Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

LOS ANGELES – It took 51 days, but the Trail Blazers have finally regained possession of a playoff position.

Behind 22 points from Damian Lillard and some hot shooting from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers beat the Lakers 97-81 on Sunday at the Staples Center to move into a tie with Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining.

Denver, which lost 115-90 to New Orleans earlier in the day, plays at Portland on Tuesday at the Moda Center (7 p.m., CSN). Portland leads the season series 2-1, but can clinch the tie-breaker over Denver even if it loses Tuesday by virtue of winning one of its remaining four division games or having Denver lose one of its three remaining division games.

Seven of the Blazers’ final nine games are at home while seven of the Nuggets final nine games are on the road.

“We know if we can string a few games together at this point, we can be in the driver’s seat,’’ Lillard said before the game. “That’s a great position to be in.’’

Denver has held the eighth spot since Feb. 3, when Portland lost at home to Dallas to fall to 22-29 and Denver beat Milwaukee to improve to 22-27.

The Blazers have caught fire in March, improving to 11-3 in the month, with much of the surge being sparked by center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a February 12 trade with Denver for Mason Plumlee.

On Sunday, Portland struggled early against the last-place Lakers, but a third-quarter surge, led by Lillard’s 14 points, pushed a 51-46 lead to 77-56 entering the fourth quarter.

It was the Blazers’ 12th consecutive victory over the Lakers, a franchise record.

While Portland was misfiring early, Crabbe rescued them. He made six of his first 10 shots, including three three-pointers. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds, keeping the Blazers afloat long enough for Lillard to heat up and take them home

Noah Vonleh set a career high with 14 rebounds and Al-Farouq Aminu had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers (21-52) with 22 points while leading scorer Jordan Clarkson had an off night, making only 4-of-16 shots for 10 points.

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).

Podcast:

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Perhaps the most pressing subplot to the Trail Blazers season opener is the health of injured point guard Shabazz Napier.

With CJ McCollum suspended for Wednesday’s opener in Phoenix, the Blazers are not only losing their starting shooting guard and a player who averaged 23.0 points a game last season, they are also losing their backup point guard.

That’s why the progress of Napier is something worth monitoring over the next two days.

“Probably more than anything will be the minutes when Dame (Lillard) is out of the game,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Sunday in addressing the complications created by McCollum’s suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation on the court. “That’s the obvious (question), is how will we manage those minutes?’’

Normally, Stotts would just turn to Napier, the fourth-year point guard who came on strong at the end of last season. But Napier has been sidelined with a left hamstring injury since Sept. 27, the team’s second day of training camp.

Napier on Sunday practiced for the first time since suffering the injury, but his participation was limited by the medical staff, who wants to ease him back into action.

“They say each day I will get to do five or 10 minutes longer, ‘’ Napier said. “But supposedly, I’m going to be ready for the start of the season, so I’m excited about that.’’

Stotts says he will be in a wait-and-see mode during the next two practices before penciling Napier into the opening night rotation. After all, Stotts said the plan was to have Napier play last week during the Blazers’ three-game preseason trip, but Napier was never cleared by the medical staff.

If Napier is not cleared for Wednesday, Stotts will most likely have to use Evan Turner, and possibly Pat Connaughton at point guard in the 8-to-12 minutes Lillard figures to rest.

Napier hopes Stotts isn’t left with that dilemma.

Napier said he can explode off his left leg and that he doesn’t feel any limitations when he plays. He said the team is taking a “preventative” approach to make sure the hamstring doesn’t become a nagging, season-long injury.  But in his mind, he is ready, and he is treating the Monday and Tuesday practices as if it were the regular season.

“I just have to make sure when I’m out there in practice that I take those reps as game reps, offensively and defensively,’’ Napier said.

Napier said missing the entire preseason, while not ideal, doesn’t worry him.

“It will be different, because preseason is a way to get your legs back, and show what you can do to help the team, but at the end of the day, it’s still basketball, and I’ve been doing that all my life,’’ Napier said.

