The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

Of all the confusing things going on with the Trail Blazers – from the wonky offense, an inability to make close-range shots, and the unsettled rotation – perhaps at the top of the list is the disappearing act of Maurice Harkless.

He considers himself the moodiest person on the team, and that has morphed into his on-the-court personality as well – at times (like during a promising preseason) a bundle of energy who can impact a game, and at other times (like for the past two months) a sullen and drifting player who becomes almost invisible.

Those swings have resulted in a yo-yo-like season that has seen him go from starter, to reserve, to out of rotation, to starter and then back to out of rotation.

“To me, that’s just how it goes,’’ Harkless said. “It comes and goes.’’

It has been one of the defining traits of his career, and in particular his two-plus seasons in Portland, where right when it appears time to give up on him, he resurfaces, effective as ever.

Case in point, the Blazers’ last game, a 95-92 win Saturday at the Lakers. Harkless had a team-high 22 points to go with six rebounds and two blocks, which included the go-ahead three-point play with 21.4 seconds left.

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The performance came after Harkless was buried on the bench for all but 9:04 of the team’s recent five-game trip. The 22-points matched his output since he first lost his starting job on Nov. 24 in Brooklyn.

Harkless points to his L.A. performance as a sign of his maturity, and being able to stay mentally engaged. Yet, he is either unable to process, or unwilling to say, why he continually finds himself falling out of rotations every season.

“I know my stuff will come around. It always does,’’ Harkless said. “It’s just a matter of when.’’

**

When he is right, Harkless is the type of player who can impact a game from a variety of areas.

He can be a pogo-stick rebounder, beating opponents with his second leap off the floor. He can be a shutdown defender, invaluable with his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls, and rare in his passion to defend. He can also be a reliable shooter, finishing at 35 percent from three-point range last season, and a crafty slasher.

But so much of those skills are incumbent upon his own motor kick-starting the effort. And for large parts of the season, Harkless’ motor has been quiet.

“(Energy) has to be consistent,’’ Harkless said after the Lakers game. “For me, I just have to figure out a way to do that every game. Bring energy. Sometimes I don’t. I just have to bring it every night.’’

He started the season’s first 18 games and averaged 26:32 minutes, but was largely ineffective, averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range. He was pulled from the starting lineup after an 18-minute performance in Philadelphia, when he had one point and zeroes in every other statistical category.

After he lost his job, it appeared he also lost his confidence. He passed up shots – many of them in the key – and spent much of his time drifting around the perimeter.

Harkless on Wednesday, however, sharply denies losing his confidence.

“No. No, I didn’t lose my confidence,’’ he said. “When you come in the game, a lot of times … never mind.’’

He paused, then continued.

“When you come in the game, you have to get a feel for it. Sometimes you are not able to do that in a five-minute stretch. Everybody has their strengths. Pat (Connauhgton) is a shooter. Jake (Layman) is a shooter. Shabazz (Napier) creates with the ball. For me, I’m not a shooter. I mean, I can shoot, but I’m not a shooter.

“When I come in the game, the first time I touch the ball, and it’s a wide-open three, part of me doesn’t want to shoot it, but I have to, because I’m wide open. So I shoot it, but that’s the first time I’ve touched the ball, so likely, it may not go in. That’s just part of the game.

“The more you feel the ball the more you the more you get a feel for the game, the more comfortable you will feel out there. That’s part of it in the Laker game,’’ Harkless said. “We were just out there playing, we weren’t worried about coming out of the game. Shabazz as well. You could tell he was a lot more comfortable out there knowing he probably had a longer leash with Dame being out. It’s all about being comfortable in this league, if you have an opportunity and you know if you make a mistake, and you will be able to play through it, I think that’s huge. It helps guys. You look at a guy like Noah (Vonleh) as well. I think he’s another guy that has to be able to play through his mistakes. It’s just not the situation he is in.’’

**

If there has been an encouraging aspect to the Harkless dilemma, it has been how he has remained engaged with his teammates.

During his time in Orlando, when he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and management after the franchise drafted Aaron Gordon, he recoiled in the face of adversity.

“Back then … I was a lot more selfish,’’ Harkless said. “I kind of had a mindset where everyone was out to get me, a mad-at-the-world type mindset.  That’s not always good to have. It’s good to have on the court, but not in the locker room or when cheering your teammates on. At the end of the day we are a team, so we all need each other. Whether or not in the game, I’m going to support my teammates and be ready to go when number is called.’’

