Some takeaways from the Trail Blazers’ preseason opener Tuesday against Phoenix, where the Blazers’ main players built a 24-point lead before the Suns stormed back for a 114-112 win.
Initiating with ET
It appears a point of emphasis in this preseason will be getting Evan Turner comfortable initiating the offense, which is probably an indication the team has visions of Turner starting at small forward.
When Turner was signed to a four-year, $70 million contract last summer, the move was largely sold as a way to help alleviate the offensive burden on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum by introducing another playmaker into the offense.
It never really worked out that way last season, in part because early in the season coach Terry Stotts rarely paired Turner with the dynamic backcourt, and then later, when Turner did start to gain some traction with the starting unit, he broke his hand and was never the same.
On Tuesday, Turner not only started at small forward, he began the game running the point and initiating the offense.
Overall, it was mostly mixed results.
Turner had trouble at times with his ball handling, even when he wasn’t pressured, and he at times looked unsteady with his footing and his comfort level.
But when smaller guards, like Eric Bledsoe, tried to guard him, Turner immediately took him to the post and made the Suns pay. Also, Lillard in particular flourished in the time Turner ran the point, a freedom Lillard hasn’t had in four years, when he would play off the ball while Mo Williams ran the point in the 2013-2014 season.
If the goal is to have Turner start alongside Lillard and McCollum, Tuesday wasn’t the best case study. When Turner and Ed Davis left the game, the Blazers trailed 14-13. They were replaced by last year’s opening-night starters – Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu – and the team immediately took off, going on a 9-2 run.
Stotts admitted after the game that having Turner run the point with Lillard and McCollum is one of his preseason experiments.
“We’re trying to,’’ Stotts said. “I mean, one of the things is to take advantage of his ball handling and make it a little less taxing for Dame and CJ. That’s something we want to do better this year than we did last year.’’
His initial impression of the Turner experiment?
“I thought it was OK,’’ Stotts said. “It was a little shaky at the beginning, but I thought it got better.’’
Turner, in his quirky, non-confrontational manner, dodged post-game interviews, shuffling through reporters while deflecting attention to rookie Isaiah Briscoe, whose locker sits next to his.
“Talk to my man Isaiah,’’ Turner said. “Do a write up on him.’’
From what I know of Turner, his postgame ditch was him recoiling to what he anticipates as unnecessary backlash and examination of his game.
Turner finished 2-for-9 from the field, which included making one of his two three-point attempts, and he has long wished fans would stop equating his shooting percentage and points with his effectiveness. Yes, it would be beneficial to have him shoot a higher percentage (he made 42.6 percent last year) but when right, his value rests largely in intangibles – savvy passing, defending, taking pressure off the two guards, offering mismatches, etc.
Lillard, for one, sees value in having Turner play alongside he and McCollum.
“I enjoyed it. ET is really comfortable having that option, calling the game, having the ball in his hands, playmaking, being in attack mode,’’ Lillard said. “It also makes the game easier for me and CJ … playing off the ball, coming from behind the defense instead of having the ball and having 10 eye balls on you.’’
Perhaps in anticipation of the Blazers’ brain trust leaning toward utilizing Turner more this season, Lillard said he worked extensively this summer playing off the ball.
“It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time doing in the summer – cuts off the ball and shooting,’’ Lillard said. “And it’s something we’ve done a lot in camp … I haven’t played a lot off the ball since Mo Williams, so I’m familiar with it. Now, we are having ET doing what (Nic) Batum used to – having a wing that can handle and initiate the offense.’’
It’s only one preseason game, but the starting small forward will be an interesting storyline to follow. Harkless spaces the court better for Lillard and McCollum, but Turner allows the duo to play more off the ball.
Also, Turner can help cover the defensive deficiencies of the backcourt better than Harkless, but can probably be more effective offensively on the second unit, where he can be the featured playmaker. Also, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is a proven defensive commodity.
Decisions like this is why they have preseason, and as Stotts likes to say, “things usually have a way of working themselves out.’’
The Swanigan Sway
Not since Lillard crashed the scene in 2012 has a Blazers’ rookie attracted such a stir as big man Caleb Swanigan.
On Tuesday, it was easy to see why the Blazers veterans have been so effusive in their praise. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound rookie from Purdue, who was taken with the 26th overall pick, finished with 18 points and six rebounds. He scored inside, and outside, hitting both of his three-point attempts, while showing a fearless and rugged style.
The Blazers veterans have been singing his praises all training camp, and after Tuesday’s solid showing, it looks like Swanigan not only break the opening day rotation, but will be a candidate to start at power forward.
After the game, I asked Lillard if it’s safe to say Swanigan will be in the opening day rotation. The team caption didn’t hesitate.
“I mean, that’s the way it looks to me,’’ Lillard said. “He’s very confident – him and Zach (Collins) both. They rebound the ball well on both sides and both guys really aggressive, not scared at all. They are picking things up … it will be interesting.’’
The New Nurk
Lost in the second-half collapse while the top players rested was the early play of Jusuf Nurkic, who was brilliant.
The Bosnian center showed off his slimmer physique with a series of agile and slick moves, which included a driving dunk and a nifty spin move in the post.
“I’m too quick,’’ Nurkic quipped after the game.
He also showed a nice shooting touch from 18 feet and some stout interior defense. All told, Nurkic hit 8-of-13 shots and had three rebounds and one block … all while playing with what he called an uncomfortable protective mask.
He is wearing the mask after having dental work performed over the summer, which was needed after he had a tooth knocked out in Toronto on Feb. 26. He said he expects to wear the mask throughout preseason, after which he hopes to discard it.
Mask or no mask, Nurkic looks like he will be even better than last season. He’s lost 34 pounds since arriving in Portland last February, and he says he is in the best shape of his life. At the same time, he reminds people that he is still 275 pounds and a load inside.
His teammates agree.
“I think he is still dominant, he’s just able to move a little bit more, and he might be a little more quicker, more agile,’’ CJ McCollum said. “He still looks pretty explosive around the basket and from a defensive standpoint having less weight on him will be good for his joints.’’
Added Lillard: “It was good to see him light on his feet, moving well.’’