Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

Breakfast with the Blazers: Halfway through preseason, defense 'solid'

SACRAMENTO – The Trail Blazers are halfway through their preseason schedule and are nine days away from the season opener at Phoenix.

Here is a primer to catch you up on the top developments and storylines:

An improved defense?

The Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them this season, and like always, it was a preseason goal to improve.

After three games: So far, so good.

The Clippers – playing without starters Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari – shot 40.2 percent and Toronto, which played without DeMar DeRozan, shot 40 percent from the field. And in the first game against Phoenix, the Suns shot 40.7 percent through the first three quarters before recording a 41-point fourth quarter during which they made 15-of-22 shots against the end of the Blazers’ bench.

Now, it’s preseason and there were key offensive players resting and different lineups being used, so you have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. But there were a couple of developments that coach Terry Stotts liked.

Against Toronto, there were moments when Stotts deviated from his conservative approach by having the big “show”  (make an effort to impede the ball handler) on pick-and-roll, while also showing traps on All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. It flustered Lowry into five turnovers, and the Raptors overall into 20.

Then on Sunday at the Clippers, Stotts called a first-quarter timeout with the Blazers trailing 15-3. If the Clippers weren’t lobbing for dunks, they were hitting wide-open threes as the Blazers scrambled to close out. He pointed out to the team that the bigs were playing too high, allowing DeAndre Jordan to run behind for lobs, and the weakside wasn’t tight enough to contest kickout passes to the three-point line.

After the timeout, the Clippers still got two more lob dunks by Willie Reed, but overall the wide open three’s became contested and the interior was better protected.

“The weakside defense got over a lot better,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We made an adjustment and pretty much cut (the lobs and dunks) out for the rest of the game.’’

Stotts described the Blazers’ preseason defense as “solid.”

“The first game, our transition defense was poor, but we have gotten better at that,’’ Stotts said. “We’ve improved each game … on the whole it has been pretty solid.’’

ET at ease

Evan Turner looks much more comfortable and dangerous offensively this season, which was probably best on display Sunday against the Clippers when he had eight assists.

Turner spent much of last season playing in fits and starts, and it just looked like everything was a struggle as he tried to understand the offense and his new teammates. This season, he looks like he is just playing, and that freedom is revealing his vision and smarts.

Through the first three games, Stotts has been able to get Turner into lineups that expose the defense by forcing them to place a smaller guard on Turner. That allows Turner – at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds – to post up and go to work, either shooting over the guard or forcing teams to double him, where he then finds an open teammate.

Against Phoenix, he bullied and scored on Eric Bledsoe inside, then against Toronto he shot over Kyle Lowry. On Sunday at the Clippers, whenever he backed down Lou Williams or guard Juwan Evans, Turner surveyed the court and found the right man. Twice he found Ed Davis for dunks, and he located Harkless on the perimeter for a three-pointer while also passing out to Jusuf Nurkic for open mid-range jumpers.

“Evan sees the floor tremendously well, always,’’ Harkless said. “And being able to get him in the post, especially against smaller guys, they have to double team and that opens up everything else. He’s constantly looking for people. His IQ is really high.’’

Turner shrugs off the notion that he is more comfortable, I think mostly because he doesn’t like the idea that he was uncomfortable last season.

“I think my comfort level comes from calling plays, seeing things,’’ Turner said. “It’s just natural reads, natural basketball. It’s the way I grew up playing the game.’’

If Turner can’t see a change in his comfort level, his teammates do. His shot selection, his patience in finding the open man, his aggressive ball-handling … it all adds up to a valuable asset.

“It’s really important, really important because it shows his comfort level,’’ Lillard said. “He was patient as guys cut on weakside … he made them pay for it. It’s another option for us when things aren’t going well.”

Lillard on alert

Nobody on the Blazers sets a tone like Lillard, and it has been clear this preseason that the team captain is not going to be tolerating another slow start this season.

Lillard has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and was scorching on Sunday on his way to 35 points in 26 minutes.

