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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Trail Blazers' loss, Jusuf Nurkic sticks up for Meyers Leonard

After Trail Blazers' loss, Jusuf Nurkic sticks up for Meyers Leonard

For a Trail Blazers team that was thoroughly handled by Milwaukee on Thursday, the best thing to come out of the 103-91 loss was the way Jusuf Nurkic stood up for teammate Meyers Leonard.

Leonard, who entered the game for the first time in the third quarter and the Blazers trailing by 19, was booed by some in the Moda Center crowd after he airballed a three-pointer.

Afterward, Nurkic –unprompted – stood up for Leonard.

“It’s tough when you have fans who boo Meyers for no reason,’’ Nurkic said. “If they boo him, boo everybody. Don’t just boo the guy who just missed a shot. It’s not good. We don’t look good. Overall … I missed a shot. Dame missed a shot. Everybody missed a shot. I think does not deserve to be booed for no reason.’’

Leonard, who has become a lightening rod for fan discontent, finished 1-for-3 from the field and grabbed three rebounds in 8:19 of action. 

Leonard was showering when Nurkic made his comments, and when told afterward what Nurkic said, Leonard was moved.

“Honestly, I appreciate Nurk saying something,’’ Leonard said. “That’s huge. I mean, for the people who boo …yeah. Truly, in my down-home country roots, I have some nasty words for those people. But I’m going to keep it professional.’’

Leonard, who is in the second year of a four-year, $41 million deal, has appeared in seven of the Blazers’ 22 games this season, averaging 10 minutes. Earlier this month it looked like he was beginning to carve out a niche off the bench when he had 11 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes against the Kings, then played a game-changing 17 minutes the next game at Memphis when he hit all four of his shots and finished with eight points and four rebounds.

But he played only once since then – a four-minute stint against Philadelphia – until Thursday’s call with the Blazers trailing 76-57. After missing his second shot badly, an audible collection of boos came down – not overwhelming – but enough to be noticed.

“If I’m being dead honest, I guess it’s no surprise,’’ Leonard said of the fans. “It happened at the end of last year.

“But you know, I put in a ton of work this summer and I feel really good about where I’m at as a player. Did I love the situation in which I was put into? No. But that’s part of being a professional, so I have to be ready and I have to take shots that were open,'' Leonard said. "And the fact of the matter is our franchise player threw me the ball for a reason: because I can friggin shoot.''

Leonard after the game appeared unfazed by the crowd reaction and addressed it only after he was told about Nurkic's remarks.

“I’ve made a big jump in terms of tuning the negativity out,'' Leonard said. "Now, do I want to hear it? Of course not. But the one thing I know I can leave the arena knowing is I am working as hard as I can. I do still truly believe that I have a lot to offer.’’ 

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

A few thoughts about the Trail Blazers after a dynamite 4-1 eastern trip, as I take a break from wading through the dozens of "Cyber Monday" emails still in my inbox:

  • Putting Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup was a very big boost in more than one way for Portland. Of course, it never hurts to have another reliable shooter on the floor -- he not only nails threes with regularity but the threat of him doing that keeps the floor spread for the guards to once again get some room in the paint. There has been no obvious decline in defense with him, either. And then there's those smart, hard cuts he makes off the ball, allowing Jusuf Nurkic to show off his passing skills at the post. I'd stay with it even when Al-Farouq Aminu returns from injury.
  • Now that Connaughton is getting extended minutes, I'd expect Portland's three-point attempts to go up. The Blazers are seventh in the league in three-point accuracy but 28th in the number of attempts. With the lack of fast-break points and points in the paint, I would think more three-point attempts will eventually be necessary.
  • So far, is this looking like Damian Lillard's best season? I hear people saying that but I'm not sure. He's had some very good ones. I would say this, too, the better this team plays, the better his chances of being an all-star.
  • CJ McCollum is soon going to be getting heavy all-star consideration, too.
  • I truly believe, even as well as they have been playing in the last few games, the Trail Blazers have a lot of room for improvement. Nurkic is still not quite in sync at the offensive end. He's shot above 50 percent in only three games this season and that's not appropriate for a man who gets most of his shots in the paint. When he gets it going the way he did last season, the Trail Blazers will take another step forward.
  • I don't think I've ever seen a team make a one-season defensive improvement -- with no coaching change and no real difference in personnel -- the way Portland has this year. It's ridiculous how much better they are. Of course it's still a relatively small sample size but as long as McCollum and Lillard continue their transformation into reliable defenders, the Trail Blazers should be at least a decent defensive squad.
  • Kudos to Terry Stotts and his coaching staff for engineering that defensive improvement. The Trail Blazers are a solid third in the league in defensive efficiency. Getting basketball players to defend hard every game is not easy at any level. Defense requires a lot of hard work that often goes unnoticed and many players would rather pay lip service to it rather than actually do it. In the NBA, it also requires intelligence and preparation. The coaching staff has made some technical and philosophical tweaks and some obvious changes in emphasis to pull this thing off.

