Pat Connaughton

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.

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

OK, Blazer fans, you know the drill.

Keep repeating this to yourself: "It's just one game. It's just one game. It's just one game"

And there are 81 yet to play. But I must admit, that 48-point win on opening night on the road was very impressive. And I don't care how bad the Suns are, it was quite a game for the Trail Blazers.

Let's talk about it:

  • The defense was obviously very solid. The Suns are a guard-oriented offensive team and the Blazers took those guards -- Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe -- out of the game, holding them to 11-for-35 shooting from the field and Phoenix had nothing left. And shortly after intermission, the overmatched Suns pretty much quit.
  • You can give several individual players their due for the defense, but what I liked best was the cohesion by the entire team at the defensive end. Pick-and-roll defense was improved and so was the interior stuff. Jusuf Nurkic makes a difference in the paint with his ability to leave his own man and intimidate drivers. Mostly, I saw a new alertness and aggression at the defensive end -- and that was special.
  • Pat Connaughton showed what he's capable of doing and it was plenty. Maybe it was just because this game was in Phoenix but he reminded me a lot of Dan Majerle, except he's a better three-point shooter than the ex-Sun.
  • Damian Lillard was, well, Damian Lillard. That leadership he provides is as important as his talent. He's a rare one, folks. A special player.
  • This was another illustration of Portland's overall talent level. Coach Terry Stotts played everybody and they all can play. This isn't a season when the Blazers will have two or three players at the end of the bench who are "projects" or merely players happy to be there. These guys all belong on an NBA court.
  • It's on to Indiana for a matchup against the Pacers, who amassed 140 points in their opening win over Brooklyn, so it should be a better test for the Portland defense. And remember, it's just the second of 82 games.

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

Pat Connaughton makes the most of his opening night opportunity

PHOENIX – Sometimes in the NBA, all it takes is a chance, an opportunity, to show one belongs.

We saw it three years ago, as the Blazers were dying in the 2015 NBA playoffs in Memphis, and a youngster named CJ McCollum was thrown into the fire. He responded with 33 points in Game 5, catapulting him into what is now a star-studded career.

We saw it last year, when a young center named Jusuf Nurkic, left to wilt on the vine in Denver, revitalized his career and a team in Portland, after he was given a chance to start.

And Wednesday, in the Trail Blazers’ season opener, Pat Connaughton was given his chance, and the third-year guard didn’t miss it.

Connaughton hit his first five shots on the way to a 24-point performance that helped make up for the suspension of CJ McCollum and carry the Blazers to a 124-76 win at Phoenix.

“He was prepared for this moment,’’ team captain Damian Lillard said of Connaughton.

The opening night performance comes on the heels of a solid preseason where Connaughton showed he had diversified, and improved, his game. No longer just a three-point shooter, Connaughton showed in the preseason improved play-making skills, particularly his ball-handling and passing, and a comfort level befitting of an established veteran.

Coach Terry Stotts didn’t blink an eye at the performance. He half expected it.

“He’s been shooting the ball with confidence, and he showed that tonight,’’ Stotts said. “He played with a lot of poise and a lot of confidence.’’

It wasn’t just an emphatic performance, it was a timely one, too.

When Connaughton entered just 2:34 into the game to replace Maurice Harkless, who was assessed two quick fouls, the Blazers were down 7-2. It soon became 9-2, and the Blazers were looking impatient and jittery on offense, perhaps out of sync because of McCollum’s absence.

But Connaughton hit a three, then beat Phoenix in transition for back-to-back layins. Then he hit another three, giving Portland a 15-13 lead they would never relinquish.

All told, Connaughton hit 9-of-14 shots, including 4-of-7 three-pointers, prompting Lillard to shout “Pat McCollum!” in the locker room afterward. While Connaughton is unlikely to make the Blazers forget about the silky shooting of McCollum, his performance Wednesday was a start to answering how the Blazers would respond to losing Allen Crabbe in a summer trade with Brooklyn.

“Everybody was wondering where the three’s were going to come from,’’ Stotts smirked. “Pat is one of them.’’

