Evan Turner

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

When the Trail Blazers open their preseason tonight against Phoenix, coach Terry Stotts admitted that his biggest task is not finding indications of who he should place in the starting lineup or even a playing rotation.

It’s keeping stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off the court.

Because backup point guard Shabazz Napier is nursing a left quadriceps injury and will be unable to play, Stotts said the “challenge” of his night will be limiting the minutes of Lillard and McCollum.

“The concern without Shabazz is not running up Dame and CJ’s minutes,’’ Stotts said. “That’s an important thing in preseason.’’

It is unknown how long Napier will be sidelined. He has not practiced since injuring his thigh last Wednesday, but he has been seen doing light running and side-to-side movement.

Stotts said he plans to play everyone who is healthy, but he doesn’t figure anyone will play more than half of the game. Last season in the preseason opener, Evan Turner played the most (26 minutes) while Lillard played 23 minutes and McCollum 22. Napier helped ease the point guard minutes by playing 17 minutes.

Lillard, who averaged 36 minutes in the regular season last year, said limiting his minutes can sometimes be easier said than done.

 “Usually (Stotts) tries to save me from me,’’ Lillard said. “He knows once I go out there and start feeling good in the game, and get into the flow of the game, I will be like, ‘Leave me in. Leave me in.’’’

Perhaps that’s why Stotts noted Monday that “it will be a little bit of a challenge” to limit his prized backcourt on Tuesday night.

Lillard said he doesn’t see it as a problem, pointing out that shooting guard Pat Connaughton knows every position and that rookie point guard Isaiah Briscoe has been handling himself well in camp. Also, Turner could play some spot minutes at point.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pat out there handling it a bit,’’ Lillard said.

Briscoe stands the most to gain. The rookie from Kentucky is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot, along with sharp shooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin. He performed  very well in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists while hitting 6-of-7 shots.

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about Stotts' beginning his quest to find the right fit with lineups.

Willamette Week recaps an appearance Damian Lillard made on OPB.

Neil Olshey made an appearance on Courtside last night:

Here's Olshey on Jusuf Nurkic.

Here's Olshey on the Blazers' vision.

Here's Olshey on the rookies.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman previews the preseason opener.

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

The puzzle that is the 2017-2018 Trail Blazers roster will begin to be sorted out Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix.

Coach Terry Stotts says he has three starters locked in for the October 18 season opener at the Suns – Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center – but the starting forward spots and the rest of the rotation are up for grabs.

“I have a pretty good idea some of the lineups we will try, but I’m not sure what will be the final product,’’ McCollum said. “Coach isn’t set in stone; he’s going to let guys play for minutes, earn minutes, or lose minutes.’’

The small forward competition is between Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu while the power forward starting spot will be between Aminu, Ed Davis, Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Noah Vonleh, who is nursing a shoulder injury, will also be in the equation when he returns in early November.

Both Lillard and McCollum said they are most interested in how the power forward position shakes out, and Stotts said the starting power forward is probably his biggest decision.

“We have a lot of very good players at that position – a lot of them have similar skillsets,’’ Stotts said. “So, seeing which ones complement each other. I like the versatility of those guys and the different combinations, so it’s going to be interesting over the preseason games to see how they play with each other.’’

Stotts said he intends to play everybody on Tuesday, except injured players Shabazz Napier (quad), Vonleh (shoulder) and CJ Wilcox (knee). He said nobody will play more than a half and one of his main concerns is limiting the playing time of Lillard and McCollum, especially without Napier being able to handle point guard duties.

The players say several factors go into what they think should be a starting unit and the second unit.

Harkless, who has started 83 of his 156 games in Portland the past two seasons, said continuity is important. In that regard, the best lineup would probably be Harkless at small forward and Aminu at power forward.

“Any time you have a group that has been together for some time, they can only get better,’’ Harkless said. “You guys watch, (he and Aminu) are able to do so many different things defensively.  We can switch pretty much anything between us two. We both do a really good job communicating with each other so we can help other guys. We pretty much got each other’s back in any situation, and that’s important, especially defensively.’’

