After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

SAN ANTONIO --  When the doors opened Wednesday night to the locker room of what might be the most mercurial team in the NBA, Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was just getting around to the night’s final order of business.

With his feet soaking in a tub of ice and his eyes transfixed on a group chat with his cousins, Lillard felt a sudden urge.

He switched screens on his phone and scanned the night’s NBA scores, and as he turned to teammate CJ McCollum, he transposed himself from star performer to reporter.

“Wizards lost to Dallas … Minnesota lost … New Orleans lost …’’ Lillard said, naming some the teams fighting with Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The most important score of the night went without saying: The Blazers’ gutty 110-106 victory at San Antonio that was as stunning as it was impressive.

It was stunning because it came on the heels of a hideous 100-77 loss the night before in New Orleans, and it was impressive because it came after repelling an MVP-like performance from Kawhi Leonard, the return of LaMarcus Aldridge and the relentless chaos usually imposed by the 52-win Spurs.

It was also another reminder of how unpredictable, and dangerous, this Portland team can be as the season’s final 15 games plays out, a feeling that gained momentum after Lillard reported the scores to McCollum.

 “I was like, man, let’s see who else played tonight … and a few teams we would like to see lose tonight, lost,’’ Lillard said. “We are at that point now – Who won? Who  lost? – especially the times when we win.’’

The win moved Portland (30-37) within two games of Denver (32-35) for the final playoff spot in the West, while remaining one game ahead of Dallas (29-38) and two ahead of Minnesota (28-39).

The 2-1 start on their crucial five-game trip probably didn’t unfold the way Portland envisioned, but then again, not many this season have been able to wrap their minds around the mystery that is the Blazers.

“When you figure us out,’’ a Blazers assistant coach said on his way out of the locker room, “let us know.’’

**

As the Blazers’ late-season surge has been unfolding, so too has an interesting dynamic between Lillard and newcomer Jusuf Nurkic.

As Lillard on Wednesday was studying his phone and later reporting scores in the locker room, Nurkic sat in front of his own locker, wrapped only in a towel, repeatedly shaking his head.

He was a central figure in the Blazers’ ability to repel the Spurs’ fourth-quarter assault, but it was also painfully evident the 22-year-old center was not yet ready to shoulder the full responsibility of such an important moment.

Nurkic had 10 fourth quarter points and in a frenetic free-for-all, he chased down a key rebound with 21 seconds left. But he also had two crucial turnovers, missed two crunch-time free throws, and couldn’t connect on some close-range shots that could have buried the Spurs.

 Hence, the head shaking.

“I’m learning out there,’’ Nurkic said.

Moments later, as he headed to the shower, Nurkic passed by Lillard, who was still soaking his feet in ice. Lillard stuck out his hand and the two quickly slapped hands once, twice, three times before ending with an emphatic fourth connection. Both broke out in laughter, tickled at how such an intricate exchange could be executed with such little time together.  

Since Nurkic arrived in Portland in a mid-February trade, Lillard has studied him, and gone out of his way to not only embrace him, but as he put it, “mold” him.

“With him being young, I’m kind of able to mold him to what I want to do, and the things in how he can help our team more,’’ Lillard said.

Some of that is telling Nurkic to hold his screen longer on pick-and-rolls. And some of that is reminding him to get more power and balance on his inside shot by jumping off two feet, not one.

But he is also helping mold Nurkic emotionally. One of the knocks on Nurkic in Denver was he had a tendency to pout, or obsess when things didn’t go his way, and Lillard has been keen to the warning signs.

“I stay positive with him,’’ Lillard said. “If he throws a turnover, I grab his hand (and say) ‘It’s all right. You are good. It ain’t your fault.’ He wants to do so well and the thing that is great about him is he takes ownership. When he throws ball away he is like ‘I’m messing up’ …’’

Lillard is convinced that Nurkic’s heart is in the right place – he has shown he cares about winning and he wants to play a team game – so Lillard’s focus has been on Nurkic’s mind.