And to think, two months ago, there was debate whether Connaughton would actually stick in the NBA, or turn his attention to baseball, where he was drafted as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles.

The Blazers had until Aug. 31 to decide whether to exercise a $1.4 million option on Connaughton, and after a rather pedestrian showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, it was anything but assured Connaughton would be retained by Portland.

When the Blazers did pick up the option, it set in motion a diligent workout regime. Lillard said he recounted a time when Connaughton was making 1,000 shots a day.

Connaughton said he is aided by adopting his old baseball mentality, where a player has to learn how to move on from failure. It is a sport, after all, where a hitter can fail seven times out of 10 and still be considered excellent at his craft.

“It’s having that quote-unquote baseball mentality – the short memory -- and making sure that I’m in the right positions for my teammates to make shots for them or to make plays for them and get them open shots,’’ Connaughton said. “That’s something I’ve been working on all summer and quite frankly, the last two years, so that when I got my opportunity I was able to take advantage of it.’’

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

Ready or not, here they come. The Portland Trail Blazers will unpack those new Nike uniforms and open the regular season tonight in Phoenix.

And I must admit, I expect big things. I think the Trail Blazers are flying under the radar a little bit this season. They didn't add a big-name free agent, make a blockbuster trade or get a top-five draft choice, but they've improved a lot. How does that happen? Well, this team has been one of the youngest in the league for the past three seasons and it's growing up and growing together. Experience matters and so does player development -- and not many teams do that as well as the Trail Blazers.

This roster is improved from top to bottom. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are all-star level players but we know by now they do not sit around all summer doing nothing. You will see they've gotten better. I expect Pat Connaughton to have a breakout season, earning playing time with an all-around game that's better than what was lost with the trade of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn. The rookies, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins, will improve as the season progresses and I expect that somewhere along the line each will play a part in winning games.

Yes, the defense is still a question mark. It looked better in the exhibition season but to be fair, the preseason games didn't include any of the NBA's premier offensive teams. We shall see. And it goes without saying, too, that Jusuf Nurkic must stay healthy.

But I expect this team to have a shot at 50 wins and contend for a spot in the upper half of the West playoff bracket. It's going to be a dogfight but this group is ready to take it to another level and show its potential as a future West contender.

And it all starts tonight -- on NBC Sports Northwest, where you will always find Rip City Live before the game and Talkin' Ball after the game,

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Wednesday’s season opener figures to be quite the debut for Trail Blazers’ guard Pat Connaughton.

Not only has the third-year guard secured a spot in the rotation with a solid preseason, he also figures to play an integral part Wednesday in patching the hole left at backup point guard by the suspension of CJ McCollum.

Coach Terry Stotts on Monday said it is likely either Connaughton or Evan Turner will initiate the offense at Phoenix when starter Damian Lillard rests, with Shabazz Napier also a possibility providing his left hamstring is cleared by the medical staff.

“Most likely, if Pat were out there and Dame was not, I’m sure Evan would be on the court as well, so probably between Evan and Pat, whoever the point guard was not be guarding would initiate the offense,’’ Stotts said.

If initiating the offense in a season opener seems like a huge step for a guy whose future was in question until the Blazers picked up his contract option in late August, it’s really not. Stotts last season developed a comfort level with Connaughton’s smarts, versatility and steadiness, which led to him playing spot duty during some key situations.

Of course, there is a big difference between spot duty and running the offense in a season opener. The two skills that will be tested are ball handling and retention of the plays.

Connaughton said he has honed his ball handling skills over the summer, which was evident in preseason when he was able to split a blitzing double team.

“CJ has helped me a lot, Shabazz helped me a lot – just making sure ball handling is up to par with what it needs to be a two-guard in this league,’’ Connaughton said. “Not just to make plays for myself, but others.’’

As coach, Stotts said his role will be to keep Connaughton out of a scenario where he is pressured full court.

“I’m comfortable with Pat handling the ball,’’ Stotts said. “If he has a ball-hawking defender like Patrick Beverley, or somebody like that guarding him, I wouldn’t want to put him in that situation. But if he is out there and can bring the ball up and initiate the offense without a lot of pressure, yeah.’’