“Honestly man, I didn’t know how bad it was until the end of the third quarter and I looked up and I was like, 35?’’ Harkless said. “That shows you how easy it comes for him.’’

 Tonight, the Blazers play in Sacramento on the back end of a back-to-back and Stotts said he plans to play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes. McCollum said he is welcoming a format where he plays longer minutes with more set lineups.

“I think (Monday) we will treat it more like a regular season game,’’ McCollum said.

Today's Blazers links:

I wrote about Lillard wanting to set the proper tone in preseason.

Ian Karmel stopped by for some hijinks after the Clippers game.

I talked about Caleb Swanigan and answered questions in this podcast.

Casey Holdahl of the Blazers recaps Sunday's game.

The streak is over, but high hopes remain for a deep playoff run


The streak is over, but high hopes remain for a deep playoff run

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both struggled vs. the Rockets, going a combined 9 for 32 from the floor as the Trail Blazers 13-game winning streak was snapped by the best in the West. Up next the Blazers look to rebound vs. the Boston Celtics on Friday night. 

Box Score: Houston 115, Portland 111

Quick Hit:


The Blazers bunch... That's the way they became the Blazers Bunch

The Blazers bunch... That's the way they became the Blazers Bunch

It's the story
Of the Portland Trail Blazers
Who have been busy winning 13 straight games
They were 15 men
Leaning on each other 
And they knew they weren’t all alone

No one knows that one day when things started clicking
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group must somehow form a family
That's the way we all became the Blazers bunch

The Blazers bunch, the Blazers bunch
That's the way they became the Blazers bunch

Lean on Me: Blazers streak defined by familiar theme

Lean on Me: Blazers streak defined by familiar theme

LOS ANGELES – On Sunday night, shortly after Portland had won its 13th consecutive game, an odd thing happened in the Trail Blazers locker room.

In separate interviews, at separate times, three different players used the same phrase to explain the Blazers’ sudden rise to NBA prominence:

“We are leaning on each other.”

First Maurice Harkless said it. Then Shabazz Napier. And finally, Damian Lillard.

Certainly, it seemed, with so many players saying the same thing, this had become a rallying cry, or at least a concept driven home by coach Terry Stotts and his staff during what has become the second-longest winning streak in franchise history (16 is the Portland record).

But in a fitting example that mirrors their about-face, the lean-on-me trait was more organic.

“We haven’t talked about it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s just the best way to describe it. That’s just what we are doing. You just have to trust (teammates) will make the right play, trust they will knock down the shot, trust they will be there in help-side (defense), trust they will tell you a screen is coming. And we are just doing it.’’

The lean-on-me concept has taken shape in different forms. Sometimes, as Lillard pointed out, it can be in a play such as Al-Farouq Aminu coming to double-team as Tobias Harris tried to post up Lillard Sunday.

Other times, it can be a player picking up another teammate for an entire game, as the streak has been best defined by different players emerging in starring roles on different nights.

If Jusuf Nurkic has struggled, Ed Davis has been there to pick up the slack. And if Davis fouls out in 11 minutes, as he did Sunday against the Clippers, Nurkic is there to record a double-double while adding four blocks.

And while Lillard has been spectacular, including put-the-team-on-his-back moments in miracle comebacks at the Lakers and Suns, there have been plenty of co-stars along the way.

Napier made a big steal of Isaiah Thomas in the final seconds of the Lakers win. Zach Collins had a coming-of-age performance against Oklahoma City. Al-Farouq Aminu has made game-clinching three-pointers against Miami, Cleveland and Detroit. Evan Turner played important late-game defense against Golden State and made a clinching basket against Cleveland. Harkless was a spark against the Clippers. Ed Davis has had more big moments than he can flex at, and CJ McCollum has had dominant scoring stretches, particularly against the Cavaliers.

“That’s what teams do,’’ Stotts said. “Not everybody is going to have a night every night, and whether it’s Shabazz or Pat (Connaughton), or Ed … we’ve had different guys off the bench to have an impact. Different guys have the ability to make plays.’’

