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.


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.’’


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.


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.’’

Streaking Blazers 'in best place in years' but know it means nothing

Streaking Blazers 'in best place in years' but know it means nothing

Not since LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland have the Trail Blazers looked so good on the court, and in the standings.

“It’s the best place we’ve been in years,’’ Damian Lillard said Tuesday after the Blazers beat Sacramento for their fourth consecutive win and 11th home win in their last 12.

The Blazers (34-26) are nine games over .500 for the first time since ending the 2014-2015 season with a 51-31 record – Aldridge’s last season in Portland – and they’ve climbed to those heights on the strength of solid defense, balanced scoring, and phenomenal play from Lillard.

Yet, as the team prepares to welcome March, and the season’s final 21 games, there is both an element of unease and perspective.

“We have it going, and we are healthy and headed in right direction, but after a while, you understand the big picture,’’ CJ McCollum said. “As good as things are right now, they can go downhill in a hurry. It’s about staying even keel and knowing it’s a long season.’’

March and April can be defining months for NBA teams, and in Portland, many seasons have turned. On March 3, 2001, Rasheed Wallace and the Blazers were 42-18 and in first place in the West,   and looked poised for a repeat appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

But Portland went 8-14 down the stretch and dropped to seventh, a free fall that was punctuated by a first-round sweep.

Four years ago, on March 5, the Blazers were 40-19 and third in the West when Wesley Matthews felt a pop in his Achilles during a game against Dallas. He went down, and so too did the Blazers’ season. They finished fifth in the West and were ousted in the first round.

And last season, the Blazers entered March 11 games below .500, but behind Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic, went 13-3 to fuel a push into the playoffs.

As the Blazers begin March on Thursday, 15 of their remaining 21 games are against teams with winning records. And as close as Portland is to hosting a playoff series (1 game behind San Antonio), they are almost as close to not making the playoffs (two games from ninth).

Coach Terry Stotts, who as an assistant with Milwaukee in the 2001-2002 season saw the Bucks enter March with a seven-game division lead. They finished 8-18 and did not make the playoffs.

“That’s why coaches are a nervous breed – during the course of a game or during the course of a season,’’ Stotts said. “We don’t take anything for granted.’’

A spring awakening is a familiar storyline in Portland, but Lillard says this season’s run feels different, in part because it has been a gradual build rather than a sudden blossoming like the past two seasons.

“We’ve been pushing in the right direction,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard’s optimism is rooted in two factors: the team’s mental makeup and its depth.

The Blazers have spiraled at times this season – a six-game losing streak at home in December and an 0-fer three-game trip to start February – but he says they have always stayed together and remained committed. 

Also, he says this Blazers team is deeper and more consistent than any of the post-Aldridge teams, which has allowed the Blazers to weather nights like Tuesday, when McCollum went 5-for-18 from the field.

“I think that’s it,’’ Lillard said, referring to the depth. “The past few seasons we had guys – random games here and there - where (Allen Crabbe), or Chief (Aminu) would get hot … Mo (Harkless) has a big game … but it was here and there. A lot of what we did depended on me and CJ to get things done  - not that guys weren’t doing anything - but I think this is the most consistent we have performed as far as balance. Chief has shot ball great, Bazz is consistent, E.T. has been consistent, … when you have that you are able to sustain level for longer.’’

But it’s one thing to beat the Phoenix’s and Sacramento’s of the NBA. In the coming weeks, Portland faces Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Cleveland, Houston and Boston.

“What we are doing now? It doesn’t mean much to me, because it’s February,’’ McCollum said after the win over the Kings. “(Stuff) don’t mean nothing … I mean, this is great but I’ve seen too much, been through too much … so I just stay here (raises hand horizontally). It’s on to next game.’’

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

After an 0-for-10 shooting night Saturday in Phoenix, Trail Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier had one thought on the flight home: getting back in the gym to work on his shot.

“I was thinking about coming (to the practice gym) when we landed, but we didn’t land until around 1 a.m.,’’ Napier said.

