Blazers keep roster at 14, waive Morrow, Goodwin and Briscoe

Blazers keep roster at 14, waive Morrow, Goodwin and Briscoe

The battle for the Trail Blazers’ 15th and final roster spot turned out not to be a battle at all.

In a cost-cutting move that also creates roster flexibility moving forward, the Blazers waived Anthony Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe minutes after Portland concluded its preseason schedule Friday night with a 129-81 win over Maccabi Haifa.

The surprise of the cuts was Morrow, the nine-year NBA veteran whose sharp-shooting was thought to be an asset for a team like the Bazers that values the three-pointer. Morrow hit 4-of-5 three pointers in an eight-minute span against Toronto in the Blazers’ second preseason game, and finished the preseason making 6-of-13 from three-point range.

Morrow, 32, took the news in stride, and shrugged his shoulders when asked his emotions after the decision was relayed to him.

“Nothing,’’ Morrow said. “It was just a good opportunity. Obviously, I wanted to take advantage of it. It is what it is.’’

Morrow said his next step was to fly home to Charlotte and play with his kids. He said he will then turn his attention to other opportunities.

“It’s going to be a bright future for this team,’’ Morrow said. “I’m going to be watching them.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said none of the moves were an easy decision.

“We wanted to have an open roster spot, being a luxury tax team,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “It’s an added expense … so I think the open roster spot was important.

There are reasons to keep all three of them, but certainly Anthony’s shooting ability was a strong consideration,’’ Stotts said. “I mean he has been doing it in the league a long time … it’s an NBA skill that is certainly worth consideration.”

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

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

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

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

WHAT WE KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

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

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

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

 

Blazers' radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler sidelined with health issues

Blazers' radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler sidelined with health issues

For the second time in four seasons, health issues are sidelining Trail Blazers’ radio voice Brian Wheeler.

Wheeler, 55, will miss Friday’s exhibition finale at the Moda Center, then at least the first three games of the regular season as he battles scrotal lymphedema. The condition, which caused him to miss four games in November of 2013, has returned and made it painful for him to sit through a broadcast, Wheeler said.

“I’m in a lot of discomfort,’’ Wheeler said after calling Wednesday’s game at Phoenix. “The hard part is the condition has now made it somewhat painful just to sit for extended periods, such as the length of a game. The entire preseason I was standing during every timeout by the third quarter … to no avail.’’

Scott Lynn, a former Portland radio and television personality who now lives in Florida, will fill in for Wheeler for the opening games of the season at Phoenix, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

Wheeler, who is in his 20th season with the Blazers, said he noticed the condition returning in July and tried to address it before the season, but could never get the proper treatment.

“I pride myself in being ready for every broadcast,’’ Wheeler said. “So I hate missing even one game.’’

Wheeler said he reluctantly agreed to the leave of absence, and said he hopes it is only for the opening trip of the season.

He said he will begin a low-calorie, medically-supervised diet in hopes of losing weight and alleviating the condition.

“I’m hoping it will be a short time away,’’ Wheeler said.

When Wheeler missed games in 2013, it broke his streak of 1,359 consecutive broadcasts, which spanned 16 seasons. In September, he signed a multi-year extension with the team.

“I love my job and the people I work with; I feel I’m letting them down in some ways,’’ Wheeler said. “The team was kind enough to give me an extension so I could continue doing what I enjoy the most. I owe it to them and all the loyal listeners to be at my best, and I can assure everyone, I will be as soon as possible.’’

The first pro to sit down during the anthem? It may have been a former Trail Blazer

The first pro to sit down during the anthem? It may have been a former Trail Blazer

With all the talk about players not standing for the national anthem, on Throwback Thursday, I thought it appropriate to point out that the very first athlete to not stand for the anthem just might have been a Portland Trail Blazer.

Charlie Yelverton was a 6-2 shooting guard out of Fordham whom Portland took with the 25th pick in the 1971 draft. He averaged 7.9 points per game in a reserve role as a rookie for the Trail Blazers. He was waived by the Blazers in September of 1972 after an incident that occurred prior to a home game when, during the anthem, Yelverton sat cross-legged on the floor next to standing teammates.

At the time, Yelverton's actions were reported as a protest about a team matter:

There was also an incident where reserve guard Charlie Yelverton sat at the foul line in the yoga position during the playing of the national anthem, protesting the waiving of teammate Willie McCarter.

