Jason Quick

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

If one ever wondered what an example of fight, a picture of determination or a testament to the virtue of hard work looked like, people on the Trail Blazers will point you to the locker of point guard Shabazz Napier.

“I don’t know how you would put it, or what the politically correct way to phrase it is, but  …  Shabazz is a dog,’’ guard Pat Connaughton said. “He fights. All the time.’’

Added captain Damian Lillard: “He’s an every-day guy. That’s 100 percent a fact.’’

It is that fight, and that relentless work ethic that is at the center of one of the developing trends on the Blazers in the past week: the emergence of Napier in the regular rotation.

In the last three games, Napier has played 20, 20 and 15 minutes, marking the first time in his two seasons in Portland that he has played 15 minutes or more in three consecutive games.

“He’s had three good games in a row,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Getting him on the court, in various capacities, is something that will probably continue.’’

He has earned the minutes through practice, where Lillard says Napier is “a handful to go against,” and by way of his performance when called upon. Against Memphis, he went 5-for-8 and scored 12 points, and against Brooklyn he went 5-for-7 for 11 points.

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Then Monday against Denver, he had eight points and three assists, and helped direct a rarity in the Lillard-McCollum era – a six-and-a-half minute shift where neither star was on the court – during which Napier and the Blazers increased the lead from two to 12.

But while his teammates see his dogged practice approach, and fans see his ready-when-called-upon game performance, it has been something behind the scenes that drives Napier.

It’s a single voice, from back in his youth.

“My mother instilled this quote in me,’’ Napier said. “She said, ‘The easiest thing you can do in life is quit.’ That has stayed with me since I was young. I never wanted to be a quitter. I always wanted to win.’’

**

After he was the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, not much has gone Napier’s way.

He started seven straight games his rookie season with Miami after Dwyane Wade pulled his hamstring, but by the end of the season he was out of the rotation, needed a sports hernia surgery and was eventually traded to Orlando for a late-second round pick.

He never found a role in Orlando and after one season was traded to Portland for cash, where he found himself behind Lillard and McCollum, two rising stars in the backcourt who average around 35 minutes a game. His prospects for playing time didn’t improve when the team also signed Evan Turner, a play-making point-forward.

“My NBA career hasn’t panned out like I wanted it to,’’ Napier said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to quit.’’

It’s probably too early to say if Napier has secured a set-in-stone role on this Blazers team, but as the team tries to find its early-season footing, Stotts hasn’t been shy in turning to Napier to gain some traction.

On Monday against Denver, the second unit with Napier, Connaughton, Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis was instrumental in the comfortable 99-82 win over the Nuggets.

That included a seven-minute stretch to start the second quarter, when neither Lillard nor McCollum played, which Lillard figured was the longest time he has ever sat during a second quarter. It was also the first time in the past three seasons that Stotts has strayed from his security blanket of having either Lillard or McCollum on the court during a competitive game.

“It was something I actually toyed with going into the season … I wanted to give it a look,’’ Stotts said. “It worked out well tonight and we’ll see how it goes going forward.’’

If Napier and Turner become a reliable ball-handling duo, it could ease some of the wear-and-tear that Lillard and McCollum endure over a season. Last year, Lillard (36.2 minutes) ranked 9th in the NBA in minutes while McCollum (35.8) ranked 11th.

“He can do a lot of things, and he can definitely bring something to the game to give us a break,’’ Lillard said.

Part of Stotts’ willingness to experiment with the non-Dame-CJ lineup could be attributed to Napier’s steadiness. In 101 minutes this season, Napier has just two turnovers. Meanwhile, he is shooting 60 percent from the field (18-of-30) and has made 5-of-9 from three-point range.

“He’s in a tough position, because Dame and CJ play such heavy minutes,’’ Davis said. “But I think he should be in the rotation. He has proven that and given us a spark.’’

Napier would rather that spark turn into a fire, but in the meantime, he figures he will stick to his mom’s quote from his youth.

“I’m a competitor, and everyone wants to play. But this is not my first rodeo,'' Napier said. "This is my fourth year and it’s been like this the entire time, so I just keep working, keep pushing, and never lay on my laurels. I understand that if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. I just have to be ready for it.’’