Napier last season averaged nearly 10 minutes while appearing in 53 games, including starts in the final two games, when he had 32 points against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. For the season, he averaged 4.1 points and 1.3 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune recaps CJ McCollum's thoughts on his suspension

KATU has a nice tidbit on the Blazers brightening the day of a teen recovering from an accident.

Maurice Harkless was behind the camera lens Sunday, taking photos of the Timbers. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

Breakfast with the Blazers: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

This summer, during a conversation with one of Evan Turner’s closest friends, my eyebrows were raised.

Jelani Floyd, who is one of Turner’s childhood friends from Chicago, had just returned with Turner from a 12-day, nine-city shoe tour in China. Floyd was telling me about their trip, and Turner’s workouts, and how he had witnessed a spark ignite in Turner.

Turner had started doing pilates, was working on his outside shot, and had set a lofty goal that caused me to pause and raise my brow.

Turner, Floyd told me, had set his sights on becoming named All-NBA Defense this season.

I bring that conversation up because Turner and his defense suddenly figures to be a central storyline in the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday in Phoenix, when Turner will likely spend much of his night defending Suns’ rising star Devin Booker.

On Saturday, the Blazers were hit with a bombshell that CJ McCollum will be suspended for the opener after he left the bench last week during a preseason altercation between Caleb Swanigan and Alex Len.

With McCollum out, coach Terry Stotts essentially has two options for a starter at shooting guard -- Pat Connaughton or Turner – and although I have no idea which way Stotts is leaning, I would imagine either way, Turner will be checking Booker extensively on Wednesday.

And hey, if there was ever a way to kick off an All-Defense campaign, putting the clamps on a gifted scorer like Booker – who at age 20 last season scored 70 points at Boston – is a heckuva start.

Booker in four games last season against Portland averaged 24.3 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 3-of-12 from three-point range. For the season, the 6-foot-6 guard averaged 22.1 points. 

Turner’s first assignment comes on the heels of what was an encouraging preseason for him. He had the NBA’s best defensive rating (74.2) in the preseason, which came while he guarding literally every position on the floor, while also showing heady passing and unstoppable moves in the post.

Last season, among players who played 20 or more games, Turner ranked 14th among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, a couple tiers below the top group of Kyle Anderson (San Antonio), Andre Roberson (Oklahoma City), Tony Allen (then Memphis), Danny Green (San Antonio) and Victor Oladipo (then Oklahoma City).

The defensive real plus-minus metric is influenced by which teammates you play with, and Turner this season figures to have a better figures playing more with Jusuf Nurkic, and less with the traded Allen Crabbe, whose defensive numbers last season were below average. 

Either way, Turner’s All-Defense goal is more of a novelty than the actual point: Turner is entering this season with a reinforced and perhaps even sharpened defensive mindset. Any time a player not only buys into defense, but embraces it … it usually bodes well for the team.

So no CJ for the opener? Total bummer.

But let’s watch Evan Turner and his defense against Booker and the Suns. It just might raise your eyebrows.

Today's Blazers links:

After being suspended for opener,  CJ McCollum tells NBC Sports Northwest "Lesson learned."

The Oregonian's Mike Richman details Jusuf Nurkic's summer workouts, and notes the big man wants to stay in Portland

NBA suspends CJ McCollum for season opener

NBA suspends CJ McCollum for season opener

One of the Trail Blazers' stars won't be on the court for opening night after the NBA suspended CJ McCollum one game for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation between Caleb Swanigan and Alex Len. 

McCollum, who was the Blazers' second leading scorer last season at 23 points a game, is the team's starting shooting guard. He is likely to be replaced by Evan Turner or Pat Connaughton, who will be faced with guarding Suns' star Devin Booker.

McCollum left the bench with 9:33 left in the third quarter of Wednesday's preseason game in Phoenix when Swanigan, a Blazers rookie, got into a shoving match with Len, the Suns' center. Video shows McCollum walking onto the court to grab Swanigan.