But later, in a story in the New York Post, Yelverton listed different reasons for his sit-down strike:

The Vietnam War and the plight of the poor are the reasons Yelverton gives for his decision.

Yelverton was sick of the red, white and blue mentality, which was shaded green.

”Everybody is so hung up on making money,” Yelverton said.

At 24 years old, he left to ball overseas. He played in Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy.

It is apparent that Yelverton thinks about what could’ve been?

But he says, ”If I didn’t sit down on the flag, I wouldn’t clean my conscience.”

You ask, if he regrets the timing?

”I should’ve done it when I had a five-year contract,” said Yelverton, who had a two-year deal.

Yelverton played several successful seasons in Europe after a solid career at Fordham but not many people remember him as an NBA player.

Yet he may have been a pioneer. He sat while others stood for the anthem -- and it cost him his job.

 

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

PHOENIX – Meyers Leonard knows it was only one game, and he knows it was only preseason, so he wasn’t ready Wednesday to proclaim his arrival back into Trail Blazers’ relevance.

But after his encouraging 17-point, 8-rebound effort in the Blazers’ 113-104 win over at Phoenix, the embattled Blazers’ big man could confidently say he took another step in his development.

“I knew coming into the year it was going to take some time, that there would be ups and downs,’’ Leonard said. “It’s day-by-day … but tonight felt good.’’

Leonard hit his first five three-pointers and was an aggressive rebounder in compiling his most complete preseason performance to date. Through five preseason games, the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in 15.5 minutes, during which he has made 8-of-12 three pointers.

Leonard’s performance Wednesday tickled his teammates, who know what a lightening rod Leonard has become with the fan base, who feel as a sixth-year pro has not lived up to expectations as a former lottery pick and recipient of a $41 million contract. The players have long said that Leonard has shown the talent in practices, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to transfer it to the games consistently.

“It’s exciting; you have to be happy for him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s doing what everybody knows he can do. For him, it’s just a confidence thing, and having a game like tonight, it just builds that confidence. We need that from him going into the season.’’

When the season opens for real on Oct. 18 at Phoenix, Leonard doesn’t figure to be in coach Terry Stotts’ rotation judging from his preseason playing time. Jusuf Nurkic will start at center and Ed Davis appears to have locked down the backup role. Also, rookie Caleb Swanigan appears to have played his way into the rotation, and rookie Zach Collins is improving with each week.

That leaves the question of  where that leaves Leonard?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer for you,’’ Leonard said. “I am really trying to take it day-by-day. I knew coming in that it would be an uphill battle, and I’m OK with that. I have to play well in order to gain that trust. And I think tonight was definitely a step in the right direction.’’

Leonard this summer moved to Los Angeles and worked out with renowned basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who tweaked his shot, worked on his mobility and added to his offensive repertoire. Teammates say Leonard in training camp has looked as good as he has since he arrived in Portland as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

On Wednesday, people outside of the Blazers’ practice gym got to see the improvement.

“He’s played like that in camp this entire time,’’ Damian Lillard said. “In September, he was making shots and pushing Nurk on the defensive end. It seemed like he was making every shot in camp. But it’s really good to see him get out there in action and him not hesitating … that’s what you want to see from him.’’

His shot isn’t the only thing that has improved. He has been a much more aggressive and confident rebounder – he grabbed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes on Sunday against the Clippers – and he is fouling less and moving his feet more on defense.

“I was really glad to see him hit some shots,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after Wednesday’s game. “I’m always the first to say that your game isn’t determined by whether you make or miss shots, but he had a good rhythm. And he certainly had an impact on the game.’’

The next step, of course, is to do it again. Leonard said he will attack his Thursday workout with the same enthusiasm and same consistency, then look to take another step forward in the preseason finale on Friday against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s a long season, and I know I have made big strides,’’ Leonard said. “And I know I can impact the game on both sides of the ball. I’m going to keep doing my best to be ready when my number is called.’’

Today's Blazers' Links:

A look at what got Caleb Swanigan ejected against the Suns.