When it comes to knowing the playbook, there are no worries. Teammates have often said Connaughton knows the role all five players have on each play.

“I know where everyone needs to be, not just myself,’’ Connaughton said, noting the Blazers put in a couple new plays Monday that he will have to review. Coming from the other sports I played, you have to have a high mental IQ when it comes to the athletic side of things, and it’s better to know where everyone is going to be rather than just where you are going to be … you want to be able to pick guys up.’’

While part of Connaughton’s appeal is his versatility, nobody expected he would be in this role for opening night. But McCollum, who is the Blazers’ starting shooting guard and backup point guard, was suspended Sunday for walking onto the court during a preseason altercation, creating a void.

The unexpected opening night role is just another opportunity for Connaughton, whose $1.4 million option wasn’t picked up until Aug. 31. When Allen Crabbe was traded to Brooklyn in July, it opened up 29 minutes in Stotts’ rotation, some of which will go to Connaughton, who earned them by embracing what he envisions as a jack-of-all-trades role.

“Whatever is needed,’’ Connaughton said in describing his role. “Just making sure I can get guys the ball in spot they want to get it, hopefully take pressure of Dame, CJ, ET, guys who always have the ball in pick and rolls, things like that …  and make shots and defend.’’

And for a night, help out at backup point guard.

Today's Blazers' links:

My Inside the Blazers podcast includes an interview with Evan Turner.

Damian Lillard knocked off a bucket list item.

ESPN has the Blazers ranked 14th in its opening day power rankings.

The Oregonian's Mike Richman writes that Connaughton has gone from towel-waver to rotation player.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman writes on the Blazers' improved defense.

The Trail Blazers' Casey Holdahl and Freeman recorded their Rip City Report.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

SACRAMENTO -- Terry Stotts said he has yet to decide on his opening night starting lineup or his playing rotation, even after he coached what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season on Monday night in Sacramento.

Stotts started both halves with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic and played them all about 29 minutes. Through the first three quarters, he only played four reserves – Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Pat Connaughton.

Nobody inside the Blazers locker room said they have a clue how Stotts will approach the season opener, which is now just eight days away, but several intimated that it wouldn’t shock them if Monday’s game against the Kings is how the Blazers approach the Oct. 18 opener at Phoenix.

“I think obviously, everybody knows who the horses are,’’ Turner said. “And the rest of us have to stay prepared and stay ready for whatever the situation is. I think the biggest thing in the rotation situation is defensively … are we getting better defensively?’’

The only debate is how Stotts handles the forward position, and it seems the leading candidates from the start of camp have been Harkless and Aminu, who have developed a familiarity and defensive chemistry over the past two seasons. The other options are having Swanigan in place of Aminu, or perhaps Turner instead of Harkless.

But for a team whose offense is well defined with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, it seems the defensive cohesion between Harkless and Aminu – they are able to switch easily on pick-and-rolls – has long been attractive to Stotts.

“The continuity – we finished out the year like that for the most part and I think we are all comfortable with that group out there,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know if that’s going to the be group we start with on opening night, but whether it is or isn’t, I think that group we have out there is good offensively or defensively.’’

Stotts usually likes to play nine or 10 players, and his biggest decision will likely come in early November, when Noah Vonleh returns from a shoulder strain. Vonleh has been a part-time starter over the past two seasons and figures to command playing time because of his rebounding and defensive play. Also, point guard Shabazz Napier – who has been unable to play in preseason because of a hamstring injury -- figures to be considered alongside Connaughton at guard, depending on matchups.

“We have a lot of lineups out there, but it will ultimately be coach’s decision,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also typically likes to have one preseason game when he plays it similar to a regular season game, and it appeared Monday against the Kings was that night. The Blazers’ two remaining preseason games figure to be exercises in caution and the final auditions for the 15th roster spot.

Portland plays Wednesday at Phoenix, and Stotts has previously said he is leery to show much of his regular-season package against the Suns considering the Blazers open the season in Phoenix on the 18th. And Stotts has already said in the preseason finale – Friday at home against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa –he plans to rest many of his main players.