So, after a night’s sleep, Napier came to the gym Sunday morning, even though the Blazers’ had the day off. Truth is, Napier would have been in the gym on Sunday had he gone 10-for-10 in Phoenix, but considering he is now in the worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, having gone 7-for-36 in his last four games, there was an added urgency to get to his shooting routine.

“Have to keep shooting,’’ Napier said.

On Monday, Napier was the last Blazers player to leave the practice courts following the team’s workout. He put in so many extra shots that sweat was dripping from his chin.

“I have to keep shooting, keeping working out and try to erase all the shots I’ve missed,’’ Napier said. “Eventually, it’s going to fall. I mean, I put up a lot of shots every day, so I have a lot of faith in my craft. It’s going to fall.’’

The next chance for Napier to break out of his slump will be Tuesday when the surging Blazers (33-26) – winners of five of the past six – play at home against Sacramento (18-41). The last time Napier played the Kings, he made all five of his shots.

In the meantime, nobody on the Blazers is worried about Napier, who this season is shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.

“I think good shooters work themselves through it,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “You gotta have confidence and know the next shot is going in.’’

Added team captain Damian Lillard: “I don’t worry about him … Bazz is not a mental midget. You see (against Phoenix) he missed a couple and he kept shooting. That tells you all you need to know.’’

While confidence is never a problem for Napier, two things have entered his mind. During his slump – and particularly against Phoenix – several shots have appeared to go in, only to spin off or bounce out of the rim.

“The one that are the worst are the ones that go in the hoop, then come out … it kind of sticks with you,’’ Napier said.

Also, he has detected a couple flaws in his shooting stroke. For one, on some shots he says he can feel the ball is too far back in his palm. He wants the ball to come off his fingers and not be touched or influenced by his palm. Also, he doesn’t feel he is getting the same lift on his shots because both of his big toes are swollen and injured. His right big toe was hurt this season in Philadelphia, and his left big toe swelled up so much after the game in Toronto he had to miss the game in Boston.

“At the end of the day, when you put that thing up, you have to forget about all the excuses and just shoot the ball,’’ Napier said. “And hopefully, you make it.’’

Napier this season has been one of the best stories on the Blazers. After playing bit roles with Miami, Orlando and Portland in his first three seasons, Napier is now a key player on a team in the playoff hunt. He forged his role amid the most unlikely landscapes – playing behind two All-Star caliber guards.

He forced his way into the rotation during a stellar December, when he averaged 13.8 points in 11 games. He then cemented his place while filling in for the injured Lillard, during which he started eight games and averaged 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

For the season, Napier is averaging a career-high 9.1 points and 2.2 assists in a career-high 21.2 minutes a game.

It’s that body of work this season why nobody is worried about the last four games, and Napier admits it is easier to cope with the slump knowing he has a secure spot in the rotation.

“It helps when teammates and coaches say ‘Keep shooting,’’’ Napier said. “(Assistants) Jim Moran, Nate Tibbetts, Coach Stotts - every time I get to the huddle they keep saying ‘Keep shooting. The next one is going to fall.’ They believe in my shot as much as I do. And I know it’s my job to knock down the next shot.’’

That’s why he was in the gym early Sunday, and then again late on Monday. He’s a shooter, and shooters shoot, even when they are in a slump.

“That’s why I’m always here,’’ Napier said as sweat dripped off him at the practice facility. “I gotta figure it out.’’

The secret of Damian Lillard: Playing for something bigger than him

The secret of Damian Lillard: Playing for something bigger than him

By now, six seasons into Damian Lillard’s career, the Trail Blazers have come to expect not just greatness out of their do-it-all point guard, but also late-season magic.

And Saturday in Phoenix, in what he called one of his more “significant” late-season performances, Lillard gave some insight into how, and why, he flourishes when a game, and sometimes a season, are on the line.

“It comes down to how much it means to you,’’ Lillard said after his memorable game winner Saturday that capped a 40-point, 10-rebound performance.

And therein lies his power: what this means to him.

See, with Lillard, he carries an incredible weight on his shoulders.  Fair or unfair, the success and failure of the Trail Blazers are, in his mind, a reflection of him.

It is a burden that only superstars feel, and one that only special, franchise players can relate.

