A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

OKLAHOMA CITY – He has become the face of the Trail Blazers’ late-season revival, so perhaps it was fitting that Jusuf Nurkic smiled on his way out of the locker room Tuesday while shrugging off a comment that he had made the season fun again.

“Playoffs,’’ Nurkic said after hitting two crucial inside baskets that broke a tie and led the Blazers to a 126-121 victory at Oklahoma City. “That’s all I care about. Doesn’t matter who scores, I just want playoffs.’’

Once a fading proposition, the playoffs are now as bright as Nurkic’s smile thanks to the big man’s blend of size, skill and savvy which has sparked a three-game winning streak.

Not since training camp, when optimism abounded and goals gushed, have the Trail Blazers felt so good about themselves, and for good reason.

Not only is the team playing its best basketball of the season, it is coming at the most important time, with four weeks left in what figures to be an intense five-team playoff push for the eighth and final spot.

The Blazers (27-35) trail eighth-place Denver by 1.5 games and lead 10th place Dallas by one-half game with 20 games remaining. Twelve of those 20 games will be at the Moda Center and 13 are against teams with losing records.

But more than a weighted home schedule and a favorable slate of opponents, the Blazers are soaring with confidence, which was never more on display than Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where they overcame an early 14-point deficit then held off a furious late-game assault by Russell Westbrook.

“I think it said a lot about where we are in the moment right now,’’ Damian Lillard said.

If there has been a more emphatic and dramatic mid-season addition to the Blazers than Nurkic, it is not coming to mind. His deft passing, burly presence inside and delicate shooting touch is bringing back memories of Arvydas Sabonis.

More important, he has changed the way the Blazers play … in a good way. As evidenced by his two post scores in the final minute with the game on the line, the Blazers have a formidable inside threat perhaps for the first time since the big Lithuanian was lugging around with the No. 11 jersey. 

He has also shored up the defense inside, where Portland was often pushed around and bullied, and nothing exemplifies that more than how Nurkic neutralized Thunder center Steven Adams the past two games after Adams made a habit of embarrassing the Blazers with dunks and rebounds.

“I’ve said it over and over: he’s huge,’’ Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that big, that coordinated, that skilled … him catching it, banging and spinning and jump hook with both hands, that’s something we haven’t had. He was just huge for us.’’

What has made Nurkic’s addition so appealing is it has seemingly come out of nowhere, giving his rise somewhat of an underdog feel that Blazers fans have long latched onto with fervor.

He was a heralded rookie in Denver, but injuries, a logjam of bigs, and some pouting by Nurkic, pushed him out of favor and set the table for the trade to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick.

In Portland, Nurkic has described feeling liberated which has translated to a palpable enthusiasm and zeal to his game that has been contagious in the locker room. Sometimes, some of the most powerful forces in the NBA are the feeling of being wanted and the opportunity to play, and Nurkic says those factors are fueling his Rose City renaissance.

“It’s all you need, man. When you play professional in the best league in the world, that’s all you need: Coach who want you; organization and fans who want you here; and the free mind to focus on basketball,’’ Nurkic said. “So, now I enjoy, and you can see on the court. We have a good team here and we are going to be in a good position if we play like this.’’

In seven games with the Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14.9  points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in 29 minutes. Portland is 4-3 in games he has played.

“Certainly, Nurk has made a difference,’’ Stotts said, while noting how many other players are also playing well. “I think the (All-Star) break did us well … and I think there’s no question he has had an impact. I don’t want to undersell that. He has infused some energy and a different style of play.’’

Stotts was wary to heap all his praise on Nurkic because the Oklahoma City victory was flush with performances up and down the roster that normally would garner headlines by themselves.

Allen Crabbe led the team with 23 points while hitting 7-of-10 shots. He did it while showing a rare eagerness and determination to shoot, which might have been sparked by a recent sitdown with Stotts and CJ McCollum to brainstorm ways to get him better involved.

“When I’m engaged like that, I feel like I can do good things for the team,’’ Crabbe said. “My teammates did a good job finding me, they kept calling plays for me. I just have to stay like that.’’

Meanwhile, Al-Farouq Aminu left his imprint all over Chesapeake Energy Arena with an impressive display of shooting, defense and grit. He hit 5-of-6 shots and had 12 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal. All three of his blocks came in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, with two of them at the rim in what were momentum-changing plays. And when the smoke cleared after every fight for a rebound or loose ball, Aminu seemed to be in the middle of it.

“His presence,’’ Lillard said of Aminu, “is everything. We need guys who want to get in the middle and mix it up, and it just felt like he was in the middle of the action a lot.’’