For the past month, Lillard has been trumpeting the well-rounded performance of the roster. He says he is trusting and his teammates more than ever before. As a result, the Blazers’ surge has been empowering for the roster.

“In the past, when teams have made a run, I’ve gone out there and tried to will us in the right way, or CJ will try it,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, we are leaning on each other … we are trusting each other and guys are coming through, getting big time blocks, big time steals, big rebounds, free throws. The more connected we are, the better we will be, and it’s showing.’’

On Tuesday, the Blazers will go for 14 in a row against Houston, the team with the NBA’s best record. Who will be the star? Who will make the big shot? The big defensive play?

Unlike in year’s past, that answer is hard to say for sure. And that, the Blazers say, is what defines them, and this streak.

“I think it just shows how much we are leaning on each other,’’ Harkless said. “We are trusting each other. We are doing this together, and that’s going to be important moving forward.’’

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

USA Today

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

If you see a member of the Trail Blazers in public, try not to get too close. There is a high chance you could burn yourself because this team is on fire! The Blazers went to Los Angeles on Sunday and dismantled the Clippers, 122-109 for their thirteenth win in a row. That’s right – 13 wins in a row! Portland continues to hold on to the three seed in the Western Conference, and now has a two game lead on No.4 Oklahoma City. 

Box Score: Blazers 122 – Clippers 109

Next up:  The Blazers play host to the league leading Houston Rockets (56-14) on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7:30pm at Moda Center. 

Quck Hit: 

Make it a dozen in a row!


Make it a dozen in a row!

You've heard it a lot lately, but it happened again. The Blazers have now won 12 straight after running the Detroit Pistons out of Moda Center on Saturday night. Damian Lillard played a complete game finishing with 24 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Up next, the Blazers go for a baker's dozen tomorrow night in LA vs. the Clippers. 

Box Score: Portland 100, Detroit 87

Quick Hits: 

With emergence of trust in teammates, Lillard Time expands for Blazers

With emergence of trust in teammates, Lillard Time expands for Blazers

While much of the glory has been given to Damian Lillard during the Trail Blazers’ 11-game winning streak, a subtle development has emerged on the fringe of the spotlight:

More than ever before, Lillard is trusting his teammates.

And they are delivering.

Lillard’s trust was on full display Thursday during the Blazers’ 113-105 victory over Cleveland, when he made two heady assists in the closing minutes that thwarted a LeBron James-led comeback.

“People during this streak have asked me about leading the charge,’’ Lillard said. “But I keep telling them that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing unless everybody else was carrying their weight.’’

On Thursday, much of the weight was carried by fellow star CJ McCollum, who scored 29 points, but it was two late-game plays by Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner that illustrates the team’s growth, and Lillard’s trust.

On the heels of a 14-2 run, Cleveland was within 105-102 with just less than three minutes left, which usually triggers that special trait in the Blazers’ point guard known as Lillard Time.

Sensing this, the Cavaliers put James on Lillard, and when Lillard took James to the basket, it drew Jordan Clarkson into the paint. But instead of forcing a shot, Lillard kicked out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who nailed a three-pointer with 2:38 left.

On the next Blazers’ possession, Lillard missed, but the rebound was tapped back to him in the corner with Cleveland’s Kyle Korver in front of him. As Lillard sized up the situation, James came to Korver and indicated he would guard the Blazers’ star.

Inside the Blazers, Turner is hailed as one of the team’s smartest players, and he instantly recognized that with James on Lillard, it meant Korver would be left to guard him.

“Personally, I thought they were trippin’,’’ Turner said. “I was like, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. They are really switching. I mean, Korver is a great player and a great shooter and all that, but I feel great in the post, and over the years I’ve had a decent amount of success against people his size and smaller.’’

So Turner slashed through the lane and immediately established post position on Korver.

Flashback to last season and think of a six-point game, less than two minutes left, in the middle of a playoff push  … would Lillard give up the ball there?

“No,’’ Lillard said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have recognized that play, but I feel like  … ET has gotten comfortable and we’ve seen him go to the block and be successful.’’

