How a shirt told the story for Meyers Leonard and the Trail Blazers in Tuesday's win

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How a shirt told the story for Meyers Leonard and the Trail Blazers in Tuesday's win

When it came time on Tuesday to choose his wardrobe before he left for work, Meyers Leonard selected a shirt that he felt was appropriate for the night ahead.

The Trail Blazers were going against the best big man in the game, DeMarcus Cousins, and a surging Sacramento Kings team. At stake was the bragging rights to the eighth spot in the Western Conference.

Leonard knew Cousins, in particular, would be a beast. He had bumped, bullied and bulldozed his last two opponents while scoring 48 against Indiana and 56 against Charlotte, and the last time the Blazers faced him in Sacramento, Leonard drew long stretches defending him.

So it was with some significance that Leonard reached for a long-sleeved navy blue shirt Tuesday, adorned with “Muhammad Ali” across the chest.

“We as a team needed to fight,’’ Leonard explained later. “So I chose Muhammad Ali. Didn’t know it would turn into this, though.’’

The this Leonard referred to was perhaps his most meaningful and impactful performance of the season: a 25-minute sparring session during which Leonard went toe-to-toe with Cousins, frustrating the star and inspiring Leonard’s teammates.

“It was him manning up,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He chose to man up and take the challenge.’’

In the end, the Trail Blazers routed Sacramento 112-97 thanks in large part to one of Cousins’ worst nights of the season: 4-for-21 from the field, 17 points and five rebounds.

Mason Plumlee used his athleticism against Cousins. Noah Vonleh his quickness. And Ed Davis his length.

But it was what Leonard brought to the fight that opened eyes and drew the most talk afterward: He was tough. He held his ground inside. He battled. Never mind that he hit 3-of-5 three pointers, Leonard DEFENDED!

“I just think he really made a statement tonight with how he played,’’ Plumlee said of Leonard. “If he plays like that all the time we are going to be a really good team.’’

So what in the name of Maurice Lucas got into Leonard on Tuesday?

Turns out, it all might have started in that closet at home.

“I think it was just a focus of mind,’’ Leonard said. “Often times I understand that my job is spacing, being on the perimeter for the most part, guarding guys on the perimeter. But when I’m called on to take on another task, another role, I think I really took pride in that.’’

It wasn’t just the people inside the locker room who noticed. The common criticism with Leonard – at least within the fanbase -- is his defense and his toughness.

“It’s funny, my best friend (Brady Welsh) texted me and said ‘Man, you have to do that every night; You should try to be an absolute animal regardless of who you are playing,’ ’’ Leonard said. “To his credit, he is absolutely right. I have to know that being physical and being a bigger presence … is something I can do and something I can help the team with.’’

Plumlee noted that much of the criticism of Leonard being soft, or not wanting to defend inside, is unfair.

“I think naturally if you are a stretch big, people are quick to say that,’’ Plumlee said. “But you know, Meyers is a physical player, and he accepted the matchup tonight and really did a great job. He didn’t do a good job, he did a great job. He showed tonight, he doesn’t back down from anybody.’’

Indeed, at one point Cousins became so frustrated he feigned a punch at Leonard after Leonard blocked a shot out of bounds. It was called a foul, but as Cousins took a step toward Leonard with his fist clenched and cocked, Leonard didn’t waver.

“Well, I just stood my ground,’’ Leonard said matter-of-factly. “It’s my job to hold my ground and something I know with the coaches and the rest of the guys that I gained some respect by showing I’m willing to be scrappy and stand up for myself.’’

Afterward, Cousins wasn’t in the mood to acknowledge Leonard played any part in his off night. Heck, he wasn’t even willing to acknowledge he knew Leonard’s name.

“I could tell what their scheme was: try and frustrate me and get under my skin,’’ Cousins said. “M … Miles .. Meyers … however you say it … Leonard took advantage of the situation a little more, so if you want to credit them go ahead. But I’m not giving him that much credit. He’s not even a defender.’’

There’s some truth to Cousins’ assertions, and Leonard knows it. He hasn’t been a consistent defender in his first three years, but there was hope he was improving after encouraging shifts guarding Memphis All-Star Marc Gasol in last season’s playoffs.