Stotts, who ended the 2015-2016 season and began last season with Harkless and Aminu as the starting forwards, said their track record will be noted.

“Playing Mo and Chief together has been good in the past. The last two years that has been a good combination,’’ Stotts said. “So we will take that into account.’’

Stotts has favored the Harkless/Aminu combination in the past because he likes their defensive versatility in being able to switch interchangeably.

However, last season, he eventually went to Vonleh as the starting power forward after Aminu had early season injuries to his calf and back.

“Chief got hurt and that kind of changed the dynamics of the season,’’ Stotts said.

Another factor to consider is Turner, who started to find his footing late in January once he was made the starting small forward. Turner took on the opposing team’s point guard defensively, and started getting into more of an offensive rhythm when he broke his hand at Dallas in February.

Turner says he thinks the collective intelligence of units is important when considering lineups, while also looking at whether a unit has an identifying strength.

“You have to have a sure-fire advantage in one area – whether that’s offense or defense,’’ Turner said. “You need to have something that makes that unit go, or something that makes it unique.’’

McCollum said two factors stand out to him when considering the starting lineup: balance and chemistry.

“And guys who are willing to accept roles,’’ McCollum said. “Once you get past that starge, you can pretty much elect whoever you want in those spots. A lot of times, it’s not the five best  player. Part of maturing and being a man is understanding your role, understanding how you help the team.’’

Stotts said he figures to mix-and-match lineups throughout each game, trying to find the right combinations. Tuesday will be just the start, the first of six before the real season starts.

“There are a lot of different routes we can go,’’ Lillard said.

Tuesday's game: Phoenix at Portland, 7 p.m. (NBCNW).

Breakfast with the Blazers: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

Breakfast with the Blazers: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

EDITOR'S NOTE: Every morning, check in here for Breakfast with the Blazers, which will be your spot to catch up on what happened last night, or look ahead to what is pertinent today with the Blazers.

**

This morning, my "Inside the Blazers Podcast" debuts, which will include an interview with Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier.

I hope you give it a listen because it gives insight into the mental toughness and determination required for an NBA reserve. It takes a true professional to stick to his process and work ethic, even when minutes are not guaranteed. Also, it is an illuminating peek at Napier’s upbringing and morals, which have shaped him into the competitor he is today.

Napier, remember, started the season’s final two games, recording 32 points, six rebounds and five assists against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. He also hailed by teammates as the MVP of a crucial game at Orlando coming out of the All-Star Break, when he led a comeback with 10 points, six assists and seven rebounds while providing critical defense.

Napier will be one of the subplots to follow this preseason, in part because his finish last season and in part because the work he put in this summer – which was enough to lead Neil Olshey to single him out during media day. Those factors raise the question whether he could command more playing time as the team’s backup point guard.

Napier, who is beginning his fourth NBA season and second with the Blazers, knows he is in a tricky situation on the Blazers: Starter Damian Lillard averaged 36 minutes last season and the 12 minutes Lillard rested,  CJ McCollum – or sometimes Evan Turner -- amply filled in.

“I’m stuck in this situation where they play a lot of minutes, and I can quit but that’s not who I am,’’ Napier said. “I understand that at any given time your number can be called – so I’m going to continue work my butt off.’’

Coach Terry Stotts on Wednesday said he still likely considers McCollum the backup point guard, and that he doesn’t know what Napier could do to earn more time.

“Bazz had a good summer, and he had some good runs last year when Dame was out,’’ Stotts said. “The question is defensively – how does that work? But certainly he is going to have an opportunity. I haven’t made a decision one way or the other on the rotation. It will just play itself out.’’

Lillard, who often goes against Napier in practices, said he could foresee the two-time former NCAA champion seeing the court more.

“Last year, I was surprised to see him not play as much,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played more.’’

McCollum, who not only played the ninth most minutes in the NBA last season, but who has also logged the most miles run on the court in the NBA the past two seasons, said he doesn’t feel like he needs a breather.