It’s why last season he called it the greatest accomplishment of his career after he led the Blazers into the playoffs after they were 11-games under .500 heading into March.

And it’s why he long ago game to grips with All-Star snubs and postseason awards, because he had realized the game is bigger than awards. It’s about winning.

So with the Blazers on Saturday trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter to the lowly Suns, and the entire team mired in a 3-for-26 shooting night from three-point range, Lillard knew it was time to show what all this means to him.

He scored 19 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter, and he scored 10 of the Blazers’ final 12 points, including the game-winning layin while going past, and through, three Suns players.

He called it “recognizing the situation” but later, he acknowledged it was that bigger-picture coming into focus. A demoralizing loss to the Suns one night after an empowering victory at Utah would somehow be a reflection upon him.

“If our team has success, people will realize what my impact is,’’ Lillard said. “They will realize what we are capable of. And if we don’t (have success), then they will say whatever they want about me. So I realize it’s a reflection of my leadership and how I can lead the team.’’

He feels ownership because he puts so much into this team. He has counseled Maurice Harkless through his ups and downs. He has coached and mentored Jusuf Nurkic. And he has established a teamwide culture of hard work and accountability by his attention and devotion to workouts. 

Inside the locker room, his teammates hear his leadership, and they see his effort and production on the court. They too, can sense the burden Lillard carries in leading this franchise.

“It’s a gift and a curse being a superstar,’’  Harkless said. “When your team doesn’t do well, it’s your fault. When your team does well, it’s because of you. That’s just the burden of being a superstar and he does a good job of wearing that and owning that, and accepting it. And that’s the thing: he never backs down from the moment. Every time he steps up big. That’s why he is big time for us.’’

Teams don’t win when the hearts of their star players are not with the franchise. Think LaMarcus Aldridge, who in the 2015 playoff series against Memphis played like he had one foot in San Antonio. Think Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton, whose mutiny against Nate McMillan sabotaged the 2011-2012 season. And think Rasheed Wallace, whose obsession with officiating and his dislike for Mike Dunleavy submarined the 2000-2001 season.

Lillard, on the other hand, has embraced and endorsed Portland and the Blazers. He has first-hand experience of how hard it is to recruit a free agent, or convince a player to agree to be traded here. And he knows there is an element of isolation playing amid the beauty of the evergreens and the dampness of our winters.

Yet, he repeatedly says he wants to be here for life, and be considered the greatest Blazer of all-time.

And he said the holdovers from the 2016 Blazers team that beat the Clippers in the playoffs recently reflected how much fun that was, and how they felt a connection after that run. It has made him want to lead this group to those heights and more.

It’s why, he believes, there is a little more behind his late-game heroics than just stepping up in crunch time.

It’s because he says he is playing for something bigger than him. He’s playing for the Blazers.

“A lot of times for me, it’s a mentality,’’ Lillard said. “When I come out there and assert myself, I see one thing: and I see it going the way I want it to go. I feel like I have something about me mentally that I can control what happens. I might be wrong, but that’s how I feel. So I’m able to come out and drive whatever I want to drive to happen.’’

A night when Damian Lillard flipped a switch most players were never given

A night when Damian Lillard flipped a switch most players were never given

Damian Lillard has made so many big-time plays for the Portland Trail Blazers. So many clutch shots, he's performed so many late-game heroics. And yes, so many imaginary wristwatch taps walking off the floor after a win.

But Saturday night's show was just a little different. Just a little better, in fact.

The Lillard performance in Portland's 106-104 win at Phoenix was superb. It wasn't just star quality, it was superstar quality. The Trail Blazers trailed 93-78 with 7:26 to go in the game and were struggling to make shots. At one point, they were 3-26 from three-point range. Lillard himself had been battling shooting woes, too. But this was a game that had to be won and Lillard took it upon himself to take care of business. By now, you know what he accomplished and if you didn't see it live I'd advise you to catch the game as it's replayed on NBC Sports Northwest in the next couple of days.

At some point in the fourth quarter, Lillard flipped a switch most players have never owned. This wasn't just a great game, it was a rescue mission.

