Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

OKLAHOMA CITY – Good news greeted Damian Lillard when he awoke on Tuesday morning: His injured right calf felt markedly better.

“It felt better today than the first game that I came back,’’ Lillard said, noting the Jan. 2 game at Cleveland, when he returned from a right hamstring injury.

It was during that Cleveland game that Lillard felt a twinge in his right calf, which was later iagnosed as a strain. He played one more game – Jan. 5 against Atlanta – but unexpectedly sat out Sunday’s  game against San Antonio, then again is being held out Tuesday in Oklahoma City.

Lillard said he still considers himself “day-to-day” and wouldn’t speculate on his availability for the Blazers’ next game, Wednesday in Houston.

“I mean, I’m not going to say much about it because I don’t know,’’ he said. “I think it’s day by day. I felt really good today. I did a workout this morning, worked out (pregame) again, did some conditioning, and felt good.’’

On Friday, the usually optimistic Lillard was dejected and short in describing his health. He had a dramatically different outlook on Tuesday after going through his extensive pregame workout.

“It’s weird, usually when I get the most frustrated or discouraging coming back off an injury, that’s usually when (the pain) quits,’’ Lillard said. “When I had plantar fasciitis (two seasons ago), they cleared me to practice after I missed like five games, and I tried to run up the court, and I couldn’t do it.

“So the next two days, I was like ‘Damn.’ And I was pouting,’’ Lillard said. “Then a couple days later, it was right. That’s kind of how this felt … a couple days went by and I’m feeling like, damn, then I woke up today feeling better.’’

Shabazz Napier will continue to start in Lillard’s place. While filling in for Lillard, Napier is averaging 18.2 points, 5.4 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from 3-point range.

Lillard said Napier’s play has helped him not rush back to the court, but he admitted Tuesday that sitting out Tuesday’s game against the Thunder was killing him. The Blazers (21-18) and Thunder (22-18) are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.

“I live for this type of stuff. These matchups,’’ Lillard said. “It’s early but it’s a big game. Division game. We win this game, we are in 5th place and 2-0 against them.’’

Lillard this season is eighth in the NBA in scoring at 24.9 points and is averaging 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 33 games. 

Health issues to once again sideline Blazers radio announcer Brian Wheeler

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Health issues to once again sideline Blazers radio announcer Brian Wheeler

For the second time this season health issues will force Trail Blazers’ radio play-by-play voice Brian Wheeler to the sideline.

Wheeler continues to struggle with health issues related to scrotal lymphedema, a condition that forced him to miss the first 12 games of the season, as well as four games during the 2013 season.

Our Jason Quick learned that Wheeler will miss Portland's upcoming four game road trip, and could sit out longer road trips in the future.

Wheeler once had a string of 1,359 consecutive broadcasts. A string that came to an end when he missed those four games in 2003.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and stay tuned to NBCS Northwest for the latest updates.

Dame who? Blazers take down Spurs anyways

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Dame who? Blazers take down Spurs anyways

Even without Damian Lillard in the lineup, who was a late scratch, the Trail Blazers battled all night and eventually took down the San Antonio Spurs for the win thanks to a CJ McCollum runner in the lane with 5.9 seconds left in the game. The Spurs had a chance to win it but a LaMarcus Aldridge mid-range jumper was a brick at the buzzer (how fitting!). 

Box Score: Portland 111, San Antonio 110

Quick Hits:

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

A Trail Blazers team unable to gain traction this season while playing below their own expectations has found something to fight for: their coach.

Amid chatter that Terry Stotts is on the coaching hot seat and in jeopardy of losing his job, several Trail Blazers players said their coach not only has the team’s attention and respect, but has become a rallying point for the players.

“We all know what’s going on,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “The guys on the team, we read about it, and I know Coach does … that ‘Hot Seat’ stuff and things like that. Everybody sees it, and I know while I’m here, (along with) a bunch of the rest of the guys in the locker room, we are going to fight for Coach. Every night. There is no quit in us. He’s our leader.’’

The Blazers (20-18) are seventh in the Western Conference, but have a losing record at home (9-10), and have scuffled for much of the season with inconsistent, disjointed play that several times has led disgruntled Moda Center crowds to leave games early, and in exodus.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more consistent Nurkic]

Stotts, who is under contract through next season, has become a lightening rod for fan discontent as the team has struggled offensively and at times looked unmotivated as it dropped games to bottom-tier teams like Atlanta, Brooklyn and Sacramento.

In November, after a loss to the Kings, team captain Damian Lillard took to social media to defend an Instagram post criticizing Stotts, noting that it wasn’t Stotts who was missing late-game free throws, making crucial turnovers, or forgetting plays.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest - $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

On Friday, after the Blazers’ victory over the Hawks, Lillard said the players all hear criticism of Stotts, and just like in November, he says it is unwarranted. The players, he says, are 100 percent behind Stotts.