An inbounds play paid dividends again for the Blazers on Wednesday.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers writes how three's and defense led Wednesday's win.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

Breakfast with the Blazers: Harkless impressing with defense, approach

PHOENIX – On a team that figures to only go as far as its defense allows, Maurice Harkless knows he is a key component to this season’s Trail Blazers.

In what is unfolding as a promising preseason for the Blazers, Harkless has been one of the constants in an improved defense, showing what he says is a maturity in his game.

In years past, Harkless says, much of his defensive attention and effectiveness was determined by how well he was playing that night offensively.

But after securing a long-term deal before last season, and watching first-hand how poor defense can derail a team’s season, Harkless this season has both a more secure and grounded perspective.

“I know that I have to one of our guys who are one of our leaders defensively,’’ Harkless said. “So just leading by example by getting out and getting deflections, steals … just do what I can do on that side of the ball to get other guys going. When you get steals, it gets everyone else excited to play defense.’’

His play in the first four preseason games has caught the attention of his teammates. When asked who has impressed him the most in this preseason, star Damian Lillard said Harkless and Pat Connaughton.

“I just think Moe is playing with good confidence,’’ Lillard said. “Makes or misses, his attitude hasn’t changed. He’s constantly looking for mismatches on the block, and he’s playing physical – contesting passes, contesting shots. He has got his hands on a lot of balls on the defensive end.’’

The key, Lillard noted, is that Harkless has been provided the disruptive defense whether he goes 6-for-6 like he did Sunday at the Clippers or 3-for-7 against Toronto.

“That just shows that he is doing it whether he is getting touches or not, or when he making shots or not,’’ Lillard said. “And that’s impressive … that’s the kind of effort we need.’’

Harkless, who is entering his sixth NBA season, says he didn’t always have that defensive discipline, noting that if his shot was off, often times his defense was, too.

“That’s just been part of my maturity, my growth – not letting (offense) effect the other end,’’ Harkless said. “Every night is not going to be (the 6-for-6) night. There are going to be nights when I don’t make a shot, so I just have to stay focused and be that anchor defensively every night.’’

The Blazers know they are going to be one of the NBA’s top offensive teams. The goal, coach Terry Stotts says, is to finish the season ranked in the Top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Through four preseason games – and yes, it’s only preseason, but still – the Blazers rank ninth in defense (93.5 points per 100 possessions) and fifth in offense (108.5).

Along the way, the Blazers have held Sacramento to 39 percent shooting from the field; the Clippers to 40.2 percent, the Raptors to 40 percent and Phoenix to 40.7 percent through three quarters before the end of the bench allowed the Suns to make 15-of-22 shots in the fourth.

So while Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are poised to be the offensive stars, Harkless figures he can be that defensive constant, which in the end might be the most valuable component to this season.

So far, Lillard likes what he sees. He said so far, the improved defense has been the Blazers’ biggest preseason accomplishment.

“We’ve been consistent on the defensive end – getting deflections, our activity has been much better than it has in the past, this early,’’ Lillard said. “Guys have been focused on it. We don’t have to scream at each other … we’ve formed a habit of it. Now we just have to continue it through the regular season.’’

And for Harkless, that means playing defense whether he is making shots or not.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

SACRAMENTO – The Trail Blazers are halfway through their preseason schedule and are nine days away from the season opener at Phoenix.

Here is a primer to catch you up on the top developments and storylines:

An improved defense?

The Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them this season, and like always, it was a preseason goal to improve.

After three games: So far, so good.

The Clippers – playing without starters Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari – shot 40.2 percent and Toronto, which played without DeMar DeRozan, shot 40 percent from the field. And in the first game against Phoenix, the Suns shot 40.7 percent through the first three quarters before recording a 41-point fourth quarter during which they made 15-of-22 shots against the end of the Blazers’ bench.

Now, it’s preseason and there were key offensive players resting and different lineups being used, so you have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. But there were a couple of developments that coach Terry Stotts liked.

Against Toronto, there were moments when Stotts deviated from his conservative approach by having the big “show”  (make an effort to impede the ball handler) on pick-and-roll, while also showing traps on All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. It flustered Lowry into five turnovers, and the Raptors overall into 20.

Then on Sunday at the Clippers, Stotts called a first-quarter timeout with the Blazers trailing 15-3. If the Clippers weren’t lobbing for dunks, they were hitting wide-open threes as the Blazers scrambled to close out. He pointed out to the team that the bigs were playing too high, allowing DeAndre Jordan to run behind for lobs, and the weakside wasn’t tight enough to contest kickout passes to the three-point line.

