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)

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis is back and playing better than ever

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis is back and playing better than ever

After Saturday’s loss in Milwaukee, Ed Davis sat before his locker with a large wrap of ice around his left ankle.

When I asked him if he hurt the ankle in the game, he shook his head.

“Nah. I’m just not 21 anymore,’’ Davis said, indicating he was just taking preventative measures.

Davis, who turned 28 in June, might not feel young anymore, but he is playing like it after returning from a left-shoulder surgery that knocked him out of the final two months of last season.

Davis is averaging 7.7 points and 9.0 rebounds in 16.7 minutes through the Blazers’ first three games. He leads the NBA in defensive rebound percentage (38.6) and rebounding percentage (31.0), besting the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan in each category.

Of course, it’s only three games into the season, but still, Davis’ play is great sign for the Blazers. During the Blazers’ surprise season of 2015-2016, when they won 44 games and advanced to the second round, Davis was a sometimes overlooked factor in the success. During that season, he set a franchise record for rebounds by a reserve and ranked second in the NBA to Enes Kanter in rebounds and offensive rebounds by a reserve.

Hampered last season by the injury to his dominant shoulder, Davis so far has looked even better than the 2015-2016 season. In each game, Davis has recorded a positive plus/minus (plus-26 versus Suns, plus-12 versus Pacers and plus-4 against Bucks) joining him with Maurice Harkless as the only Blazers to have positive plus/minus in every game.

“Ed really gave is a lift,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after the Indiana victory.

It was an even bigger lift the next night in Milwaukee. Davis had six points and 11 rebounds in 16 minutes, and would have been one of the unsung heroes had Giannis Antetokounmpo not ripped the victory away from the Blazers in the final seconds.

Davis’ NBA-leading rebound percentages were noticeable in the Bucks’ game. After Davis left the game for good with 6:49 left and the score tied, Milwaukee grabbed four offensive rebounds, which resulted in three points – which also happened to be the margin of defeat. All told, Milwaukee had seven offensive rebounds on the night, but only two of them coming on Davis’ watch.

Whether or not his left ankle was under wraps Saturday for preventative measures or if it is really hurt will be worth watching. Never once last season did Davis complain or mention his ailing left shoulder, which he later said prevented him from standing under the basket and making five layins in a row. The point: even if his ankle is hurt, Davis is too tough, too old school to say anything.

In the meantime, the Blazers will take what appears to be a 21-year-old version of Davis – bouncy, active and hard-nosed – even if he says his body doesn’t feel like it.

Today's Blazers' links: 

Dwight Jaynes said there is a lot to like from the early showings of the Blazers. 

The league report from the end of the Blazers-Bucks game is still generating talk. 

Jusuf Nurkic appears in the Sporting News' rankings for young players.

 

 

Blazers lose late to Bucks: There goes the 82-0 season

Blazers lose late to Bucks: There goes the 82-0 season

There was a lot to like Saturday night in Portland's first loss of the season at Milwaukee. But the few things not to like cost the Trail Blazers the game. Here;s the rundown:

  • Damian Lillard single-handedly brought Portland back from a late deficit. He got to the line and made good on 11 of 12 foul shots and hit three of his five three-point shots. CJ McCollum was very good, too. I'd like to have seen both of them get just a few more shots.
  • Turnovers were killer. Portland had 16 of them and the Bucks turned them into 22 points. Lillard had six of the turnovers, including the one late that was crucial. McCollum also had a late one, which was actually Giannis Antetokounmpo mugging him to knock the ball away in the key play of the game. Antetokounmpo scored 44 points and got a lot of credit for this win, but could easily have taken the blame for a loss after leaving two foul shots embarrassingly short, then fouling McCollum -- except that a foul wasn't called.
  • The Blazers continue to struggle in the paint. They're getting some good shots but not finishing. Jusuf Nurkic is very careless with a lot of his putbacks and short bank shots and it's costing him. The Trail Blazers made only 13 of 39 in the paint against the Bucks, which is far from an accepatble number.
  • I'd like to have seen a few double-teams on Antetokounmpo late in the game. Get the ball out of his hands, make somebody else shoot the ball.
  • The blocked shot on Nurkic at the end was a product of Nurkic not taking the ball strong, with two hands, directly to the basket. With Antetokounmpo coming at him, Nurkic switched the ball to his left (weaker) hand and tried to go around the block attempt. That's usually a bad idea. I can still remember Coach Jack Ramsay lecturing his Blazer players, "Take the ball AT the shot blocker, don't take it AWAY from him. It makes it easier for him when you pull it out away from your body." Nurkic would likely have at least drawn a foul if he'd gone strong to the rim.
  • Well, maybe he'd have drawn a foul. At that point in the game, it seemed difficult to get a foul called on a certain player from Greece.
  • Tough loss but just one gme. The thing is, though, you don't want to become that team that is mistake-prone late in games.

Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic trying to find touch, rhythm after bumpy start

Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic trying to find touch, rhythm after bumpy start

MILWAUKEE – Of all the good things that emerged during the Trail Blazers’ opening trip – and there were many – the play of center Jusuf Nurkic was curiously not among them.

Considered one of the pillars of the Blazers’ foundation alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Nurkic was perhaps the team’s only unsteady element during an encouraging 2-1 trip to open the season.

If he wasn’t struggling with foul trouble or turnovers, Nurkic was missing close-range shots, or getting beat to rebounds, a frustrating and puzzling combination that came to a head when his driving attempt to win Saturday’s game at Milwaukee was blocked at the rim by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final seconds.

 “I must be better, and I’m going to be,’’ Nurkic said. “It just takes time.’’

Why Nurkic feels he needs time is unclear. He was brimming with bravado

after a summer when he lost 34 pounds, and a training camp where he learned the Blazers’ full playbook. He followed that up with a promising preseason.

But in the first three games he has looked unsettled. He has been rattled by contact, beaten to rebounds, and unpolished inside, which has left him either complaining to officials or shaking his head in frustration on the court.

“I think obviously he is trying to figure some things out,’’ McCollum said.

Nurkic is averaging 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while hitting 16-of-37 shots (43.2 percent). He has six assists and 13 turnovers.

Lillard agreed that Nurkic was “having a little bit of a hard time” and excused it as only three games and perhaps a scheduling anomaly.

“We’ve been playing a little bit faster pace, and a lot of that has to do with first three teams played – (the opponents) play a faster pace so it’s been up and down,’’ Lillard said. “So it hasn’t been much throw it to him on the block. He’s been setting a lot more screens and running back (on defense) … it’s been a lot more fast paced than it was when he first got here.’’

Lillard also noted that Nurkic is processing a full playbook compared to last season, when Nurkic was given an abridged version after arriving from Denver in a February trade for the season’s final 20 games.

“It’s a lot of thinking for him right now,’’ LIllard said.

Certainly three games is no cause for alarm, and his teammates pointed to his strong second half at Milwaukee, when he rebounded from a 3-for-10 first half by hitting four of his last seven shots, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Also, Nurkic said he has been encouraged by his defense, which included a impressive block of Antetokounmpo at the rim in the second half, one of three in the game.

“I’m getting there,’’ Nurkic said. “Slow start. On defense I’m doing what I’m supposed to, effort and all those type things …’’

It is clear, however, that Nurkic is out of sorts. His midrange jumper has been steady, but inside he has been erratic, sometimes a victim of finger-roll finesse and other times just flat-out missing open layins.

When asked if his start is weighing on him, Nurkic shrugged.

“If I could make (shots), it would be different,’’ Nurkic said.  “Unfortunately, I’m missing, so I just have to get back to work and trust myself.’’

Nurkic twice referenced trusting himself, and he has appeared to hesitate at times, something that McCollum noticed.

“Obviously he is trying to figure out where he is going to get his touches from, and then trying to find his rhythm,’’ McCollum said.

That rhythm will come, his teammates are sure, because they have seen his body of work in practice.

“He’ll figure it out,’’ Evan Turner said. “Everybody gets frustrated, but it’s about the unit. At the end of the day, it’s whatever you have to do to win. He stepped up in the second half (at Milwaukee) and made some shots and played to his abilities, where he wasn’t too much thinking of how it was going to go. He just let the game come to him. When he doesn’t think about it, he is better.’’

Lillard, who more than anybody has Nurkic’s ear, said he too was encouraged by Nurkic’s second half in Milwaukee, and he will try to keep Nurkic filled with positive thoughts.

