The night Allen Crabbe may have saved the playoffs for the Trail Blazers

The night Allen Crabbe may have saved the playoffs for the Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers seemed overmatched from the start of their game Thursday night against Minnesota. The Timberwolves led 12-2 and 20-9 to open the game and you had to wonder how Portland could get off so poorly in such an important game. Minnesota would stretch the lead to 15 with 9:39 to go in the third quarter and this game looked lost.

But in the fourth quarter, Portland's defense became more aggressive and a friendly officiating crew allowed it to get away with some roughthouse tactics at that end of the floor. The Timberwolves suddenly couldn't score and forgot their best option on offense -- getting the ball to Karl-Anthony Towns at the low post against the little Portland guys who were trying in vain to defend him.

But that wouldn't have mattered much -- the Trail Blazers probably still would have lost this game -- if Allen Crabbe hadn't suddenly gone nuts on the Timberwolves from three-point range.

Crabbe scored 10 points in 48 seconds early in the fourth quarter. Up to that point, Portland's offense was flat-out broken and had disintegrated into a lot of one-on-one stuff that proved largely ineffective. Damian Lillard had another troubling shooting night (7-21 from the field, including 1-9 from three-point range to go with four turnovers) and there was little ball movement or player movement.

A loss in this game, I believe, would have signaled the end of Portland's late-season dash for a playoff spot -- obliterated by Jusuf Nurkic's leg fracture. And make no mistake, Nurkic -- and really not a lot else -- was the reason for the Trail Blazers' sudden late-season turnaround. He made his teammates better to a shocking degree and the evidence, before he arrived and after his injury -- is clear.

But Allen Crabbe rode to the rescue with those three-point shots Thursday night in Moda Center. He won them that game just about single-handedly. And I believe that was probably enough to get Portland the eighth seed in the West. The magic number is down to 2 and even if the Blazers can't win another game, it's highly possible Denver has a couple more losses coming its way.

The good news is that now we really know how important Nurkic is. What a find he was. What a future he brings. How much better he makes this team. And we also know that without him, this team doesn't appear to be very good.

Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

In the span of 48 seconds on Thursday, the Trail Blazers playoff hopes went from bleak to promising, all thanks to Allen Crabbe.

In probably his greatest moment as a pro, Crabbe scored 10 points in a 48-second span turning an 87-82 deficit into a 92-89 lead, pushing the Blazers to a 105-98 win and onto the brink of clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Crabbe scored 25 points and hit eight three pointers – three of them coming in the decisive 48 second span, including one while being fouled by Tyus Jones that resulted in a free throw.

"I love seeing a shooter get on a roll like that,'' Coach Terry Stotts said.

The win increased Portland’s lead over Denver to 1.5 games with three games remaining. Denver plays at home Friday against New Orleans. Any combination of Portland wins or Denver losses that equals two will earn Portland the final playoff spot.

Damian Lillard added 22 points, nine rbeounds and eight assists and CJ McCollum had 18 points and five assists.

Portland trailed by as many as 15 in the third quarter and 87-80 entering the fourth quarter, but Minnesota missed its first 13 shots of the fourth and 19 of its first 20 shots. When it was all said and done, Minnesota scored 11 fourth quarter points and went 3-for-23 from the field in the fourth. The fourth-quarter meltdown included the abandoning of Karl-Anthony Towns, whose inside play was dominant through the first three quarters. Towns had 22 points and 12 rebounds entering the fourth, but attempted only two shots, one of them a rebound put-back with 16 seconds left.  Towns finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds.

Andrew Wiggins, who finished with 36 points, went 1-for-8 in the fourth, and Ricky Rubio, who started 6-of-7, missed eight of his final nine shots.

"We struggled most of the night, but the fourth qaurter was terrific,'' Stotts said. "There was a lot of great defensive play, and obviously A.C.'s shooting was terrific.''

The Blazers erased a 15-point deficit in the third quarter, making their push after Towns headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. After Towns left, Portland went on a 12-2 run to draw even at 72 with 6:05. But that’s when Towns returned and the Blazers and Minnesota regained its footing, taking an 87-80 lead into the fourth.