After what appeared to be a dry run during Monday’s 97-83 win at the Kings, Turner said there doesn’t appear to be much left to decide in this preseason.

“I guess who is going to be on the team,’’ Turner said, laughing. “But other than that, we have to figure out rotations so guys know their roles,  and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.’’

Here’s a look at Stotts’ substitution pattern/lineups and how they fared in the first three quarters Monday:

Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 6:11, Kings 16-15.

1st sub: 5:49 -- Connaughton for McCollum. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 2:40, Blazers 11-2.

2nd sub: 3:09 -- Davis for Nurkic; Swanigan for Aminu. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 27 seconds, no scoring.

3rd sub: 2:42 – McCollum for Lillard; Turner for Harkless. Lineup: McCollum, Connaughton, Turner, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 7:22, Kings 12-11.

SECOND QUARTER (Blazers lead 29-24)

4th sub: 7:20 -- Lillard for McCollum; Harkless for Connaughton. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis.  Time played together: 18 seconds. Blazers 1-0.

5th sub:  7:02 -- Nurkic for Davis. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:47. Kings 3-0.

6th sub: 5:15 -- Aminu for Swanigan. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:46. Blazers 7-0.

7th sub: 3:29 -- McCollum for Turner. Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 3:29. Kings 10-9.

HALFTIME: Blazers lead 54-43

THIRD QUARTER

Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 12 minutes. Kings 22-17.

Today's Blazers Links:

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, Dwight Jaynes says he thinks Pat Connaughton is in for breakout year.

ESPN's Zach Lowe weighs in on the Blazers

Matt Moore at CBS Sports previews the Blazers' season.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers says not much was decided in Sacramento.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

When the Trail Blazers open their preseason tonight against Phoenix, coach Terry Stotts admitted that his biggest task is not finding indications of who he should place in the starting lineup or even a playing rotation.

It’s keeping stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off the court.

Because backup point guard Shabazz Napier is nursing a left quadriceps injury and will be unable to play, Stotts said the “challenge” of his night will be limiting the minutes of Lillard and McCollum.

“The concern without Shabazz is not running up Dame and CJ’s minutes,’’ Stotts said. “That’s an important thing in preseason.’’

It is unknown how long Napier will be sidelined. He has not practiced since injuring his thigh last Wednesday, but he has been seen doing light running and side-to-side movement.

Stotts said he plans to play everyone who is healthy, but he doesn’t figure anyone will play more than half of the game. Last season in the preseason opener, Evan Turner played the most (26 minutes) while Lillard played 23 minutes and McCollum 22. Napier helped ease the point guard minutes by playing 17 minutes.

Lillard, who averaged 36 minutes in the regular season last year, said limiting his minutes can sometimes be easier said than done.

 “Usually (Stotts) tries to save me from me,’’ Lillard said. “He knows once I go out there and start feeling good in the game, and get into the flow of the game, I will be like, ‘Leave me in. Leave me in.’’’

Perhaps that’s why Stotts noted Monday that “it will be a little bit of a challenge” to limit his prized backcourt on Tuesday night.

Lillard said he doesn’t see it as a problem, pointing out that shooting guard Pat Connaughton knows every position and that rookie point guard Isaiah Briscoe has been handling himself well in camp. Also, Turner could play some spot minutes at point.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pat out there handling it a bit,’’ Lillard said.

Briscoe stands the most to gain. The rookie from Kentucky is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot, along with sharp shooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin. He performed  very well in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists while hitting 6-of-7 shots.

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about Stotts' beginning his quest to find the right fit with lineups.

Willamette Week recaps an appearance Damian Lillard made on OPB.

Neil Olshey made an appearance on Courtside last night:

Here's Olshey on Jusuf Nurkic.

Here's Olshey on the Blazers' vision.

Here's Olshey on the rookies.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman previews the preseason opener.

With Crabbe gone, who will fill that spot? How about Connaughton?

With Crabbe gone, who will fill that spot? How about Connaughton?