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Of all the head-scratching things that happened on Friday during the Blazers’ 101-97 loss to Brooklyn – and there were plenty of them – none is more perplexing than the fourth-quarter benching of Jusuf Nurkic.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Trail Blazers' announcer Brian Wheeler ready to return to radio

Trail Blazers' announcer Brian Wheeler ready to return to radio

Brian Wheeler is nearing a return to the Trail Blazers.

Wheeler, the Trail Blazers' longtime play-by-play announcer, will be behind the microphone for the team’s next game, Monday at home against Denver, NBC Sports Northwest has learned.

Wheeler has missed the season’s first 12 games as he battled scrotal lymphedema, a condition that sidelined him four games during the 2013 season.

Scott Lynn, a former Portland radio and television personality who now lives in Florida, filled in for Wheeler.  

Wheeler, 55, is in his 20th season with the Blazers. At one point, he had a string of 1,359 consecutive broadcasts over 16 seasons. He signed a multi-year extension with the team in September.

Wheeler has been on a low-calorie, medically-supervised diet in hopes of losing weight and alleviating his condition.

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

Blazers have become exercise in stress management

Blazers have become exercise in stress management

The Trail Blazers play again tonight, which likely means another exercise in stress management for the fan base.

Eight times in the Blazers’ 11 games, the score has been within three points in the final 90 seconds of the game. Portland is 4-4 in those games, having beaten New Orleans, Phoenix, the Lakers and Oklahoma City, while losing at Milwaukee, at Utah, and at home against the Clippers and Memphis.

It reminds me of what I’ve often heard NBA coaches say over the years, that sometimes the results aren’t as important as how the team is playing. And right now, although the Blazers’ 6-5 record might seem pedestrian or even disappointing, I think it’s important to note how the team is playing.

The defense has been solid. Steady. The Blazers enter tonight with the NBA’s fourth best defensive rating, ranking behind Boston, Oklahoma City and Memphis. They are the NBA’s top rebounding team. And they rank sixth in net rating behind Golden State, Boston, Houston, Toronto and Oklahoma City.

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All of those are strong indicators that the Blazers are playing the right way.

And people are taking notice. I spoke with Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson on Thursday and he brought up Portland’s defense.

“Their defense has really improved this year – credit to Terry (Stotts) and his staff,’’ Atkinson said. “I know I go through it, ‘Man, we are really bad on defense and let’s work on that’ then your offense suffers. But they look like a strong team again.’’

The improved defense of Blazers’ guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has been magnified locally, and I wondered if it resonated to Atkinson on film.

“I feel it. I feel the thrust. I feel the intensity,’’ Atkinson said of the guards’ defense. “The competitiveness, especially in pick and roll defense. We have a saying: ‘Make them feel you on defense’ …  and you feel them. They are definitely more physical. That’s one of the big differences I see.’’

The Nets (4-7) are playing their fourth game in a five-game trip – they lost at the Lakers, won at Phoenix, then lost at Denver --  but they are coming off two days rest since playing in Denver.

Today's Blazers' links:

How and where to watch tonight's Blazers-Nets game.

Former Blazers guard Allen Crabbe returns with Brooklyn, still searching for consistency.

Dwight Jaynes asks, Who is Jusuf Nurkic?

Trailblazers.com has reaction from Blazers' players about Crabbe's return.

Mike Richman points out the Blazers have been better with Nurkic on the bench.

Allen Crabbe returns to Portland, still searching for consistency

Allen Crabbe returns to Portland, still searching for consistency

When the NBA schedule was announced in August, Allen Crabbe said the first thing he did was look for when Brooklyn was playing at Portland.

Crabbe was traded from Portland to Brooklyn in July, and as it turns out, Friday’s game at the Moda Center hasn’t been the only time Portland has been on Crabbe’s mind.

“I remember them just like yesterday,’’ the former Blazers guard said Thursday on the eve of his return to Portland. “After my games I go home and turn on League Pass and see if I can catch the rest of their games. I’m still checking in on them, still watching them play, watching the guys.’’

He said it was “weird” to arrive in Portland and head to a hotel, and not his former home, and he said it was hard not to reflect on his four seasons in Portland, during which he developed from second-round bench warmer to a $75-million asset.

“I mean, I miss it, I’m not going to lie,’’ Crabbe said. “Coach (Nate Tibbets) did a good job developing me, teaching me how to be a professional … how to stick with it. No negatives in me being here at all.’’

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In Brooklyn, Crabbe has become the Nets’ starting shooting guard the last four games after being eased back into major minutes following offseason foot surgery and a sprained ankle on the same foot in training camp.