Aminu, who has missed 20 games because of calf, back and knee issues, has always been an unsung hero of the team because of his defense, but now with armed with a torrid shooting spell over the past two weeks, he is right behind Nurkic as the face of this late-season surge.

Also of note Tuesday was the play of Noah Vonleh, who Stotts said might have played his finest game of the season (11 points, 5 rebounds), and Meyers Leonard, whose defense and shooting helped spark the Blazers’ game-changing rally in the second quarter.

Leonard’s 12-point night, which included the Blazers being a plus-24 when he was on the court, came as he played with a heavy heart after his beloved dog, Bella, was diagnosed with kidney failure the night before. Bella, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, famously crashed coach Stotts’ postseason media address last season and is a fixture in Leonard’s life.

“It’s been tough on me. Luckily for me, this gave me a chance to escape from the real world,’’ Leonard said. “But it’s been a rough go at it for the last couple of days for me.’’

The same can’t be said for the Blazers, who are riding as high as they have since October, when they had visions of winning the Northwest Division and advancing to the conference finals.

It might be a late run, but as they say, better late than never.

“This could be a springboard for us, a confidence game,’’ Lillard said. “That’s a tough team to play against and we came here and got it done.’’

Up next: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN)

The losing streak is no more!

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The losing streak is no more!

It's about Dame time! The Blazers came into Miami losers of five straight, and for much of the game it looked like they would drop number six. However, Lillard and Co. flipped the switch in the fourth quarter to bring home the 102-95 win. The Blazers, led by Lillard down the stretch, outscored the Heat 32-16 in the fourth quarter. The Blazers now have a new streak: A one game winning streak! Can they keep it going on Friday in Orlando?

Finall Score: Blazers 102 - Heat 95

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

It wasn't surprising that the Trail Blazers lost another game Monday night. The fifth straight defeat came in Oakland to the Golden State Warriors, a team that has beaten Portland like a snare drum recently.

Yes, the Warriors were without all-stars Steph Curry, Draymond Green and others -- but they still had enough to handle the Blazers with relative ease.

Portland staged a fourth-quarter comeback, mainly due to Damian Lillard's heroics. Lillard was playing with yet another new lineup combination down the stretch, this one consisting of Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Noah Vonleh and Pat Connaughton. Later, CJ McCollum came on for Layman, but this was the group that played most of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, starters Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard, who helped stake their team to a lead after the first quarter, didn't appear in the final period. Just as Shabazz Napier -- who had put together a nice run of off-the-bench performances -- rode the bench for the entire game. Napier has not played in the last two games and has seen just eight minutes of action in the last three. This after Napier had played at least 14 minutes in all of the previous 14 games. Leonard's playing time has been odd, too -- he went four straight games without playing, then in his last 12 games has played a streak of 4, 22. 17, 4, 0, 0, 0, 8, 16, 3, 20 and 18 minutes.

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Injuries have complicated Coach Terry Stotts' rotations recently, but Portland hasn't been crippled by injuries the way some other teams have. Stotts has said previously that he is more comfortable when he finds a set rotation but so far this season, it just hasn't been there.

I think it's become a problem for this team because players -- in any sport -- usually need a consistent role in order to perform consistently. Players need to know what's going to be expected of them every game.

But Stotts' job isn't easy. He has too many players who bring similar skills, too many who defend well but can't shoot and a roster that's unbalanced. His best two players -- McCollum and Lillard -- basically play the same position and he doesn't have any consistent scoring on the wings. In the middle, he has a center who hasn't played anywhere near what we saw from him during his sneak preview last season.

I don't know the answer to all this but I know the roster isn't going to change much. It's locked in. I think at some point the coach is going to have to make rotation choices and stick with them. I think, too, he may need to define who his shooters are and make sure they get more shots than the ones who can't make shots.

And hope that his team stays together long enough to get things straightened out.

Blazers can't keep pace with Warriors in 111-104 loss

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Blazers can't keep pace with Warriors in 111-104 loss

Even without Steph Curry and Draymond Green, the Warriors were just too much for the Trail Blazers. Portland fell to Golden State, 111-104, dropping the first game of a five-game road trip, and losing their fifth game in a row. The Blazers now look to right the ship on Wednesday in Miami.

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Final Score: Warriors 111 – Blazers 104

Postgame Videos:
Damian Lillard
CJ McCollum

How to stream Blazers vs. Warriors

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How to stream Blazers vs. Warriors

In addition to our normal game streaming for NBCS Northwest customers via the NBC Sports App, if you don't get NBCS Northwest but live in the Trail Blazer territory you can now sign up for our NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” a 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy.