This season he has often been out of position, easily enticed off his feet and quick to foul. Tuesday, he wasn’t burned by head fakes, used his 7-foot-1 length and the brawn that has come with a religious weight room regiment to be a defensive factor.

He wasn’t ready to proclaim himself cured, or a finished product, but he said hopefully this is the first step in  what will become a consistent body of work.

“I definitely think this a good moment, or time, that I can look back and say ‘This is how I have to be. This is what I know I can do,’ ‘’ Leonard said.

If that physical nature and defensive mindset become more commonplace, the Blazers’ playoff flirtation could evolve into something serious.

“I told him: ‘That’s what it has to be,’’’ Lillard said. “I’m taking Meyers seven days out of the week being that physical, over him being passive. I’d rather him go in there aggressive and welcome that challenge instead of him getting bullied. That was a huge part of why we were able to get it done.’’

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

NEW ORLEANS -- Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he is considering lineup changes as his team heads into Thursday’s Game 3 in New Orleans in an 0-2 hole. 

One of the lineup changes might be forced upon him: Evan Turner, who started at small forward the past 11 games, is questionable with a bruised big toe suffered in Game 2. 

“Evan is always positive and he said he will be ready to go,’’ Stotts said Wednesday in New Orleans. “We will see how it goes tomorrow. He was in no position to play last night (after suffering the injury).’’

Maurice Harkless is a likely candidate to move into the starting small forward position after making his series debut in Game 2. In his first game since he had surgery March 28 to clean out his left knee, Harkless played 27 minutes, hitting all five of his shots and finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and a block. Stotts said the 27 minutes exceeded what he and the health-and-performance team had outlined.

FREE-THROW DROUGHT

Damian Lillard isn’t the only one not getting to the free throw line – the Blazers as a team have been kept off the line.

Lillard, who finished seventh in the NBA in free throw attempts (538), which included a 7.4 average per game, has attempted only four free throws in two games. And the Blazers, who averaged nearly 21 free throws a game in the series has attempted only 22 total in the first two games.

“That’s a touchy one,’’ Stotts said when asked about the dip in free throws. “They haven’t been calling a lot of fouls.’’

With Lillard, he said there isn’t an adjustment to be made to get him to the line more. 

“It’s a little frustrating at times because the ball is in his hands and he is getting pressured and getting to the basket,’’ Stotts said. “I don’t know that you can do anything else to get more calls.’’

FAMILIAR ROLE

Stotts said if there is one good thing about the Blazers standing in this series it’s that they are back in a familiar spot: the underdog.

“We are good in an underdog role,’’ Stotts said. “This team has been resilient, this team has been written off, and it has bounced back.’’

AREA OF CONCERN

When the Blazers met Wednesday in New Orleans for a film session, one area was a point of contention: hustle.

Several times throughout the series, and in particular at the end of Game 2, the Blazers were beaten to loose balls or to rebounds. Stotts says he noticed it and was concerned enough to address it in front of the team.

“It was brought up to the team,’’ Stotts said. “Those are possessions that determine winning and losing.’’

Lillard noted the Pelicans’ will after Game 2. 

“I think these first two games came down to a lot of 50-50 balls,’’ Lillard said. “They were just more grimy than we were, they played a more physical game. They gutted it out more than we did in both games.’’

BLAZERS ON HOLIDAY

An emerging storyline in the series has been the play of Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday. Coming into the series, the talk was of his defense, but the guard has averaged 27 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. 

Stotts on Wednesday was asked who has guarded Holiday the best.

“I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that,’’ Stotts said. “Because I don’t think we have guarded him very well.’’

ROOKIE BRIGHT SPOT

Blazers rookie Zach Collins has been a bight spot in the first two games, in particular his Game 2, when he had 12 points and five rebounds.

For the series, Collins is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes a game.

“I’ve been very pleased with Zach,’’ Stotts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. He’s been aggressive in his post-up mismatches and defensively his length has been helpful around the rim.’’

Stotts said three times late in Game 2 Collins was switched on Holiday and the Pelicans’ guard scored only once. 

“There’s a lot to like,’’ Stotts said. “And it’s a great experience for him, but I’m not playing him to get experience, I’m playing him because he’s been able to put us in position to win.’’