“I’m ok with whatever, honestly,’’ McCollum said. “However Coach thinks I can help the team, that’s what I will do. I feel like I’m in good enough shape to do whatever is necessary. I’ve led the league in miles the last two years, a lot of it is on offense and how we move on offense – lot of cuts, lot of flair screens – so I will be ready to do whatever.

“But I think Shabazz is very capable of playing backup point guard,’’ McCollum said. “There’s a lot of different lineups we will use this year to where a lot of us will be out there at once and it will be handle by committee, and that includes ET as well.’’

How to handle the point guard minutes is probably not the most pressing among Stotts’ preseason decisions – figuring out the starting forwards figures to take precedence – but how Napier plays will certainly be something worth watching next week when the Blazers open preseason play Tuesday at home against Phoenix and Thursday at home against Toronto.

All Napier wants is a chance.

“I’ve always thought the more you can be on court the better you can be as a player, because that experience is second to nothing else,’’ Napier said.

Here’s to rooting to see what he can do with a chance.

Today's Blazers' Links: 

CSNNW's Dwight Jaynes asks whether Pat Connaughton can step into Allen Crabbe's role?

CSNNW shows that there is a Bad Boys 3 in the making.

CSNNW's Peter Socotch has the video of Evan Turner explaining he will never go vegan

Socotch with more video of Jusuf Nurkic explaining why he is wearing a protective mask at practice.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about a slimmer Jusuf Nurkic.

The Oregonian reports that former Blazers' guard Bonzi Wells recently suffered a heart attack

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian writes that it's important for the Blazers to get off to a good start.

CJ McCollum to play for Team World in NBA Africa Game 2017

CJ McCollum to play for Team World in NBA Africa Game 2017

The NBA has announced the full rosters for NBA Africa Game 2017, an NBA exhibition game that will see Team Africa take on Team World in support of UNICEF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and SOS Children’s Villages South Africa.

NBA fans in the Northwest may notice a familiar name on the Team World roster: Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum. McCollum will be the third current Trail Blazers player to play in the NBA Africa Game, joining Al-Farouq Aminu (Team Africa) and Evan Turner (Team World) who both played in NBA Africa Game 2015.

Former Trail Blazers Nic Batum (Charlotte Hornets) and Festus Ezeli (then with the Golden State Warriors), also played for Team Africa in NBA Africa Game 2015.

NBA Africa Game 2015, played on Aug.1, 2015, was the very first NBA game played on the continent and drew a sold-out crowd. According to the press release from the NBA “there have more than 70 current or former NBA players from Africa or with ties to the continent, including NBA Africa Ambassador Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Dikembe Mutombo, both of whom played in NBA Africa Game 2015.”

Luol Deng and Thabo Sefolosha will captain Team Africa, a roster comprised of players born in Africa, as well as second-generation African players. The rest of the world will come together with McCollum to form the roster of Team World, captained by Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki and the United States’ Kemba Walker.

NBA Game 2017 will take place on Saturday, Aug. 5 at the Ticketpro Dome in Johannesburg, South Africa. For more information visit NBA.com/Africa 

The full rosters are as follows:

Team World:

CJ McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers; U.S.)

Dirk Nowitzki C*  (Mavericks; Germany)

Kemba Walker C*  (Charlotte Hornets; U.S.)

Leandro Barbosa (most recently with the Phoenix Suns; Brazil)

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics; U.S.)

Wilson Chandler (Nuggets; U.S.)

DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans Pelicans; U.S.)

Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons; U.S.)

Courtney Lee (New York Knicks; U.S.)

Kyle Lowry (Raptors; U.S.)

Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks; Latvia).