After the timeout, the Clippers still got two more lob dunks by Willie Reed, but overall the wide open three’s became contested and the interior was better protected.

“The weakside defense got over a lot better,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We made an adjustment and pretty much cut (the lobs and dunks) out for the rest of the game.’’

Stotts described the Blazers’ preseason defense as “solid.”

“The first game, our transition defense was poor, but we have gotten better at that,’’ Stotts said. “We’ve improved each game … on the whole it has been pretty solid.’’

ET at ease

Evan Turner looks much more comfortable and dangerous offensively this season, which was probably best on display Sunday against the Clippers when he had eight assists.

Turner spent much of last season playing in fits and starts, and it just looked like everything was a struggle as he tried to understand the offense and his new teammates. This season, he looks like he is just playing, and that freedom is revealing his vision and smarts.

Through the first three games, Stotts has been able to get Turner into lineups that expose the defense by forcing them to place a smaller guard on Turner. That allows Turner – at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds – to post up and go to work, either shooting over the guard or forcing teams to double him, where he then finds an open teammate.

Against Phoenix, he bullied and scored on Eric Bledsoe inside, then against Toronto he shot over Kyle Lowry. On Sunday at the Clippers, whenever he backed down Lou Williams or guard Juwan Evans, Turner surveyed the court and found the right man. Twice he found Ed Davis for dunks, and he located Harkless on the perimeter for a three-pointer while also passing out to Jusuf Nurkic for open mid-range jumpers.

“Evan sees the floor tremendously well, always,’’ Harkless said. “And being able to get him in the post, especially against smaller guys, they have to double team and that opens up everything else. He’s constantly looking for people. His IQ is really high.’’

Turner shrugs off the notion that he is more comfortable, I think mostly because he doesn’t like the idea that he was uncomfortable last season.

“I think my comfort level comes from calling plays, seeing things,’’ Turner said. “It’s just natural reads, natural basketball. It’s the way I grew up playing the game.’’

If Turner can’t see a change in his comfort level, his teammates do. His shot selection, his patience in finding the open man, his aggressive ball-handling … it all adds up to a valuable asset.

“It’s really important, really important because it shows his comfort level,’’ Lillard said. “He was patient as guys cut on weakside … he made them pay for it. It’s another option for us when things aren’t going well.”

Lillard on alert

Nobody on the Blazers sets a tone like Lillard, and it has been clear this preseason that the team captain is not going to be tolerating another slow start this season.

Lillard has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and was scorching on Sunday on his way to 35 points in 26 minutes.

“Honestly man, I didn’t know how bad it was until the end of the third quarter and I looked up and I was like, 35?’’ Harkless said. “That shows you how easy it comes for him.’’

 Tonight, the Blazers play in Sacramento on the back end of a back-to-back and Stotts said he plans to play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes. McCollum said he is welcoming a format where he plays longer minutes with more set lineups.

“I think (Monday) we will treat it more like a regular season game,’’ McCollum said.

Today's Blazers links:

I wrote about Lillard wanting to set the proper tone in preseason.

Ian Karmel stopped by for some hijinks after the Clippers game.

I talked about Caleb Swanigan and answered questions in this podcast.

Casey Holdahl of the Blazers recaps Sunday's game.

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

LOS ANGELES –Turns out Sunday was more than just a preseason game for the Trail Blazers. It was also a refresher course in embracing the proper mental approach when the season starts in 10 days.

And it was no surprise who was leading the seminar: Damian Lillard.

The Blazers’ star point guard looked in All-Star form Sunday while scoring 35 points in 26 minutes as the Blazers continued a promising preseason with a 134-106 win over the LA Clippers at the Staples Center.

Most veterans, especially one with resumes like Lillard, treat the preseason with the enthusiasm of a teenager eating lima beans. But Lillard on Sunday said he is intent on establishing a sense of urgency to the start of this season in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s sputtering start.

“We want to get off to better starts in games, and a better start to the regular season, so our mentality has to be that this is a game … doesn’t matter if it’s preseason, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go on our record … we have to be ready,’’ Lillard said. “Our mentality has to be, ‘We are going to handle our business.’ And that’s it. So when the season comes, it’s not like we have to tell ourselves, OK, this one counts.’’