“And I think it’s unanimous for a reason,’’ Lillard said. “Like I always say: we play for a great person, and whatever struggles that we have, it’s not his fault. I will tell you that: it’s not his fault.’’

The support from the locker room is not a surprise. In his sixth season in Portland, Stotts has always been well liked by players for his communication skills and his philosophy of teaching through positive reinforcement rather than pointed criticism. His style of play also empowers players to make their own decisions and play with freedom.

Those traits have painted Stotts as a “players’ coach,” a label that can often be interpreted as soft, or unwilling to discipline, which could be a reason why the players want to keep him around.

Lillard tensed up when offered that reasoning.

“I don’t work well with soft people,’’ Lillard said. “So, if he was soft , I would be like, he soft. I would tell you, he soft. I mean, he will call guys out … and he will … he does his job. He’s not a guy trying to be a hard ass, but when he needs to harden up he will harden up.’’

Case in point: A recent practice, when Stotts said three words that are seldom uttered in an NBA gym.

**

During a December practice in Portland, when the Blazers were in the midst of a six-game home losing streak that included several blowouts, the players heard what is largely an unspoken phrase in the NBA.

“On the line.’’

The stern command was from Stotts, and it was prompted after yet another mishap during the practice. The order was for the players to toe the baseline for a running drill – a common punishment tactic for high school and college coaches – but virtually taboo at the professional level.

“You don’t do that in the NBA,’’ Lillard said.

If there was a fracture in the ranks, making an NBA team run would surely reveal it.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need CJ to elevate his play to All-Star level]

As the players squeezed between each other along the baseline, Stotts barked another command. They had to run the length of the court, and back, in less than 10 seconds.

“I’ve played with players who would have looked at him and been like (sucks teeth) ‘Man, this dude trippin’ … whatever,’’ Lillard said. “And they would have missed (the 10 second cutoff) on purpose.’’

Without a word uttered, each Blazer toed the line and took off.

“Everybody made it,’’ Lillard said. “Down and back. Ten seconds. Sprinted hard. To me, that is a sign of respect.’’

It was vintage Stotts: pointed, yet not abusive or disrespectful.

“In an NBA sense, most coaches don’t do that,’’ Davis said. “But the point wasn’t that we have to run, the point was him making a statement that ‘You (expletive) up, let’s go.’ It was him saying ‘I’m going to grab your attention … without having to yell.’ ’’

Stotts, who earlier this week declined an invitation to talk about coaching this season amid growing criticism, did say that a common misconception is that he is easy on the players. He pointed to the film session last week after the Blazers lost at Atlanta, the team with the NBA’s worst record,.

“It wasn’t pretty,’’ Stotts said of the film session.

The players agreed, noting that Stotts this season has become more direct and more forceful in calling out mistakes during film sessions.

“He’s turned up the dial,’’ Meyers Leonard said. “And to be honest, I like it.’’

**

A telltale sign of a coach in trouble is when players stop listening, stop responding and stop playing for a coach.

It has happened in Portland, when the 2011-2012 Blazers rebelled against coach Nate McMillan and what they felt was an outdated offense, and it happened to Mike Dunleavy in 2000-2001 when he could no longer reach or control Rasheed Wallace.

This season, the Blazers players say Stotts still has their full attention, and full respect, and that he has not lost the locker room.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more aggressive Evan Turner]

“I see everybody in this locker room,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We go to dinner. Some come to the house. I see them on the plane. We are around each other more than we are around our families. If he has lost the locker room, I would know. But we believe in him.’’

During the final months of McMillan’s tenure, the locker room became toxic. Players like Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby could be seen huddling and whispering after games, a scene Davis said can become common when a coach has lost a team.

“Usually when a coach is starting to lose the locker room you have guys who are like, ‘Ah, coach doesn’t know what he is doing.’ We don’t have that right now,’’ Davis said. “Obviously we have guys who are going to be upset if they aren’t playing; I’m upset if I only play 12 minutes. But we don’t have a cancer or bad energy. We are in this together. And it starts with Coach and it starts with Dame.’’

Lillard in 2015 said as long as he is in Portland, he wants Stotts to be his coach. On Friday, he said one of the main reasons he chose to re-sign with Portland was because of Stotts.

 “How he is as a coach, and how he is as a person, is what I want to play for,’’ Lillard said. “When I signed up to be here and go through the rebuild and to move forward, he was a huge part of that. It’s because of our relationship and what I think of him and what I know of him to be to a team.’’

**

As the Trail Blazers near the season’s midpoint, several questions abound:

Why is the offense, ranked 25th out of 30 teams, so bad?

Why can’t a roster with 13 returning players, including all five starters, seem to gel?