“He is what we call a system fit: he fits everything we are trying to do ,’’ Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He’s a super-efficient player … he’s doing great. Love him.’’

Crabbe is averaging 11.1 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 37.5 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range in 24.7 minutes a game.

Being back in Portland for Friday’s game isn’t the only sense of familiarity Crabbe has been experiencing. His old bugaboo – consistency – has been haunting him in Brooklyn as well.

His production has been all over the board, scoring as high as 25 points at the Lakers, to going scoreless and taking only two shots in 20 minutes against the Knicks. His last game, Tuesday at Denver, he had three points on 1-of-8 shooting.

“That’s one of the biggest things I’ve been trying to change is the inconsistency part,’’ Crabbe said. “Having 20 one night, then the next night having three or four. So that’s just something I’ve been really trying to focus on … having a mindset of being aggressive. I think when I’m aggressive and get shot attempts up, good things happen.’’

The Nets (4-7) are prepared to give him the opportunity. Atkinson said “the sky is the limit” for Crabbe and that the franchise is “really high on him” and wants him to pursue becoming an elite player. Crabbe says he feels their confidence and realizes he has what he once longed for – a starting role where he is a focal point of the offense.

“It’s everything an NBA player would want – to be a key piece to a team,’’ Crabbe said. “I don’t think it was going to happen (in Portland).’’

The biggest adjustment he says is playing without looking over his shoulder, and not worrying about mistakes. The coaching staff in Brooklyn, Crabbe says, tells him to take risks.

“They are always telling me I’m the type of player who plays not to make any mistakes, but here that’s the only way you are going to grow – take risks, get out of your comfort zone, do things you normally wouldn’t. They are giving me the freedom to do that.’’

Former Oregon star Dillon Brooks showing NBA he is 'real deal'

Former Oregon star Dillon Brooks showing NBA he is 'real deal'

I don’t know about anybody else, but I left Tuesday’s Memphis-Portland game really impressed with Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks.

The former Oregon star not only started, he was a key player in Memphis’ 98-97 win over the Trail Blazers, making a steal that he converted into an and-one layin with 39.4 seconds left.

Then on the game’s final play, his defense made CJ McCollum hesitate in the corner after the Blazers guard had chased down a potential game-winner that missed. McCollum’s hesitation caused the clock to run out and preserved the Grizzlies win.

“He makes plays in crunch moments,’’ Memphis coach David Fizdale said. “That was something we noticed, our front office guys noticed when they watched the film on him. He always rose to the occasion in crunch moments. That’s something we really liked about him. He finds a way to help you win when everything is on the line.’’

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I’m not sure even the most die-hard Ducks fans who watched Brooks win the Pac-12 Player of the Year award thought Brooks would be making this kind of impact, this quickly.

In fact, it sounds like the more Memphis tours the NBA, the more eyes Brooks is opening.

“He looks like been playing in league for a while,’’ Memphis star Mike Conley said. “Each game he earns more respect, not just from us, but around the league. That’s all people come up and talk to us about – ‘that Dillon Brooks kid, he’s the real deal’ -  and we love that. He plays with chip on shoulder and he’s not afraid of the moment.’’

Because of injuries, Brooks on Thursday started his third game, and it looks like he could stick in that role, in large part because he defended well within the Grizzlies’ active and aggressive system.

It’s why Fizdale had no hesitation putting Brooks on McCollum for the final shot.

“I feel good with him on anybody,’’ Fizdale said. “We’re developing him to be a starter. He has to go through mistakes, getting the respect of officials – all of that stuff. But we can’t hide him from those guys.’’

The question many around the league might be asking is where was Brooks hiding on draft night? He was drafted with the 45th pick overall by Houston, then traded to Memphis. On opening night, he scored 19 points against New Orleans, the highest scoring NBA debut by a Canadian, surpassing Rick Fox’s 13 points in 1991, and the highest-scoring debut by a Memphis player since Rudy Gay had 21 points in 2006.

“Man, somebody made a mistake not drafting him,’’ Grizzlies star Mike Conley said on opening night.

For the season, Brooks is averaging 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 29.7 minutes a game after he finished with seven points, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks on Tuesday. He played 38 minutes, the most of any player on Memphis.