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

NEW ORLEANS – By the time Damian Lillard had touched down in New Orleans on Wednesday, there had been a day of swirling criticism and questions surrounding his playoff play.

The Trail Blazers’ star paid no mind.

“I’m not concerned with anything being said,’’ Lillard said. “I just gotta find a way to get it done.’’

Perhaps never in Lillard’s six-years in Portland have the Trail Blazers faced a more precarious time. They have not only lost home court advantage in this best-of-seven series, they are in a 0-2 deficit heading to New Orleans. 

Most unsettling for the Blazers is they are in this predicament largely because Lillard, the man who always delivers, quite simply has not in the first two games.   

Not since the 2015 playoffs against Memphis has the NBA world seen Lillard so out of sorts. 

The Trail Blazers’ star has been taken out of the first round series against the Pelicans as a pack of guards -- Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, chief among them – have limited his space to operate with traps and physical play.

In the first two games, both Blazers’ losses on their home court, Lillard is averaging 17.5 points – nearly 10 points below his season average – while shooting 31.7 percent from the field (13-for-41) and 31.3 percent from three-point range 5-for-16). In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, he had seven turnovers.

“I’ve just got to be better,’’ Lillard said after the Game 2 loss. “I think it’s as simple as that.’’

This isn’t the first time Lillard has been stymied at the start of a playoff series. In 2015, against Memphis, Mike Conley and Tony Allen put the clamps on Lillard in the first two games, holding him to a 16.0 scoring average on 27 percent shooting (10-of-37) while limiting him to a total of four assists. 

Lillard did rebound over the next three games against Memphis, albeit amid a 4-games-to-1 series loss, averaging 25.3 points while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. 

Lillard on Wednesday declined to draw parallels to his 2015 playoffs and his situation against the swarming Pelicans, saying he is a different player, on a different team. 

What’s more, Lillard noted, is the Pelicans are not only sending two players at him, sometimes it is three. 

It has presented him with a dilemma: make the right play and pass to open teammates? Or try to absorb the scoring load the team so relies on by shaking the defenders and taking a tough shot?

“I think the right thing to do is trust and make the right play, find the next guy,’’ Lillard said after Game 2. “But it’s finding that balance of being aggressive and making those right plays.’’

Stotts said he installed some new wrinkles to the offense before Game 2 that helped the offense, and he added that as coach, his primary focus is getting the team – not just Lillard – going.

One of Lillard’s primary weapons – getting to the free throw line – has been disarmed against the Pelicans. In two games, Lillard has attempted a total of four free throws. In the regular season, he averaged 7.4 attempts a game, and his 538 free throw attempts ranked seventh in the NBA. 

 “There’s contact,’’ Lillard said Wednesday. “I’m just not getting the calls right now. But I’m surrounded most of the time, so I get it out to the open guy. There just comes a time where I have to be aggressive anyway, and that means I have to take tough shots against a scheme obviously set up to make me do that.’’

Game 3 is Thursday in New Orleans (6 p.m., NBC Sports Northwest), and after the Game 2 loss, Evan Turner said the Stotts urged the team to take on the greatest cliché in sports: One game at a time. 

“That’s legit; exact words: Take it one game at a time,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is to think about one game at a time and not worry about the big picture. Clearly, it’s the first to four wins.’’

The Blazers will try to become the fifth team to lose their first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, joining the 2017 Celtics, who beat the Bulls in six, the 2005 Mavericks who beat the Rockets in seven, the 1994 Rockets who beat the Suns in seven and the 1969 Lakers, who beat the Warriors in six.

Two straight playoff losses at home?

Two straight playoff losses at home?

I had no idea...

... that the New Orleans Pelicans' defense could so thoroughly befuddle the Trail Blazer offense.

... that the combo of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo would be the two most effective guards on the floor.

... that the Trail Blazers would lose two home games in the entire series, let alone the FIRST two games.

... that if there is a sweep it would more likely be the Pelicans with the broom rather than the Trail Blazers.

... that Damian Lillard would have so much trouble making shots. Not only from three-point range but from anywhere.

... that the Trail Blazer season has such a big chance to turn into a downer.

