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.’’