Blazers' top stories: The maturation of Lillard and McCollum and Swanigan's emergence

Blazers' top stories: The maturation of Lillard and McCollum and Swanigan's emergence

Observations, notes and top stories from the Trail Blazers’ media day on Monday:

The maturation of Lillard and McCollum

One of the most encouraging things I heard throughout Monday’s media day came from the team’s two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

There are often phases that an NBA player goes through during their career, one that former Blazers coach Nate McMillan first brought to my attention years ago. It usually evolves something like this: young player wants to make a name for himself; then he wants to make money, buy fancy cars, soak in the fame. But eventually, some players find they have enough fame and enough money. That’s when winning becomes paramount in their careers.

Some never come to that realization. For others it comes late in their careers.

On Monday, after listening to Lillard and McCollum, the concept of winning-above-all has already resonated with the Blazers’ two stars.

When asked by The Oregonian’s Jen Beyrle what would be a successful season for him, Lillard gave an answer that spoke beyond his 27 years.

“For me, it’s how much can I impact everybody else?’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think stats will tell the story, I don’t think making an All-Star Game will tell the story. I just think how much I can impact everybody else and lift everybody else up to make us a stronger team overall. How can I empower everybody else to where we are a winning team? That’s the next thing for me – how can I make this team go, how can I help us win games?’’

Later, after McCollum talked about being more concerned with winning games than his stats, I asked him about that evolution in his thinking. He said once he fought to show he could play, then secured a long-term contract, it was easier to get to the core of what it is all about: winning.

“There comes a time when you mature and understand that for one, you make a lot of money … so I have a comfort there, and a confidence because I worked hard, but now it’s about winning,’’ McCollum said. “I’ve proven myself. And I’ve said before, I will be a better player this year and the numbers may show it, they may not. But the complete package – from leadership to doing the right things off the court to making the extra pass, to defending, to boxing out – whatever it takes I just want to win. Because as you’ve seen in the past – people forget about certain things but they don’t about winning. Winning lasts forever.’’

Lillard, I believe, has long held winning above all else. This isn’t a revelation to him. But I still cringed at times when he rattled off his offensive stats in defense of his defense, or became consumed with his resume of All-Star appearances and the like. To hear him prioritize making players around him better, and concerning himself with figuring out ways to elevate those around him? It’s another sign that he is headed for greatness.

For McCollum, who will be playing in the first year of his $106 million deal, it is another indication of how he values his place and his legacy. Perhaps more so than any other Blazer, McCollum seems to have a career plan carefully mapped out, right down to his retirement portfolio. That plan is centered around leaving a legacy, as he likes to say, both on and off the court. Just 26, McCollum knows that the foundation of a legacy is better rooted in wins than stats.

Can’t ask to hear better stuff from your team’s stars.

Nurkic and the Blazers’ ‘trash’ defense

One of the more entertaining – but meaningful -- exchanges on Monday involved Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic who tried to suggest these Blazers take on the tough guy persona of the Bad Boys era in Detroit.

But aside from his questionable grasp of history (he likened the Bad Boys not to Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, etc. but instead to Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace), his point was spot on: The Blazers need to be tougher and play better defense.

“We need to play defense, number one,’’ Nurkic said. “Our defense was trash, to be honest, before … and we are going to be better. We are going to prove that. It’s simple: if you want to win, you have to play defense.’’

We’ve heard September talk by the Blazers about the importance of defense before, without great follow through until a mid-to-late-season breakthrough. The Blazers’ late-season defensive improvement last season coincided with Nurkic’s February arrival and the improved health of Al-Farouq Aminu, but it will be interesting to see if this team can establish a defensive identity early.

Do Blazers have a Biggie surprise?

Perhaps nothing raised the eyebrows more than hearing Blazers’ veterans heap effusive and widespread praise upon rookie big man Caleb Swanigan.

From the sounds of it, the No. 26 overall pick has the stuff to crack the rotation.

After Lillard said Swanigan had caught his attention over the last month during pickup games at the team’s practice facility, I asked Lillard if what he was seeing from Swanigan was good enough to play right away in the NBA.

“Yeah,’’ Lillard said confidently. “He’s definitely good enough to play right now.’’

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan, who averaged 18.5 points and 12.5 rebounds for Purdue last season, appears to have a blend of Jerome Kersey hustle and Zach Randolph savvy around the basket.

“Very impressive,’’ Lillard said. “Just his confidence, how physical he was, and he has a knack for finding the ball … He’s just very sure of himself, and you don’t see that in rookies all the time.’’

Maurice Harkless said Swanigan “definitely” surprised him during pickup games.