Minnesota led 61-53 at halftime after leading by as many as 14 in the first quarter and 12 in the second quarter. Wiggins was dominant, particularly with post ups against McCollum, Lillard and Crabbe. Wiggins made 9-of-12 shots in the half and had 21 points.

Crabbe prevented the Timberwolves from running away in the first half, hitting his first three 3-point attempts.

Minnesota jumped to a 12-2 start and eventually took a 34-20 lead after the first quarter. They rode post ups by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins early, then the outside shooting of Rubio late in the quarter. Meanwhile, Portland shot just 32 percent, with Lillard missing his first six shots before scoring on a driving layin with 32 seconds left.

Al-Farouq Aminu, who started for the second straight game in the Blazers’ small-ball lineup without injured center Jusuf Nurkic, had 15 points and seven rebounds and Noah Vonleh added nine points and seven rebounds.

Next up: Utah at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (KGW).

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Lillard, Trail Blazers stay hot, with big win over Houston

Lillard, Trail Blazers stay hot, with big win over Houston

The NBA’s best team in March was in Portland, and on Thursday the red-hot Trail Blazers capped a sizzling month with an impressive 117-107 victory over the Houston Rockets that left the Moda Center buzzing.

Damian Lillard had 31 points and 11 assists and the Blazers won their fifth straight to complete March with an NBA-best 13-3 record.

The Blazers closed the game on a 10-2 run in which Houston’s MVP-candidate James Harden repeatedly came up empty.

Harden, who entered as the NBA’s second leading scorer at 29.3 points, scored 30, but he had only three in the fourth quarter while going 1-for-4 from the field and committing two turnovers.

Portland (37-38) moved 1.5 games ahead of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with seven games remaining. Houston (51-24) has locked up the third seed in the Western Conference.

Jusuf Nurkic continued his resurgence in Portland, finishing with 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks and he scored two late buckets to help seal the game.

But more than anything, the Blazers got huge nights from their role players, none bigger than Maurice Harkless, who had 17 points, six rebounds and three blocks while guarding Harden for much of the game. Harkless made a key play on Harden late in the fourth with the Blazers clinging to a 103-101 lead, poking the ball away for a steal, then later finishing the possession with a driving dunk to put Portland up 105-101 with 3:37 left.

Allen Crabbe also added 17 points, and his strip of Harden, which he took the length of the court for a dunk, gave the Blazers a 113-105 lead with 1:12 and sent the Moda Center into perhaps its loudest decibel of the season.

"We are the sum of our parts,'' Coach Terry Stotts said. "When we get contributions up and down (and) we're not relying on Dame and CJ, it just makes us a better team.''

Lillard scored 11 in the first quarter and 12 in the third and broke the Blazers franchise record for points in the month of March (465), eclipsing Clyde Drexler in 1989 (439 points).

The Blazers led 65-56 at halftime as they rode the play of Lillard and Nurkic and got sizeable contributions from their role players. Lillard had another strong opening quarter, hitting his first three 3-pointers en route to 11 points, but he was complemented by Harkless, who also scored 11 while also being tasked with the defensive assignment on Harden.

The Blazers took advantage of Harden on the bench to start the second quarter, extending a 32-31 lead to 54-42 before Harden returned with 6:21 left. The Blazers’ spurt was led by Allen Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu, with Crabbe hitting three 3-pointers and Aminu scoring eight.

Next up: Phoenix at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (CSN)

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Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

LOS ANGELES – It took 51 days, but the Trail Blazers have finally regained possession of a playoff position.

Behind 22 points from Damian Lillard and some hot shooting from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers beat the Lakers 97-81 on Sunday at the Staples Center to move into a tie with Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining.

Denver, which lost 115-90 to New Orleans earlier in the day, plays at Portland on Tuesday at the Moda Center (7 p.m., CSN). Portland leads the season series 2-1, but can clinch the tie-breaker over Denver even if it loses Tuesday by virtue of winning one of its remaining four division games or having Denver lose one of its three remaining division games.

Seven of the Blazers’ final nine games are at home while seven of the Nuggets final nine games are on the road.

“We know if we can string a few games together at this point, we can be in the driver’s seat,’’ Lillard said before the game. “That’s a great position to be in.’’