After he lost his starting spot to Connaughton in Brooklyn, Harkless was among the players to wait by the scorers table and exchange encouraging daps to the Blazers’ starters. When Connaughton made his way toward Harkless, there was no dap. Harkless embraced him and whispered into his ear.

Connaughton said what Harkless whispered was the same type of encouragement he used to give Harkless before he went out for the opening tip, and he said he meant the world to him.

“That’s just been one of our things,’’ Harkless said. “We give a hug, and say ‘Be confident, stay aggressive.’’’

And last week in Minneapolis, at the end of a five-game trip during which Harkless played only once – a nine-minute, four-second stint at Miami – he didn’t mope or grouse in the locker room.

Instead, he fished through his backpack and pulled out an envelope of money, taking from it a crisp $100 bill. He walked across the locker room to the stall of rookie Zach Collins, who was buttoning his shirt with his back to the approaching Harkless. With a pat on the back, Harkless mumbled something to Collins and slipped the $100 bill under a bottle of water, shaking off Collins’ protests.

“Thank you,’’ Harkless said.

Turns out, Harkless earlier this season didn’t have cash on him to pay for a pregame locker room meal, and Collins picked him up. Collins said he had long forgotten about it, and didn’t expect to be paid back.

“It wasn’t $100, though,’’ Collins said. “So that was Mo being generous.’’

Collins said Harkless’ generosity isn’t the only impression he has made. He has noticed Harkless since his demotion, and he says he has remained the same guy – the one with a contagious machine-gun laugh, the one everyone wants to be around.

 “As far as being a good teammate, Mo is up there with the best of them,’’ Collins said. “Him falling out of the rotation, it didn’t break his spirit at all. He has been the same guy as he was when he was playing. That’s something I could learn as I move forward.’’

**

The good news for Harkless is he has been through these types of trials before, both in Orlando and in Portland.

“I didn’t come out of it the way I would have liked to in Orlando,’’ Harkless remembers. “ I just kind of crashed and burned.’’

In his first season in Portland, he see-sawed with Gerald Henderson for playing time, eventually losing out to Henderson in January. But in mid-February, Vonleh sprained his ankle and Harkless was called upon to start in Houston, during which he was placed on James Harden.

Harkless responded with a solid performance, and soon enough, he became the team’s starting small forward during a late-season run that extended into the second round of the playoffs.

Now, he is back in the same situation, on the outside looking in.

“It’s something I’ve been through before,’’ Harkless said. “It’s a little different this time around; I know how to handle it, so to say. Last time I was in situation was when I was in Orlando and I didn’t know how to handle it, so it turned out a little different. I wasn’t always ready to play when I did play, but that’s part of me just being more mature now, and understanding that everything comes back around, so just be ready whenever it does.’’

The million-dollar question now is not how he handles the low points, it’s how to prevent himself from getting there in the first place.  It’s a question Harkless both struggles to answer and doesn’t like hearing.

“It’s different with every team. This team, it’s unique,’’ Harkless said. “Not everybody is Dame and CJ, where they are going to start every night. Coach is going to make changes, especially when the team is struggling. You just have to deal with it.’’

Whether this is the start of another mid-season awakening for Harkless, or just another wrinkle in a confusing season, will begin to unfold when the Blazers resume play Thursday against the 76ers.

The only known in the equation is Harkless is coming off the best performance of his season. The crux of the problem – where has it been all season? – is only muddled by Harkless’ response to that question.

“Sometimes I play well,’’ Harkless said. “Sometimes I don’t. That’s all that is.’’

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, the Trail Blazers seem just as bewildered as you and me about the way their first-round series with New Orleans has turned out.

Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And there are no easy answers. Portland, a team so reluctant to use double-teaming as a defensive tactic, is just about completely befuddled by the Pelicans' double teams. A roster that rattled off a long winning streak during the second half of the regular season, is now incapable of getting the job done. The coach, once being talked about as a longshot candidate for Coach of the Year, is seemingly  not making necessary adjustments. The team's best player, being talked about as a possible first-team all-NBA selection, has been virtually shut down for three games.

What in the heck is going on here?

