensive drills. In addition, they boned up on their film study, and began memorizing opponents plays in order to better anticipate where they should be.

The results have been emphatic.

The Blazers, who spent much of last season ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating, have the fifth best defensive rating after four games, which comes after a preseason where they held all six opponents to less than 41 percent shooting.

And at the forefront of the defense have been the two guards, in particular Lillard, whose activity and focus is reflected in his leading the team in deflections. Lillard also leads the team in steals (seven) and is tied for second in blocks (four).

 “What they are doing now is just unbelievable. Especially Dame,’’ veteran center Ed Davis said. “He’s leading the offense and he’s coming down and getting stops. He’s playing the passing lanes. Taking charges. Diving on the floor for loose balls. And that’s your franchise. Usually you don’t want your franchise doing the dirty work, but he is setting the tone. Like, if he does it, who am I not to take a charge? Who am I not to dive on the floor? It just rubs off on everyone.’’

Lillard said much went into the commitment to defense, but probably the biggest reason was to be there for his teammates. He said the team had always been able to count on him to make a big shot or create a big play, or make the big speech.

“On the defensive end,’’ Lillard said, “they haven’t been able to look to me as that guy. I just felt like it was time I stepped it up on that end of the court and took the challenge of being a good defensive player.’’

McCollum said he is probably playing the best of his five-year career.

“Now that I’m known as a poor defender, people are probably watching me, and paying more attention and going, ‘Oh, he’s not a terrible defender.’’’

Last season, the Blazers were often torched by opponents’ backcourts, and while defense is a team game, and Lillard and McCollum aren’t always matched against the opponents’ top guards, defense often starts with the guards keeping the ball in front of them.

This season, the Blazers have largely held every backcourt in check, as the main guards have combined to shoot 38.7 percent (41-of-106). Noted offensive guards have struggled, like Eric Bledsoe (5-of-18), Jrue Holiday (5-of-14), Victor Oladipo (5-of-17) and Malcolm Brogdon (5-of-14).

 “It’s a noticeable difference,’’ coach Terry Stotts said of the tandem’s defense.

**

In years past, when McCollum and Lillard heard the defensive criticisms of their game, they spent much of their time trying to rationalize.

It’s hard, they would say, to be an elite scorer and defend. It’s difficult, they would say, to fight through the screens and chase scorers, when they were expected to produce so much on the offensive end.

But this year, their tone has changed. Instead of trying to justify their defense, they have prioritized it.

“I get tired of hearing about, ‘Well he does this, and this, and that … but he doesn’t play defense,’’’ Lillard said. “It matters. So that’s what it is.’’

Added McCollum: “I read (the criticism), so I’m aware of it … obviously, we had to get better at it, but it’s a process. We put a lot of time into it this summer, and people don’t see all the film and defensive workouts. It takes time for that to transfer over to game action.’’

The summer workouts would include drills on closing out on shooters, chasing ball handlers around screens, and guarding pick and rolls.

By the time they arrived at training camp, Lillard said he was intent on transferring his summer work to the court.

“I came to camp and my mind was made up I was going to be more physical, more active, more vocal, and take more pride in it,’’ Lillard said. “I think everybody else came with that same attitude. We pretty much agreed that if we were a better defensive team we could have a special year.’’

**

Through the first week of the season, the Blazers are showing signs it could indeed be a special year, in large part because of the defense.

Lillard and McCollum both say that their own defensive improvement is being aided by two key facets: Center Jusuf Nurkic, who played 20 games down the stretch after being acquired in February last season, is here for the entire season; and Evan Turner is playing more comfortably and effectively as a primary playmaker.

Both Nurkic and Turner, the guards say, are taking pressure off them offensively, allowing them to exert more energy on defense.

“It helps when you have a guy you can throw the ball to in the post,’’ McCollum said. “It gives you a break offensively. Plus I think we just have a better understanding of the game, a better understanding what it will take for us to be successful as a team.’’

