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.’’ 

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

usatsi_10360785_147386290_lowres.jpg

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

usatsi_9963053.jpg

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

usatsi_10357738_147386290_lowres.jpg

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.

 

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

usatsi_9993940.jpg

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

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.

The Portland Trail Blazers continue its three-game road trip with a stop in Indiana on Friday night to take on the Pacers.  Portland is coming off a 124-76, opening night win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. The 48-point victory was the largest margin of victory on any opening night in NBA history.

The big story of the opening night was Pat Connaughton and his career-night of 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting all coming off the bench for the Blazers. Damian Lillard was the one to lead the charge, though, with 27 points, five assists and five rebounds.

Friday night against the Pacers will mark the first game of the season for CJ McCollum after McCollum was suspended for opening night for stepping foot on the court during an October 11th preseason game when Blazer rookie Caleb Swanigan got in an altercation with Suns big man Alex Len.

Looking at the injury report for Portland, rookie Zach Collins (gastroenteritis) is listed as probable after missing the season opener on Wednesday night and forward Noah Vonleh (right shoulder) is still out for Friday’s game.

As for the Pacers, Indiana beat the Brooklyn Nets, 140-131, on Wednesday night.  Friday’s contest will be the second game for the new look Pacers (minus Paul George).  This is an obvious rebuilding time for Indiana, as the Pacers returned just five players from last season. 

In Wednesday’s win over the Nets, Myles Turner scored 21 points and pulled down 14 rebounds.  And, in their debuts as Indiana Pacers, Victor Oladipo had 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and Domantas Sabonis added16 points and had seven rebounds.

Last season Portland and Indiana split the season series with each team winning on its home courts.

Our Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams will help set the stage for the Blazers and Pacers contest with Rip City Live on NBC Sports Northwest starting at 3:00pm.

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 3:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest.
 


Quick Links:

It was just one game, Blazer fans – but what a game it was

Evan Turner helps lock down Devin Booker, then praises Suns’ rising star

Report: Blazers sign Wade Baldwin to two-way deal

 

Video:  Highlight: Blazers 124, Suns 76

Video:  Connaughton: Be the same guy day in and day out

Video:  Lillard: You couldn’t ask for a better effort

Video:  Dwight doubles down on Pat Connaughton

 

Game Details:

Where:  Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN

Tip-off: 4:00pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

CSN Programming:  Rip City Live (3:00pm), 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 3:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620