Blazers survive tough fourth quarter to grab a victory in New York

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Blazers survive tough fourth quarter to grab a victory in New York

The fourth quarter wasn’t pretty, but the final result was for the Blazers. The Blazers couldn't buy a bucket for the first half of the final quarter. When they finally added points to the scoreboard, it was just enough to keep the Knicks at bay. With the win in New York the Blazers are coming home with a 4-1 record on their five game trip. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Final Score: Blazers 103 – Knicks 91

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

NEW YORK – It was a revealing scene before the Trail Blazers’ game Saturday in Washington, when Pat Connaughton prepared to step onto the court for his second start of the season.

As he walked down the sideline before the opening tip, Connaughton slapped hands and exchanged quick hugs with several teammates. The last teammates waiting, near midcourt, was Maurice Harkless, the man Connaughton replaced in the starting lineup.

Harkless embraced Connaughton, and held on while speaking into his ear. It was by far the longest hug of any teammate in the line, and the show of support touched Connaughton.

“I always made sure I spoke some positive things before he would go out for the starting lineup, and now he has done the same for me, which I think has been really cool,’’ Connaughton said.

Connaughton replaced the struggling Harkless as the starting small forward before the Friday win in Brooklyn, and he said he has adopted a mindset to help his teammates in this starting role, a process he says has been aided by Harkless’ approach.

“In this league, you have to be ready to play every single night, and the decision Coach makes are the ones  you go with as a team, and the ones you trust as a team, ‘’ Connaughton said. “So I think (Harkless) has taken a real mature outlook on that, and he has been nothing but helpful for me.’’

Connaughton made an impact in the Washington start, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block in 37 minutes. Beyond the boxscore, he guarded Wizards guard Bradley Beal for the final 8:53 after CJ McCollum picked up his fifth foul. Beal went 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter. Connaughton also scrapped for a crucial rebound with 2.6 seconds left, and made both free throws after being fouled.

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Team captain Damian Lillard said Connaughton coming through in crunch time moments like that have strengthened his already considerable trust in the third-year wing.

“My trust level with Pat is like very, very high,’’ Lillard said. “He is always solid, always going to do the right things, knows every play, knows every coverage we are in and it just shows. To be able to come through and have those big plays … it just shows where he is maturity wise.’’

Part of that maturity is knowing and embracing his role. Connaughton said he has adopted the mantra of his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots: Do Your Job, which he says is to make his teammates better.

“His role is to be a role player,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “He complements the players he is out there with – he did that when he is coming off the bench and he is doing that as a starter. He doesn’t make many mistakes, he makes open shots, he makes hard cuts, he’s very alert defensively … To me it’s a perfect role for him right now.’’

A look back at Steve Jones, even before he became "Snapper"

A look back at Steve Jones, even before he became "Snapper"

In the days when he began work with the Trail Blazers as an on-air analyst – on television and radio – he was just plain Steve Jones, the former star at Franklin High, the University of Oregon and the ABA, where he was a three-time all-star.

He was, in fact, already well known for his basketball skills and later was inducted into the sports Halls of Fame for the Portland Interscholastic League, the University of Oregon and the state of Oregon.

But while working with Bob Costas at NBC, the “Snapper” nickname emerged, a reference to some secret story from the ABA, where Jones and Costas first met, the latter as the broadcaster for the Spirits of St. Louis. Soon, he was one of those one-name guys -- everybody in basketball knew who "Snapper" was.

