Jusuf Nurkic

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

The Trail Blazers are in the midst of another late-season run, but the surge this season has a different look and a different feel.

The Blazers (37-26) have won six in a row and 13 of their past 14 home games to vault into third place in the Western Conference with 19 games remaining, and perhaps more than ever their play has been defined by one thing: they are a team.

Sure, Damian Lillard has been spectacular. And CJ McCollum has hit some big shots. But this spring blossoming has largely been rooted in team defense and the nightly emergence of a role player.

Pick a player – Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis,  Maurice Harkless, Zach Collins, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Pat Connaughton – and they have made a game-changing impact over the past month.

It has created an empowering and confident sense within the locker room that this team is not only hot and dangerous, but for real.

“In the past two years, when we went on great runs, it’s always been CJ has a great stretch, or I have a great stretch,’’ Damian Lillard said. “But now, it’s much more collective – both this season and during this run.’’

On Saturday, Oklahoma City’s game plan was to make someone other than Lillard beat them. They trapped and blitzed him, forcing him to get rid of the ball.  If the Thunder’s dare for someone other than Lillard to step up, it didn’t work out.

Turner hit three three-pointers. Collins had a career-high 12 points, including a critical fourth-quarter three. And Connaughton added some scrappy and timely baskets.

“We are not losing anything because guys are pulling their weight,’’ Lillard said. “Any time you have that kind of production, and that type of focus from guys, it makes an impact. It’s team effort. We are improving. We are becoming a better team.’’

It’s human nature to want a roster to come together immediately. But as the Blazers are showing, it often takes time. Development. And attention to detail.

Here is a collection of snapshots from the past week that show the subtleties and the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into the Blazers becoming a better team.

NURKIC GOES TO WORK ON SHOT

It has long been legend at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility that Lillard is one of, if not the first, player to arrive daily. But in the past couple weeks, the Blazers’ captain has arrived and noticed a player walking off the practice courts: center Jusuf Nurkic.

Nurkic, of course, was at the center of one of the biggest early-season storylines: the inability to finish around the basket. It was such an epidemic that the normally reticent coach Terry Stotts started publicly mentioning Nurkic’s poor shooting and finishing.

It’s unclear exactly what caught Nurkic’s attention, but the big man decided it was time to do something about the problem.

“I told the coaches: ‘I’m better than that,’’’ Nurkic said. “And that I’m going to work on it during the (All-Star) break. Thee break gave me time to work and rest mentally.’’

Nurkic said he has been showing up 30 minutes to an hour before practices to execute shooting drills with assistant coach Nate Tibbetts. One of the emphasis’ during the drills is taking only shots that he would take in the game and going to the basket with stronger moves.

During the Blazers’ six-game winning streak, Nurkic has been key. He’s averaging 14.7 points and shooting 51.3 percent from the field, which has included much better efficiency around the basket.

“He’s been spending a lot of time working on that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “The coaches have been challenging him, in our live practices he’s been real physical with (the ball) and I can tell he has been focusing on playing a more physical game, going stronger to rim and he is getting results from it.’’

THE COMING OF COLLINS

After the Blazers beat Minnesota on Thursday, the locker room was full of smiles and playful banter. But rookie Zach Collins, his lips tight and his eyes pierced, was in no mood to celebrate. He bee-lined for the door, one of the first to leave.

He had been entrusted with fourth-quarter minutes in a crucial game, but on back-to-back possessions, with the score tied, Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng secured offensive rebounds.

“I was really frustrated with that,’’ Collins said later. “There were a couple of times I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.’’

So the next game, against Oklahoma City, Collins didn’t disappoint.

Playing all but the final 27 seconds of the fourth quarter, Collins was one of the catalysts in one of the Blazers’ most important wins of the season. He hit all three of his shots in the fourth and had two blocks down the stretch. All told, he finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes and was the epicenter of a huge media gathering afterward.

“Any time I have a bad game, this will be the one to watch,’’ he quipped, noting he is notoriously hard on himself.

Around the locker room, the rookie has earned a healthy dose of respect. The veterans love his toughness, and everybody sees that he cares, both through his work ethic and intensity.

“He has a bright future ahead, and I’m not saying that just because he’s my teammate,’’ Davis said. “I really think he is going to be a good player. I mean, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have won this game (against OKC). ‘’

Nearly every player talks about Collins’ makeup, from his intensity, to how he isn’t intimidated.