“It’s my job to be positive with him and to continue to encourage him,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard’s attention and positivity has seemingly liberated Nurkic. He often says how he has never played with such a leader, and how a teammate has never inspired him like Lillard. Meanwhile, Nurkic’s big smile and playfulness have become part of the fabric of the Blazers locker room.

On Wednesday, when Nurkic was asked about his inbounds pass with 53 seconds that went into the Spurs’ bench, he grinned and looked across the locker room at  McCollum, who was going through the buffet line.

“I don’t know,’’ Nurkic said, raising his voice so McCollum could hear, “ask CJ what happened.’’

McCollum was the intended recipient of the pass, which he called a “Meyers Leonard chest pass,” but he likened their communication to that of a quarterback and receiver.

“I stopped,’’ McCollum replied back to Nurkic, “and you threw it as a go-route.’’

Nurkic nodded, his smile still wide.

“He’s going to catch it next time,’’ Nurkic said to reporters, before returning his attention back to McCollum. “You almost made me get on Shaqtin’ A Fool.’’

McCollum and Lillard looked at each other and laughed.

“Oh, you gonna be on there anyway,’’ Lillard said of the TNT bloopers segment originated by Shaquille O'Neal.

**

The Blazers have won six of their last eight games, which includes three road victories and quality wins at the Spurs, at Oklahoma City and at home against the Thunder.

If one thing has defined the push, it has been the exceptional play of Lillard, but there is also a growing subplot: a decided growth from some of the Blazers’ role players such as Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard.

Vonleh suddenly looks more comfortable and that has translated into some assertive play underneath that has resulted in dunks and flurries of rebounds. Never was that on display more than Wednesday against the Spurs when Vonleh had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in a season-high 26 minutes.

Lillard remarked on Vonleh’s confidence, and noted how his strong play in the paint has given defenders two options:

“They either have to foul or get dunked on right now,’’ Lillard said of Vonleh’s defenders. “That’s the kind of presence we need to have.’’

Crabbe is also providing a presence as he has become more involved in the offense, in part because of a meeting to brainstorm plays with coach Terry Stotts and McCollum earlier in the month, and in part because of a revamped hold-nothing-back attitude in taking his shot.  

Leonard has also played better of late, perhaps because of a recent visit in Portland with former Blazers assistant Kim Hughes. In the locker room following Tuesday's loss to New Orleans, Leonard's phone buzzed from a text message. It was from Hughes.

"That's my man,'' Leonard said.

They stay in touch often, but recently Hughes was in Portland and the two visited, after which Leonard said his mind was in a better place. Is his improved play a result of his recent interactions with Hughes?

"I guess you could say that,'' Leonard said. 

Aminu, meanwhile, continues to make key contributions – be it with his shot or his defense – that go a long way in making up for his Tasmanian Devil moments of carelessness.

“Chief made the play of the game,’’ Lillard said Wednesday, noting Aminu’s rebound of Kawhi Leonard’s miss with 43 seconds left and the Blazers holding a 104-102 lead.

But nobody and nothing has been more important to the Blazers during this push for the playoffs than Lillard, whose impact as a leader and a performer has been substantial, if not staggering.

“When you the leader of the team, you try not to do it yourself, but lead the charge,’’ Lillard said. “You have to inspire the group, be a leader of men, and you do that by your actions before you say ‘Oh, let’s go!’ You have to give them something to get behind. That’s all I’m trying to do.’’

**

On Friday, the Blazers will get back to work, with a practice in Atlanta that will include the return of Evan Turner from a broken right hand suffered Feb. 7.

Stotts said “the hope” is that Turner will be a full participant, but the coach didn’t want to speculate on whether Turner will play Saturday against the Hawks (37-30), and he has said he is unsure if Turner will regain his starting role.

As encouraging as the Blazers’ win over San Antonio was, it didn’t come without warts, which will surely be addressed in the Friday practice. Once again, the Blazers were shaky in the final minute with their decisions and execution, giving credence to the theory that Portland  -- in its true mercurial ways – can’t help but make games interesting.

“We always do,’’ McCollum said. “You want to see a long game in the fourth quarter? Watch us play.’’