Jones died Saturday at the age of 75, after battling a health condition for many years. Jones’ health problems began in 2006 when his appendix burst during a broadcast and he decided to finish the game before seeking medical help.

But the incident left toxins in his body that led to complications over many years that he could never quite overcome.

Jones played his final season of professional basketball as a Trail Blazer in 1975-76 and launched a 26-year broadcast career with the team after retirement as a player.

He worked with just about all the Trail Blazer play-by-play men -- Bill Schonely, Pat Lafferty, Pete Pranica, Eddie Doucette, Mike Barrett and even worked for one season with the Sonics in Seattle with current Portland broadcaster Kevin Calabro.

"I grew up watching and listening to Steve," Barrett told me Sunday. "It was always an education. I was humbled to eventually be able to work alongside him, He taught me so much in my early days as a play-by-play broadcaster -- about the league, the game, the road and so much more. I was so blessed to have known him."

I’ve always believed his brightest moments in broadcasting came when he was working alongside Bill Walton. The two forged a friendship and great chemistry as teammates with the Trail Blazers and Jones always had the ability to rein in Walton – something he did better than anybody ever has.

Their interchanges during broadcasts were priceless -- often either great basketball insight or just comedy gold.

At time he wasn’t easy to work with, as he wasn’t afraid to challenge his broadcast partners on the air. He was a guy who could pin a nickname on anyone (including me) and would bust your chops whenever he had the chance.

"He was a terrific guy," Schonely said. "He called me 'Pops.' Always upbeat with that big laugh. And he loved giving everybody a bad time -- and he loved every minute of it. He was a joy to work with and he laughed a lot. He was a good man."

And on the air, even though he loved the Trail Blazers, he was no homer. Of all the analysts the team has ever had, Jones was the one who most resisted over-selling the home team. He played it straight.

He’d often say, “The Trail Blazers just need to learn how they want to score the ball,” which was often code for “The right people have to be shooting.” He told it like it was -- and got away with it -- throughout his broadcasting career.

I believe, along with his attention to national network duties, his unbiased delivery may have eventually led to his quiet disconnect from the franchise in 2006, when his relationship with the organization ended without ceremony or tribute.

He was a noted contrarian. I had the opportunity in my many years of covering the team, to spend time talking basketball with him and what I remember most is his willingness to go against the grain.

If the talk, for example, would turn to the importance of defense in winning championships, Jones would boom his familiar laugh and shake his head.

“If your offense is good enough, nobody can beat you,” he said. “The team that scores the most points usually wins, right?”

The Trail Blazers brought him back from his home in Houston to honor him five years ago and it was a terrific gesture that seemed to lift his spirits. I had the opportunity to do one of my “Posting Up” shows with Steve during that time and it was a joy.

He became an icon in Portland and an important member of the NBA community. Commissioner Adam Silver released a statement Saturday night:

The NBA family mourns the passing of Steve "Snapper" Jones - former Portland Trail Blazer, ABA All-Star and one of the NBA's all-time great TV analysts. We send our deepest condolences to his family and many friends.”

I considered Steve a friend and enjoyed the telephone conversations we had during his retirement years in Houston.

Even in retirement, he was opinionated and speaking his mind about the league he loved.  He taught me a lot about the NBA and basketball in general. I mourn his passing, kick myself for not staying in touch with him more frequently in recent years and wish the best to his family.

We lost one of the great Trail Blazers Saturday.

Blazers edge Nets in offensive shootout

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Blazers edge Nets in offensive shootout

The Blazers offense came to play in Brooklyn, but so did the offense of the Nets.  So needless to say, this game wasn’t without its fireworks.  Portland shot 50% from the floor, the Nets shot 50.4% from the floor, but in the end it was big plays from Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers defense that sealed the deal. Nurkic missed a layup late, but immediately stole the ball from Caris Levert and was fouled as he scored on the layup. It was that play that gave the Blazers the inch they needed to leave Brooklyn with a win.

Final Score: Trail Blazers 127 – Nets 125

The Blazers have a quick turnaround as they head to the nation’s capital to take on the Washington Wizards tomorrow afternoon. Coverage starts at 3:00 PM on NBCS Northwest and the NBC Sports App.