“Before I came here I didn’t like playing defense,’’ Brooks said. “But now, I love playing defense. It keeps me on the floor. I get to challenge the best players in the NBA.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Three final thoughts on Tuesday's loss to the Grizzlies. 

Fan heckles Damian Lillard.

Trail Blazers.com looks at where the Blazers stack up in power rankings.

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

In a loaded Western Conference that figures to be filled with knock-down, drag-it-out struggles on a regular basis, the Trail Blazers know they have this going for them:

Damian Lillard and his excellence at the free throw line.

Lillard has made 43 consecutive free throws dating back to the second quarter of the Blazers’ Oct. 30 game against Toronto and is shooting 92.3 percent for the season.

“My dad always made me shoot the ball,’’ Lillard explained about his free throw success. “He wouldn’t let me lower the hoop at home. He made me keep it up and learn how to shoot the ball.’’

This is the fourth streak of at least 40 consecutive free throws in Lillard’s career. He made 54 in a row in March of 2016, falling three short of Damon Stoudamire’s franchise record, and twice had streaks of 48, last accomplished in March of 2017.

The NBA record for consecutive free throws is 97, set over the course of two seasons (1992-1993 and 1993-1994) by Minnesota guard Micheal Williams.

“I don’t pay attention to how many I made in a row,’’ Lillard said. “I just know when I’m shooting it well.’’

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As the Blazers can attest, free-throw shooting figures to be a huge factor in the loaded West this season as close games figure to increase.  The Blazers have already had a buzzer beating loss against the Clippers, an overtime loss at Utah, a buzzer-beating victory against the Lakers and a nail-biting 103-99 win Sunday against Oklahoma City. The Blazers also lost in Milwaukee in the final 11 seconds.

A factor in the loss against the Clippers was a missed free throw by CJ McCollum – the best free-throw shooter in the NBA last season -- with 5.1 seconds left. Meanwhile, the Blazers helped close out the Thunder by making 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter.

With McCollum, who shot 91.2 percent last season, and Lillard, the Blazers are second in the NBA (behind Utah) in free throws this season at 81.8 percent. The Blazers also attempt the third most per game (21.6) and rank 10th in clutch free throw shooting (82.4 percent), which is measured in the last five minutes.

 “It’s not only Damian,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I’ve been on teams where you have 5 good free-throw shooters out there and you know that down the stretch you can count on them to make their free throws. It’s a real advantage to have those kind of guys at the end of the game.’’

One of those teams was the 2010 Dallas Mavericks, when Stotts was an assistant. That team included Dirk Nowitizki, who made 82 in a row that season, the third longest streak in NBA history. Jose Calderon has the second longest streak, making 87 in a tow with Toronto in the 2008-2009 season.

Interestingly, Lillard says his free-throw streaks often go both ways. Last season, after he made 48 in a row, he lost his touch and went  18-for-28 (64.3 percent) over his next five games.

“In my career typically, I have long streaks where I make a bunch of free throws in a row, and when I miss, I have a five-game streak where I’m just missing,’’ Lillard said last March. “Then, I start another streak. But I shoot free throws all the time, so it’s not like it’s something I’m concerned about.’’

Tonight, the Blazers (6-4) play host to Memphis (6-4) in what figures to be another tough, grind-it-out game. If it is decided at the line, chances are Lillard will have something to do with it. He is 25-of-28 at the line in the fourth quarter this season, which includes 15 in a row. And as a team, the Blazers this season are 63-of-76 in the fourth quarter (82.9 percent).

Today's Blazers' links:

How to watch tonight's Blazers-Grizzlies game.

My Inside the Blazers podcast, with guest Maurice Harkless.

Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune writes that Lillard will become the best NBA player from Utah school.

The Beale Street Bears blog debates whether former Oregon wing Dillon Brooks will remain in Memphis rotation.

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

As the Trail Blazers’ season settles in for the long winter’s grind, a progression that is crucial to the team’s success is worth keeping an eye on: How do the role players outside of the Big Three develop?

After the first 10 games, things appear to be settling for the Blazers. Damian Lillard is no longer struggling with his shot. Jusuf Nurkic has steadied after battling turnovers and foul trouble. And CJ McCollum is once again one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters.

But what to make of the rest of the Blazers?

Outside of Ed Davis, who has provided a consistent rebounding presence, the Blazers never quite know what they are going to get.