“In my opinion, he’s been great so far,’’ Harkless said, adding that he too thinks Swanigan can play right away.

Portland fans can get their first views of Swanigan -- who goes by the  nickname "Biggie" -- on Sunday at the team’s Fan Fest (1 p.m.) or the team’s first exhibition on Oct. 3 against Phoenix.

What will they see?

“Constant effort,’’ Swanigan said.

Ed Davis back, and with a goal

Probably the most direct goal on Monday came from veteran Ed Davis, who says he wants to win the team’s vacant starting power forward spot.

Davis, a key element to the Blazers’ 44-win team two years ago, said he was cleared Monday by doctors to compete in 5-on-5 action after having his left shoulder surgically repaired last spring.

Last season, the Blazers first started Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward then transitioned to Noah Vonleh after Aminu struggled with injuries. Entering Tuesday’s first practice, Vonleh is out for at least a month because of an injured right shoulder and coach Terry Stotts said he envisions playing Aminu this season at both forward positions.

“My goal is I want to start,’’ Davis said. “I feel like that four position is open.’’

Davis, who is entering the final year of his contract, said he doesn’t need much to motivate him.

“I’m self motivated. I don’t need to go on Twitter or Instagram to get extra motivation … but it is a good thing as a player when you know there’s a chance you can start and play big minutes.’’

Harkless goal: Improve free throws

One of the biggest complaints from fans I hear over the years is why more NBA players don’t prioritize improving at the free throw line.

So it was refreshing to hear Monday that Harkless spent part of his summer working on his free throw stroke. Last season, Harkless shot 62.1 percent from the line, which raised his career percentage to 59.6 percent.

Harkless said he has set a goal for what he wants to shoot at the line, but declined to reveal it.

“My goal, my business,’’ he said.

The key to becoming  better at the line, Harkless said, is focus.

“A lot of it is just being able to focus more, block out everything else going on,’’ Harkless said. “I’ve always been a good shooter in practice and when I’m by myself. But over the course of a game a lot of things go in and out of your head when you are at the free throw line … I just have to be able to block out everything else.’’ 

Minnesota hands Portland its third loss in a row

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Minnesota hands Portland its third loss in a row

The Blazers hit the road on last Tuesday and picked up an impressive win over the Thunder. It looked like the Blazers may have been readt to turn the corner and grab some big wins on the road. That was not the case. The Blazers dropped their third game in a row on Sunday, a 120-103 blowout to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Portland led 33-31 after the first quarter, but it quickly fell apart. The Blazers scored just 10 points in the second quarter, at one point going more than seven minutes without a bucket. In that same time the T’Wolves went on a 14-0 run and blew the doors open. The Blazers never recovered.

Final Score: Timberwolves 120 – Blazers 103

Next up: The Blazers return home to play the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday. Coverage begins at 5pm on NBC Sports Northwest and on the NBC Sports App

Podcast:

Nothing easy for the Blazers in NOLA

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Nothing easy for the Blazers in NOLA

The Blazers traveled to the Big Easy on Friday, and the trip was anything but easy. The Blazers came out of the gate strong, but found themselves down by as many as 16 points in the second quarter. Portland was able to claw back and head to the locker room tied 61-61 at halftime, but were unable to get over the hump in the second half. The Blazers took a season high 42 three-point shots, but only hit on 12 of them (28.6%). You live by the sword, you die by the sword, and tonight's poor shooting from deep killed the Blazers.  

Final Score: Pelicans 119 – Blazers 113

Next up: The Blazers wrap up this four-game road trip with a stop in Minnesota on Sunday. Coverage begins at 5:00pm on NBC Sports Northwest, and on the NBC Sports App.  

Lillard's return can’t down the Rockets

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Lillard's return can’t down the Rockets

The Blazers fell victim to the dreaded second night of a back-to-back, and their tired legs couldn’t keep up with the Houston Rockets. The bright side was that Damain Lillard finally returned to the lineup, but it just wasn’t enough to beat the Harden-less Rockets. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon were unstoppable, combining for  67 points on the night. And in his return Lillard showed no signs of rust, scoring a team-high 29 points. Now it’s on to New Orleans to see if they can get back in the win column.

Final Score: Rockets 121 – Blazers 112

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Lillard knows it sounds crazy, but the best thing that might have happened to the Trail Blazers this season is his recent bout with hamstring and calf injuries.

With Lillard forced to miss seven of the team’s past nine games, a funny thing has happened to the once struggling Blazers: the offense has found its groove, role players have emerged, and the team has gone 6-3.

Blessing in disguise?

“Definitely,’’ Lillard said of his time on the sideline. “The last two years that’s what it seems to be the case. I get hurt and guys have to step up.’’