As this early season has evolved much has changed from last season. Davis has returned from shoulder surgery and resumed his game-changing play from 2015-2016, Pat Connaughton has been a reliable shooter, and Turner looks like a candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.

The two stars have taken note.

“Me and CJ both talked about it – just how good it felt in camp, how good it felt in preseason. We both talked about a great opportunity for to us to be better defensively because we don’t have as much weight on our shoulders and we don’t have to use as much energy on the offensive end. It’s definitely is good for our team.’’

The secret behind Pat Connaughton's early-season success

The secret behind Pat Connaughton's early-season success

On Sunday, the Trail Blazers had what is called a “Blackout” day, which means no practice, no coming in for treatment, no weight lifting, no nothing. It is a day designed to give the players a break from basketball, a day when the lights stay off, leaving the practice courts black.

But it was no surprise when this Sunday, hours after the Blazers returned from Milwaukee, the lights flickered on and Pat Connaughton dribbled onto the court for a shooting session.

The way Connaughton sees it, there are no off days.

“I don’t ever want to look back and be like, ‘Oh, if I just put in a little more time,’’’ Connaughton said. “I just want to make sure I put in my work.’’

If there has been an unexpected boost, or a pleasant surprise to the Trail Blazers’ early season, it has been Connaughton, whose shooting off the bench has been a subplot to an encouraging 2-1 start.

His confident play, and accurate shooting, is rooted in days like Sunday. During the summer, Connaughton would hold two-a-day workouts, which included a requirement to make 500 three-pointers in each session, 1,000 a day.

“This is the year I wanted to make sure I was prepared for,’’ Connaughton said. “If it didn’t work out this year, then at least I could say I did it in attack mode. But I wanted to be ready for the moments.’’

So far, he has. After earning the backup shooting guard role with a solid preseason, Connaughton has been more than an adequate replacement for the departed Allen Crabbe, who was traded to Brooklyn.

Less than three minutes into the season opener in Phoenix, Connaughton was thrust into the game after Maurice Harkless got in foul trouble and the offense had sputtered to just two points. He instantly jump started what would turn out to be the most dominant opening night victory in NBA history by making his first five shots, eventually finishing with 24 points in 32 minutes.

He was also a factor in Indiana, hitting 3-of-4 shots, including two three-pointers, and in Milwaukee he continued the trend of making his first shot.

All told, Connaughton has made 13-of-20 shots, including 7-of-12 from three-point range, and scored 35 points. Crabbe in the first three games last season went 13-of-27, including 5-of-11 from three, and scored 40 points. It has been nearly the same production at a fraction of the cost (Connaughton makes $1.4 million while Crabbe last season made $18.5 million).

But even after the successful trip, and the flood of texts and calls from well-wishers, Connaughton knew he couldn’t, as he says, “start drinking the Kool-Aid” and rest on his laurels. After arriving home from Milwaukee in the early hours, he was back at the practice courts the next morning.

“For me, it’s funny because you hear from people, ‘Oh, you played so well on the road trip; you started the season the way you wanted to,’ but when I look at it, I look at Milwaukee, and I think I could have played better. I had two turnovers I could have avoided if I just took the jump shot that I had been shooting well.’’

It all replayed in his mind. The corner three he missed in Phoenix. A trailing three he missed in Milwaukee. The passing up a three in Milwaukee to penetrate, which resulted in a charge. The passing up a shot against the Bucks to make the extra pass, which was picked off. Those two turnovers had him talking to himself after he was pulled in the third quarter, as he went to the bench tapping his chest and saying “Shoot the ball … Shoot the ball … Shoot the ball.’’

“I’m keeping that fresh in my memory,’’ Connaughton said. “I have to do more things better.’’

It’s that work ethic and attention to detail that has elevated Connaughton from a baseball player trying to make the NBA, to an everyday rotation player.