And so the final 15 games await, figuring to bring more intrigue, more ups-and-downs, and more mystery. And like Lillard on Wednesday, we all figure to be watching the scores.

Next up: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers over the years have experienced the pain of playoff loss, but it’s been a while since a series left a mark like this one to New Orleans. 

“I think this one probably hurts a little more because we had such a great season, and we came in with really, really high expectations,’’ Damian Lillard said. 

 Unable to stop Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and unable to solve the defensive schemes of New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, the Blazers were swept Saturday after a 131-123 loss at Smoothie King Center. 

“They were the better team for four games,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “They outplayed us, they outhustled us, they were more physical.’’

The 13-game winning streak, the Northwest Division title, the three seed and hosting a first-round playoff series were all erased with the ease of a Holiday layin and the force of a Davis follow dunk.

“I felt like coming into this playoffs, there was no way you were going to tell me we weren’t going to have a Game 5. You know?’’ Blazers big man Ed Davis said. “I mean, you can tell me, somebody was going to beat us in six or seven, but no way swept.’’

Davis surveyed the quiet locker room, with players cutting tape off their ankles for the final time.

“I mean, we are all shocked right now that we got swept by a team that we really felt like we were better than,’’ Davis said. 

Perhaps most shocking was the inability of the Blazers to free Lillard from the layered Pelicans defense that used two and sometimes three players to trap him.

After having his best overall season in his six-year NBA career, Lillard had his worst playoff series, being held to 18.5 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and amassing 16 turnovers to his 19 assists.

“You have to give them credit for how well they executed offensively and they came in with a great defensive game plan, threw something at us we haven’t seen, and it worked out for them,’’ Lillard said. “We just didn’t play great. We didn’t have our best series.’’

The loss brings the Blazers to a crossroads: Continue full speed ahead with the NBA’s youngest roster to make the playoffs? Or break up a core that has lost 10 consecutive playoff games?

“Ultimately, you are defined by the postseason,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s a little early to say what direction we are going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is Neil (Olshey) is really good. We’ve been to the playoffs five straight years and he continues to change and build the roster. I’m pretty confident with that.’’

Lillard, who in January met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, said Saturday that he believes the franchise is doing all it can. 

“I feel like to this point, we have,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve done what we can, but obviously there is room for improvement, especially when you come up short in the playoffs and get swept. Obviously there are a lot of things that can be done better on our part as an organization and as players. 

“But for me, the same thing remains: I’ll go back to work and do my part,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody has a job to do and I’ve got to focus on what my job is.’’

Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a standout series with averages of 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, said he hopes the team is allowed to grow together.

“The core of the team is still really young and these are some of the lumps we will have to take in order to get better and continue to grow,’’ Aminu said.

The Blazers have four free agents – starting center Jusuf Nurkic; Davis, the NBA’s top reserve center; reserve Pat Connaughton; and reserve Shabazz Napier. 

Davis, for one, says he wants to return. 

“Like I’ve been saying since Day One: I hope I’m back here,’’ Davis said. “I hope July 1 at midnight we have something done and it’s over with. That’s what I’m hoping and banking on.’’

For now, the Blazers will lick their wounds and try to forget the dominance of Anthony Davis (33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.9 blocks), the two-way play of Holiday (27.8 points) and the masterful game-management of Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists) and look ahead to the future of Zach Collins and what should be the prime years of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s careers. 

“I think we should be proud of what we did in the regular season,’’ Harkless said. “And then just learn from what happened in this postseason.’’

Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the 1st round sweep

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Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the 1st round sweep

Join me and the rest of Scoop Nation try to make sense of what just happened in the playoffs on the final Scoop Postgame show of the season...

Scoop Postgame Show

That’ll do it from Smoothie King Center… Blazers drop Game 4, 131-123. The Pelicans are moving on… Let’s hear from YOU, #RipCity right now on The Scoop.

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Pelicans fight off Trail Blazer rally to finish off 1st round sweep

Pelicans fight off Trail Blazer rally to finish off 1st round sweep

The Trail Blazers battled back from a double digit deficit but came up a few points short in their bid to avoid a 1st round sweep. The Pelicans duo of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis proved to be too much for the Blazers' defense combining for 88 points.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers in scoring with 38 points. 