So instead of taking it upon himself to seal the game, Lillard didn’t hesitate and fed Turner the ball. Turner immediately went to his bread-and-butter and backed Korver down into the paint, where he scored with 1:49 left.

“Very unselfish,’’ Turner said of Lillard. “It was huge. In that part of the game, a critical part, to trust me enough in a mismatch, and be aware of my strength … it was great.’’

Does Turner think Lillard would have done that last season, Turner’s first in Portland?

“I don’t really know,’’ Turner said. “Because I don’t want to take away from Dame. He’s smart and always tries to do the right thing. But I will say, one thing we have been doing great lately is moving the ball.’’

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he didn't want to read too much into one play, but he liked what he saw late from Lillard.

"That was a sign of trust and recognition,’’ Stotts said.

Lillard says the two late-game plays – part of his nine-assist night - were an illustration of how the Blazers have become a more well-rounded and dependable team. Sure, during this streak he is averaging 31.7 points, and has willed this team to victories at Phoenix and the Lakers, but he no longer feels the burden to do it all himself.

This team, he says, thinks. This team communicates. And this team has different players elevate their play on different nights.

“Us leaning on each other is as big as anything,’’ Lillard said. “We have to lean on each other.’’

Not one, not two, not three... ELEVEN in a row


Not one, not two, not three... ELEVEN in a row

Another game night and another Trail Blazers' victim as Portland extends its winning streak to 11 games by taking down LeBron James and Cavs! Portland's dynamic duo did it again as CJ McCollum (29 points) and Damian Lillard (24 points, 9 assists) led the charge. LeBron James poured in 35 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Up Next: Detroit on Saturday night.

Box Score: Portland 113, Cleveland 105

Quick Hits:

Awaiting birth of his son, Damian Lillard eyes schedule

USA Today

Awaiting birth of his son, Damian Lillard eyes schedule

For Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ playoff push isn’t the only thing in a stretch run these days.

Lillard and his girlfriend are expecting a son, with March 19 as the projected due date. That could affect the star guard’s availability - the Blazers are in Los Angeles on March 18 for a game against the Clippers, and Lillard said he would fly home and miss the game if his girlfriend went into labor.

Lillard, who is enjoying the best season of his six-year career, said being a father has been on his mind throughout this season, but he said it hasn’t changed his play.

“I’ve always known it was going to happen; I mean, he’s going to come,’’ Lillard said.

The Blazers also have games March 20 against Houston and March 23 against Boston, but both are at home. The Blazers then go on a five-day, three-game trip to Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis.


Tough Love: How Blazers' coach Terry Stotts is reaching Jusuf Nurkic

Tough Love: How Blazers' coach Terry Stotts is reaching Jusuf Nurkic

Throughout this Trail Blazers season, an important development has been unfolding on the sidelines: the coaching of Jusuf Nurkic by Terry Stotts.

In probably one of his more dogged and pointed undertakings in his six seasons as coach of the Blazers, Stotts this season has been relentless in his pursuit of excellence from the 23-year-old center.

“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in practice. In huddles. He will get after him,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Stotts acknowledged that this season, and in particular the past two months, he has taken great effort to reach Nurkic.

“I think I’ve probably given him more attention than other guys,’’ Stotts said.

Sometimes it has been through film study. Sometimes it has been with a sharp reminder. And a few times, it has been a reduction in Nurkic’s minutes.

In all, Nurkic doesn’t dispute that Stotts has been hard on him.

[Buy Now - Blazers Pass for access to Blazer games if you don't get NBCS Northwest!]

“He should,’’ Nurkic said. “I’m 23 years old. I’m still growing up. In basketball, it’s my fourth year, and almost like my second in the NBA. It’s a learning process for me.’’

Lillard, who does his own share of mentoring Nurkic, has watched Stotts deal with Nurkic with a curious eye. He says what Stotts has done with Nurkic underscores the most “underrated” facet of Stotts’ coaching – the ability to get the most out of a player.