McCollum on Sunday apologized in a text to NBC Sports Northwest.

"I've been in the league way too long to have a mental lapse like that,'' McCollum said. "I want to apologize to my teammates and the organization for putting our team in this situation. The Western Conference is already tough enough as it is. It won't happen again. Lesson learned. I take full responsibility for those eight expensive and costly steps.''

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Has Lillard turned corner on defense?

Breakfast with the Blazers: Has Lillard turned corner on defense?

It was in Phoenix on Wednesday night when coach Terry Stotts bolted off the bench and shouted what could be considered music to the ears of Trail Blazers’ fans.

“Good defense, Damian!” Stotts barked, hands clapping. “Way to anticipate!’’

Damian, of course, is Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ star. The compliment, of course, was not only rare, but welcomed to a franchise that is trying to regain its defensive footing this season.

Of all the good things that came out of the Trail Blazers’ preseason – and there were many – the team’s improved defense was at the top of the list. On Friday, Stotts noted that the team’s preseason data showed a promising number of deflections, a good percentage of shots contested, and a high rate of possession after chasing loose balls.

At the center of those numbers has been Lillard. For a team that spent much of last season as the NBA’s worst defense, Lillard was often considered its worst defender.

But starting with the first practices of the season – which were heavily focused on defense – Lillard has been noticeable. In the season’s second practice, during a five-minute window opened to the media, Lillard blocked a shot and later denied an entry pass,  chasing down the deflection before it went out of bounds.

And during the team’s impressive 5-1 preseason, Lillard sized up the Clippers’ European rookie sensation Milos Teodosic and stripped him at halfcourt and took it in for a layin. Later, in that Wednesday game at Phoenix, he applied steady pressure on ball handlers and was part of the Blazers’ high-deflection rate, leading to more unprompted praise postgame from Stotts.

“I thought Damian got his hands on a lot of balls, and that was good to see,’’ Stotts said in Phoenix. “He was really getting into the ball.’’

All told, Lillard tied CJ McCollum for the team lead with eight steals in the preseason. In addition, Lillard was among the team leaders in floor burns after diving for balls.

After the Phoenix game, I asked him if he felt he has made strides defensively.

“It’s the one thing about my game that is easy to pick apart,’’ Lillard said. “I play the game really well offensively, so I can’t complain when people say things about me defensively, because I have my issues on that end. I always say part of it is because my responsibility on offense: sometimes I’m tired and I give into fatigue and I get hit by a screen and somebody cuts behind me and I lose sight. So my focus has to be better in that way, but I think also each year you learn more. I’m more familiar with what guys like to do. I’m more familiar with what plays teams like to run, like tonight, they called plays and I could position myself to where I don’t have to work as hard, I could anticipate what’s coming …

“I think I have made strides on the defensive end, partially because of that,’’ Lillard said.

The key will be how long Lillard can keep his defensive intensity and attention. As he noted Wednesday, fatigue is a huge factor in playing and maintaining defense. It was at the center of his response to me about his defense after that Sept. 27 practice when he made the block and steal after denying an entry pass.

“I don’t think I’m a bad defender, first of all,’’ Lillard said on Sept. 27. “Effort has never been the issue. It’s just a matter of having a lot of responsibility … sometimes getting tired, sometimes giving in to that fatigue, or that fatigue having an impact on my judgment.

“It’s always this way at the beginning of the season – you are fresh, you are excited, you are sharp,’’ Lillard said. “It’s just a matter of me being able to sustain that and me doing a better job taking care of my body, I guess.’’

Lillard is playing about eight pounds lighter than last season, and has adopted a vegan diet. He hopes his lighter playing weight will help with his explosiveness and with his recovery between games.

But I think the physical aspect is only a fraction of what makes a good defender. It’s the mental aspect – both wanting to defend and studying to defend – that elevates players.

And judging from this preseason, and that Wednesday game in Phoenix in particular, it appears Lillard is making headway on the mental approach to his defense.