Connaughton will likely play around 20 minutes each game, and coach Terry Stotts says he has always had confidence in Connaughton, dating back to last season when he played him in the playoffs. Stotts says he doesn’t see that changing.

But there is no question Connaughton’s stock has risen after the first three games.

“What he did is good for his confidence, good for the (coaching) staff’s confidence,’’ CJ McCollum said. “Lots of guys can shoot in practice. Lots of guys can shoot when there is nobody in the gym. And some guys can shoot at home in front of the home crowd. But not everybody can shoot on the road, at OKC, or at Golden State. That’s when you really see about players. Like a close game in Milwaukee … things change … and that’s when you judge people.’’

Connaughton, who says he has worked out on all but one “Blackout” day in his two-plus seasons in Portland, knows that rest will become more important now that he has graduated from a bit player to rotation player. Even so, he figures he will always be in the gym, “Blackout” or not.

“For me, the biggest thing has kind of been just building off good play,’’ Connaughton said. “This is the sport I’ve worked at the most in my entire life, so I want to go out there knowing I can do this, as opposed to playing timid and trying to figure things out. And to do that, I have to put in the work.’’

So for about an hour, he shot Sunday. While he was there, he saw a rehabilitating Noah Vonleh, and team captain Damian Lillard. And as he was leaving, McCollum was coming in for a workout of his own.

McCollum took note as he and Connaughton crossed through the doors.

“The work ethic is there,’’ McCollum said, nodding. “He knows what is at stake here.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has video of Evan Turner's feelings about the plus/minus statistic.

Nick Krupke at KPTV has a nice feature on Maurice Harkless and his hobby of photography.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman reports that Noah Vonleh is targeting a Nov. 1 return at Utah.

Mike Richman at The Oregonian writes about the Blazers' streak of winning home openers.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune previews tonight's Pelicans-Blazers game.

Blazers lose late to Bucks: There goes the 82-0 season

Blazers lose late to Bucks: There goes the 82-0 season

There was a lot to like Saturday night in Portland's first loss of the season at Milwaukee. But the few things not to like cost the Trail Blazers the game. Here;s the rundown:

  • Damian Lillard single-handedly brought Portland back from a late deficit. He got to the line and made good on 11 of 12 foul shots and hit three of his five three-point shots. CJ McCollum was very good, too. I'd like to have seen both of them get just a few more shots.
  • Turnovers were killer. Portland had 16 of them and the Bucks turned them into 22 points. Lillard had six of the turnovers, including the one late that was crucial. McCollum also had a late one, which was actually Giannis Antetokounmpo mugging him to knock the ball away in the key play of the game. Antetokounmpo scored 44 points and got a lot of credit for this win, but could easily have taken the blame for a loss after leaving two foul shots embarrassingly short, then fouling McCollum -- except that a foul wasn't called.
  • The Blazers continue to struggle in the paint. They're getting some good shots but not finishing. Jusuf Nurkic is very careless with a lot of his putbacks and short bank shots and it's costing him. The Trail Blazers made only 13 of 39 in the paint against the Bucks, which is far from an accepatble number.
  • I'd like to have seen a few double-teams on Antetokounmpo late in the game. Get the ball out of his hands, make somebody else shoot the ball.
  • The blocked shot on Nurkic at the end was a product of Nurkic not taking the ball strong, with two hands, directly to the basket. With Antetokounmpo coming at him, Nurkic switched the ball to his left (weaker) hand and tried to go around the block attempt. That's usually a bad idea. I can still remember Coach Jack Ramsay lecturing his Blazer players, "Take the ball AT the shot blocker, don't take it AWAY from him. It makes it easier for him when you pull it out away from your body." Nurkic would likely have at least drawn a foul if he'd gone strong to the rim.
  • Well, maybe he'd have drawn a foul. At that point in the game, it seemed difficult to get a foul called on a certain player from Greece.
  • Tough loss but just one gme. The thing is, though, you don't want to become that team that is mistake-prone late in games.