Who were those Blazers who showed up Friday night vs. Mavs?

Who were those Blazers who showed up Friday night vs. Mavs?

The most difficult thing about the Trail Blazers this season has been trying to figure out who they are. Are they the team that beat the Celtics in Boston and Cleveland at home? Or the one that got whipped at home by Orlando and fell behind Dallas 30-10 Friday night?

I'm not sure. But I really was surprised by what I saw Friday night in Moda Center.

The Trail Blazers did not defend as well, or in the same manner, as they'd been defending. All the aggressiveness we'd been seeing, the activity and energy on defense, vanished. Portland had given up an average of about 90 points per 100 possessions in the previous six games and on Friday allowed 120 per 100. And this against a couple of guards with very slim NBA credentials. The Blazers were back to their old defense -- the one where their pick-and-roll defense included the bigs laying back in the paint, allowing wide-open mid-range jump shots. And even more perplexing, Portland continued going behind screens on Dallas guard Yogi Ferrell, even as he was knocking down three-pointer after three pointer.

I understand if you have a scouting report that says he can't shoot threes. But after he hits four or five in a row, shouldn't you change your approach? Late in the game, Ferrell hit a back-breaking three-pointer when Al-Farouq Aminu, seemingly undecided on his responsibility, stood frozen about five feet away and did not close out on the shooter. I just didn't understand it. Ferrell had made eight of his previous 10 three-pointers and after that last one, finished the game nine of 11.  And you don't get into his grill for a shot that big?

And on offense, this wasn't the same Portland team, either. Even Turner got hot in the third quarter and carried his team for a spell, but he stopped getting the ball. Then late in the fourth quarter, CJ McCollum heated up, scoring on three straight possessions and seemed poised to carry his team to a win. But he then went the next three and a half minutes without a shot until he hit that difficult, contested three with a half-minute left.

By that time, Portland's usually unselfish offense broke down into some one-on-one forays. One of the problems I've always seen with "flow" or passing-game offenses is that the ball sometimes doesn't get to the hot shooters. That's why at key points of a game it's often better to simply call a set play for a hot player than to just hope he ends up with a good shot out of a free-flowing offense.

None of this stuff reminded me of the way the Trail Blazers have been playing recently. I was very surprised. And with the upcoming schedule looking very difficult, I wonder what this team will do next.

Just as I have wondered that all season, I guess.

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

PHOENIX – At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Trail Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts declined to reveal his starting lineup for tonight’s game at Phoenix, but the jerseys his players wore went a long way to speaking for him.

Only five players were wearing black jerseys – the rest grey – when the media was allowed onto the court at the conclusion of the hour-long walk-through practice.

Those in black: Damian Lillard at point guard, Evan Turner at shooting guard, Maurice Harkless at small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

No big surprises, as Turner will fill in for the suspended CJ McCollum and likely start the game guarding Suns’ rising star Devin Booker. Turner has set a goal to be named All-NBA Defense this season and what a way to make a statement than going against the player who scored 70 points last season at Boston.

Other news and notes about the opener:

Shabazz Napier: Stotts said he has seen enough in practice from Shabazz Napier to play him in tonight’s game. Doesn’t mean Napier will see time, but he is cleared medically and has shown enough to Stotts in three practices to give the coach comfort to call on him if needed. Napier injured his left hamstring on the second day of training camp and didn’t return to practice until Sunday.

The rookies: Of all the tough decisions ahead for Stotts, his biggest entering the season might be which rookie to play. A low-key development in the preseason has been the rapid improvement of rookie Zach Collins. While much attention has been given to fellow rookie Caleb Swanigan, who started the preseason with a bang, Collins has quietly impressed to the point where he could command playing time over Swanigan.

Meyers Leonard: The Blazers' big man said he understands that he will not be in the rotation to open the season, and says he has adopted a “be ready” mentality.

“I thought I had a really good training camp, and for the most part in the preseason I thought I was solid,'' Leonard said.  "I didn’t like the Toronto game, but outside of that, I felt I was very focused and shot the ball well and definitely improved with defensive rebounding.

“But it’s an uphill battle. I can say that I didn’t give them a reason last year to have trust  me … so I’m going to take it day by day,’’ Leonard said.

Stotts and Leonard chatted briefly this week about his role and Leonard says he is in a good place mentally.

“That’s one thing I’ve come to understand after this summer, and coming into my 6th year is understanding the true, true professional side of things. That no matter what happens I have to stay in shape, keep working … because when number is called, you have to be ready.’’

Suns injury update: Leonard’s chances of playing Wednesday probably lessened after it appears Suns backup center Alex Len will miss the game with a sprained ankle. Len told Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic that he is “probably out” for tonight’s game beause of the left ankle sprain, but that he hopes to play Friday.