“It’s trying to stay ahead of the curve, watching film, continuing to understand what the other team are trying to do so I can stay a step ahead and know what’s coming,’’ Lillard said in September. “That’s what better defenders do in the league – they are very familiar with what to expect and what’s to come.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

The Blazers on Friday waived three players to trim roster to 14.

The Ringer does its season preview of the Blazers

Yahoo!'s Shams Charania reports on Blazers not offering Jusuf Nurkic an extension.  

 

Blazers keep roster at 14, waive Morrow, Goodwin and Briscoe

Blazers keep roster at 14, waive Morrow, Goodwin and Briscoe

The battle for the Trail Blazers’ 15th and final roster spot turned out not to be a battle at all.

In a cost-cutting move that also creates roster flexibility moving forward, the Blazers waived Anthony Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe minutes after Portland concluded its preseason schedule Friday night with a 129-81 win over Maccabi Haifa.

The surprise of the cuts was Morrow, the nine-year NBA veteran whose sharp-shooting was thought to be an asset for a team like the Bazers that values the three-pointer. Morrow hit 4-of-5 three pointers in an eight-minute span against Toronto in the Blazers’ second preseason game, and finished the preseason making 6-of-13 from three-point range.

Morrow, 32, took the news in stride, and shrugged his shoulders when asked his emotions after the decision was relayed to him.

“Nothing,’’ Morrow said. “It was just a good opportunity. Obviously, I wanted to take advantage of it. It is what it is.’’

Morrow said his next step was to fly home to Charlotte and play with his kids. He said he will then turn his attention to other opportunities.

“It’s going to be a bright future for this team,’’ Morrow said. “I’m going to be watching them.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said none of the moves were an easy decision.

“We wanted to have an open roster spot, being a luxury tax team,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “It’s an added expense … so I think the open roster spot was important.

There are reasons to keep all three of them, but certainly Anthony’s shooting ability was a strong consideration,’’ Stotts said. “I mean he has been doing it in the league a long time … it’s an NBA skill that is certainly worth consideration.”

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

One last tune-up for Blazers as Portland hosts Maccabi Haifa

One last tune-up for Blazers as Portland hosts Maccabi Haifa

The Portland Trail Blazers (4-1) wrapped up its three game exhibition road trip with a 113-104 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.

Meyers Leonard finished with 17 points and eight rebounds, while Damian Lillard added 14 points and Evan Turner finished with 12 points, six assists and four rebounds as Portland got its third straight preseason victory.

Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan got tangled up with Alex Len in the 4th quarter of the Blazers win over the Suns and was ejected from the game.  Swanigan had one point and six rebounds before being ejected.

Coach Terry Stotts told the media after the victory on Wednesday that he plans to rest many of his rotation players or give them very limited minutes when the Trail Blazers host Maccabi Haifa on Friday night.

Friday night’s contest is the Blazers final preseason game of the year.  It’s expected that the young players and the players deep down on the Blazers’ bench will get a lot of run on against the professional Israeli team.  

Maccabi Haifa is set to conclude a four-game trip of their U.S. tour when Haifa takes on Portland.  Haifa is still looking for its first ever win against an NBA team. The Israeli club is now 0-15 all-time against NBA opponents.  There most recent loss came on Wednesday night after losing to the Indiana Pacers, 108-89.

The Trail Blazers have listed Noah Vonleh (right shoulder) and C.J. Wilcox (right knee) as out for Friday’s game. Shabazz Napier (left hamstring) has been upgraded to questionable.

You can check out The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest live from Moda Center.

 

Quick Links:

Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Leonard has breakout game in Blazer win over Phoenix

Harkless impressing with defense, approach

 

Video:  Swanigan ejected, is not backing down from anybody

Video:  A big step in the right direction for Meyers

Video:  Jason Quick: Meyers Leonard’s breakout game, Swanigan show spunk

Video:  Highlight: This play has really paid dividends for the Trail Blazers

 

Game Details:

Where:  Moda Center, Portland OR

When: Tip-off is set for 7:00pm

NBC Sports Northwest pregame and postgame coverage: Check out nbcsports.com/Northwest and The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live at 6:30pm at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/NBCSNorthwest. 