He made 8 of his 12 fourth-quarter shots, two of four three-pointers in the period and had five rebounds. He turned two of his offensive rebounds into spectacular baskets, one on a tip-dunk when he came from beyond the three-point arc to flush a Shabazz Napier miss and then a tip-in of an Al-Farouq Aminu shot on which he was fouled with 2:38 left. He made the free throw to tie the game.

And you've undoubtedly seen his game-winner with .9 left in the game -- a driving layup on which he was fouled (no call) and still managed to find a way to slip the shot between a tangle of long arms, off the backboard and into the basket. The shot capped a 19-point fourth quarter.

Lillard was flawless over the final four minutes. You often hear of NBA players "taking over the game," but Lillard grabbed this one by the throat and just wouldn't let go until it was his. It was the sort of game that gathers Most Valuable Player votes. No, he's not going to win that award -- but it was the kind of game that vaults him even higher up in the hierarchy of NBA players.

And I don't want to hear any of that "Oh, it was a lousy team... consider the opposition... they should have won by 20" garbage. Yes, the Suns are one of the worst teams in the league. But anybody can beat anybody in the NBA and stuff happens, especially on back-to-back road games.

I'm not sure, given Portland's race to claim a high playoff seed, that this wasn't his best game-closing performance as a pro -- and that covers a lot of ground.

He was amazing.


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.

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

Damian Lillard's 50-point night brewing since flight home from Detroit

SACRAMENTO – In the days leading up to his 50-point game Friday in Sacramento, it was evident something was brewing inside Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.

He had become shorter in conversation. And his normal countenance ran deeper, and more focused.

It was not that Lillard had become distant or unfriendly to those around him, but it was as if something was weighing on his mind.

Turns out, there was.

On the flight home from Detroit on Monday, still fresh the sting of a blowout loss to the Pistons that gave the Blazers a three-game losing streak, Lillard said he had a personal pep talk.

“It’s time to go,’’ Lillard recounted saying to himself about the season.

By “go” he meant it was time to put his foot on the gas and accelerate the Blazers’ season.

“Take control of the situation,’’ Lillard explained. “That’s what you have to do sometimes – take control of the situation and take it upon yourself.’’

His first game after the Detroit declaration was Thursday against Charlotte in Portland. It was one of his worst games of the season – 6-for-22 from the field and more turnovers (4) than assists or rebounds. The Blazers held a 22-5 lead to open the game, and then had a 17-point lead with seven minutes left, yet still had to eke out the win in overtime.

So on Friday, when he arrived in Sacramento – a place the Blazers lost earlier this season – there was a perfect storm of motivation, dedication and predication.

“I had a certain feeling about this game,’’ Lillard said. “That we had to have it.’’

For two in a half quarters, whether the Blazers would beat the Kings was in question. When Zach Randolph rebounded his own miss with 4:25 left, the Kings were within 75-74.

Then, Lillard took over.

It started with Lillard driving for a layin. Then he stripped Kings’ prized rookie De’Aaron Fox. Then he passed to CJ McCollum for a layin. Then he scored the next 13 points in a row.

All told, the Blazers had gone on a 17-0 run and Lillard had scored 15 of them, pushing him to 50 points at the end of the third quarter in just 29:29 of playing time.

By now, impassioned play at crucial times have become a hallmark of Lillard’s career. Each season, he seems to sense when, and how, the Blazers need their boost. In 2014, his second season, he initiated a spirited team meeting in the San Antonio locker room. In 2016, he led a late-season charge with a flurry of high-scoring first quarters that helped the Blazers win three straight road games. And last season, with, some help from Jusuf Nurkic, he willed them from nine games below .500 in January to the playoffs, thanks in part to a franchise-record 59-point game against Utah in April.

What is different this season, is Lillard says he feels a little more “urgency” for the Blazers to show progress, and that may be why his hallmark playoff-push is coming earlier than ever.

He said this Blazers team has experienced too many lulls throughout the season – going 4-1 on an East trip only to lose four straight at home, and a recent span of seven wins in eight games followed by a three-game losing streak.