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

PHILADELPHIA – A growing question inside the Trail Blazers’ early season has been the noticeable drop off in production from Maurice Harkless.

The Blazers’ starting small forward is not scoring. He’s not rebounding. He’s not producing much of anything these days

“I just feel like I’m just out there to be out there … I don’t know,’’ Harkless said Wednesday after he had 1 point, zero rebounds, zero assists and zero blocks or steals in the Blazers’ 101-81 loss in Philadelphia.

Harkless has never been a player whose value is best measured by statistics. He is primarily a defender, whose value is enhanced by his ability to switch and guard anyone from forwards to guards on pick-and-rolls.

But in Portland he has also been able to make an impact on offense by getting out in transition, scoring off offensive rebounds, and making quick cuts to the basket.

But little, if any, of those things are happening lately.

“I’m just out there, and that’s frustrating,’’ Harkless said. “I’m just out there playing defense, which is cool … running back and forth. Out there running track.’’

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Coach Terry Stotts last week described Harkless’ defense this season as “solid … like the rest of the team” but his non-descript play begs the question of how much longer Stotts can afford to start Harkless when the team’s offensive woes are so prevalent?

I asked Stotts that exact question after Wednesday’s loss and received a blank stare. In other words, he didn’t want to address it.

Harkless, for his part, says he wants to contribute more, but is not sure how he can in this offense.

“We gotta figure out ways … not only me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’

Harkless was referring to guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic, who have combined to take 57 percent of the team’s shots this season, which is about on par with what other talented trio take (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony take 60 percent of the Thunder’s shots while Golden State sees 55 percent of its shots go through Steph Curry/Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson).

 That leaves the likes of Harkless, Evan Turner, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh, to “get in where you fit in” to steal a phrase from Harkless.

“Everybody else is just …. It’s hard to get into a rhythm,’’ Harkless said. “It’s that simple.’’

To be clear, Harkless wasn’t whining, and he wasn’t trying to throw shade on teammates. He was being asked uncomfortable questions about his lack of production and he was trying to give explanations in the most professional and honest way.

“I’m not concerned … I don’t know. We just have to figure something out,’’ Harkless said.

In the last three games, Harkless’ impact has been minimal. Before his quiet night in Philadelphia, he had three blocks and scored two key inside baskets in the third quarter of a win at Memphis, which was the highlight of a 4-point, 4-rebound performance. The game before against Sacramento, he didn’t attempt a shot and finished with zero points, one rebound and two assists in 19 minutes.

Last season, he averaged a career-best 10 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. This year, he is averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from three-point range.

It’s not like this has been a sudden development. Since a sterling debut, when his defense was one of the big talking points of the season-opening win in Phoenix, he has drifted into anonymity. He and I have had a couple talks along the way, addressing and analyzing where he is, and where he fits.

“It gets frustrating at times,’’ Harkless said after the Orlando game on Nov. 15. “I feel like I could bring more to the team. Especially on the offensive end. It just is what it is. The way we are playing right now, it’s just my role right now.

“I’m not going to try and go over the coaches head, or something like that, or complain. I feel like we are playing pretty solid right now, so I just have to do what I can do to help us win. When the shots come, I have to knock them down, and that’s it. I just have to make the most of it.’’

Part of the puzzle in unlocking Harkless is it takes other players to get him going. He rarely has the ball in his hands, and he has to score either on spot-up three’s or while slashing to the basket, both of which require somebody to make a play for him.

“It’s not like, I’m Evan (Turner) - when he comes in the game, he has the ball in his hands and he can shoot whenever he wants to,’’ Harkless said. “I’m pretty much in a position where I’m just waiting around and you have to pass me the ball. A lot of times I’m open and guys may miss me or I make a cut and they miss me. I just have to keep playing, I can’t worry about that stuff.’’

Last season, through the first 18 games Harkless was averaging 10 shots a game. This season, he is averaging 5.6. The difference, of course, is the Blazers now have Jusuf Nurkic.

Instead of Lillard and CJ and a supporting cast, the offense has become the big three and shots have dried up. Perhaps, too, has the movement, as more players know they aren’t likely to be involved.

Lillard, for one, says he tries to remain cognizant of the role players like Harkless, and keep them involved in the offense.