The Blazers last season had a losing record from Dec. 10 through April 1, eventually using a late-season push and the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic to squeak into the playoffs with the eighth seed and a 41-41 record.

In retrospect, players and coaches say last year’s team lost its edge, and perhaps forgot how tough it was to stay persistent and on task throughout the grinding season.

Twelve players return this season, but Lillard is intent on making sure that familiarity doesn’t lull the team into contentment, even in the preseason.

So on Sunday, there was Lillard – stripping Milos Teodosic at halfcourt, making hard drives into traffic, and rolling on the court amid the antagonistic defense of Patrick Beverley.

“He knows its important for us to get off to a good start this season,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “and he is kind of leading the troops.’’

All told, Lillard made 9-of-17 shots, all 13 of his free throws, and added three assists and two steals.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice or a preseason game, our mentality has to be like this,’’ Lillard said. “So regardless of the situation is, it’s always there and we don’t have to try to take it up a level or any of those things … we are  not good enough to do that. We are not the Golden State Warriors … the little things matter for us and it starts with our mentality.’’

Evan Turner said the team has made a point to focus on their start this season, and it helps when the captain is not only talking about it, but also showing it.

“Clearly, he’s our leader, and when he is doing it himself and practicing what he preaches, it definitely sets a tone and holds people accountable,’’ Turner said. “We are all aware of one, how good the West is; and two, how hard it was to battle back last season and make the playoffs; and three, making it easy on ourselves.’’

Sunday featured more than just Lillard’s excellence.

Turner played a heady game out of the post, amassing eight assists, many of them after the Clippers sent double teams at him.

Maurice Harkless continued his strong preseason by making all six of his shots, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists.

Nurkic was dominant for stretches, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out in 24 minutes.

There was also 12 points from Zach Collins; 10 rebounds in 11 minutes from Meyers Leonard; and CJ McCollum had 12 of his 20 points in the second half.

From a lineup standpoint, Stotts on Sunday looked heavily at rookie Caleb Swanigan as a starter. He began the game with Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Swanigan and Nurkic, then started the second half with Harkless in place of Aminu.

Swanigan was “solid”  according to Stotts, and finished with five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes while mostly going against Clippers’ All-Star Blake Griffin, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.

On Monday, the Blazers play in Sacramento, and Stotts said he will play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes.

No matter how the minutes allotment turns out, rest assured Lillard and the rest of the Blazers will approach it like a regular season game.

“Hey, how you practice is how you play and how you approach the preseason is how you start the season,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously the wins and losses don’t matter but how you approach it mentally … it’s important you approach it like a real game, because the season is what nine, 10 days away? There’s no going back once it starts.’’

Breakfast with the Blazers: Swanigan's toughness is latest reveal

Breakfast with the Blazers: Swanigan's toughness is latest reveal

It seems with each passing day during the Trail Blazers’ preseason, the sensation that is Caleb Swanigan grows.

Throughout Summer League, training camp and the first preseason game, the rookie big man has shown the ability to score inside, from mid-range and from beyond the three-point line. He has also been an active defender, solid rebounder and dive-on-the-court  bundle of energy.

But inside the Blazers’ locker room, never did his stock grow more than Thursday, in the second preseason game, when Swanigan displayed a trait that has been glaringly absent in this franchise since Joel Przybilla left in 2012: Toughness.

During the third quarter, Swanigan sent All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to the floor with a screen/clear out that allowed Damian Lillard to take a three-pointer at the top of the arc. Lowry was up in arms after he was called for a foul for trying to climb over Swanigan.

Less than 30 seconds later, Swanigan was under the basket irritating Raptors’ power forward Serge Ibaka, a chiseled and well-respected veteran. Swanigan had beaten Ibaka to the ball a possession before for an offensive rebound, and this time, he knocked the ball out of Ibaka’s hands, but was called for a foul. Ibaka took exception to the repeated pestering by the rookie and let Swanigan know. Swanigan held his ground and snapped back.

The exchange led to a technical on Swanigan, who immediately began clapping.

Lillard, the Blazers’ captain who has been here five seasons, soaked it all in.