“He’s just not going to back down. That’s all you can ask for in a player,’’ Davis said. “Especially a young guy from a small school. Guys in this league, they are grown men, and they are going to try you, test you, and he’s standing up to everybody. I can’t do nothing but respect him.’’

Harkless sees Collins’ mental roller coaster more than anyone. He dresses next to Collins at home games and often sees the 20-year-old wear his frustration.

“Me and him have similar attitudes,’’ Harkless said. “I know talking too much doesn’t help, so I just hit him with little things here and there and then I just let him have his space. For me, that works for me rather than someone trying to over talk.’’

Like Davis, Harkless loves the fire and toughness in Collins.

“He doesn’t back down to anybody. Ever,’’ Harkless said. “And the passion he plays with (chuckles) I remember one time he went up for verticality and came down, mouth all bloody. He licked his lips and kept playing. Stuff like that. Little things like that show you the traits of a tough player, a tough person.’’

It’s that mindset, along with a solid work ethic, that has allowed Collins to go from a project coming out of Summer League to a player who is entrusted with crunch time minutes in the middle of a playoff push.

“He has continued to improve throughout the season, and I think this was a culmination of a lot of work,’’ Stotts said.

NAPIER’S LATE-GAME EMERGENCE

During the comeback victory over Minnesota, when Portland trailed by 10 with one minute left in the third quarter, much was made about Lillard’s 13 fourth-quarter points.

But in the comeback, it was a Shabazz Napier three-pointer that tied the score in the fourth, and a Napier fast-break pull-up jumper that gave the Blazers the lead, continuing a season-long trend of clutch play by the backup point guard.

It prompted Ed Davis to note that one of the emerging strengths of the Blazers is the ability to have three “closers” – players who can make a big shot, or put away a game with their shot-making ability.

“All season long, Bazz has had moments where he has hit a big pull up or hit a big three, or made a big steal,’’ Lillard said. “He’s a game-changer, a big-time play maker. I think Ed is right.’’

Napier has long lived for the big moments. Now that it’s March, the two-time NCAA champion from UConn says he welcomes the big games looming on the Blazers’ schedule.

“I’ve always felt my game does change when -  not really because it’s March - but when I know its coming down to the wire. It fuels me, puts more wood to fire – like, what impact can you make today? Because I know: it’s winning time. I know that my biggest goal is to win a championship so you have to play your best games at the end of the year. ‘’

Of course, his big moments against Minnesota came on the heels of his worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, a slump that was punctuated by an 0-for-10 night in Phoenix. On the Blazers’ off day, he was in the gym working on his shot, and after the next practice, he was the last player to leave the practice courts.

“I’ve always felt failure is a learning experience,’’ Napier said. “And I’ve always felt especially in those times where the game is on the line, you know, clutch moments, that I would rather be the guy who is taking the shot. Because I can deal with being the hero and I can deal with being the zero. It’s kind of who I am.’’

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

The curious case of Jusuf Nurkic

It seems that suddenly Nurkic Fever has turned into Nurkic Flu. And it's spreading like wildfire.

Once the darling of Portland fans, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic has become a Twitter punching bag and a controversial figure. This seems to be sparked by his absence from both the Portland lineup and his recent media availabilities. And of course there is a growing wave of discontent based on Nurkic's recent play, too. His lack of consistency has been maddening and it seems to have finally worn out the patience of fans, coaches and media. Probably even his teammates.

Let's make a few things clear right off the bat. Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and nearly 2 assists per game. That's not bad and I'm not sure where else the Trail Blazers could find a center who could chalk up those statistics. And oh yes, he's still just 23 years old.

But there is more, of course. He is shooting only .479 from the field this season, pretty terrible for a man who takes most of his shots in the paint. And he's at an incredibly terrible .442 within three feet of the basket -- a career low. The Trail Blazers often take great pains to go to him early in games in an effort to get him off to a good start but he often responds as he did against Utah Sunday -- by missing his first four shots, three of them virtual layups. That's a discouraging situation for Nurkic and his team.

Why is this happening? I don't think anyone knows. My guess is that his coaches are at wit's end trying to unlock the secret to finding the whereabouts of the Nurkic who looked so promising through 20 games last season. After a summer in which he lost weight and came back promising to be tougher and more effective he only rarely reaches the level of play we saw so briefly last season. He appears tentative and contact averse.

He often seems to be taking a casual approach to his game, not finishing easy shots and avoiding contact. There are times when he just doesn't seem to be into the whole thing.

He is listed as "questionable" for tonight's game in Moda Center against the Golden State Warriors and there couldn't be a more fitting description of him right now. He's become questionable on a lot of levels.