 

Team Africa:

Luol Deng C* (Los Angeles Lakers; South Sudan)

Thabo Sefolosha C* (Utah Jazz, Switzerland; parent from South Africa)

Bismack Biyombo (Orlando Magic; Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Clint Capela (Houston Rockets; Switzerland; parents from Angola and Congo)

Gorgui Dieng (Minnesota Timberwolves; Senegal; BWB Africa 2009) Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers; Cameroon; BWB Africa 2011)

Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors; Congo)

Luc Mbah a Moute (most recently with the LA Clippers; Cameroon; BWB Africa 2003)

Salah Mejri (Dallas Mavericks; Tunisia)

Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets; Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers; U.S.; parent from Nigeria)

Dennis Schroder (Hawks; Germany; parent from The Gambia)

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With one eye on the upcoming playoffs, the Trail Blazers on Monday rested their stars, but that didn’t stop Portland's late-season momentum.

Noah Vonleh picked up a loose ball and scored the game-winning layin before the buzzer on a busted play, leading the Blazers to a stunning 99-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, giving the Blazers a chance at securing a winning season with a victory in their season finale on Wednesday. 

Behind a Damian Lillard-like performance from point guard Shabazz Napier, the shooting of center Meyers Leonard and the passing of Evan Turner, the Blazers beat one of the West's top teams without stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Napier had a career-high 32 points, Vonleh 12 points and 11 rebounds and Pat Connaughton had a career-high 15 for Portland (41-40) while Leonard hit his first five shots on the way to 13 points. Turner had 16 points and seven assists. 

The Blazers' final shot came after the Spurs threw away an inbounds pass with 6.0 seconds left. 

The Blazers rested stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as starter Maurice Harkless and had Allen Crabbe (foot), Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Ed Davis (shoulder) sidelined with injuries.

It was the season’s penultimate game and the first since the Blazers clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West on Sunday.

“It was the time and the opportunity to do it,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said before the game of resting players.

Stotts started Napier at point guard, Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Vonleh at power forward and Leonard at center while the Spurs started their regulars -  Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewyane Dedmon. 

The biggest benefit of the night was supposed to be resting Lillard and McCollum. Lillard entered the game averaging 35.9 minutes (9th in the NBA) while McCollum averages 34.9 minutes (16th). But now, the victory has given the Blazers the chance to secure a winning season with a victory over New Orleans on Wednesday. 

Stotts and the team’s health and performance staff met with the starting backcourt in the morning to tell them they would like each to sit in order to rest for the upcoming playoffs.

Lillard said he intended on playing in the Blazers regular-season finale on Wednesday against New Orleans.

McCollum, who had played in every game leading up to Monday, said it wasn’t his choice to sit, but he said he understood after listening to the reasoning.

“It’s a chance to refresh, recharge,’’ McCollum said. “It works for the Spurs, so we might as well follow their blueprint.’’

McCollum and Lillard both engaged in a hard workout before the game, going against each other in pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scenarios, while also taking part in extended three-point shooting drills.

Lillard, who scored a franchise-record 59 points on Saturday, said he planned on playing Monday against the Spurs.

 “I was prepared for an encore,” Lillard said.

Lillard has always been a proponent of playing whenever he is able, but he knew what was coming when he was called in for a meeting and told to take a seat.

“They knew they would have to sit me down,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “But after hearing them, I know they are coming from a good place.’’

Without the big names, the Blazers got a look at some of their youngsters, and for the most part, they played well against the Spurs’ accomplished lineups.

The Blazers led 31-28 after the first quarter, thanks largely to Meyers Leonard’s 5-of-5 shooting, and 47-43 at halftime after both teams survived a dreadful second quarter. Both the Spurs and Blazers started the second quarter by missing their first 10 shots. 

The Spurs (61-20) have the West’s No. 2 seed locked up and have been resting players during April, but after their last game, coach Gregg Popovich was unhappy with their physicality and effort and declared that no players would rest for the remainder of the season.

Popovich played his starters for the first three quarters, which is how long they needed to establish a lead. Portland led from the early moments of the game until midway through the third, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of his 18 points and Tony Parker had six of his 12 points.

Next up:  New Orleans at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (KGW/ESPN)

Podcast:

Trail Blazers gain ground on Denver after easy win over Knicks

Trail Blazers gain ground on Denver after easy win over Knicks

It wasn’t as easy as they would have liked, but the Trail Blazers took care of business Thursday against short-handed New York with a 110-95 win in which they never trailed.