Maurice Harkless has been somewhat non-descript.  Al-Farouq Aminu is sidelined for at least a couple of weeks. Evan Turner, after a strong start, has become erratic. And against teams that don’t have Suns on the jersey, Pat Connaughton has been decidedly more miss than hit. 

“We play a lot, obviously through those three guys,’’ Harkless said of Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum. “So the rest of us have to just get in where we fit in. Some nights we are going to have big games, and some nights we are not. I think I’m still trying to figure out where I can be effective consistently.’’

Whether Harkless and the rest of the supporting cast figure that out will be perhaps the deciding factor in whether the Blazers are a fringe playoff team, or a contender for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, not all contributions are measured offensively. By design, much of the Blazers’ supporting cast strengths are rooted in defense.

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So even though Turner has been loose with the ball recently, he has been invaluable guarding everyone from Russell Westbrook to Blake Griffin. And both Harkless and Noah Vonleh might not shoot a lot, but their ability to switch on pick-and-rolls is priceless to an improved Blazers defense that holds the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating through 10 games (99.9).

But the long-term key this season will be whether players can identify – and accept– their niche. It is perhaps the most unique trait possessed by upper echelon teams. It requires self awareness. A selflessness. And a maturity to sacrifice stats for success.

It is also easier said than done.

From what I know of this locker room, this Blazers team has those types of players. Turner has never cared about his stats, only about wins. Harkless said he came into the season wanting to embrace a bigger defensive role. And Connaughton and Vonleh are team-first guys who want to prove they belong.

Still, it is one thing to accept a role, and another thing to thrive or contribute in it. That’s where the stars are going to need to help.

It is important for the Big Three to realize how and when to recognize the supporting cast. Like in the second quarter on Sunday, with the Blazers up 28-24, Turner had Raymond Felton pinned on the block in a mismatch. McCollum, who was playing point guard, either ignored or didn’t see the advantage and went on to try and create something for himself. It resulted in a turnover.

Later, at the start of the third quarter, Nurkic had a window to throw a lob to Harkless, but at the last second decided against it and whipped a pass to Lillard that went out of bounds.

Little plays like that – where the stars are recognizing and feeding the supporting cast – can go a long way to making a team whole.

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says Nurkic sold the Carmelo Anthony elbow like a pro wrestler.

The feeling runs deep when it comes to Blazers fans and Raymond Felton.

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, we talked about the Big Three showing up.

The Oklahoman writes that the Thunder took issue with the officials after Sunday's loss.

The Oregonian has a recap of Sunday's win.

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

When Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three pointer Thursday against the Lakers, it did more than end the Trail Blazers’ two-game losing streak.

It also went a long way to healing some late-game wounds that have bothered the team.

It wasn’t the first time the Trail Blazers have closed out a close-game this season, but inside the team, Thursday’s last-second victory sure felt like the end of a trend.

Lillard, whose three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left broke a tie, said the win was cause to exhale because of the clutch manner it was earned.

“If you lose this one, then you are a little worried,’’ Lillard said. “But I think the fact that we had to win it – the way we won it – I think it does something. It does a lot for us because we had to fight for it.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 -- click to learn more and buy]

The Blazers (5-4) have won close games this season, sealing a 103-93 win over New Orleans in the home opener by closing on a 9-0 over the final 3:23, then pulling away from a two-point lead over Phoenix with 1:43 left to win 114-107.

But perhaps more magnified have been the Blazers’ late-game letdowns. A loss in Milwaukee after three turnovers in the final 31 seconds erased a one-point lead. The missed free throw with 5.7 seconds left against the Clippers that allowed Blake Griffin to win the game at the buzzer. The two turnovers in the final three minutes at Utah that went a long way to erasing a six-point lead and eventually led to an overtime loss.

So never mind the porous defense that allowed 54 percent shooting, and the lack of focus that led to losing an 18-point lead. The Blazers were more transfixed on the finish, because it seemingly disproved their inability to close out a close game.

“The way we have been losing, it was good we were put in that position again,’’ Lillard said. “This is what we have to do to get it going in the right direction. It was good for us.’’

Although CJ McCollum had another late-game turnover – dribbling the ball out of bounds with 3:20 left and the Blazers trailing 103-100 – the Blazers went 4-for-4 from the free throw line and didn’t give the ball back to the Lakers over their final seven possessions. Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic recorded steals.

“It’s good to get a close-game win,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “We needed that, especially on the heels of not only (at Utah) but some of the other games.’’