“If you want a guy to go out and rebound and defend and play as active as we want Moe to, you have to give him an opportunity to touch the ball and be involved with it,’’ Lillard said last week. “So I’m always conscious of who hasn’t gotten a shot, who is involved and who hasn’t been involved.’’

Stotts has often tried to start games by running a play for Harkless. And in the Denver game – a game in which Harkless got just two shots – the team turned the ball over twice early trying to get him the ball.

“His shot attempts are a product of the game,’’ Stotts explained, noting he is a player who excels in transition and scoring off rebounds. “And some of it is him looking to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.’’

So, as the Blazers (10-8) try to gain traction offensively this season, Harkless is trying to figure out how and where he can help. It has been a frustrating endeavor because he understands and accepts his role, but also wants to, and knows he can, help more than he has so far.

“A lot of the things I do don’t show up on the stat sheet, that’s a part of the game we need and I know that’s a part of my role on this team is to do those things, ‘’ Harkless said last week. “But at the same time, I obviously want to produce a little more and get more opportunity to produce. So, I feel like a lot of that I create on my own, whether that be offensive rebounds or whatever. You look at last year, I averaged 10-11 points but a lot of it came from offensive rebounds and transition and stuff like that, and that’s stuff I create on my own.

“It’s frustrating playing and getting only two shots and the game and the game I did get 11 shots (Brooklyn), I made three. So it’s a little frustrating, but I just have to keep going and be ready for when the opportunity comes. It’s been hard with the inconsistency, but it’s part of the game, and it’s just the situation I’m in right now, and I just have to continue make the most of my situation.’’

Blazers dig hole too big to climb out of in Philly

Blazers dig hole too big to climb out of in Philly

There was no love for the Blazers in Philadelphia on Wednesday. The Blazers missed shot after shot to start the game, failing to score a bucket until the 5:01 mark in the first quarter. At that point it was a 2-16 game, and the Blazers couldn’t recover. On the bright side, just two days removed from a nasty ankle sprain, Damian Lillard didn’t skip a beat scoring 30pts to lead all scorers.

The Blazers are now 1-1 on this five-game road trip, and take on the Nets Friday in Brooklyn.

Final Score: Sixers 101 - Blazers 81

VIDEOS:

 

 

Lillard is tired of getting the **** beat out of him

Morning Minute: Portland couldn't handle The Process

Biggest concern for the Blazers might be the big picture

 

A rough night in Philly but on to Brooklyn!

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

When the Trail Blazers emerged from the halftime locker room last week during a dreadful performance in Sacramento, all but one of the players headed to the court to warm up.

Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s young and promising center, was the only one to avoid the court, instead plopping himself on the bench, his warm-up hoodie snug over his head.

From the court, team captain Damian Lillard took notice, and walked to Nurkic on the bench. It had been a rough half for the Blazers, and an even tougher outing for Nurkic, who at that point had more turnovers than points.

Leaning in, Lillard tousled Nurkic’s hoodie, then took a seat next to him. What would follow is another layer in what is a powerful and unique relationship between two of the team’s pillars.

“I know what it’s like to be young and counted on,’’ Lillard later explained.

The relationship is powerful in how it has impacted Nurkic.

“Damian Lillard,’’ Nurkic said, “is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.’’

And the relationship is unique in that Lillard’s mentorship is coming from an interesting perspective. When Lillard first joined the Blazers, he said he looked to star LaMarcus Aldridge for guidance and support, but was left to figure it out on his own.

It’s why Lillard describes this undertaking with Nurkic as “different” from any of his other endeavors with teammates. This one is deeply personal.

“It’s going to sound crazy,’’ Lillard said, “but it’s almost what I wish I had with LaMarcus.’’

**

The awkward Lillard-Aldridge dynamic has long been rumored and insinuated, but never openly discussed like Lillard did this week.

Lillard says the two never had a problem, and that Aldridge has already heard everything he says in this article. Lillard’s point in bringing up his experience with Aldridge is that it helped shape his approach in how to mentor Nurkic.

“Me and LaMarcus had a good relationship. We never had a single argument. We really got along,’’ Lillard said. “I’m just saying the stuff I want to go out of my way to do for (Nurkic), is the stuff I wish I got from LaMarcus.’’