But if he's hurt, he's hurt. It's careless to question that. But he does seem to get injured frequently, which has led to many questioning his toughness. I must say, as the guy who was screaming "Nurkic Fever" so frequently last season, I've fallen into that category. He's also appeared pouty, which was his reputation in Denver.

Could nagging injuries be a part of his disappointing season? I have no idea. But I do know this, for a player heading into free agency -- even restricted free agency -- he's not doing himself a lot of good. In a summer when it appears the free-agent money pool will be shallow, next season he may not end up earning anywhere close to what he probably anticipated.

Who is Jusuf Nurkic? Right now, I don't think many people have a clue.

And he's running out of games this season to show us.

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Jusuf Nurkic says he is “super excited” to make his first appearance in Denver as a Trail Blazer on Monday, so perhaps it was good timing Saturday that he received a stern message from his mentor, team captain Damian Lillard.

The message: Be smart. Don’t take the bait.

In the Blazers’ past two games, Nurkic has received a late-game technical after initiating confrontations with an opponent. On Saturday, Lillard quickly got in front of Nurkic and pushed him away from a dustup with Dallas center Sal Mejri.

As the referees reviewed the play, which would result in a Nurkic technical, Lillard sternly talked to Nurkic.

“You just have to be smart enough and sharp enough not to take the bait,’’ Lillard said. “If it happens two games in a row, it’s like, come on now. We don’t have to be tough with nobody; be smart.’’

The previous game, with the Blazers up eight over Indiana, Nurkic was given a technical with 2:02 left for talking trash after blocking Victor Oladipo, who was also given a technical by retaliating with a push to Nurkic’s chest.

On Saturday, the Blazers were up 10 over Dallas with 4:36 left when Nurkic and Mejri became entangled under the basket, which was punctuated by Nurkic pushing Mejri.

Lillard and Nurkic have formed a tight bond since Denver traded the 7-footer to Portland last February. Nurkic has said Lillard is the best thing that has happened to him in his life, and he nodded Saturday as Lillard scolded him.

“Do what we have to do to win the game,’’ Lillard said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think if there is a two-point game, or three-point game, and it happens the way it happened tonight – they shot three free throws in row - that could cost you a game. So Its better to get that across and learn that lesson in a game like tonight where we have a cushion and you let people know  … you can’t take the bait.’’

It could be an apt discussion in preparation for Monday’s game at Denver, where Nurkic became disgruntled and outspoken about what became a diminished role. The Blazers and Nuggets have faced each other three times since the trade, but all three meetings have been in Portland, including one last season in which Nurkic wished the Nuggets a “happy summer” after leading the Blazers to a key victory that all but assured them a playoff spot over the Nuggets.

Monday’s matchup also figures to play heavily in the postseason conversation. Portland (25-21) is in sixth in the West, two games ahead of  Denver (23-23), which is one spot out of the playoff hunt.

“That’s a game I look forward to, definitely,’’ Nurkic said Saturday. “Super excited … looking for another win.’’

Nurkic, who is averaging 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds,  smiled and shrugged when asked how he thought he would be received by the Pepsi Center crowd.

“I don’t care,’’ he said. “I had ups and downs there, but I still love it. I have friends and almost a family there. At the end of the day, it’s part of the job. It’s not going to distract me, whatever they do.’’

Lillard, for one, figures to be on high alert. He said after three encounters, Nurkic should be over the emotions of facing his former team. Still, in the grand scheme, Lillard said he hopes Nurkic, and the rest of the Blazers, understand the importance of keeping their heads as the playoffs become more in focus.

“I know all my teammates pretty well,  and I don’t think we have one soft person in here,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think there is one person in here who has to back down from an altercation if it came down to it. But two games in a row we’ve had situations where we have a lead, we have to secure the game and put the game away, then something like this happens. We have to be smart.’’

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

The rollercoaster season of the Trail Blazers hit another big skid Saturday night with a nasty loss at Atlanta to the hapless Hawks.

The only thing you can regularly expect from this team is inconsistency. I realize a lot of people see this season as simply the byproduct of a .500 team. You know, the whole "this is who they are" theory. By nature, a mediocre team is inconsistent. That may well be true but I'm still not ready to give up on my opinion that this is a better team than that.

Look, even a .500 team ought to be able to beat the worst team in the league. Or at least not get blown out by the worst team in the league.