Denver has held the eighth spot since Feb. 3, when Portland lost at home to Dallas to fall to 22-29 and Denver beat Milwaukee to improve to 22-27.

The Blazers have caught fire in March, improving to 11-3 in the month, with much of the surge being sparked by center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a February 12 trade with Denver for Mason Plumlee.

On Sunday, Portland struggled early against the last-place Lakers, but a third-quarter surge, led by Lillard’s 14 points, pushed a 51-46 lead to 77-56 entering the fourth quarter.

It was the Blazers’ 12th consecutive victory over the Lakers, a franchise record.

While Portland was misfiring early, Crabbe rescued them. He made six of his first 10 shots, including three three-pointers. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds, keeping the Blazers afloat long enough for Lillard to heat up and take them home

Noah Vonleh set a career high with 14 rebounds and Al-Farouq Aminu had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers (21-52) with 22 points while leading scorer Jordan Clarkson had an off night, making only 4-of-16 shots for 10 points.

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

 Hence, the head shaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurkic nodded, his smile still wide.

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

McCollum and Lillard looked at each other and laughed.

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who are those guys? Blazers stun San Antonio behind Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum

Who are those guys? Blazers stun San Antonio behind Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum

SAN ANTONIO – The hard-to-figure out Trail Blazers added to their unpredictable mystique on Wednesday when they followed up a 23-point blowout loss in New Orleans with a 110-106 win over at San Antonio.

The win didn’t come without its faults. The Blazers missed two free throws and threw away an inbounds pass in the final minute, allowing San Antonio to cut a 104-97 lead to 104-102 with 53 seconds left.

But in the end, it was the brilliance of Damian Lillard, a career-night from Noah Vonleh and some clutch fourth quarter play from Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum that allowed the Blazers to beat the team with the NBA’s second best record.

Lillard finished with 36 points and four assists on 12-of-22 shooting.  On this crucial late-season, five-game trip, the Blazers’ captain in the first three games has been at his best, averaging 34.7 points and 2.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from three point range.

It was Lillard’s foul shots with 5.2 seconds left that gave the Blazers at 108-105 lead. San Antonio was fouled on its last possession with 2.5 seconds left after a wild scramble for the inbound, and Manu Ginobili missed the first and made the second while trying to miss.

Lillard then iced it with two free throws with 1.7 seconds left.

The win pushed the Blazers to 30-37 and within two games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 15 games remaining.

The Blazers went almost exclusively to Nurkic down the stretch, and the big man had mixed results. He scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth, but he missed two free throws with 1:02 left and had two of his five turnovers in the final minutes. He did add nine rebounds and three assists, his last rebound a key chase down of a Lillard miss with 19.1 seconds left.

McCollum was also big in the fourth, when he scored nine of his 26 points, and Vonleh tied his season high with 26 minutes, during which he had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists.

San Antonio (52-15) fell one game behind Golden State for the NBA’s best record despite getting the return of star LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed the last two games with a heart ailment. Aldridge had 19 points and seven rebounds but struggled through a 9-for-24 shooting night.

It was a nip-and-tuck game throughout, with each team never holding a lead larger than seven.

Lillard was especially brilliant in the third quarter, scoring 16 points and pushing the Blazers to an 82-80 lead heading into the fourth.

It was the type of unpredictability that has come to define this Portland team, as it followed its lowest scoring and worst shooting night of the season – and arguably one of its most disappointing performances – with perhaps the win of the season.

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

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Nurkic Fever strikes again: Blazers beat 76ers behind monster game from Blazers center

Nurkic Fever strikes again: Blazers beat 76ers behind monster game from Blazers center

There is a new star in Portland and his name is Jusuf Nurkic.

Behind their new acquisition, who nearly posted a triple-double, the Trail Blazers secured their first four-game winning streak of the season with a wild 114-108 overtime victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Nurkic, the 7-foot center acquired in mid-February from Denver, set career-highs with 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks and also made a game-clinching defensive play in the overtime period. With Portland clinging to a 110-106 lead, Philadelphia inbounded with 40 seconds left when Nurkic reached and deflected the pass off the foot of Jahlil Okafor.

The game went to overtime after Robert Covington made up for an earlier gaffe by scoring at the buzzer off an offensive rebound.