The Portland Trail Blazers (13-12) now hit the road for matchup on Monday night against the Golden State Warriors  (21-6).

Portland dropped its fourth straight game on Saturday night, 124-117 at the Moda Center to the Houston Rockets.  The Blazers were without Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Maurice Harkless (left quad) for Saturday’s contest.

In the loss, Damian Lillard finished with 35 points, six assists and four rebounds.  Lillard also made a franchise-record-tying nine three-pointers on the night. CJ McCollum added 28 points and four assists.

Monday’s game marks the start of a five-game raod trip for the Blazers.

[If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, you can now stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  Or, you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.]

As for Golden State, the Warriors defeated the Detroit Pistons 102-98 on Friday night on the road. Kevin Durant finished with a double-double of 36 points and 10 rebounds.  He also dished out seven assists and five blocks. Kevin Thompson had 21 points in Friday’s victory.

The Trail Blazers have listed Maurice Harakless (left quad) as questionable for Monday's contest, while Jusuf Nurkic is out vs. the Warriors.  Draymond Green (right shoulder) is listed as probable, Zaza Pachulia (left shoulder) is doubtful, and Steph Curry (sprained right ankle) is out.

You can catch our pregame coverage of the Blazers and Warriors contest with a special hour-long Rip City Live at 6:00pm on Monday as Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams get you set for all of the action.

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out our live streaming pregame coverage with The Scoop Pregame Show streaming on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest.

 


Quick Links:

40 in the 4th for 4th loss

Rockets dictated Portland’s 4th-quarter lineup and then the ensuing defeat

 

Video:   Is this the lineup for against the Warriors?

Video:   The Blazers fought hard, but maybe not hard enough

Video:   Meyers Leonard – The Enforcer

Video:   Blazers show life, but can’t ground Rockets


 

Game Details:

Where:  Oracle Arena, Oakland CA

Tip-off: 7:30pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

Live NBC Sports Northwest coverage:  Rip City Live (6:00pm), 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 coverage on Facebook: The Scoop Pregame Show streams at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

Rockets dictated Portland's 4th-quarter lineup and then the ensuing defeat

Rockets dictated Portland's 4th-quarter lineup and then the ensuing defeat

I'm not big on moral victories. As I said last night on Talkin' Ball, this is big-boy basketball and winning on the scoreboard is the only thing that matters.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

But that's not to say we didn't learn some positive things from Saturday night's loss to the Houston Rockets, which finished off an 0-4 homestand for the Trail Blazers. What did we learn? Here's what I saw:

  • Meyers Leonard in the starting lineup worked. I don't care what you think, the guy can flat-out make shots. And this team needs more players who can do that. He probably should have seen fourth-quarter playing time but...
  • Coach Terry Stotts was busy trying to match up with the Rockets' fourth-quarter small lineup. However the problem with Portland's small lineup is that it usually contains more defenders than scorers. And the unfortunate part of that Saturday night was, even though it may have been the team's best defensive group, it was totally incapable of getting defensive stops. In fact, I can't remember a time when I've seen a team stack layup on layup down the stretch of a game the way Houston did to the Trail Blazers. Chris Paul and James Harden not only got to the basket whenever they wanted, they did so with their strong hand -- Harden from the left side and Paul from the right. So...
  • It wouldn't have hurt to have had some help in the basket area to at least harass those layups a bit. I'm not sure why that's so difficult for Portland to do when I see other teams doing it to the Portland guards quite frequently. And the real bottom line to all of that was ...
  • If you aren't getting stops while using your best defenders in that small lineup, forget about it! Face it, the Rockets can be impossible to guard. So...
  • Why not just go with your best offensive players, regardless of size or defensive ability? Make them worry about guarding YOU. Houston hit 15 for 18 from the field in the fourth quarter and murdered Portland from the foul line. Why not just put your best offensive players on the court and try to score with them? Because....
  • YOU WEREN'T ABLE TO STOP THEM AT ALL WITH THAT SMALL LINEUP SO SCRAP IT AND GET SOME SHOOTERS OUT THERE!
  • I may be obsessed with this -- well, I AM obsessed with this -- but I don't like it when the opposing team dictates Portland's lineups. Play the ones who got you the lead instead of the ones who are in the process of blowing a 14-point lead inside one quarter.
  • Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot their way out of slumps, which was a good sign moving forward.
  • Zach Collins did a terrific job during his time on the floor. He's not afraid to shoot an open shot and he's got a real instinct for blocking shots. I'd sneak him onto the floor as often as possible in the upcoming games to try to kickstart his development by getting him more comfortable. This team is in serious need of rim protection and he might be just the guy to provide it.
  • I don't envy Stotts with the lineup and rotation decisions he has to make on a nightly basis. He almost has too many versions of the same players and he is probably never quite sure what he's going to get from some of them on a night-to-night basis.
  • That said, I'd make sure to not only get Pat Connaughton on the floor every game, I'd make sure he got his shots. He's alert on defense and opportunistic on offense. And he is becoming a reliable scorer if he is allowed to be.
  • Ed Davis may be having one of his best seasons but he's going to struggle getting playing time because, all things being equal, some of the younger players are going to need developmental time and they are going to get it. I see Davis as a valuable trade piece at the deadline -- a big help to a contender looking for a rebounder off the bench.
  • Please, somebody in the league office, take a look at the way Harden is officiated. He often mixes in an extra little hop during his Euro-step and he deserves no extra benefits. And when he misses a shot, it's not always because he was fouled. Thank you.