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Jason Quick, on "Talkin' Ball" following Saturday night's embarrassing loss, searched for words to characterize the team he covers and came up with "nonchalant." And I think that's a very apt description. There is a casual acceptance of what's been going on. Nobody seems willing to get angry or openly irritated about playing poorly against some of the worst teams in the NBA. I don't know if that's because most of this roster is being very well paid or if it's just a natural evolution born of keeping the same group together for too long.

I don't get it. I'd like to see a little more of the passion we saw from the Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Philadelphia.

At the center (literally) of the Blazers' nonchalance is Jusuf Nurkic. This is a player with restricted free agency coming his way this summer. Most players in that situation would be playing their tails off in an effort to try to show prospective new teams they have great value. But it's entirely possible Nurkic is costing himself millions with his own personal brand of nonchalance. Night after night he's not finishing at the rim -- casually blowing open shots in the basket area and turning easy shots into difficult ones. He's shooting just .451 from the field this season and .433 in his last 10 games -- awful for a player who spends a lot of time in the paint.

There are 60 men who have played center in the NBA this season with a higher overall shooting percentage than Nurkic.

But he carries himself on the floor with a certain arrogance, as if he's one of the best in the business. He admits he plays better when he's "mad," but usually seems too cool to get angry. I believe his erratic play has been a big reason for his team's up-and-down performances. From night to night, even quarter to quarter, he's not been reliable.

I would imagine the coaching staff is running out of buttons to push in an attempt to motivate him. I'm pretty sure, too, his teammates are frustrated with him. They came into this season believing he was going to be the long-sought piece they've been missing the last few seasons who could propel them upward in the standings. The 20-game Nurk we saw last season was certainly that player. But for most of the 32 games we've seen him this season, he's not the same player.

I realize he is just 23 years old. But at any age there has to be an understanding of the rewards of playing hard. He needs to be building a foundation for a long career. And with free agency looming, he needs to be making a strong statement that he's a player of great value.

At this time, that's not happening -- and the Trail Blazers are suffering the consequences.

 

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Some real talk about Portland's 114-110 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night:

  • A wacky, crazy, strange game. And for Trail Blazer fans, probably the most exciting game of the season. In the fourth quarter Portland did a great job of mucking the game up -- being physical on defense and very aggressive at both ends of the floor. It resulted in a 42-point quarter while holding the Sixers to 25. I liked the Blazers' passion in the period more than anything. They fed off the home crowd, which was rightfully going bonkers for the first time in weeks
  • And speaking of the home crowd, the referees pitched in and helped as much as they could. Portland shot 47 free throws while Philadelphia got just 14. That's a joke, but once again testimony to the NBA truism that the aggressive team gets the calls.
  • The game may have turned on a flagrant foul call on Joel Embiid in the fourth quarter when he bumped Jusuf Nurkic to the floor. Or Nurkic just flopped onto the floor. I can understand an official watching that in real time and thinking it may have been a flagrant foul -- but after watching a replay? That was a real bad call -- and even though Nurkic missed his free throws, you could feel the game changing on that call. Embiid seemed discouraged and tired down the stretch. Great player, though.
  • Nurkic offered a look at both sides of his game. He suffered through all sorts of stumbles, fumbles and misfires over the first three quarters. The man has missed more close-in shots and layups this season than any player I've ever seen. But in the fourth quarter, after getting his nose bloodied, he found passion and assertiveness. He was an inspiration down the stretch -- leading to the obvious question: Where has THAT Nurkic been?
  • The Sixers are a well-coached team but I could not figure out why they didn't send Embiid to the low post in the fourth quarter and let him go directly at Nurkic who played most of the final period with five fouls. My goodness, Nurkic will commit that sixth foul if you give him half a chance. in fact, the passive game officials aside, I thought he did commit his sixth foul two or three times but it just wasn't called
  • Like Nurkic, Shabazz Napier completely turned his game around in the second half. He missed his first six shots and struggled against the quickness of 76ers guard T.J. McConnell in the first half. But he hit seven of his last eight shots and was a big part of his team's late rally.
  • I'm not sure how much longer NBA officials will keep falling for Nurkic's flopping around but you have to figure it will reach that point.
  • CJ McCollum had one of those games we've come to expect of him -- making just about every open shot he got, including some big ones.
  • Somehow, Portland found its passion button in the second half. I don't know what triggered it, but it's been missing most of the season. What a difference when this team is playing with desperation and aggression.

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What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

OK, as we finish up a healthy post-Christmas break and near the end of the calendar year, it's probably a good time to assess the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland sits in a tie for the seventh spot in the Western Conference, with a 17-16 record. So far, the Blazers have been the definition of a .500 team -- win a few, lose a few, neither sinking nor swimming but just treading water.