Playing a woeful Knicks team that was without injured starters Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, the Blazers bolted to a 15-point lead in the first quarter and a 21-point lead at halftime. The Knicks got as close as 98-88 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter before Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shut the door and locked Portland’s ninth win in the last 12 games.

The Blazers (33-38), who moved within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 11 games remaining. Denver (34-37) next plays at Indiana (36-35) on Friday.

Lillard had 30 points, the eighth consecutive game he has scored 25 or more, tying him for the third longest streak in franchise history with Geoff Petrie (1970-1971) and McCollum (this season). He scored seven points in a two minute span to lead a 10-0 Blazers run after New York cut the lead to 10. It was the ninth time in 15 games since the All-Star Break that Lillard has scored 30 or more points. 

McCollum added 20 points, Jusuf Nurkic 16 points and 10 rebounds and Noah Vonleh grabbed 11 rebounds.

"I thought we played a really good first half on both ends of the floor,'' Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I was disappointed with the fact that New York cut it to 10. Some of that is obviously New York playing better ... but they outworked us. We finished it off, so that was a positive.''

The Knicks (27-45) started three rookies – Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Ron Baker – and they were overmatched in every facet of the game as they trailed by as many as 23 in the second half.

If Nurkic wasn’t powering over Hernangomez for dunks, Lillard was blowing past Baker for layins. New York’s lone remaining star – Kristaps Porzingis –finished with 18 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-21 shooting.

The rout started early as Portland jumped to a 37-23 lead in the first quarter behind 15 points from Lillard and some dreadful play by the Knicks. New York shot 28.6 percent in the quarter while Portland made 14-of-23 shots (60.9 percent). Lillard scored 15 in the first quarter.

"I thought the way Damian got off in the first quarter really set the tone for the rest of the first half,'' Stotts said.

The Knicks, who beat Portland earlier in the season, lost for the fourth consecutive time and seventh time in eight games.

Evan Turner, who tried his third protective apparatus on his right hand, had his best game since returning from his broken third metacarpal, recording 10 points and six rebounds on 3-of-5 shooting.

"Evan looked much more comfortable out there,'' Stotts said.

Next up: Minnesota at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (CSN).

Podcast:

Third time a charm? Evan Turner fitted with another apparatus to protect right hand

Third time a charm? Evan Turner fitted with another apparatus to protect right hand

Evan Turner on Wednesday tried out his third apparatus to protect his right hand, and the Trail Blazers guard said he is encouraged that the new approach will allow him to move past the frustration of playing with a protective device on his ball-dominant hand.

Turner, who is 4-for-21 in the three games since returning from a broken hand, has balked at the clumsiness and limitations the previous protective devices have caused, at one point ripping off his glove during the second quarter of Tuesday’s loss against Milwaukee.

“We had a different pad, where it doesn’t cover the palm,’’ Turner said Wednesday after trying out the new apparatus during a 45-minute workout in practice. “I played some pick up and I thought I shot it well. The three-point shot is going to look how it is going to look, but the mid-range was world class.’’

Turner said the latest protection is not as bulky and therefore not as restrictive as the previous two, which limited his grip.

He said during the Milwaukee game a couple of his passes were late, or behind teammates, because the padding prevented him from getting the ball out of his hands when he wanted.

“The palm was free today and I felt fine, and got pretty good rhythm offensively,’’ Turner said.

Turner was playing his best basketball of the season when he broke the third metacarpal on his right hand after he got tangled with Harrison Barnes during the third quarter of a Feb. 7 game at Dallas. He had started the previous nine games, during which the Blazers went 5-4, and was largely responsible for an uptick in the Blazers’ defense while he took on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s top backcourt player.

Since returning, he has come off the bench and has struggled, looking out of rhythm and generally rusty. He admitted part of his struggles have been mentally because he doesn’t want to play with anything on his hand.