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Aldridge’s reticence never bothered Lillard; the more he was around Aldridge, the more he understood him as an introvert, who was more comfortable leading by example than through encouragement or inspiration.

But at the same time, Lillard couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like in his early NBA years to have guidance and assurance that he was on the right path.

“I wish it was like more of a brotherhood, more of a line of communication, with me as young player and him as an All-Star,’’ Lillard said.

There was always an unmistakable unease around Aldridge and Lillard, mostly created by Aldridge’s jealousy of the attention and adulation showered upon Lillard by the fanbase and the franchise. Lilllard, who is as perceptive as he is personable, admittedly “walked on eggshells” around Aldridge, acutely aware of the elder’s sensitivity, and in hopes to avoid “stepping on his toes.”

“It wasn’t his personality (to reach out),’’ Lillard said. “But as a younger player, I came into the league wishing … and thinking he was going to take me under his wing, like his lil’ bro.”

One of those times was when Lillard was in his third year. It was the playoffs, in Memphis, and the Trail Blazers guard was struggling mightily against Mike Conley and the vaunted Grizzlies defense.

By that time, still young at 25, he had established himself as a two-time All-Star, a playoff hero, and one of the pillars of the franchise. But in this playoff series, the Grizzlies' pressure, as well as his performance, cause some rumblings inside of himself. Either Aldridge didn't sense it, or he figured Lillard had it covered, but there was no emotional support from Aldridge.

“There were times when I needed it, it just didn’t happen,’’ Lillard said. “It didn’t make me no less of a player. I figured it out. But it would have calmed things in my mind in games.’’

Lillard said in his heart, his confidence never wavered. He believed in himself and he knew he always found ways to succeed, and he figured he would again in that series. Still, he admitted he cast a hopeful eye to Aldridge, looking for assurance, advice, encouragement, an invitation to dinner ... anything. But Aldridge never bit.

“I had confidence in myself, but I wanted (Aldridge) to be like, ‘Man, let’s go eat. You are going to be good. You are going to be an All-Star,’’’ Lillard said. “I wanted him to talk to me like that … but (he didn’t).’’

The Blazers lost that Memphis series, and months later, Aldridge left the Blazers to sign a free agent contract with San Antonio. After Aldridge left, Lillard knew it was his time to lead, and he knew his leadership would be much different than Aldridge’s approach.

So when Nurkic arrived in a trade last February, stinging from his treatment in Denver, and thirsting for affirmation, Lillard saw shades of his younger self.

So he gave Nurkic what that young Lillard wanted. He gave him his attention. His knowledge. His support.

“I just know what it might be like to not have that,’’ Lillard said.

**

That night in Sacramento, when Lillard approached Nurkic at halftime and tousled his head while offering encouragement, didn’t end well for the Blazers or Nurkic. The lowly Kings beat Portland 86-82 while Nurkic scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting.

But the night wasn’t over with the halftime pep talk, or the final buzzer. 

“I talked to (Lillard) the whole way back on the plane,’’ Nurkic said. “The whole flight.’’

Nurkic said they talked about the Kings game. His early season struggles. What the team was going through, and what Nurkic needed to do moving forward. He said their talk was a blend of encouragement and criticism.

It has been that way from the start, Lillard both embracing Nurkic while also establishing a firm line of accountability.

In their first meeting as teammates after the February trade, Lillard in the locker room provided Nurkic with his cell phone number and a team-wide directive.

“The first thing I remember him saying is: ‘We don’t make excuses here, man,’’’ Nurkic said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I need that.’’’

Nurkic came to Portland with a somewhat sullied reputation as a pouter and malcontent with bouts of laziness. Nurkic said, if anything, he was usually quick to make excuses.

“It’s a bad habit, and habits are hard to change,’’ Nurkic said. “Probably the hardest thing to change in life is habits. If you have a bad one, it can stick with you. After he told me that, I really focused on that.’’

After Nurkic took Portland by storm last spring, and helped vault the Blazers into a late run into the playoffs, he has experienced an uneven start to this season. Some games he looks like one of the NBA’s elite centers, and others he looks unpolished and undisciplined.

Through the ups and downs, Lillard has been able to study Nurkic and know the right buttons to push.