It's really not much different than the past two or three seasons. But I sense the natives are getting restless. It feels as if Trail Blazer fans are tiring of it all. Where is the excitement? Where  is the buzz? There hasn't been much so far.

So what must a franchise do? Just stay the course and hope that the anticipated roster improvement expected this season finally kicks in? Or is time to make a move?

I think it's time for a change.

And I mean something that changes the nature of this team. Something that changes the course of the franchise.

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What are we talking about here? Well, there's only so much that can be done. But the first order of business would be to figure out the nature of the problem. Is it the roster or is it the coach? When you examine that question you could find answers on both sides of the issue.

This team's roster isn't balanced. It isn't complete. But it's a very high payroll for a .500 team seemingly headed nowhere.

Or is the problem on the sidelines with the coaching staff? Is Terry Stotts getting the most out of his team? Are they playing hard for him? Is the team fully prepared for each game?

If you believe the answers to the questions above are "yes" then you must look to the front office. Has Neil Olshey done a good job of putting a winning roster together? Has he drafted and traded well? Is he doing a better job than could be done by somebody else? And you ask the same question you'd ask with a coach -- is there someone out there available who could do a better job?

I often look at the Portland roster and think it's not ideal for the kind of offense Stotts favors. There aren't enough outside shooters, for sure. But then the question becomes this: Is this Olshey's fault for not getting his coach the pieces he needs to do his job or is it the coach's responsibility to take the talent given him and tailor his offense to their talents, rather than stick with his own system?

Of course, we haven't even talked about the players yet. Changes can come there, too.

Is it finally time to give up on the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? I ask that question because it seems to me the only trade piece of real value would be one of those guards. Most likely that would mean McCollum. What could you get for him? Do you really want to give up on a player on the verge of all-star status?

And what about Jusuf Nurkic? Once thought to be the team's franchise center of the future and a reason to be excited about the team's potential, Nurkic is shooting just .458 from the field and acting sa if he doesn't have a care in the world. Nurkic Fever? So far this season he seems to be infected with a bad case of Nurkic Disinterest.

But would any team be willing to take Nurkic in a deal? Maybe -- but not with a lot of value in return. And that's the case with a good many Trail Blazers. Highly paid doesn't necessarily mean highly valued.

So where do you go with the Trail Blazers? What do you do? How do you fix this?

All I can say is that this point you better do SOMETHING before it's too late to salvage the season. This franchise is begging for a change of direction, a momentum-changing event. The fans are, too.

And it's time.

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

If you can’t figure out after 30 games who the Trail Blazers are, you are not alone.

The Blazers, themselves, are wondering as well.

“We are a team trying to find our way,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Their path has included struggles at home, while finding ways to win on the road, none of it easy, none of it smoothly, as they seem to take one step forward, two steps back, then another step forward.

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It has left them with a 16-14 record and in a tie with Denver for fifth in the Western Conference, a team whose direction seems to change by the week. One week, they are surging, coming back from 17 down in the fourth to win at Washington, offering a signature moment on a 4-1 trip. The next week, they are losing all four home games, three of them with massive deficits and the other after losing a 14-point fourth quarter lead to the NBA’s top team.

And now, they return home after a murky 3-2 trip, which included three less-than-impressive wins over struggling teams, and a heartbreak loss at Minnesota after losing a 10-point fourth quarter lead, which ironically was their best performance of the trip.

It has been the most undefined of starts – neither good, nor bad -- which has created a rather confounding question: Who exactly are the Blazers?

It is a question that will become increasingly relevant for top executive Neil Olshey over the next seven weeks as the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches.

**

During their latest trip, I struggled with which lens to examine the Blazers. and shared my conundrum with three of the Blazers’ leaders – Lillard, McCollum and Ed Davis.

Should they be viewed as an upper-echelon team in the West, capable of securing homecourt advantage in the first round? Or are they what they have been for the past three years – an average, middle-of-the-road team that struggles with consistency?

None of them really endorsed the team as upper echelon, perhaps knowing the body of work the last two-plus seasons has shown otherwise, but they all said they were banking on things turning, and viewed the Blazers’ situation with glass-half-full optimism.

After a nine-minute back-and-forth with McCollum, he patted me on the shoulder and walked away, knowing he offered little help in answering those questions.

“You don’t know whether to write us off or give people hope,’’ he said smiling. “That’s your job.’’

A curious rallying point for all of them is taking solace in the scuffling of other Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Denver and Utah.