“I loved seeing it,’’ Lillard said. “Right after he got (the technical) I told him: ‘We aren’t going to take nothing.’’’

It has been something the Blazers have talked about before -- most recently at this month’s Media Day when center Jusuf Nurkic said the Blazers need to adopt the “Bad Boys” persona of the Detroit Pistons – but have never been able to back up.

They haven’t been able to back it up because for the most part, the Blazers have been a group of nice guys, players whose toughness is measured more by their work ethic and mental capacity than their brawn or physical actions.

“We have to establish that,’’ Lillard said. “I feel like since we have been here we’ve been like a team that not mean, we are not going to cause no trouble, we are (just)  going to play hard. But he’s got an enforcer type mentality,  and I told him ‘Do that. I’m not mad at you, be who you are.’ We need that kind of attitude where we are not taking nothing from nobody – preseason or not, practice or not – we are not going to take nothing, We need that attitude.’’

By now, after Summer League and more than a month of pickup games and practices, the Blazers veterans are comfortable knowing exactly what Swanigan brings. They rave about the rookie, who carries himself much like he plays on the court: straight-forward, no frills, no nonsense.

“He’s a dawg,’’ CJ McCollum said. “I like the aggressiveness. How you see him out there is how he acts every day. It’s not a front. He plays hard and I think he is passionate about the game. He’s not afraid.’’

For coach Terry Stotts, Thursday just reinforced what he has seen since Swanigan was the 26th overall pick.

“I liked his energy,’’ Stotts said. “I liked his fire.’’

Today's Blazers links:

Casey Holdahl at Trail Blazers.com talked to CJ McCollum after he signed a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

Billboard magazine talks to Damian Lillard about his new album.

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes asks: What if the Blazers played big?

https://audioboom.com/posts/6372492-inside-the-blazers-w-jason-quick-my-biggest-regret

What if the Trail Blazers took the (big) road less traveled this season?

What if the Trail Blazers took the (big) road less traveled this season?

Everybody in the NBA is trending toward small lineups these days. Golden State has set the tone and a lot of teams are copying -- either to better guard the Warriors or to improve their ability to shoot three-point shots, which is another thing trending upward in the league.

And that's why I'd like to see the Trail Blazers at least give careful consideration to playing big.

Why try to be Golden State Junior? Why do whatever everyone else is doing? Do you really think you can do it better than the Warriors? I doubt it. They have a roster full of unique players with versatile ability. Portland, on the other hand, is suddenly blessed with some big players who can shoot from the outside, yet do great damage on the inside -- with scoring and rebounding.

I know, the first thing everyone asks is "How are those big guys going to guard those small guys?" Sure. And I'll respond simply with "How are those small guys going to guard those big guys?"

There was a time in the NBA -- in the years when centers were really CENTERS -- when you didn't dare put a small player on a big player, at any position.Teams were very skilled at finding those size mismatches swiftly and dealing with them deftly. I can still remember former Portland Coach Mike Schuler standing in front of me yelling, "'Duck' has a little one! 'Duck' has a little one!" -- meaning center Kevin Duckworth was switched onto by a smaller player. Duckworth would drop into the post, his teammates would get him the ball and he'd put a few moves on, culminating in a layup or dunk very quickly.

I'm not sure today's teams are as willing and able to take advantage of such mismatches -- but they should be. I sit and watch NBA coaches today respond to small-big matchups in the opposite way. I swear, if some of them had Wilt Chamberlain at center and the other team put a 5-11 guard on him, Wilt's coach would quickly yank Wilt out and throw his own 5-11 player into the game to match up with the little man. And I'm not trying to be a wise guy.

If the Trail Blazers have jusuf Nurkic and Caleb Swanigan in the game together, I'd love to see an opponent try to go small on them. Sure, Portland would get burned at the defensive end some -- but there are schemes to deal with such things. You can switch, you can zone, you can double-team -- all sorts of creative solutions. And meanwhile, your bigs are eating their lunch at the low post.

There is not an abundance of post players in the NBA right now but the Trail Blazers have Nurkic, Swanigan and Zach Collins -- and I'd like to see them operate near the basket.

Really, what do you have to lose by trying it? It's more fun to be different. As people trying to bump through traffic to get to the Moda Center in time for a 7 p.m. game will tell you, sometimes the road less traveled is the best way to your destination.