40 in the 4th for 4th loss

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40 in the 4th for 4th loss

The Trail Blazers were looking pretty at the end of the third quarter holding a 14 point lead. Then the fourth quarter happened and the Rockets posted 40 points in the quarter alone to come away with the victory. The loss is the Trail Blazers fourth in a row at home. Damian Lillard tied a team record with nine made three pointers, but also came away with an ankle injury as he hobbled through the fourth quarter. 

Box Score: Houston 124, Portland 117

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Quick Hits:

How to stream Rockets vs Blazers

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USA Today

How to stream Rockets vs Blazers

If you already get NBCS Northwest on your TV at home, but you are not able to be home during a Trail Blazers game, you can now stream the game live at the NBC Sports App.  You can download the NBC Sports App at www.nbcsports.com/sports-mobile.  Or, you can stream the game online at our live stream page, NBCSportsNorthwest.com/BlazersStream.

The Portland Trail Blazers (13-11) are looking to snap a three-game losing streak after falling to the Washing Wizards last Tuesday. However, it will be no easy task as the Blazers play host to the Western Conference leading Houston Rockets (19-4) on Saturday night.

To make matters worse the Blazers will be without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, after he suffered a right-ankle sprain late in the loss to the Wizards. A timetable for his return to the court it currently unknown. Starting small forward Maurice Harkless, who also left the Wizards game with an injury, is listed as questionable.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

The Rockets are riding an eight-game winning streak, having not dropped a game since a 129-113 loss to the Toronto Raptors back on November 14. As is usual, the Rockets are led by shooting guard James Harden. “The Beard” leads the NBA in points per game at 31.6, and his 9.4 assists are second (among those who qualify) only to Russell Westbrook.

The Rockets made a big splash this off-season when they acquired former Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Many experts wondered if the two ball dominant guards could co-exist. The answer has bee an emphatic “yes.”

Paul has played just nine games this season, averaging 13.1 points and 10.1 assists per game. Paul injured his knee in the season opening victory over the Golden State Warriors on October 17, and didn’t return to the lineup until November 16.

However, proving that the Paul-Harden combo works just fine, the Rockets are 9-0 in when Paul is in the lineup.  

Can the Blazers give Paul the first blemish is his Rockets records, or will the Rockets hand the Blazers their fourth consecutive loss?

You can catch our pregame coverage of the Blazers and Rockets contest with Rip City Live at 6:00pm on Saturday as Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams get you set for all of the action.

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out our live streaming pregame coverage with The Scoop Pregame Show streaming on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest.

 

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers will be without Jusuf Nurkic against Houston

Trail Blazers starting center Jusuf Nurkic will miss Saturday’s game against Houston because of a sprained right ankle suffered in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss against Washington.

Nurkic, who is averaging 15.1 points and 7.8 rebounds in 28 minutes a game, rolled his ankle after taking a shot with 6:28 left in the fourth quarter. He did not practice on Thursday and Friday, although he was seen walking off the court Friday without a limp.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

Coach Terry Stotts did not say who would start at center against the Western Conference leading Rockets (19-4) and starting center Clint Capela, who is averaging 13.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 66.1 percent from the field.

Candidates to start for the Blazers are Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, rookie Zach Collins and Noah Vonleh.

In other injury news, forward Maurice Harkless, who regained his starting spot Tuesday against Washington, is listed as questionable for Houston because of a bruised left quadriceps suffered in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game.