“He bounced back,’’ Lillard said. “We just want to keep pumping confidence in him, show that we believe in him and that he’s a big part of what we are doing. I don’t think anybody is worried. We have a lot of confidence in him and we expect good things from him.’’

So too, does Nurkic, who before leaving the Milwaukee locker room vowed to get over what has been a small bump to start the season.

 “I need to be more sure of what I do. Stay true to self and figure it out,’’ Nurkic said. “And I will figure it out.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Damian Lillard let us know what he thought of one of Saturday's crucial late-game plays.

CJ McCollum offered his opinion of the key late-game play on social media. 

After his career night, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a special moment with game ball.

The Milwaukee Sentinel recaps Saturday's win by the Bucks ove the Blazers.

The Ringer is already declaring Antetokounmpo an MVP candidate.

Final seconds doom Blazers in Milwaukee

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Final seconds doom Blazers in Milwaukee

The Blazers were oh so close to coming home 3-0 but costly turnovers and a blocked shot sealed their fate in the final moments. 

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both scored 26 points in the loss but the star of the night was Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo who scored a career high 44 points, had 8 rebounds and a key block late in the game. 

Box Score: Milwaukee 113, Portland 110

Jason Quick's Rapid Reaction:

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

INDIANAPOLIS – As Al-Farouq Aminu dressed quietly, and away from the cameras and microphones that surrounded his more high-profile teammates Friday, his name was being attached to several adjectives around the Trail Blazers locker room.

Maurice Harkless called him a “monster.”

Coach Terry Stotts called Aminu an “unsung” player.

And CJ McCollum called him the “glue” that keeps the Blazers together.

Pick any of those descriptions, and Aminu has been that and more in the first two games of this Blazers season.

On Friday, he was a steady force in helping the Blazers dispatch Indiana 114-96, amassing 16 points and 16 rebounds while playing his usual steady defense.  That came on the heels of a five-point, 12-rebound performance in the season-opening win at Phoenix.

“If we get him to play like that all season,’’ McCollum mused, “we will be special.’’

Aminu has long been one of the more under-appreciated players on the Blazers, in part because he is a quiet sort, and in part because often his contributions are not adequately measured by statistics.

He is one of, if not the best, defenders on the Blazers. He is able to switch liberally from guards to forwards and he offers probably the best help defense on the team. 

So far this season, the 6-foot-9 Aminu has also been an elite rebounder. His 14 rebound average through two games is sixth best in the NBA, but he is the only rebounder in the top 10 who is shorter than 6-foot-10.

So how does a 6-foot-9 player dominate the boards?

According to Aminu, much of it mental.

“You have to think every shot is going to be off,’’ he said. “Then go after everything.’’

Another aspect, Aminu says, is to go into a game with a defensive approach, something he has adopted since he signed a four-year, $30 million free agent deal in 2015.

“If I go into a game thinking I’m going to score 100 points, then that’s all that’s on my mind, ‘’ Aminu said. “But if I go in thinking I’m going to hold my guy to zero points, then that’s what is on my mind. You have to challenge yourself defensively; that’s half the battle.’’

And it was a battle on Friday that Aminu won more often than not. His 16 rebounds were the most he has recorded in his two-plus seasons as a Blazer and four off his career high.

“It seemed like every time I looked up, he was grabbing a rebound,’’ Damian Lillard said.

His final stat line didn’t go unnoticed around the locker room.

“That was crazy. Crazy,’’ Evan Turner said. “He is balling out. His energy is at a high level and we need it. Most of those are defensive rebounds, and if we don’t get those, we are in big trouble. You give any NBA team more than one possession and it will be along night.’’

It’s not like Aminu’s value is a revelation. Last season, when he missed 19 games with calf and back injuries, the Blazers’ defense nose-dived to the worst in the league. While much of the Blazers’ late-season turnaround was credited to the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, a nuanced reason was also Aminu rounding back into shape to shore up the defense.

“He’s the glue. He is awesome,’’ McCollum said. “He does a lot of the dirty work and doesn’t get a lot of credit. Gets a lot of rebounds. Plays defense. Switches … makes threes for us. He’s big.’’

He will have to be big Saturday night for the Blazers in Milwaukee. Aminu figures to be one of the Blazers’ wings who will be charged with slowing down the Bucks’ do-it-all star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is leading the NBA in scoring at 35.5 points a game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

The Talkin' Ball panel discusses Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler being dropped from the Top 50 list. 