... that the No. 3 seed in the West and the division championship would look so much like cheap consolation prizes.

Sorry,  I did not see this coming. Not at all. I still can't believe what I'm watching. I feel bad for the players, the coaches, the front office, all the kind people working behind the scenes for this organization and, most of all, the fans.

It does not appear that this is going to end well.

 

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Podcast: Now in a 0-2 hole, Blazers look for some road magic

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USATI

Podcast: Now in a 0-2 hole, Blazers look for some road magic

Following the Game 2 loss to the Pelicans, the Trail Blazers will hit the road on Wednesday for Games 3 and 4 in New Orleans.

Anything less than winning both games makes the series all but New Orleans' for the taking.

Have a listen as the Talkin' Ball guys break down Game 2 and look ahead to Game 3

Facebook Live Video: Stotts, Lillard, McCollum speak to media after Game 2 loss

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USATI

Facebook Live Video: Stotts, Lillard, McCollum speak to media after Game 2 loss

Now down 0-2 in the series, Coach Stotts, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum all spoke to the media tonight and our social media team was there to capture it on Facebook Live. Check out the full videos below.

And be sure to follow NBCSNorthwest and Jason Quick throughout the next two games in New Orleans as we will have wall to wall coverage of the team. 

Stotts:

Coach Stotts: Postgame following Game 2 Loss

Portland Trail Blazers drop game 2 to New Orleans Pelicans, 111-102. What happened? Coach Stotts reacts:

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dame and CJ:

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum talk after Game 2 loss

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum react to Portland Trail Blazers game 2 loss

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Watch: The Scoop with Jamie Hudson - Keep the Faith Rip City

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NBCS NW

Watch: The Scoop with Jamie Hudson - Keep the Faith Rip City

It wasn't the result anyone wanted...or expected in Game 2 as Portland falls to the New Orleans Pelicans and now trail 0-2 in the series. 

We went live from Moda Center immediately after the game and with plenty of Facebook viewers, reminds everyone to Keep The Faith

Scoop Postgame Show

Not what we had in mind… But… Let’s discuss right now on “The Scoop Postgame Show.” I want to hear from you, #RipCity as the Blazers fall to the Pelicans in Game 2, 111-102.

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Trail Blazers will need some Lillard Time in New Orleans to get back in the series

Trail Blazers will need some Lillard Time in New Orleans to get back in the series

It was another rough night for the Trail Blazers at Moda Center in Game 2, due in large part to a terrible third quarter where they were outscored  33-19. Damian Lillard struggled shooting the ball again going just 7 for 18 from the floor, including 1-7 from behind the arc. The poor shooting also hit other players on the team including Evan Turner (0-6) and Jusuf Nurkic (5/12). Nurkic left the game at the 8:31 mark in the third quarter and never returned. Follow Jason Quick on Twitter for injury updates on Nurk, Turner and Harkless. 

Box Score:  New Orleans 111, Portland 102

Quick Hit:

Podcast:

Stotts: Trail Blazers considering Game 2 changes

Stotts: Trail Blazers considering Game 2 changes

The Trail Blazers’ brain trust has discussed changes for Game 2 after New Orleans opened the series with a 97-95 win at the Moda Center.

“We’ve discussed matchups,’’ Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Monday after practice. “Whether we pull the trigger on change, that’s to be determined.’’

Stotts wouldn’t reveal whether those internal discussions involved lineup changes or assignment adjustments. 

Game 2 is Tuesday night in Portland. 

“I think you have to be prepared to do something like that,’’ Stotts said, referring to a lineup change. “Matchups certainly matter. Changing the start lineup can have an impact. But I also think it depends on how you feel after that game – if you feel something that significant is worthwhile.’’

Throughout the course of Sunday and Monday's media availabilities, it did not sound like Stotts felt the Blazers needed major changes. In fact, he felt the Blazers' defense was sound, and that the offense executed the game plan, outside of making open shots.

Still, coaches often don't telegraph big moves, and both Stotts and New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry have experience in changing series with surprise decisions.

In 2010, when he was head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Gentry and the Suns lost Game 1 at home to the Trail Blazers after Andre Miller bullied Steve Nash with 31 points. In Game 2, Gentry switched assignments, moving 6-foot-8 wing Grant Hill to guard Miller and stashing Nash on second-year player Nicolas Batum. 