“Obviously, we would like to be better, but considering how we have played … we have to count it as a blessing,’’ McCollum said. “I mean, look at OKC. It could be worse.’’

Lillard predictably said no matter which team he is on, he always views it as a contender, a feeling that existed even when he was at Weber State, and he viewed his team as a candidate for the NCAA title.

He said he hopes one day this season it will click for these Blazers, much like it did years ago for Golden State.

“I think it’s important for us to view ourselves highly, and have that belief, but you have to earn it,’’ Lillard said. “Ups and downs, winning some, losing some … looking like we turned the corner, then it looking like it was just a few games that we were turning the corner … I think it’s one of those thing you will never know until it happens.

“Like, we could have this type of stretch, then have a strong rest of the season and say we do get a top four seed and get to playoffs and get to Western Conference Finals? I understand your view of it, like should we just accept we are mediocre? But I think with a lot of teams, it just ends up clicking.’’

Davis, meanwhile, was curious before the trip, when the Blazers were mired in a lethargic slump at home.  He said I should come talk to him after the final game, in Minnesota. He was confident then, he said, the Blazers could right the ship. But he added, if the Blazers were 1-4, it would be a team in trouble.

The Blazers went 3-2, but didn’t play well until the final game, a loss in Minnesota. Two of the wins – at Orlando and at Charlotte – were sloppy and generally bad basketball, wins because of the opponent, not because of how well the Blazers played.

In Minnesota, at the morning shootaround, Davis said he wasn’t concerned with style points in December.

“At the end of the day, all that matters is wins and losses,’’ Davis said. “When I check the scores, I don’t look at – oh, they played well, they should have won – I say, oh, they won. They lost.  That’s how I look at things. And if you look around league, there are so many teams in same position as we are. It’s not like we are a mystery team – we obviously want to focus on us - but you have to look around the league and there is a lot of teams – OKC, the Pelicans, everyone in that 5-to-9 range … you just don’t know.’’

By the end of the Minnesota game, Davis said he emerged from the trip encouraged by where the team is headed, but agreed it was difficult to determine the type of team Blazers were.

“We know are a playoff team,’’ Davis said. “But you know, are we home court advantage in the first round team? Or are we going against Golden State in the first round? That’s a big difference.’’

**

Few thought the Blazers would find themselves in this undistinguishable middle ground.

This is the third year since the dismantling of one of the franchises more popular and successful cores (Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez), and perhaps never has the roster felt more stale and more distant from returning to a 50-win team.

There was hope the Blazers would build off the lightening-in-a-bottle magic from late last season, sparked mostly by Jusuf Nurkic’s February arrival. In addition, the Blazers figured the continued emergence of McCollum and the comfort of Turner in his second season would translate to measurable progress.

But we have discovered Nurkic is not so much a savior as much as he is a 23-year-old project with suspect ball security and raw touch around the basket.

And while McCollum has been good, his All-Star destiny is probably another year away, his bouts of turnovers, shooting slumps and erratic late-game play still keeping him from being elite.

And Turner, for all his intangibles on defense, still can’t shoot and still has a knack for wild, head-slapping turnovers, appearing more and more like an odd fit in this Blazers’ system.

Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless has become invisible. A key starter last season, Harkless is now a mental pretzel, his mind so twisted amid his own frustrations of where he fits that he can’t remember that he is best when he plays hard and aggressively to create his own opportunities.

And the players showing promise –Davis, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Meyers Leonard – have had trouble carving a niche in what is a confusing and undefined rotation.

On the bright side, Aminu is having the best shooting season of his career and ranks second in the NBA three-point percentage, Lillard continues to be a stellar player and leader, and the team has done an about-face on the defensive end, ranking fifth.

Yet, the Blazers are roughly in the same position as last season's disappointing campaign – approaching Christmas with a so-so record, with bloated salaries and limited upside on the horizon outside of rookie Zach Collins.

To be fair, three years isn’t enough time to expect a team to rise from the ashes and contend with the Golden State’s and Cleveland’s of the NBA. But it is not unreasonable to expect some signs of measurable progress, or at least reasons for hope.

Olshey often trumpets the team’s average age (at just more than 24 years it ranks fourth youngest in the league) but those notes are becoming out of tune.

This is an experienced core that has played the greater part of three seasons together, which should translate to upside and cohesion. I don’t think any fans are considering Damian Lillard young. Same with CJ McCollum. And Ed Davis. And Al-Farouq Aminu … Evan Turner … Meyers Leonard … Maurice Harkless. They are all on their second contracts.