Casey Holdahl of the Trail Blazers' writes about the post game of Evan Turner

The Indianapolis Star writes about Caleb Swanigan being a steal in the draft.

Bleacher Report takes a look at whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the game. 

 

How and where to watch the game: Trail Blazers at Bucks

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How and where to watch the game: Trail Blazers at Bucks

If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, now you can stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  And, if you can’t stream it on the NBC Sports App you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.

On Saturday night, the Portland Trail Blazers (2-0) will conclude its three-game road trip to start the season.  Saturday’s contest is a back-to-back game for the Blazers as Portland gets its toughest test yet taking on the Milwaukee Bucks (1-1).

The Blazers are coming off a 114-97 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. It was the 2017-18 season debut for CJ McCollum in Friday’s win after serving a one-game suspension in the season-opener.  McCollum led the way scoring 28 points.  McCollum also pulled down seven rebounds. 

Damian Lillard added 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while Al-Farouq Aminu finished with a double-double with 16 points and 16 rebounds.   Off the bench, Evan Turner added 17 points.

Portland held the Pacers to under 100 points after Indiana had scored 140 points in its season opener vs. the Nets.

The Bucks will also be playing in the second leg of back-to-back when Milwaukee hosts Portland.  The Bucks lost their home opener to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday, 116-97.  

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and three steals in the home loss on Friday.  Malcom Brogdon added 16 points.  Antetokounmpo and Brogodn were the only Buck players to reach double-figures.

Through the first two games of the Bucks season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 35.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and three steals.

For Saturday’s injury reports, the Blazers will again be without Noah Vonleh (right shoulder).  The Bucks are going to without Jabari Parker (left knee surgery rehabilitation).

Last season, Portland dropped both games against Milwaukee and the last time the Trail Blazers won in Milwaukee was back in November of 2013.

Our Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams will help set the stage for the Trail Blazers and Bucks contest with Rip City Live on NBC Sports Northwest starting at 4:30pm.

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out our pregame coverage with The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 5:00pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest.
 


Quick Links:

Welcome Back CJ! Blazers roll to 2-0

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense


 

Video:  CJ McCollum: The Return

Video:  CJ being CJ and all hail The Chief

Video:  McCollum says Aminu is the glue + rookie D is about not vomiting

Video:  Jason Quick: Hello 2-0


 

Game Details:

Where:  BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee WI

Tip-off: 5:30pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

CSN Programming:  Rip City Live (4:30pm), Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming of the game: Watch the game on your phone on the NBC Sports App.  Download the  app at http://www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile .  Or check out NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream online.
Live streaming of NBCS programing: The Scoop Pregame Show streams at 5:00pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

INDIANAPOLIS – The Trail Blazers rolled past their second straight opponent Friday night, this time a 114-96 dusting of the Indiana Pacers, and once again all anyone wanted to talk about was the Blazers’ improved defense.

Portland is 2-0 in the regular season, and dating back to the preseason has won seven in a row, all of the games examples of a connected, alert and active defense.

“We’re playing defense,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said when asked what he likes most about the Blazers’ start. “I mean, in the past it hasn’t been one of our strongest suits, and this year, top to bottom, everybody is playing defense.’’

So how can a roster where 12 of the 14 players are the same as last season make what appears to be such a dramatic turnaround?

The answer is layered, but may best be explained with two simple concepts: The Blazers, Aminu says, are talking more on defense; and that communication is happening, CJ McCollum says, because the players are finally seasoned enough to know what to talk about on defense.

“Early on in your career you don’t talk because you don’t know,’’ McCollum said. “What do you say? If you don’t know what is going on, what do you talk about?’’

When teams bring up defensive communication, it could be anything from recognizing and then anticipating another team’s play, to calling out screens, to letting teammates know where they have help.

They are subtle developments that come through film study, game experience and repetition.

McCollum, for example, says as he begins his fifth season, he is talking more than ever.

“A lot more,’’ McCollum said. “My rookie year, I didn’t say anything, I was just trying not to vomit on myself … going down the court just trying to stay in the right spot and try not to mess up.  Think about it, you are young, you don’t know. All I know is: ‘Go score.’ That’s it.’’