Is the roster adequately constructed? Or are there too many bigs and not enough shooters?

And what happened to the fun, fluid Blazers who used to outwork opponents on a nightly basis?

The players say they only have one answer to the many questions: The problem is not Stotts.

“Everybody wants everything to happen right away,’’ McCollum said. “But it takes time. It takes time.’’

The question is how much time is owner Paul Allen willing to give? With the NBA’s sixth highest payroll, and a group that has largely been together for three seasons, this was supposed to be a season of progress.

The Blazers have improved in two key areas – defense and their record on the road – but have dramatically slipped in two areas that are usually a hallmark of Stotts and Portland teams – offense and homecourt advantage.

Along the way, there has been key injuries to Lillard (five missed games), Al-Farouq Aminu (13 games), and Jusuf Nurkic (three games) – and subpar play from much of the roster, which has prompted Stotts to use nine different starting lineups and several iterations of a playing rotation. No starting lineup has played more than eight games together, and only within the past 10 days has Stotts settled on a nine-man playing rotation.

Lillard said he has a relationship with Allen, but the owner has never asked him his thoughts on Stotts or personnel. Lillard also has an open relationship with Neil Olshey, the architect of this roster, that involves input and conversations about the team.

If Olshey approached Lillard and indicated the team was making a coaching change?

“I would want to know why,’’ Lillard said. “Because I honestly don’t feel like he is the issue. As players we have to do things a lot better. I honestly feel like he is one of the better coaches in the league as far as being an offensive coach, but also in giving players an opportunity, and connecting with the players, too. And then we have a great coaching staff. That is not the issue.’’

The issue is whether the team can turn it around. The next five games are against teams with winning records, four of them on the road.

“There’s a sense of urgency because we should be better, but we are not,’’ McCollum said. “That’s the reality of where we are. We have to build on it, win games at home and … I think it’s coming.’’

So they will forge ahead, pointed toward improvement, aiming for the playoffs. And playing, in part, for their coach.

“That’s our guy,’’ Davis said.

Trail Blazers flip the script on Hawks for Moda Center win

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Trail Blazers flip the script on Hawks for Moda Center win

Portland got its revenge Friday, beating the Atlanta Hawks, 110-89. The Hawks upset the Blazers just a few games ago, and the Blazers were not willing to let it happen again. Portland led by as many as 14 early, before the Hawks clawed back to make it a one score game. In last week's loss Portland was done in by a huge second half from the Hawks. This time arund it was a big second half from the Blazers that delivered the knockout blow.  Portland started to pull away in the third quarter, and a 9-0 run to start the fourth quarter blew the doors open. Seven different Blazers scored in double figures, led by the 20-point night from CJ McCollum, and that was all she wrote 

Final Score: Blazer 110 – Hawks 89

Next up: The Blazers play host to the Spurs on Sunday. Coverage begins at 5:00pm on NBC Sports Northwest and on the NBC Sports App.

Blazers upset bid unravels in the fourth quarter

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Blazers upset bid unravels in the fourth quarter

The Blazers held tough through three quarters with the defending Eastern Conference champion, but it all unraveled in the fourth. The score was tied 91-91 with 11:22 remaining before the Cavs went on a 19-3 run to blow the doors open. Coach Stotts waved the white flag, subbing in the end of his bench with 5:49 remaining and the Blazers looking at an 18-point deficit. The return of Damian Lillard wasn't enough to grab a victory, but the Blazers still played one of their better games of the season (if only for three quarters). 

Final Score: Cavaliers 127 – Blazers 110

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

(UPDATED): Isaiah Thomas will play vs. Blazers, but Kevin Love is ill

UPDATED WITH CLEVELAND ILLNESS: At first glance, the NBA schedule has dealt the Trail Blazers a tough hand Tuesday night.

After an overtime win in Chicago Monday, Portland travels to Cleveland for a game tonight vs. the Cavaliers -- a back-to-back contest vs. one of the league's very best teams. But sometimes, the first glance doesn't tell the whole story.

Cleveland is facing a back-to-back, too -- and the backstory there is worth examining.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest – $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

The Cavaliers' back-to-back features a trip to Boston on Wednesday night to play the Celtics -- a big rivalry game made even more heated by another matchup between the Celts' Kyrie Irving and his former team. The Trail Blazers' best hope would be that Cleveland is looking past this home game against Portland to that contest against the Celtics. The Cavaliers are also on a three-game losing streak, although those were road games and the Cavs have won 12 straight home contests.