The win moved Portland (28-35) within one-half game of Denver (29-35) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 19 games remaining.

Philadelphia fell to 23-42.

The game went into overtime after an eventful final minute that was punctuated by mindless plays from both teams.

After Nurkic the game tied at 95 with 33.9 seconds left, Philadelphia’s TJ McConnell missed a running jumper, and when CJ McCollum rebounded, Philadelphia’s Covington inexplicably – and intentionally -- fouled McCollum in the backcourt with 19.6 seconds left.

McCollum made both free throws and when Philadelphia tried to tie it with a Dario Saric inside shot, Al-Farouq Aminu blocked the shot. But in clearing the play, Aminu threw a pass downcourt to Maurice Harkless that overshot him and went into the stands with 11.8 seconds left.

Philadelphia’s Saric, who is in contention for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, scored a career-high 28 points, Covington had 24 and former Blazers forward Gerald Henderson had 14.

Nurkic carried the Blazers to a 57-52 lead at halftime, recording 13 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 blocks in the first half. He made an impact from the get-go, threading a nice pass to Maurice Harkless for the game’s first basket, then recording a block on Jahlil Okafor on the next possession, which he followed by scoring on a bank shot off a post up on the Blazers next trip down the court.

The Blazers were also fueled by Allen Crabbe, who fresh off a 23-point performance in Oklahoma City made five of his first seven shots and scored 12 first-half points. That marked the first time in five games this season that Crabbe followed up a 20-point performance by scoring in double figures.

Crabbe finished with 23 points, including a floater in the lane with 20.9 seconds left in overtime that put the final nail in the 76ers’ coffin.

Damian Lillard struggled with his shot all night, but finished with 24 points thanks to hitting all 12 of his free throws. Lillard went 6-of-21 from the field, and missed all six of his three-point attempts, ending his franchise-record streak of 42 games with a three-pointer.

Next up: Washington at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (CSN)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lillard leads the way as Trail Blazers return the favor on Charlotte with a blowout

Lillard leads the way as Trail Blazers return the favor on Charlotte with a blowout

If the Trail Blazers are going to turn their season around, it is going to have to come in little steps.

Perhaps the first step was taken Tuesday when Portland beat Charlotte 115-98 to record its first winning month since going 2-1 in October.

Behind a hot start from Damian Lillard and a boost off the bench from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers won for the fourth time in five games and put the finishing touches on an 8-7 record in January.

Coach Terry Stotts, however, when asked if he puts any stock in a winning month replied: "Nope.''

Lillard had 27 points and Crabbe 21 points as the Blazers (22-28) kept pace with Denver (22-25) in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Blazers moved within a game of the Nuggets (who were trailing at the Lakers), but are playing arguably their best basketball of the season, which has been spurred by the insertion of Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh into the starting lineup. The Blazers are 4-2 with the new lineup and have won three of the first four games in this five-game homestand.

Charlotte (23-26) lost its fifth consecutive game despite a solid game from former Blazers wing Nicolas Batum (18 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and 22 points from Kemba Walker. Portland avenged a 107-85 loss in Charlotte on Jan. 18 and won its ninth consecutive home game over the Hornets.

Portland broke away from a 56-50 halftime lead after Charlotte played dreadfully coming out of halftime. The Hornets began the half making only three of 15 shots, and coupled with three turnovers, found themselves trailing by 15 midway through the third. All told, the Hornets were outscored 30-18 in the third and trailed 86-68 heading into the fourth.

"I liked the way we played,'' Stotts said. "I thought in the first half we should have had a larger lead than we did.''

The Blazers had their halftime lead after Lillard had a big first quarter (14 points) and Crabbe a prolific second quarter (14 of his 16). Portland had leads as large as 14, but frittered it away with some shaky passing that opened the door for Charlotte to get hot behind Kemba Walker.

Portland started 0-for-8 and 1-for-11, but remarkably still had a 6-4 lead after Lillard and McCollum hit three’s and Charlotte kept taking shots early in the shot clock.

Mason Plumlee had seven points and 11 rebounds and had snapped his string of five straight double-doubles. Al-Farouq Aminu added 10 rebounds and Vonleh also added 10 rebounds.  

Next up: Dallas at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Friday (KGW/ESPN)

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