Box Score: New Orleans 131, Portland 123

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Scoop Postgame Show

That’ll do it from Smoothie King Center… Blazers drop Game 4, 131-123. The Pelicans are moving on… Let’s hear from YOU, #RipCity right now on The Scoop.

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Saturday, April 21, 2018

 

 

 

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

NEW ORLEANS –If there is a snapshot that captures this first round series, it was taken in the third quarter of Game 3, and later framed for all to see around the NBA.

Anthony Davis soaring in, untouched, and grabbing a rebound with his left hand and flushing it for a dunk. Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic was literally floored, knocked to his hands and out of the way by Davis’ athletic and physical play.

In the aftermath of the play – which gave New Orleans a 79-60 lead – Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday stood at Nurkic’s feet and pointed in wide-eyed dismay at him. For a long time. Too long. 

It was everything this series had become: a laugher, an embarrassment for the Trail Blazers. And it underscored why it had become so lopsided: the Pelicans beating Portland to another ball, a Pelicans’ star shining while the Blazers remained frustrated. And overall, another example of New Orleans being more aggressive, more physical and more … everything.

“Outplayed us in every way,’’ Lillard would say after the Game 3 blowout. “Every way, man.’’

But what about that show of disrespect by Holiday? The pointing. The posing. The mockery of it all?

Fittingly, the Blazers were apparently oblivious to Holiday’s actions, even though they had a front row seat for it, and even though it was splashed across the internet Thursday night.

 “Huh?’’ Nurkic said when asked about it Friday. “I didn’t see it.’’

Damian Lillard?

“Did he? I didn’t see it,’’ Lillard said. “When things going well for you, you do stuff like that. That’s I guess kind of something you do when you are feeling really confident, you are feeling yourself a little bit. It’s not like we’ve done anything about it .’’

CJ McCollum was shown a clip of the play. He shrugged his shoulders and chose not to comment. 

And if the Blazers’ coach took offense to it, or thought anything of it, he didn’t say Friday as Terry Stotts was strangely made unavailable to the media even though he was 10 feet away from the camera and microphones, talking to Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. 

According to a team spokesman, there wasn’t enough time for Stotts to talk, because the team had to practice, which ignored the fact that the team was more than 15 minutes late in arriving.

In all, Game 3 magnified what in this series has been a strange display by a team that prides itself on culture, hard work and accountability.

At least Lillard on Friday showed some spunk and fight as Saturday’s Game 4 neared. When asked about making adjustments, he said he wanted to see the Blazers adjust their physicality.

“They were up into us a lot. A lot more aggressive than we were and we didn’t dish it back out,’’ Lillard said. “I think in the playoffs and a situation like this, when a team is coming for you like that, you have to maybe go out of your way to do it back. Even if that means some foul trouble or some altercations happen out there or whatever, but when a team comes from you like the way they did after last game, maybe we just need to make it a point of emphasis to go back and get back at them.’’

The Blazers have tried talking about adjustments to counter the Pelicans’ traps and gameplan against the backcourt, but their plans are both not working and not being executed fully. 

“It’s easy to draw up and say this is what we want to do after you watch film,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you get out there and they are playing so disruptive … they’ve got their minds set on what they are going to do – it’s hard to execute it.’’

Defensively, the Blazers are in the spin cycle. Three different Pelicans have scored 30 or more points in the first three games – Anthony Davis (35 in Game 1), Holiday (33 in Game 2) and Nikola Mirotic (30 in Game 3) – all while Rajon Rondo has played the defense like a yo-yo.

So maybe there was nothing for Stotts to say, and no change in the game plan needed. 

“Coaches can only do so much,’’ McCollum said. “They are not guarding Mirotic, they are not guarding Jrue holiday, or Rondo, or any of these guys. So it’s on us. We just need to play better.’’

If they don’t, Game 4 will bring a sweep and more finger pointing in their faces.

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, the Trail Blazers seem just as bewildered as you and me about the way their first-round series with New Orleans has turned out.

Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And there are no easy answers. Portland, a team so reluctant to use double-teaming as a defensive tactic, is just about completely befuddled by the Pelicans' double teams. A roster that rattled off a long winning streak during the second half of the regular season, is now incapable of getting the job done. The coach, once being talked about as a longshot candidate for Coach of the Year, is seemingly  not making necessary adjustments. The team's best player, being talked about as a possible first-team all-NBA selection, has been virtually shut down for three games.

What in the heck is going on here?

Well, I will address the problems as best I can and as directly as I can. They are many and sometimes contradictory:

  • If players are being double-teamed to the point Lillard is, other players obviously have to emerge to hit open shots. That's simple math -- two people guarding one person means another person should be open. But to take advantage of that, the ball must move quickly to the open man and the open man must be able to make an open shot.
  • Very often, the Trail Blazers invite the double teams with their high pick-and-roll. It makes it easy to simply blitz the screen and get the ball out of Lillard's or CJ McCollum's hands. Often, those players themselves call for that double team by calling for the high pick. New Orleans is obviously one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league, so... why not run something else? Why keep going back to something that isn't working?
  • The safety valve against double-teams in Portland's attack is almost always the big man coming to the foul line for a pass. He can then turn and face the basket, knowing he's going to be facing a three-on-two situation. The problem for the Blazers has been that it's been Nurkic in that position and he isn't a threat to make a shot from where he receives the ball. Consequently, his defender -- usually Anthony Davis -- is still free to roam the basket area. Perhaps someone else could play that spot who can make an open 20-foot shot?
  • And speaking of making open shots, the Trail Blazers have needed front-court shooting for two or three seasons now. You can tell me how well Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting all you want, but he isn't reliable or consistent and opponents still leave him open because they don't think he can convert. He's not a floor stretcher. The Blazers need long-distance shooting that will help open the court for Lillard and McCollum. This is not a new problem.
  • On the defensive end, the Trail Blazers continue to attempt to use Aminu to defend bigger players and it hasn't gone well. Against the Pelicans, it creates a terrible matchup for Jusuf Nurkic, who then must chase Nikola Mirotic around on the perimeter. While Aminu may do a marginally better job on Davis than Nurkic, the latter cannot come close to defending Mirotic, so it forces Nurkic to the bench in favor of a better defender. This is a defensive tactic by Portland that forces its third-best player, Nurkic, to the bench. And oh well, it may not matter because the Blazers aren't making good use of him on offense, anyway. If they don't get him out of that high pick-and-roll into one closer to the basket, he's not nearly as effective. He needs to catch close enough to the rim that he doesn't need to put the ball on the floor.
  • I believe there's also been a Portland effort problem in this series. For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers have been outhustled. This happened at times during the regular season but I don't understand it. Especially in the postseason.
  • The ball has to consistently move around the floor more often. When the Blazers are playing well, they move the ball and move bodies. Too often this season, things generate into the guards going one-on-one and in the playoffs, that's a hard way to win. When I talk to people around the NBA about this team, that's a criticism I hear often -- the guards are too dominant. But considering the shot-making ability of the forwards, can you blame them?
  • This thing has gone way off the tracks in the playoffs and I've outlined several things that are responsible. But the other thing that's gone unmentioned is that the Pels just might be this much better than the Trail Blazers.
  • What can be done at this point to change things for the better? The easy answer is nothing. But I'd at least like to see more effort in Game 4.

Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the Game 3 loss

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Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the Game 3 loss

It wasn't the game anyone was expecting but the Blazers are now in an 0-3 hole with their season on the line Saturday night. 

Scoop Postgame Show

Soooo….. How are you coping with this loss? #TheScoop #RipCity

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Thursday, April 19, 2018

 

Turnover plagued Trail Blazers now in 0-3 hole

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USATI

Turnover plagued Trail Blazers now in 0-3 hole

It was a turnover prone night for the Trail Blazers who gave it away 24 times and now find themselves in an 0-3 hole vs. New Orleans. McCollum (22), Aminu (21), Lillard (20) led the way for Portland

Box Score: New Orleans 119, Portland 102

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