It’s why somewhere over the Midwest, on the return from Detroit, that Lillard had his mental declaration.

“When we were on the flight home, I was like, ‘Going into the (All-Star) break, we have to do this. It has to happen,’’ Lillard said.

So on Friday, he made it happen.


If the weight of a team, and a franchise, has become a burden for Lillard, he is not showing it. Before leaving the Sacramento locker room to share his momentous night with a large segment of his family, Lillard deflected any notion that he was carrying a heavy load.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,’’ he said. “I’m not a three-time All Star in six years for no reason, no matter how you want to slice it. I’m not a max contract player for no reason. That’s what I signed up for.’’

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

After some sharp words from coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers on Thursday received a message: It’s time to get serious about this season.

“I can’t call back exactly what he said,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “But it had to do with we have big aspirations and we are not playing up to that.’’

After blowing a 17-point lead with seven minutes to go against a subpar Charlotte team, the Blazers were pushed into overtime, where some big plays from Maurice Harkless finally got them over the hump in a 109-103 victory.

Normally a mild-mannered coach who teaches through positive reinforcement, Stotts, players say, laid into his team afterward, and it left a mark.

“He knows we are capable of much more,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We haven’t played our best basketball. We have been pissing away games and not executing. We have to do some things better so we are not in those situations where … we could have lost tonight.’’

Often times this season, the Blazers players have been outwardly positive following wins with subpar play. Not Thursday.

“Unacceptable,’’ Davis said. “We want to be one of those elite teams and elite teams don’t play around at home, especially a game we are supposed to win and had control of the whole game.’’

In his postgame address to the media, the Blazers coach was terse, choosing to release one sentence answers through pursed lips in what probably stands as his most uptight and irritated session during his six seasons. 

Maybe it was because it’s that time of year. Or maybe it was because the Trail Blazers were so spectacularly awful in the fourth quarter. Or maybe Stotts had just had enough of  the up-and-down play.

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

Harkless said it was the most angry Stotts has been after a victory, and Meyers Leonard said “he was definitely upset with us” – but both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis said it wasn’t a notable tirade.

“It wasn’t like he was m’fing this, m’fing that – but it was like, ‘This is what it is: we are playing great basketball for three quarters then we (poop) the bed in the fourth and give a team that is not supposed to be in the game a chance to win.’

Lillard said he has seen Stotts more angry, and he noted that the group even laughed at one point.

That humor came via Evan Turner.

According to the players, Stotts at one point realized he was harping after a victory. He caught himself, and said, “I don’t want to be …”

As Stotts started to search for the right word, Turner chirped from his corner stall.

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

“No,” Stotts said. “I need another one …”

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:


The last one busted up everyone in the room.

“It definitely helped lighten the mood,’’ Harkless said.

The win ended a three game losing streak and pushed the Blazers’ home winning streak to nine, the longest home run in five seasons. Portland (30-25) is in sixth place in the West, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

As the team boarded a plane later Thursday night for a flight to Sacramento for Friday’s game against the Kings (17-36), it was a group that knows time is running out to back up their own talk that they can be an upper-echelon team.

“We are at a point in the season where we have to start separating ourselves,’’ Davis said. “The games where we need to blow teams out, we need to do that, and tonight was that night.’’

Instead, they got a talking to from their normally laid-back coach.

“He gave us the same message we’ve been preaching all year: we have to be consistent,’’ Harkless said. “When we are consistent we are a pretty good team. But over the course of one game, we can go from really good to average, to good, to average … we just have to maintain.’’

No time like overtime to grab a victory over the Hornets

USA Today

No time like overtime to grab a victory over the Hornets

The Blazers almost let one slip away on their home floor, but did just enough in the end to pick up the 109-103 victory over the Hornets. The Blazers led my as many as 17pts, but the turnover bug came back and bit them in the fourth quarter allowing Charlotte to get back in the game. The Blazers came up short of a game winning bucket with just over a second remaining in the regulation, giving the Hornets one last. However, on the final possession Jusuf Nurkic came up with the game saving block and sent the game to overtime. It was there that the Blazers put things away and grabbed the win.

Final Score: 109 – 103