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

It’s no secret these days that the Trail Blazers are reeling.

They have lost three in a row, all at home, and all while trailing by 19 or more points.

Making matters worse, starters Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Maurice Harkless (left quad bruise) did not practice Thursday, making the next game – Saturday at home against the Western Conference-leading Houston Rockets – appear even more ominous.

So what do the Blazers (13-11) have to do to turn it around?

Here are five things that would help their cause:

1. CJ MCCOLLUM BREAKS OUT OF SHOOTING SLUMP

The Blazers’ silky shooting guard is in the midst of one of his worst shooting skids of his five-year career, despite his insistence that his shot feels good and his satisfaction with getting the shots he wants.

McCollum has four consecutive games in which he hasn’t made at least half of his shots, only the fifth time that has happened in his career. During the four-game skid he is shooting 34.2 percent (25-of-73), which includes just five of 20 from three-point range.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

The 34.2 percent shooting is the third worst slump he has endured in his career, behind a five-game slump in December of 2015 when he made only 29 percent (27-of-93) and a six-game slump in January of 2016 when he made 33.3 percent (39-of-117). That six game skid matches a spell in November and December of 2016 of his most consecutive games without making 50 percent or better of his shots.

One of the more confident players on the team, McCollum said he won’t change anything, except maybe try to get to the free throw line more.

“I’ve had some good looks,’’ McCollum saud. “I just have to continue to be aggressive.’’

2. TAKE BETTER CARE OF THE BALL

Two of the Blazers’ losses this homestand were defined by sloppy play that resulted in 19 turnovers. Against Milwaukee, it led to 29 points for the Bucks, while Washington cashed the mistakes into 23 points.

It’s not just the amount, it’s the type of turnovers – mindless passes directly to the defender. Dribbling the ball off the foot out of bounds. Passes into the stands.

After the Blazers’ practice on Thursday, Damian Lillard pointed to ball security as the number one priority moving forward.

“Having quality possessions and also valuing the ball,’’ Lillard said. “I think when we defend so hard and work so hard on the defensive end and come down on offense and don’t execute well and turn the ball over … that takes the life out of the team, takes the life out of the game … we have to be much better about it.’’

3. PLAY WITH SOME ENERGY

Speaking of life … the Blazers have shown little to none on this homestand. Lillard said it was fair to say the Blazers have been “flat.”

McCollum said it isn’t that the team is not showing effort, it’s that they aren’t executing, giving the appearance of a flat performance.

So how do the Blazers show some life, or "swagger" as Lillard called it after last game?

For one, says he will lead by example.

“I’m going to look to myself first,’’ Lillard said. “I’m going to hold myself accountable and I’m going to go out there and be the energy to start it off and get guys to vibe from that. Feel that, and want to get on the same page. I think everybody wants to win, everybody on the team are real team players so I think if the train goes that way, that’s what everybody is going jump on and do.’’

4. GET HEALTHY

Nurkic rolled his right ankle with about 6:30 left in Tuesday’s loss to Washington and although X-rays were negative, he was unable to practice Thursday. McCollum said he only saw Nurkic on the training table and on the exercise bike.

Harkless, meanwhile, bruised his quad in a first-quarter collision with Otto Porter and did not return for the second half. After the game, Harkless was optimistic he would be able to play by Saturday.

Nurkic, obviously, is a big part of the Blazers’ improved defense while Harkless was just put back in the starting lineup on Tuesday before suffering his injury. Harkless first made his name in Portland two seasons ago when he defended Houston’s James Harden well during a February game in Houston. It earned him a look in the starting lineup that he never relinquished until last month.

5. GET OUT AND RUN

The Blazers are in the bottom third of the league in offense, and are dead last in the NBA in fast break points, but several players Thursday said they welcome the matchup against the Rockets because it will likely mean a fast-paced game with increased possessions and open-court play.

“It’s more possessions, so kind of ride a wave, get a high-scoring total … an opportunity to somewhat get buckets,’’ Turner said. “That’s the focal point everybody is focusing on – why we haven’t been getting scoring at a high level – so maybe trick the message.’’

The Rockets, behind MVP candidate James Harden – who is leading the league in scoring and assists – are the league’s second highest scoring team, and have the best record in the West, which both McCollum and Lillard said is just the type of opponent the Blazers need.

“Why not?’’ McCollum asked with a smile.

“It’s perfect,’’ Lillard said. “Our next two games are against the best two teams in the West. Losing three straight games, what better situation than to have a chance to take a shot at the two best teams. To me, it’s the perfect situation to put something together.’’