“(Expletive) is annoying,’’ Turner said. “I don’t really get upset but it’s gotten to the point where I’m getting ready to throw a hissy fit. Last night was really tough not to do that. It’s just irritating – or was irritating – so I’m glad we were able to speed up the process and do what needs to be done.’’

Turner said he has been told by the Blazers' that the bone is 70 percent healed and he might have to wear protection on his hand for up to 10 weeks, which he can't imagine.

"Hopefully we can stop worrying about it relatively soon and call it a day,'' Turner said.

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (KGW).

Blazers lose heartbreaker to Bucks, fail to move into eighth

Blazers lose heartbreaker to Bucks, fail to move into eighth

The Trail Blazers had a chance to move into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot Tuesday, but a young and athletic Milwaukee Bucks team stole their thunder with a 93-90 win at the Moda Center.

The Blazers didn’t score for the final 3:12 of the game, and still had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Damian Lillard missed a fade away three-pointer at the buzzer.

The game featured two of the NBA’s hottest teams, with each having won eight of their past 10, and each fighting for their playoff lives. Milwaukee (35-35) moved past Miami and into seventh in the Eastern Conference while Portland (32-38) fell one game behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 12 games remaining.

Lillard finished with 31 points and seven assists and CJ McCollum added 21 points. Jusuf Nurkic had 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, but he also had four turnovers, including a crucial miscue with 1:28 when he lost the ball trying to post up and the Blazers trailing 93-90.

The Blazers are entering the homestretch of their season, with 10 of their final 13 at home, and coach Terry Stotts after last game said he wanted the Blazers to maintain the “edge” they played with while winning four of five on their recent trip.

Early on, the Blazers had that edge, building leads of 10-2 and 17-8, but an avalanche of turnovers and missed free throws enabled Milwaukee to stay in the game and eventually build leads as large as 15.

Portland stormed back in the third quarter behind the play of Lillard and a spark from Noah Vonleh, drawing within 67-63 entering the fourth.

The Blazers actually regained the lead in the fourth, going ahead 90-87 after a Lillard layin, but it would be the last time they scored. Milwaukee scored what turned out to be the game-winning basket with 2:16 left when Khris Middleton scored over Allen Crabbe inside. They added another basket with 1:39 left when John Henson scored on a rebound basket.

Middleton, who didn’t play this season until Feb. 8 because of a hamstring injury, had 26 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo added 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists. He scored 15 in the second quarter.  

Milwaukee took a 48-35 halftime lead after the Blazers’ played a second quarter that was among their worst of the month. Portland scored 14 points and made just 4-of-18 shots while still being plagued by the same sloppy turnovers that hurt them in the first quarter.

Notes: Lillard missed his first two free throws, ending stretch of 48 consecutive makes, which was the third longest streak in franchise history.

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. (KGW)

Podcast:

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

ATLANTA – The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season and even before Portland demolished Atlanta 113-97 on Saturday, Damian Lillard knew why the team is surging.

“We understand this is when we have to make our push,’’ Lillard said at the team’s practice on Friday. “This is our last opportunity to get to the postseason, that’s why you are seeing the focus we have. This is it. We want to play in the postseason, so this is what it is: You either do it, or you don’t.’’

Behind Lillard, the Blazers lately have the look of a team that is playoff bound.

Lillard continued his torrid post-All-Star pace with 27 points, which included 13 in  the game-deciding first quarter, when the Blazers blitzed Atlanta by making their first seven shots while jumping to a 17-3 lead.

The lead ballooned to as many as 23 in the first quarter before the Blazers settled for a 40-18 advantage, and from there on out the closest Atlanta got was 11 early in the fourth.

Lillard is averaging 29.8 points since the All-Star Break, second highest in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (35.1), and his play has spearheaded the Blazers’ 8-4 record since the break, which has included wins in seven of the last nine.

That surge has separated Portland (31-37) from Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans as Denver’s prime contender for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With 14 games left, the Blazers are 1.5 games behind Denver after the Nuggets lost 109-105 at home to Houston.    