Extra work for CJ: CJ McCollum, who is suspended for tonight’s game after leaving the bench during an altercation in last week’s preseason game against the Suns, stayed after Wednesday’s shootaround to get in more court work. He is not allowed to be in the arena up to two hours before the game. 

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

Ready or not, here they come. The Portland Trail Blazers will unpack those new Nike uniforms and open the regular season tonight in Phoenix.

And I must admit, I expect big things. I think the Trail Blazers are flying under the radar a little bit this season. They didn't add a big-name free agent, make a blockbuster trade or get a top-five draft choice, but they've improved a lot. How does that happen? Well, this team has been one of the youngest in the league for the past three seasons and it's growing up and growing together. Experience matters and so does player development -- and not many teams do that as well as the Trail Blazers.

This roster is improved from top to bottom. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are all-star level players but we know by now they do not sit around all summer doing nothing. You will see they've gotten better. I expect Pat Connaughton to have a breakout season, earning playing time with an all-around game that's better than what was lost with the trade of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn. The rookies, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins, will improve as the season progresses and I expect that somewhere along the line each will play a part in winning games.

Yes, the defense is still a question mark. It looked better in the exhibition season but to be fair, the preseason games didn't include any of the NBA's premier offensive teams. We shall see. And it goes without saying, too, that Jusuf Nurkic must stay healthy.

But I expect this team to have a shot at 50 wins and contend for a spot in the upper half of the West playoff bracket. It's going to be a dogfight but this group is ready to take it to another level and show its potential as a future West contender.

And it all starts tonight -- on NBC Sports Northwest, where you will always find Rip City Live before the game and Talkin' Ball after the game,

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

PHOENIX – When Damian Lillard erupted for 35 points against the Clippers this preseason, he said it was to establish a “handle our business” tone to carry into the regular season.

Ten days later, Lillard and the Trail Blazers have reached opening night in Phoenix looking every bit like a team ready to handle business.

Rooted in a preseason of alert and active defense, and an effective and diverse offense, the Blazers appear to be in position to achieve one of their early goals: a successful start to the season.

How successful?

How about 12-4?

After watching this team in the preseason, I think Portland wins 12 of its first 16 games. Before you call me a homer, or optimistic, look at the schedule.

Eleven of the first 16 are at home. Nine of the 16 are against non-playoff teams from last season. On top of it all, the Blazers so far have looked deep, connected and … good.

I have Portland losing at Milwaukee, at home to Toronto, at Utah and at home to Oklahoma City. The rest are wins.

If the Blazers head into their five-game Thanksgiving trip 12-4, I think they can check off the first of their season goals: a good start.

That goal was prompted by the experience of last season, when a Blazers team with second-round playoff aspirations was nearly buried by a poor start. The Blazers scuffled in the early season, eventually dropping as many as 11 games below .500 by February before they recovered and finished 41-41 and with the final playoff spot in the West.  

This season, led by Lillard, several players have talked about the need to get off to a good start, particularly with what figures to be an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

With a promising preseason, and what appears to be a favorable schedule, don’t be surprised to see the Blazers among the league leaders.

Am I being overly optimistic?  Look at the first 16 games and tell me where you have the Blazers on the morning of Nov.19.

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes writes that former Blazers' broadcaster Mike Barrett is involved with group trying to bring baseball to Portland. 

The Arizona Republic takes a look at the Phoenix Suns' expectations heading into tonight's opener. 

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian notes that defense has been a focal point for the Blazers in the preseason. 

Season starts today! Where and how to watch Blazers vs. Suns

Season starts today! Where and how to watch Blazers vs. Suns

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

After two preseason meetings, the Trail Blazers and Suns find themselves squaring off once again but this time both teams are tipping of the 2017-18 NBA campaign.  Portland and Phoenix will tip-off at 7:00pm on Wednesday night on NBC Sports Northwest. 

During the exhibition season, the Trail Blazers went 5-1 and took one of the two meetings against the Suns in preseason action. Portland had opened the preseason with a close one at home against Phoenix, losing 114-112.  The Trail Blazers then beat the Suns 113-104 on October 11th down in Phoenix.

The Blazers will face the Suns without starting shooting guard CJ McCollum after the NBA suspended McCollum for one game for leaving the bench during an altercation between Blazers rookie Caleb Swanigan and Suns big man Alex Len in that October 11th game.

Phoenix finished its exhibition season going 2-3. 

As for Wednesday’s contest, the unofficial starters in the game notes for the Blazers are Damian Lillard, Evan Turner (in place of the suspended McCollum), along with Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic.