Tuesday also will mark the season debut of Boston guard Isaiah Thomas, who has been sidelined with a hip injury. Is that good or bad for Portland? Thomas is expected to be on a strict minutes restriction against the Trail Blazers and will not play Wednesday at Boston against his former team. Often, the first game back after a prolonged injury absence can be a little rough, which would be another bonus for Portland.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are expected to welcome Damian Lillard back to the lineup after a five-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

It's worth noting that last season at Cleveland, former Lake Oswego High School star Kevin Love was impossible for Portland to control. Love scored 34 points and made eight three-point field goals in the first quarter, the most points a player has ever scored in the opening quarter of an NBA game. Love is enjoying an outstanding season and has scored at least 20 points and hit at least three three-pointers in six consecutive games.

UPDATE: The bad news for Cleveland is that Love missed shootaround this morning and word is that he's suffering from food poisoning that has caused him to lose 10 pounds in two days. LeBron James is also suffering from a cold.

Coverage starts on NBC Sports Northwest at 3 o'clock with Rip City Live.

 

Blazers bounce back in Chicago

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Blazers bounce back in Chicago

It was -2 in Chicago on Monday night, but the Blazers caught fire inside United Center. Portland saw a 10-point lead vanish early in the game, but clawed back late. The Blazers couldn’t be stopped in the final minutes of regulation, and came up big on the defensive end to force overtime. In OT, it was all Portland. CJ McCollum hit two free throws to make it a 4-point game with just seconds to play, and helped the Blazers leave the Windy City with a win.

Final Score: Blazers 124 – Bulls 120

Next Up: The Blazers wrap up this raod trip when they play the second of a back-to-back, taking on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Coverage begins at 3:00PM on NBC Sports Northwest and on the NBC Sports App.

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

Nurkic is in the lead car of the Trail Blazers' rollercoaster ride

The rollercoaster season of the Trail Blazers hit another big skid Saturday night with a nasty loss at Atlanta to the hapless Hawks.

The only thing you can regularly expect from this team is inconsistency. I realize a lot of people see this season as simply the byproduct of a .500 team. You know, the whole "this is who they are" theory. By nature, a mediocre team is inconsistent. That may well be true but I'm still not ready to give up on my opinion that this is a better team than that.

Look, even a .500 team ought to be able to beat the worst team in the league. Or at least not get blown out by the worst team in the league.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest – $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Jason Quick, on "Talkin' Ball" following Saturday night's embarrassing loss, searched for words to characterize the team he covers and came up with "nonchalant." And I think that's a very apt description. There is a casual acceptance of what's been going on. Nobody seems willing to get angry or openly irritated about playing poorly against some of the worst teams in the NBA. I don't know if that's because most of this roster is being very well paid or if it's just a natural evolution born of keeping the same group together for too long.

I don't get it. I'd like to see a little more of the passion we saw from the Trail Blazers in the fourth quarter of last week's win over Philadelphia.

At the center (literally) of the Blazers' nonchalance is Jusuf Nurkic. This is a player with restricted free agency coming his way this summer. Most players in that situation would be playing their tails off in an effort to try to show prospective new teams they have great value. But it's entirely possible Nurkic is costing himself millions with his own personal brand of nonchalance. Night after night he's not finishing at the rim -- casually blowing open shots in the basket area and turning easy shots into difficult ones. He's shooting just .451 from the field this season and .433 in his last 10 games -- awful for a player who spends a lot of time in the paint.

There are 60 men who have played center in the NBA this season with a higher overall shooting percentage than Nurkic.

But he carries himself on the floor with a certain arrogance, as if he's one of the best in the business. He admits he plays better when he's "mad," but usually seems too cool to get angry. I believe his erratic play has been a big reason for his team's up-and-down performances. From night to night, even quarter to quarter, he's not been reliable.

I would imagine the coaching staff is running out of buttons to push in an attempt to motivate him. I'm pretty sure, too, his teammates are frustrated with him. They came into this season believing he was going to be the long-sought piece they've been missing the last few seasons who could propel them upward in the standings. The 20-game Nurk we saw last season was certainly that player. But for most of the 32 games we've seen him this season, he's not the same player.

I realize he is just 23 years old. But at any age there has to be an understanding of the rewards of playing hard. He needs to be building a foundation for a long career. And with free agency looming, he needs to be making a strong statement that he's a player of great value.

At this time, that's not happening -- and the Trail Blazers are suffering the consequences.

 

Blazers easy prey for the Hawks

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Blazers easy prey for the Hawks

The worst team in the NBA added a rare win to their record on Saturday, and it came at the expense of the Lillard-less Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard was a late scratch due to a lingering right hamstring injury, missing his fourth consecutive game.

Even without Lillard, the Blazers were favored to win this game. That was until the Hawks decided to catch fire. Atlanta shot 44.9% from the field including a scorching 14-30 (49.7%) from deep.

The Hawks made sure the Blazers left Atlanta with more questions than answers.

Final Score: Hawks 104 – Blazers 89