The latest and most emphatic example came Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the Blazers routed the Thunder 117-106 behind an All-Star-like 27 points from CJ McCollum, an efficient 20-points from Jusuf Nurkic, and another steady fill-in performance from Shabazz Napier (21 points). Topping off the best performance of the season was sterling bench contributions from Pat Connaughton (10 points), Zach Collins (nine points) and Maurice Harkless (nine points).

It was another affirmation that the team’s dormant offense was awakening. In the last five games, the Blazers have scored 124, 110, 110, 111 and now 117 – outputs that have been punctuated by rapid ball movement, crisp cutting and a blend of inside and outside play.

“We are forced to play that way because I’m not playing,’’ Lillard said after the Thunder win. “Because we have to lean on each other. That’s not to say we don’t when I’m playing, but there’s so much more opportunity out there.’’

Around an already smiling Blazers locker room, nothing caused players to laugh more than to suggest Lillard’s theory that his absence may turn out to be a good thing. 

“I don’t think Damian Lillard getting hurt is ever a blessing,’’ Connaughton said. “However, I think it has allowed guys to at least see what an extended role in their NBA career would look like. And that has value. There’s validity to the fact that guys have stepped up and have shown things they can do that they might otherwise not.’’

Added Ed Davis: “Obviously, we want him out there, but when your star player goes down, other guys have to step up and there is going to be more shots, more movement and that helps us in the long run. Confidence wise guys like Pat, Bazz is playing well, Moe … it has helped them. So sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise.’’

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 12-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Lillard said he is unsure if he will play Wednesday in Houston. On Tuesday, he had a morning workout, then an extensive pregame workout where he pushed himself, followed by a conditioning session that left him drenched in sweat and catching his breath.

The next hurdle, Lillard and his teammates say, is keeping the same rhythm and momentum when he does return to the lineup.

“The biggest thing is making sure when he gets back, that things don’t change,’’ Connaughton said. “In the sense of guys are still being aggressive, guys are still moving without the ball, and things that we can and have done in the past.’’

Napier, who has been a star in Lillard’s absence, said he thinks the Blazers were beginning to find their offensive footing even before Lillard became injured.

“No one person can make up what he does, so it has to be a collective group, everyone has to pitch in,’’ said Napier, who in six starts is averaging 18.7 points. “But I always felt like we were trending that way when he was playing.’’

Lillard agreed, saying the Blazers’ loss at Cleveland and home rout of Atlanta were the first steps to show the offense was coming along.

“So I think (when he does return) I just have to play the same way as always – make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Right now, that once sputtering offense that had a devil of a time making layins and close-range shots, is starting to cook. Nurkic is starting to make more of his layins, McCollum has found a better balance of passing and shot-making, and the team has made more cuts and dunks in the past week than seemingly all season.

“The shot making is the biggest thing,’’ Lillard said. “You make shots and you keep defenses honest. Tonight, we were running offense and (Oklahoma City) didn’t know what to do. CJ and Bazz were hitting, Nurk was finishing, Moe was cutting … now you get down the stretch, and they are trying to make a run, and we are picking them apart. Because we had been doing it all game. It’s not like this is a flash in the pan.’’

So maybe, just maybe, the player the Blazers could least afford to be injured was a good thing. Or maybe the team was already trending in this direction. Either way, it was symbolic of the Blazers offense that McCollum left the locker room feasting on some bread.

The Blazers’ offense is back, eating up opponent’s defenses once again.

“We have been saying so much about our offense: ‘It’s going to come around … It’s going to come around ‘… and y’all like, When?’’ Lillard said with a smile. “And now, it’s happening.’’

Road trippin' done right in OKC

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Road trippin' done right in OKC

The Blazers hit the road for a four-game road trip, and it started with a bang in Oklahoma City. The Blazers played well in the first half, taking a four-point lead into the locker room at halftime. But in the second half it went from good to great. The Blazers outscored the Thunder 34-26 in the third quarter, and pushed the lead to 20-plus in the fourth. It was a great way to start the road trip, and it may just be one of the Blazers best wins of the year.

Final Score: Blazers 117 – Thunder 106

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard wakes up to good news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health issues to once again sideline Blazers radio announcer Brian Wheeler

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Health issues to once again sideline Blazers radio announcer Brian Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

Dame who? Blazers take down Spurs anyways

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Dame who? Blazers take down Spurs anyways

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

Box Score: Portland 111, San Antonio 110

Quick Hits:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more consistent Nurkic]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillard tensed up when offered that reasoning.

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

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

**

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

“On the line.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s our guy,’’ Davis said.