“With Nurk, (Stotts) might raise his voice a bit, but it’s never like embarrassing him, or saying ‘That was soft!’" Lillard said. “It’s more, ‘Nurk! You are better than that!’ … or ‘Stop doing that! We need you to go up strong!’  And it’s stuff Nurk needs to hear at times.’’

For how dominating Nurkic can be – such as Monday, when he had 27 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in the Blazers’ win over Miami – he can also be frustrating.

Throughout the season, he has forgotten plays. Missed a bevy of close-range shots. And drifted mentally.

Nurkic said in his past – his first two seasons in Denver – those types of transgressions were met with benchings and the silent treatment.

With Stotts, they have been met with stern lectures that are centered around teaching.

“I never have a coaching experience like his personality,’’ Nurkic said. “I’ve never had a coach who has trusted me that much … I had a coach before (Denver’s Mike Malone) who never talked to me or play me; now I have a coach who talk to me about every play, and in the film room with me, to work on the stuff I need. He shows me how I can be better. That’s what it is all about.’’

It is at the core of Stotts’ coaching philosophy: teaching through positive reinforcement and challenging in a positive, rather than negative, manner.

“I don’t like to over-coach players,’’ Stotts said. “I think they get a lot of information from different people – other players, agents, their families – so I try to be to-the-point and helpful.’’

But make no mistake, Lillard says, Stotts challenges Nurkic. Stotts this season has probably been as forceful and pointed as he has been with a player in Portland, outside of Meyers Leonard. Lillard smiles when thinking about Stotts’ tactics with Nurkic, because he knows the perception is that Stotts is always Mr. Nice Guy.

“It’s underrated about Coach Stotts, because he is such a nice dude,’’ Lillard said. “Like, he’s not always screaming and being angry – you see him smiling and being happy all the time. But I think it’s underrated that he is willing to get it out of you.’’

Stotts, however, points out that it all starts with the player. A coach can push and prod all he wants, but ultimately it is up to the player.

“And I give Nurk credit,’’ Stotts said. “He has put in a lot of work with our assistants and in having a serious approach to improving. It always starts with the player.’’

But with Nurkic, there appears to be a key to unlocking his talents, as evidenced by his rocky time in Denver. Lillard says he thinks there is a certain way to handle the 7-footer and Stotts has found it with coaching that blends a nurturing style with moments of cracking the whip.

“I think we’ve all learned that Nurk will respond (to criticism); he doesn’t get in his feelings and all that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “So Coach, he understands that Nurk has the ability to float sometimes, and if you get on him, he will give you something. Coach is good about things like that – not being constantly on a guy’s back, but if something needs to be said, he will definitely say it.’’

Probably the most concrete coaching moment came around the All-Star Break, when the staff restructured his shooting workouts, which had devolved into a series of nonchalant and finesse shots. Nurkic says there is a new rule: He can only practice shots he will take in the game.

“It’s about getting away from the flip shots and staying in control,’’ Stotts said. “Him taking the time to steady himself and get game-like shots. And he has worked hard at it. That work he has put in is starting to pay off now.’’

Since the All-Star Break, Nurkic has seen improvement in every category: his shooting percentage has improved from 48 percent to 55 percent. His scoring from 14.1 to 15.0 and his rebounding from 8.2 to 10.3.

“If we can get that from him,’’ Lillard says, “we are a different team.’’

Nurkic says that point – his importance to the Blazers - has been one of the main themes Stotts has hammered home to him throughout the season.

“Just to point (out) how much I know this team needs me,’’ Nurkic said. “Everybody knows. My teammates they really know how much I can bring. So when I’m at my best, we have a great chance to win.’’

The scary part is Nurkic says he still has room to improve. And Lillard says with the way Stotts is pushing Nurkic’s buttons – by both being demanding but nurturing – that improvement will come.

“Once somebody like him sees they really believe in me, and that Coach is getting on him but it’s ‘You are better than that’  … he feels the love,’’ Lillard said. “He not crazy. He’s one of those guys who if he feels the love and he knows you want the best for him, he’s going to give you everything he’s got.’’