The Blazers for the past three seasons have been among the youngest in the NBA. But that youth has experience. Damian Lillard has been a starter going on six seasons. McCollum is going on his third season as a starter. And Aminu and Harkless are beginning their third season where they are paired as interchangeable defensive forwards.

So even though Portland starts this season with the fourth youngest roster in the NBA (24.317 years), it is a roster that has not only played a lot of games, but done it together.

So now, Lillard and McCollum can recognize a team’s play call and can better anticipate where they need to be. And Harkless and Aminu are doing a better job communicating where and when their help is coming from the weakside.

“The big change that I’ve noticed is just how much we are talking,’’ Aminu said. “Guys are saying the coverages … and it becomes contagious.’’

After two games, Blazers' opponents have combined to shoot 37.7 percent from the field.

But that doesn't mean the Blazers’ defense is a finished product, or that there still aren’t lapses.

On Friday in Indiana, on the Pacers’ second offensive play, forward Bojan Bogdanovic went backdoor on Maurice Harkless for a layin. Irritated he wasn’t alerted to a back screen, Harkless motioned with his hands that his teammates needed to talk to him.

Still, coach Terry Stotts was pleased Friday with the overall defensive effort, particularly the team’s transition defense, which has been a point of emphasis.

And while nobody is going to confuse the Blazers’ first two opponents – Phoenix and Indiana – with a playoff-caliber team in the West, they are both teams that last year put up 118 points on the Blazers. That fact wasn't lost on Lillard.

"We came in here ready to guard,'' Lillard said. "We’ve had a lot of fun actually playing defense; we see what it can do for us.''

 

Welcome Back CJ! Blazers roll to 2-0

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Welcome Back CJ! Blazers roll to 2-0

Early on in this young season the Trail Blazers defense looks much improved and is a big reason they are 2-0 following a 114-96 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday. Portland scored 62 points in the first half, and defensively was giving the Pacers fits. The second half started sloppy, but then CJ caught fire, scoring the final 12 points of the third quarter. Once The Closers checked in, it was all over. 


Final Score: Portland 114 - Pacer 96

Trail Blazers' defense to get biggest test to date tonight against Pacers

Trail Blazers' defense to get biggest test to date tonight against Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS – So is this Trail Blazers’ defense for real, or what?

Portland on Friday night will get its best answer to date whether its defense is indeed new-and-improved when it plays at Indiana, which is coming off a 140-131 win over Brooklyn on opening night.

The Blazers’ defense looked great during the preseason, but Toronto played without DeMar DeRozan, the Clippers without Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers, and the Kings without four of five starters.

Then in the season opener, a 124-76 win at Phoenix, the Suns looked like a team that will vie for the worst record in the league.

It’s why coach Terry Stotts and the players have taken a cautiously optimistic approach when it comes to crowning the Blazers’ D as rehabilitated from last year’s disaster.

“It’s one game,’’ Damian Lillard cautioned after the Suns win. “I was happy to see it carry over. From camp, to preseason, then come the first road game, we did it again. We showed what we can do if we are committed to the defensive end.’’

While the Pacers figure to be a middle-of-the-road team in the East, they will be a better test than the rebuilding Suns. Plus, behind guards Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Corey Joseph, the Pacers are emphasizing a fast-paced approach under coach Nate McMillan.

“Nate has done an unbelievable job of letting us take the onus as point guards, and kind of let us run the show,’’ Collison told the Indy Star. “He was a point guard himself. He knows what it’s like to let us see the game, instead of micromanaging every single play. If we can play like that, call a guard game, play with one another, we will be all right.’’

The Pacers’ 140 points was the franchise’s opening night record, and if there has been a soft spot in the Blazers’ defense during the preseason and the opener, it has been in transition.

But the Blazers have been as active and connected as we’ve seen since the days when Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez vaulted Portland into the Top 10 in defense.

Stotts has repeatedly referred to this defense as “alert” and “focused” and on Wednesday in Phoenix the trio of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu on the perimeter was as imposing collection of arms and length as I can remember from a Blazers team.

So another game, another test to see whether the Blazers really are ready to defend. Should be interesting. NBC Sports Northwest will carry the game at 4 p.m. with Rip City Live pregame show starting at 3 p.m.

Today's Blazers' links:

I wrote about Evan Turner and his defensive job on Devin Booker.

The Indy Star previewed tonight's game.

It's an Indiana homecoming for Pat Connaughton and Caleb Swanigan.