With Hill’s length, Miller was neutralized for the rest of the series, scoring 12, 11, 15, 21 and 4 points as Phoenix rebounded and won the series in six games. Meanwhile, Blazers coach Nate McMillan never tried to expose Nash guarding the taller Batum, saying Batum at the time didn’t have a post-up game and wasn’t ready to assume a scoring role.

Stotts, meanwhile, was part of the Dallas staff in 2011 that switched its starting lineup in the middle of the NBA Finals, inserting jitterbug JJ Barea into the Game 4 starting lineup instead of Deshawn Stevenson. Down 2-1 at the time, the Mavericks went 3-0 with Barea and secured the NBA title in six games.

“It’s a tough call,’’ Stotts said. “It often depends where you are in a series. When we went to the finals in Dallas and changed the starting lineup and brought in JJ Barea, which was pretty significant, that kind of turned the tide for us.’’

So is there a tide-turning change in store for Game 2?

One change that could happen is the return of Maurice Harkless for the Blazers. The starting small forward has been upgraded from out to questionable for Game 2 after he missed the season’s final nine games and Game 1 recovering from a March 28 surgery on his left knee. 

Other possible changes: Starting Zach Collins or Ed Davis on Anthony Davis, moving Al-Farouq Aminu to Davis, or using the athleticism of Pat Connaughton to combat Jrue Holiday. 

Stotts on Monday also openly analyzed the defensive performances against three of New Orleans’ top Game 1 weapons – Anthony Davis (35 points, 14 rebounds), Holiday (21 points) and Nikola Mirotic (16 points).

Stotts said he felt starting center Jusuf Nurkic “did a good job” against Davis, noting that five of his eight baskets against Nurkic were outside shots, which indicated Nurkic did a good job of keeping Davis away from the basket.

And he indicated that Evan Turner on Holiday and Aminu on Mirotic were not so much matchup problems as much as momentary breakdowns in team defense. 

“It’s easy to say Evan started on Jrue and he had (21), maybe you have to change the matchup,’’ Stotts said. “I think you have to look closer at it, than just making changes. It would be different if a guy was posting up all night and it was 1-on-1, but the way he’s moving around, it’s not so much about matchup. And if they are scoring off pick-and-roll, is it about the matchup or the pick-and-roll defense? I just think there are a lot of factors that go into it.’’

Either way, Game 2 became a little more suspenseful after Stotts acknowledged his staff has talked about making changes. When told his answer was intriguing, Stotts smiled.

“Well, so was your question,’’ Stotts said.

Trail Blazers upgrade Maurice Harkless to questionable for Game 2

Trail Blazers upgrade Maurice Harkless to questionable for Game 2

After a Monday workout session in which he dunked and defended, Maurice Harkless is nearing a return to the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers on Monday upgraded Harkless to questionable – meaning a 50/50 chance of playing in Tuesday’s Game 2 against New Orleans. 

With Dr. Don Roberts watching, Harkless on Monday went through his third extensive workout since his March 28 surgery to remove loose bodies from his left knee. After Roberts examined him following the workout, the team upgraded Harkless from out to questionable. 

In February, Harkless regained his spot as the Blazers’ starting small forward and the Blazers’ season took off. With active defense and accurate three-point shooting, Harkless sparked the Blazers to a 13-4 record when he played. He missed three games in March with a left knee sprain, then missed the final nine games of the season to have the same knee cleaned out. 

“He ended up, in my opinion, really changing our season because of what he turned into during that (13 game) winning streak,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He was the X-factor in a lot of those games.’’

Harkless had a private workout with Blazers assistants on the eve of Game 1, then did some resistance band exercises on Sunday before going 1-on-1 with Caleb Swanigan on Monday. 

He began the season as a starter, but lost his job 18 games in and eventually dropped out of the rotation. But a minor injury to Evan Turner in Boston thrust Harkless back into the rotation and he flourished. For the season, he averaged 6.5 points  and 2.7 rebounds, but after the All-Star break he averaged 10.3 points while shooting 59.5 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from three-point range.