The Blazers’ youth is largely weighted in the back of the roster. Of the Blazers’ main rotation players, only 23-year-old starting center Jusuf Nurkic and 22-year-old reserve Noah Vonleh can be considered young.

It’s why questions about this era are becoming increasingly valid as the Feb. 8 trade deadline begins to come into focus.

For the past two seasons, postgame interviews and offday media scrums have been dominated by fruitless question-and-answer sessions trying to uncover why this team is struggling with this, or failing at that. Last season it was defense and closing out games. This season it’s the offense and the inability to fast break.

Some players have their theories, but don’t want to become a headline by voicing them publicly. Others are either speechless or have become defensive why their games are always being nitpicked.

Maybe it’s time to stop prying and prodding the players and accept the roster for what it is: an average team that lacks shooting and role players who can consistently produce.

Or maybe it’s time for that day to arrive, the one Lillard has been waiting on, when the Blazers show they are ready to take the step from middling low-tier playoff team, to one that is relevant and hosting a playoff series.

In the meantime, the fans, the players, and probably Olshey wait with a curious eye.

 “We could be a mediocre team. We could be an above average team. Or we could be a great team,’’ McCollum said. “ It’s hard to tell, because we have to be healthy and when we are healthy we have to play well.’’

The Blazers today are healthy. Will they now play well?

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers starting center Jusuf Nurkic will miss Saturday’s game against Houston because of a sprained right ankle suffered in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss against Washington.

Nurkic, who is averaging 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds in 28 minutes a game, rolled his ankle after taking a shot with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter. He did not practice on Thursday and Friday, although he was seen walking off the court Friday without a limp.

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Coach Terry Stotts did not say who would start at center against the Western Conference leading Rockets (19-4) and starting center Clint Capela, who is averaging 13.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 66.1 percent from the field.

Candidates to start for the Blazers are Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, rookie Zach Collins and Noah Vonleh.

In other injury news, forward Maurice Harkless, who regained his starting spot Tuesday against Washington, is listed as questionable for Houston because of a bruised left quadriceps suffered in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game.

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

It’s no secret these days that the Trail Blazers are reeling.

They have lost three in a row, all at home, and all while trailing by 19 or more points.

Making matters worse, starters Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Maurice Harkless (left quad bruise) did not practice Thursday, making the next game – Saturday at home against the Western Conference-leading Houston Rockets – appear even more ominous.

So what do the Blazers (13-11) have to do to turn it around?

Here are five things that would help their cause:

1. CJ MCCOLLUM BREAKS OUT OF SHOOTING SLUMP

The Blazers’ silky shooting guard is in the midst of one of his worst shooting skids of his five-year career, despite his insistence that his shot feels good and his satisfaction with getting the shots he wants.

McCollum has four consecutive games in which he hasn’t made at least half of his shots, only the fifth time that has happened in his career. During the four-game skid he is shooting 34.2 percent (25-of-73), which includes just five of 20 from three-point range.

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The 34.2 percent shooting is the third worst slump he has endured in his career, behind a five-game slump in December of 2015 when he made only 29 percent (27-of-93) and a six-game slump in January of 2016 when he made 33.3 percent (39-of-117). That six game skid matches a spell in November and December of 2016 of his most consecutive games without making 50 percent or better of his shots.

One of the more confident players on the team, McCollum said he won’t change anything, except maybe try to get to the free throw line more.

“I’ve had some good looks,’’ McCollum saud. “I just have to continue to be aggressive.’’

2. TAKE BETTER CARE OF THE BALL

Two of the Blazers’ losses this homestand were defined by sloppy play that resulted in 19 turnovers. Against Milwaukee, it led to 29 points for the Bucks, while Washington cashed the mistakes into 23 points.

It’s not just the amount, it’s the type of turnovers – mindless passes directly to the defender. Dribbling the ball off the foot out of bounds. Passes into the stands.

After the Blazers’ practice on Thursday, Damian Lillard pointed to ball security as the number one priority moving forward.

“Having quality possessions and also valuing the ball,’’ Lillard said. “I think when we defend so hard and work so hard on the defensive end and come down on offense and don’t execute well and turn the ball over … that takes the life out of the team, takes the life out of the game … we have to be much better about it.’’

3. PLAY WITH SOME ENERGY

Speaking of life … the Blazers have shown little to none on this homestand. Lillard said it was fair to say the Blazers have been “flat.”