Heading into the five-game trip finale on Sunday in Miami, Lillard said the Blazers have to adopt an unfamiliar trait:

"I think we need to not be happy about what we've accomplish in the first four games,'' Lillard said. "I think our mentality needs to be greedy.''

The late-season rally has been more than just Lillard, as evidenced by Saturday’s performance, which bordered on spectacular for long stretches and included all five starters scoring in double figures.

CJ McCollum had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists and Jusuf Nurkic continued to be a revelation in Portland, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five blocks. His inside presence on defense and his exuberance and craftiness on the court has been one of the biggest subplots to the resurgence.         

Meanwhile, Noah Vonleh continued his solid March with his first double-double of the season (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Allen Crabbe continued to become more of a factor, on Saturday finishing with four three-pointers and 16 points,.

Maurice Harkless made a case to keep his starting small forward position despite Saturday’s return of Evan Turner from a broken hand. Harkless finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists while Turner played 20 minutes in his return and finished with two points, eight rebounds and three assists.

Atlanta (37-32) lost its third straight and played without All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who was a late scratch because of left knee tightness. Ersan Ilyasova started in his place and led the Hawks with 23 points and Dwight Howard had 14 points and 10 rebounds, the 11th consecutive game he has had at least 10 rebounds. 

The Blazers jumped to a stunning start, which not surprisingly was led by Lillard. The Blazers made their first seven shots to take a 17-3 lead, and Lillard scored nine of the team’s first 11 points, which included a four-point play.

Portland led by as many as 23 in the first quarter at 35-12 and led 40-18 heading into the second quarter.

Notes: Portland ended a five-game losing streak to Atlanta … Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder had a miserable game, finishing 2-for-14 from the field and finishing with eight points and seven assists.

Next up: Blazers at Miami, 3 p.m. Sunday (CSN)

Podcast:

Evan Turner set to return to Trail Blazers in Atlanta, will likely come off the bench

Evan Turner set to return to Trail Blazers in Atlanta, will likely come off the bench

ATLANTA – Evan Turner, one of the Trail Blazers’ top play-makers and perimeter defenders, is ready to make his return to the team, and coach Terry Stotts said the guard will “likely” play Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.

Turner, who broke the third metacarpal in his right hand on Feb. 7 at Dallas, missed 14 games, during which the Blazers went 7-7. He said if he doesn't make his return against the Hawks, he doesn't know why he flew across the country on Thursday. After practice, the team officially listed him as "probable" to play against the Hawks.

"If they didn’t clear me, I would have stayed my ass in Portland,'' Turner said. "I would have stayed at home or gone to Miami early if I wasn’t cleared. But I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore to tell you the truth.''

For the past week, Turner has felt like his broken hand has been healed enough for him to play, but team doctors held him out of workouts to ensure the bone healed properly. 

At the time of his injury, he was a starter and often charged with guarding the opponent’s point guard. Initially at least, it appears he will come off the bench, and initially it appears he will wear a protective brace and tape his ring and middle fingers together.

“I’m done talking about the injury and being worried about it, because it’s already over with as far as I’m concerned,’’ Turner said.

Turner rejoined the team in Atlanta on Thursday then took part in his first workout with the team at a light Friday practice at Philips Arena. He mostly played one-on-one in the practice, but said he has been running and keeping in shape throughout his rehabilitation. 

He said the brace and the taping of his fingers hinders his grip of the ball, particularly when he dribbles. He said he feels like the bulkiness of the brace could get in the way when he dribbles because the ball could hit the contraption and cause it to spin.

However, Turner said he is not convinced he will wear the brace during Saturday’s game.

“I don’t have to listen after this (game) … we will see after tomorrow if I’m going to listen (to team doctors) or not, because you might not see this (expletive) again,’’ Turner said.

Turner is averaging 9.7 points, 3.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 26 minutes a game. Captain Damian Lillard said he envisions Turner making a seamless return.

“At the beginning of the year it took him some time for him to figure out how to impact the team, but once you know, you know,’’ Lillard said. “At this point I think he knows what he is to our team and what his role is … I don’t think we will have to re-adjust.’’

Up next: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)