Allen Crabbe is gone, his contract and three-point shot shipped off to Brooklyn by the Trail Blazers. And if you had to choose one player on the Portland roster who has the best chance to fit into that off-the-bench scorer role, who would it be?

My pick would be Pat Connaughton. The third-year pro out of Notre Dame came on at the end of last season and became a part of the team's regular rotation on some nights. He even got court time in the playoffs. At 6-5, 210 he's a physical player who shows promise as an outside shooter and defender. He shot 51.5 percent from three-point range in limited duty last season and is at 40.7 percent for his 73-game career.

What say you, Pat? Are you ready to step into Crabbe's role?

"Obviously that's a coach's decision," he said after Tuesday's morning practice, the first of two workouts for the day. "But I learned a lot from AC. I was close to him and still am, I'm ready to do whatever needs to be done. I think I can step up, help the team win, make shots and do the things he did."

Connaughton is a big jumper and very physical. An athlete. But let him tell you what kind of player he aspires to be.

"I pride myself on being active," he said. "Use my athleticism on the defensive end and on the rebounding side of things and then making jump shots and being able to create a little bit off the dribble. Summer League was a short stint for me this year but I had the ball in my hands a lot and I learned those type of (playmaking) things from CJ and Dame. Obviously they are a little bit different players but you'd like to be a mix of AC and them. You want to shoot for that type of ceiling -- knock down shots and handle the ball when it's called for.

"Within the flow of the offense be a playmaker and make some shots."

There is a big emphasis on defense in Portland's camp and that plays into Connaughton's skillset.

"I think I've learned a lot in my two years in the league on the defensive end," he said. "It's not about picking a guy up full court, it's about your angles."

And Pat, I would say you are a little more physical than the average guy, right?

"Yeah, I would say so, too," he said. "I can use my athleticism to have an impact at the defensive end, both from an on-ball defender, a help defender and a rebounder."

Coach Terry Stotts showed confidence in Connaughton last season and gaining the trust of your coach is a big part of a young player's development.

"I really like Pat," Stotts said.  "He's really improved his shooting. He played on the front line in college and he's really developed his guard skills -- his shooting, his passing, his out-on-the-floor skills. There are minutes to be had with AC gone. Pat knows the opportunity is there.

"I think last year showed I wasn't afraid to put Pat in games. You can trust him. He knows all the plays from every position. He's a smart player. He talks, He's a good teammate.There's a lot of trust in Pat, not only from me but but his teammates. And for a young player, that's important."

 

Anthony Morrow: Nothing wrong with Blazers adding another shooter

Anthony Morrow: Nothing wrong with Blazers adding another shooter

The Trail Blazers this week announced that they've signed veteran Anthony Morrow to a training camp contract. Not a big deal, most likely. You need extra players during camp and the exhibition season. There are always free agents added for camp.

But Morrow interests me more than the average camp addition.

I've always had a weakness for wild-card scorers -- either terrific one-on-one players or three-point gunners. I've never cared if they can defend or rebound or pass. It's just that I've seen many times in the NBA the value of that streak shooter or instant-offense player off the bench. Morrow is a career 41.7 percent shooter from three-point range. Folks, that's more than pretty good.

Is there a place for him in a starting lineup or even a regular rotation? No, I doubt it. But there are nights in the NBA when stuff just isn't working. Offensive players aren't scoring and a team is slowly drifting out of a game. Morrow is the kind of player who can get you back in the game. I've see him do it. Put him in, run some stuff to get him a sliver of daylight from three-point range and he'll likely knock down some shots.

What more could you ask from a 10th man off your bench?

And the best thing about Morrow is that he'd be cheap. This isn't Ryan Anderson making $20 million per season. This is a minimum-salary guy.

Now understand, Morrow is very likely a longshot just to make the Portland roster. The most obvious reason he's even in the Portland training camp is to put some pressure on Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman. The Trail Blazers would love to see either of those young players develop into a dependable outside shooter. This team needs more wing shooters with range. Perhaps the presence of Morrow will be a subtle push for those players.

Either way, I like the idea of seeing another shooter in camp. The way the game is being played in the NBA these days, you just can't seem to have enough long-range gunners.