The Trail Blazers only have Noah Vonleh (right shoulder) listed on the injury report.  Vonleh will be OUT for Wednesday game. The Suns on the other hand, are dealing with a few more injuries.  Jared Dudley (left foot surgery) and Alex Len (left ankle sprain) are both listed as questionable and Brandon Knight (left ACL tear), as well as Alan Williams (right meniscus repair) and Davon Reed (left meniscus repair) are all out vs. the Blazers.

Talking Stick Resort Arena has not been kind to Portland in recent years.  The Suns all-time home record in the last 12 seasons against the Trail Blazers is 19-5.

Our Dan Sheldon, Dwight Jaynes, and Orlando Williams will help set the stage for the Blazers season opener with a special hour-long Rip City Live on NBC Sports Northwest starting at 5:30pm.

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

Quick Links:
Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal
Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener
Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Video:  McCollum: “They made a choice, they didn’t have to suspend me”
Video:  It’s “easy to pick apart” Lillard’s defense
Video:  Jason Quick: It’s pretty clear who Stotts’ Top 9 guys are
Video:  So good to see you again, #RipCity tweets

Game Details:
Where:  Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix AZ  

Tip-off: 7:00pm

Television: NBCS Northwest

CSN Programming:  Hour-long Rip City Live (5:30pm), 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 of NBCS programing: 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

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Wednesday’s season opener figures to be quite the debut for Trail Blazers’ guard Pat Connaughton.

Not only has the third-year guard secured a spot in the rotation with a solid preseason, he also figures to play an integral part Wednesday in patching the hole left at backup point guard by the suspension of CJ McCollum.

Coach Terry Stotts on Monday said it is likely either Connaughton or Evan Turner will initiate the offense at Phoenix when starter Damian Lillard rests, with Shabazz Napier also a possibility providing his left hamstring is cleared by the medical staff.

“Most likely, if Pat were out there and Dame was not, I’m sure Evan would be on the court as well, so probably between Evan and Pat, whoever the point guard was not be guarding would initiate the offense,’’ Stotts said.

If initiating the offense in a season opener seems like a huge step for a guy whose future was in question until the Blazers picked up his contract option in late August, it’s really not. Stotts last season developed a comfort level with Connaughton’s smarts, versatility and steadiness, which led to him playing spot duty during some key situations.

Of course, there is a big difference between spot duty and running the offense in a season opener. The two skills that will be tested are ball handling and retention of the plays.

Connaughton said he has honed his ball handling skills over the summer, which was evident in preseason when he was able to split a blitzing double team.

“CJ has helped me a lot, Shabazz helped me a lot – just making sure ball handling is up to par with what it needs to be a two-guard in this league,’’ Connaughton said. “Not just to make plays for myself, but others.’’

As coach, Stotts said his role will be to keep Connaughton out of a scenario where he is pressured full court.

“I’m comfortable with Pat handling the ball,’’ Stotts said. “If he has a ball-hawking defender like Patrick Beverley, or somebody like that guarding him, I wouldn’t want to put him in that situation. But if he is out there and can bring the ball up and initiate the offense without a lot of pressure, yeah.’’

When it comes to knowing the playbook, there are no worries. Teammates have often said Connaughton knows the role all five players have on each play.

“I know where everyone needs to be, not just myself,’’ Connaughton said, noting the Blazers put in a couple new plays Monday that he will have to review. Coming from the other sports I played, you have to have a high mental IQ when it comes to the athletic side of things, and it’s better to know where everyone is going to be rather than just where you are going to be … you want to be able to pick guys up.’’

While part of Connaughton’s appeal is his versatility, nobody expected he would be in this role for opening night. But McCollum, who is the Blazers’ starting shooting guard and backup point guard, was suspended Sunday for walking onto the court during a preseason altercation, creating a void.

The unexpected opening night role is just another opportunity for Connaughton, whose $1.4 million option wasn’t picked up until Aug. 31. When Allen Crabbe was traded to Brooklyn in July, it opened up 29 minutes in Stotts’ rotation, some of which will go to Connaughton, who earned them by embracing what he envisions as a jack-of-all-trades role.

“Whatever is needed,’’ Connaughton said in describing his role. “Just making sure I can get guys the ball in spot they want to get it, hopefully take pressure of Dame, CJ, ET, guys who always have the ball in pick and rolls, things like that …  and make shots and defend.’’

And for a night, help out at backup point guard.

Today's Blazers' links:

My Inside the Blazers podcast includes an interview with Evan Turner.

Damian Lillard knocked off a bucket list item.

ESPN has the Blazers ranked 14th in its opening day power rankings.

The Oregonian's Mike Richman writes that Connaughton has gone from towel-waver to rotation player.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman writes on the Blazers' improved defense.

The Trail Blazers' Casey Holdahl and Freeman recorded their Rip City Report.


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.