Nurkic says he texts Lillard often, and earlier in the season after a rocky opening trip, Lillard could sense through those messages that Nurkic was experiencing some doubt. Lillard put him at ease, telling him he would make sure he was more involved in the offense. He also told him to stop over-thinking the game.

“He reminded me it’s just a game,’’ Nurkic said. "That it's supposed to be fun.''

The next night, Nurkic played freely and was dominant in a win over the Lakers, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. After the game, he credited his resurgence to having fun again, and thanked Lillard and CJ McCollum for helping guide him through his lulls.

It has not been all hugs and pats on the back, though.

When Nurkic was forced to the bench just 1:24 into the game after picking up two fouls at home against Memphis, Lillard spit daggers.

Nurkic chuckled at the memory.

“After I got the two quick fouls, he was (lowers his voice to mimic Lillard) ‘Come on Nurk, man. You have to be smarter than this,’’’ Nurkic said. “He comes at me hard. Which is good.’’

Later, in a home game against Brooklyn, a tiring Nurkic blew a defensive assignment, and Lillard snapped at him.

“He started telling me ‘why this, and well that, and he this …,’’ Lillard remembered. “He started coming with excuses and I told him, ‘I ain’t trying to hear that (expletive). Do what you are supposed to do. We depend on you.’’’

And during Monday’s win at Memphis, Lillard stood in the middle of a third-quarter timeout huddle to demonstratively lecture Nurkic, holding up coach Terry Stotts’ address to the team.

Nurkic says he welcomes that type of feedback because he trusts Lillard and knows he has his – and the team’s – best interests at heart.

“There’s no lying. That’s the best part about him,’’ Nurkic said. “He’s straight and he will tell you. For me, that’s like a dream come true. To have a superstar in the league as a leader, a friend and a teammate – all of those ways – it leads me to be a better person, better teammate and better player.’’

**

The first time Lillard and Nurkic met, it was not friendly.

It was last November, at the Moda Center, when Nurkic was with the Nuggets, and the two had a slight dustup on the court.

The two teams had played the week before in Denver, and after Lillard led a late comeback that included the game-winner, he made a passing judgment on what was then Denver’s foreign tandem of big men, Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.

“These two big dudes in Denver,’’ Lillard remembers thinking, “they might be soft a little bit.’’

But on this night in the Moda Center, Nurkic was fouled by Blazers center Mason Plumlee. As Nurkic went to the free throw line, Lillard went to talk to Plumlee, and his path crossed Nurkic. The Bosnian center nudged Lillard, who squared and pushed Nurkic in the chest.

“He bumped me, and I pushed him, and we said something to each other,’’ Lillard said.

The player he thought was soft left an impression.

 “I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this dude … there’s a little something to him,’’’ Lillard said.

Three months later, Nurkic was walking through the Blazers’ locker room doors for the first time. He locked eyes with Lillard and tapped his wrist, aping Lillard’s signature “Dame Time” move.

“I had read what people said about him, that he had a bad attitude … but when we first got him, he was like a big teddy bear,’’ Lillard said.

Soon, he saw how Nurkic played. It was unselfish and skilled. Then he saw how enthusiastic and positive Nurkic was as a teammate, often the first one off the bench to cheer a teammate.

 “After that first game in Utah, I thought ‘if we can get the most out of this guy, we could be pretty good,’’’ Lillard said.

So he watched him. And counseled him. And he noticed signs that reminded him of how he felt as a 23-year-old player. It sparked memories of the void he felt with Aldridge.

“With Nurk, I know how good he is, how good he could be, I know what he means to the team, so I don’t want to let that opportunity slip,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t want him to feel any less important. I don’t want to be like (sucks teeth) ‘he good enough he will figure it out.’

“I want to help him figure it out and let him know I’m a supporter,’’ Lillard said. “If I want the best for this team, I feel like it’s my job to support him, but also hold him accountable.’’

 Nurkic says he not only sees, and hears, Lillard’s leadership, he feels it.

“I definitely feel it. I definitely feel it. I’ve never had somebody like this, somebody like Dame,’’ Nurkic said. “He is there for me, no matter if I’m good or bad. He is an amazing person, and he will make me better.’’