McCollum said it isn’t that the team is not showing effort, it’s that they aren’t executing, giving the appearance of a flat performance.

So how do the Blazers show some life, or "swagger" as Lillard called it after last game?

For one, says he will lead by example.

“I’m going to look to myself first,’’ Lillard said. “I’m going to hold myself accountable and I’m going to go out there and be the energy to start it off and get guys to vibe from that. Feel that, and want to get on the same page. I think everybody wants to win, everybody on the team are real team players so I think if the train goes that way, that’s what everybody is going jump on and do.’’

4. GET HEALTHY

Nurkic rolled his right ankle with about 6:30 left in Tuesday’s loss to Washington and although X-rays were negative, he was unable to practice Thursday. McCollum said he only saw Nurkic on the training table and on the exercise bike.

Harkless, meanwhile, bruised his quad in a first-quarter collision with Otto Porter and did not return for the second half. After the game, Harkless was optimistic he would be able to play by Saturday.

Nurkic, obviously, is a big part of the Blazers’ improved defense while Harkless was just put back in the starting lineup on Tuesday before suffering his injury. Harkless first made his name in Portland two seasons ago when he defended Houston’s James Harden well during a February game in Houston. It earned him a look in the starting lineup that he never relinquished until last month.

5. GET OUT AND RUN

The Blazers are in the bottom third of the league in offense, and are dead last in the NBA in fast break points, but several players Thursday said they welcome the matchup against the Rockets because it will likely mean a fast-paced game with increased possessions and open-court play.

“It’s more possessions, so kind of ride a wave, get a high-scoring total … an opportunity to somewhat get buckets,’’ Turner said. “That’s the focal point everybody is focusing on – why we haven’t been getting scoring at a high level – so maybe trick the message.’’

The Rockets, behind MVP candidate James Harden – who is leading the league in scoring and assists – are the league’s second highest scoring team, and have the best record in the West, which both McCollum and Lillard said is just the type of opponent the Blazers need.

“Why not?’’ McCollum asked with a smile.

“It’s perfect,’’ Lillard said. “Our next two games are against the best two teams in the West. Losing three straight games, what better situation than to have a chance to take a shot at the two best teams. To me, it’s the perfect situation to put something together.’’

Usually teams are good, bad or in between but the Blazers have been all three

Usually teams are good, bad or in between but the Blazers have been all three

It's been a very topsy-turvy season for the Trail Blazers so far. After a 4-1 road trip, I went to Moda Center Thursday night expecting to see a very good team. I did -- but it wasn't the Portland Trail Blazers.

I cannot remember a more unpredictable Portland team. Usually, a team is either good, bad or somewhere in between. So far, the Trail Blazers have been all of those things. And it's pretty mysterious. We're seeing things here we haven't seen previously with this same group of players.

And really, this is the same bunch we've seen for a few years now, other than the addition of Jusuf Nurkic, which should be a big help. But lately, offensive struggles have led to lineup and rotation changes on almost a nightly basis. Coach Terry Stotts has usually found his starting lineup and stable rotation by this point of the season but not this year.

Meanwhile, turnovers are coming in big embarrassing bunches -- a problem the Trail Blazers have seldom had under Stotts. On the other hand, this is one of the best defensive teams in the league and we haven't seen that very often, either. Portland is one of the best rebounding teams in the league but is horrific in turning those rebounds into fast breaks. The worst in the league in fast breaks. Also the worst in the league in field-goal percentage in the paint. The Trail Blazers have been prolific three-point shooters in the past but are now 27th in the league in three-point attempts.

What's going on? Well, I think part of the trouble is that opposing teams are loading up on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, figuring -- correctly, most of the time -- that if those guys don't score Portland is not going to be able to find offense anywhere else. There isn't a lot of firepower up front other than Nurkic, who has been up and down, too. The addition of Pat Connaughton to the starting lineup has helped, as it not only added another good three-point shooter but by his presence, it's opened the paint for Lillard and McCollum.

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It wouldn't hurt if another reliable scorer could be found but I'm not sure there is any way that can be done.

To be fair, the Western Conference outside of Houston's Rockets, has mostly not lived up to expectations. With all of the Trail Blazers' problems, they still sit fifth in the West, which is mind-boggling given how they have played. But it seems that Portland is squandering a chance to climb much higher if it played with more consistency.

The real question at this point is how owner Paul Allen feels about this. He's never been known for great patience and he's paying out a lot of money for this show. Would he make a coaching or front office change? Push for a franchise-altering trade? I don't know, but nothing would surprise me if this roller-coaster ride continues.