Postgame Podcast: Inside the Blazers with Jason Quick

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

Blazers' radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler sidelined with health issues

Blazers' radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler sidelined with health issues

For the second time in four seasons, health issues are sidelining Trail Blazers’ radio voice Brian Wheeler.

Wheeler, 55, will miss Friday’s exhibition finale at the Moda Center, then at least the first three games of the regular season as he battles scrotal lymphedema. The condition, which caused him to miss four games in November of 2013, has returned and made it painful for him to sit through a broadcast, Wheeler said.

“I’m in a lot of discomfort,’’ Wheeler said after calling Wednesday’s game at Phoenix. “The hard part is the condition has now made it somewhat painful just to sit for extended periods, such as the length of a game. The entire preseason I was standing during every timeout by the third quarter … to no avail.’’

Scott Lynn, a former Portland radio and television personality who now lives in Florida, will fill in for Wheeler for the opening games of the season at Phoenix, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

Wheeler, who is in his 20th season with the Blazers, said he noticed the condition returning in July and tried to address it before the season, but could never get the proper treatment.

“I pride myself in being ready for every broadcast,’’ Wheeler said. “So I hate missing even one game.’’

Wheeler said he reluctantly agreed to the leave of absence, and said he hopes it is only for the opening trip of the season.

He said he will begin a low-calorie, medically-supervised diet in hopes of losing weight and alleviating the condition.

“I’m hoping it will be a short time away,’’ Wheeler said.

When Wheeler missed games in 2013, it broke his streak of 1,359 consecutive broadcasts, which spanned 16 seasons. In September, he signed a multi-year extension with the team.

“I love my job and the people I work with; I feel I’m letting them down in some ways,’’ Wheeler said. “The team was kind enough to give me an extension so I could continue doing what I enjoy the most. I owe it to them and all the loyal listeners to be at my best, and I can assure everyone, I will be as soon as possible.’’

The first pro to sit down during the anthem? It may have been a former Trail Blazer

The first pro to sit down during the anthem? It may have been a former Trail Blazer

With all the talk about players not standing for the national anthem, on Throwback Thursday, I thought it appropriate to point out that the very first athlete to not stand for the anthem just might have been a Portland Trail Blazer.

Charlie Yelverton was a 6-2 shooting guard out of Fordham whom Portland took with the 25th pick in the 1971 draft. He averaged 7.9 points per game in a reserve role as a rookie for the Trail Blazers. He was waived by the Blazers in September of 1972 after an incident that occurred prior to a home game when, during the anthem, Yelverton sat cross-legged on the floor next to standing teammates.

At the time, Yelverton's actions were reported as a protest about a team matter:

There was also an incident where reserve guard Charlie Yelverton sat at the foul line in the yoga position during the playing of the national anthem, protesting the waiving of teammate Willie McCarter.

But later, in a story in the New York Post, Yelverton listed different reasons for his sit-down strike:

The Vietnam War and the plight of the poor are the reasons Yelverton gives for his decision.

Yelverton was sick of the red, white and blue mentality, which was shaded green.

”Everybody is so hung up on making money,” Yelverton said.

At 24 years old, he left to ball overseas. He played in Greece, Sweden, Switzerland and Italy.

It is apparent that Yelverton thinks about what could’ve been?

But he says, ”If I didn’t sit down on the flag, I wouldn’t clean my conscience.”

You ask, if he regrets the timing?

”I should’ve done it when I had a five-year contract,” said Yelverton, who had a two-year deal.

Yelverton played several successful seasons in Europe after a solid career at Fordham but not many people remember him as an NBA player.

Yet he may have been a pioneer. He sat while others stood for the anthem -- and it cost him his job.