Well, I will address the problems as best I can and as directly as I can. They are many and sometimes contradictory:

  • If players are being double-teamed to the point Lillard is, other players obviously have to emerge to hit open shots. That's simple math -- two people guarding one person means another person should be open. But to take advantage of that, the ball must move quickly to the open man and the open man must be able to make an open shot.
  • Very often, the Trail Blazers invite the double teams with their high pick-and-roll. It makes it easy to simply blitz the screen and get the ball out of Lillard's or CJ McCollum's hands. Often, those players themselves call for that double team by calling for the high pick. New Orleans is obviously one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league, so... why not run something else? Why keep going back to something that isn't working?
  • The safety valve against double-teams in Portland's attack is almost always the big man coming to the foul line for a pass. He can then turn and face the basket, knowing he's going to be facing a three-on-two situation. The problem for the Blazers has been that it's been Nurkic in that position and he isn't a threat to make a shot from where he receives the ball. Consequently, his defender -- usually Anthony Davis -- is still free to roam the basket area. Perhaps someone else could play that spot who can make an open 20-foot shot?
  • And speaking of making open shots, the Trail Blazers have needed front-court shooting for two or three seasons now. You can tell me how well Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting all you want, but he isn't reliable or consistent and opponents still leave him open because they don't think he can convert. He's not a floor stretcher. The Blazers need long-distance shooting that will help open the court for Lillard and McCollum. This is not a new problem.
  • On the defensive end, the Trail Blazers continue to attempt to use Aminu to defend bigger players and it hasn't gone well. Against the Pelicans, it creates a terrible matchup for Jusuf Nurkic, who then must chase Nikola Mirotic around on the perimeter. While Aminu may do a marginally better job on Davis than Nurkic, the latter cannot come close to defending Mirotic, so it forces Nurkic to the bench in favor of a better defender. This is a defensive tactic by Portland that forces its third-best player, Nurkic, to the bench. And oh well, it may not matter because the Blazers aren't making good use of him on offense, anyway. If they don't get him out of that high pick-and-roll into one closer to the basket, he's not nearly as effective. He needs to catch close enough to the rim that he doesn't need to put the ball on the floor.
  • I believe there's also been a Portland effort problem in this series. For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers have been outhustled. This happened at times during the regular season but I don't understand it. Especially in the postseason.
  • The ball has to consistently move around the floor more often. When the Blazers are playing well, they move the ball and move bodies. Too often this season, things generate into the guards going one-on-one and in the playoffs, that's a hard way to win. When I talk to people around the NBA about this team, that's a criticism I hear often -- the guards are too dominant. But considering the shot-making ability of the forwards, can you blame them?
  • This thing has gone way off the tracks in the playoffs and I've outlined several things that are responsible. But the other thing that's gone unmentioned is that the Pels just might be this much better than the Trail Blazers.
  • What can be done at this point to change things for the better? The easy answer is nothing. But I'd at least like to see more effort in Game 4.

Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the Game 3 loss

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NBCS NW

Watch: The Scoop Postgame tries to make sense of the Game 3 loss

It wasn't the game anyone was expecting but the Blazers are now in an 0-3 hole with their season on the line Saturday night. 

Scoop Postgame Show

Soooo….. How are you coping with this loss? #TheScoop #RipCity

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Thursday, April 19, 2018

 

Turnover plagued Trail Blazers now in 0-3 hole

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USATI

Turnover plagued Trail Blazers now in 0-3 hole

It was a turnover prone night for the Trail Blazers who gave it away 24 times and now find themselves in an 0-3 hole vs. New Orleans. McCollum (22), Aminu (21), Lillard (20) led the way for Portland

Box Score: New Orleans 119, Portland 102

Quick Hit:

Podcast:

Blazers @ Pelicans Game 3 Exclusively on NBC Sports Northwest

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NBCS NW

Blazers @ Pelicans Game 3 Exclusively on NBC Sports Northwest

Game 3 of the Blazers vs. Pelicans first round playoffs game is exclusively on NBC Sports Northwest.

Though it may appear on TV listings, Game 3 will be blacked out on NBA TV in Oregon and Washington because it will air on NBC Sports Northwest.

If you don’t get NBC Sports Northwest, please use this guide to see which TV providers carry NBC Sports Northwest in your zip code.

NBCS Northwest is available on the following providers:

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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.

 

---

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