Al-Farouq Aminu

Trail Blazers No. 3 in defensive rating -- can they sustain that?

Trail Blazers No. 3 in defensive rating -- can they sustain that?

Last night on Talkin' Ball, Dan Sheldon asked me if I was buying into the Portland Trail Blazers' defense at this point. Great question, difficult answer.

I checked defensive ratings this morning and the Trail Blazers still rank No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating. Given this team's defensive shortcomings in the past, this is a pretty amazing rank, especially since Portland has been without its best defender, Al-Farouq Aminu, for the last six games.

Pretty incredible improvement, I'd say.

There is no question that all the work Terry Sttots, the Portland coaching staff and players have put in shoring up the defense has paid dividends. Some nights I cannot believe what I'm seeing. There is major improvement in defensive aggressiveness and physicality. The Blazers suddenly mean business at the defensive end. There has been more attention paid to contesting shots and sealing off the lane. Good shots are not coming as easy against the Trail Blazers this season. Deflections, steals and blocks -- we're seeing everything.

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So yes, I'm buying into Portland's defensive improvement. But the real question is, is this sustainable? That's where I'm a little more cautious.

Being one of the best defensive teams in the league is an exhaustive job. There is physical and mental fatigue associated with playing consistent defense. The offenses are so good that many nights you still can't stop them. You have to accept that and move on. And you have to find motivation and energy to put in the effort every game. Usually, that motivation comes from seeing positive results. So far, the Trail Blazers probably haven't been rewarded as well as they should have for their quality defense.

After the win Wednesday night vs. Orlando, Portland was 8-6 for the season, after having lost a couple of very winnable home games. Contrast that with the best defensive team in the league, the Boston Celtics, who are 13-2. The Celtics are seeing plenty of reason to continue their efforts at the defensive end. But sometimes such things take time. Sample size must increase. The second-best defensive team in the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder, is 7-7 and the fourth best defensive team, the Los Angeles Lakers (believe it or not) are 6-9.

But when you look down that list of defensive ratings, you also find the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the top six. Obviously, good teams play good defense.We all know that.

Can the Trail Blazers sustain this high-quality defense? I'm still not sure. The schedule will get tougher, there will be more road games and more talented offensive teams to play. But I know this, if the Blazers can stay inside the top three -- or even the top six -- their record will eventually reflect their hard work and improvement.

And they will likely be one of the best teams in the league.

 

Trail Blazers deal with a loss inside a loss

Trail Blazers deal with a loss inside a loss

SALT LAKE CITY – It was another late-game disappointment Wednesday for the Trail Blazers – this letdown courtesy of some hideous turnovers and a potential game-winner blocked– but the 112-103 overtime loss to Utah wasn’t even the worst news of the night. 

By the time the team boarded its bus, it knew it probably lost starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu for the immediate future.

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Aminu, one of the team’s best defenders who leads the team with intangible contributions, hobbled to the team bus in a protective boot, his puffy and sprained right ankle an ominous indication of a lengthy stint on the sidelines.

Aminu rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter while fighting for an offensive rebound. X-rays were negative, but Aminu dragged himself through the locker room unable to fully put pressure on the ankle, walking as if he was attached to a ball-and-chain.

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There is little time to regroup, as the Blazers (4-4) return to action tonight at home against the Lakers. It is unknown whether coach Terry Stotts will now turn to Noah Vonleh – who made his season debut Wednesday with a five-point, one-rebound performance in 13 minutes – or whether he will move Maurice Harkless from small forward to power forward and put Evan Turner in the starting lineup.

What is known is this: the Blazers are worse off with Aminu sidelined. Last season, the Blazers were 8-13 when Aminu didn’t play, including a 13-game stretch when he had a strained left calf, which ironically happened on the eighth game of the season and began a team-wide defensive nosedive.

“He’s an important part of team; he has shown that for two years,’’ Stotts said.

So important, in fact, that team captain Damian Lillard put Aminu among the team’s most valuable.

“Chief is a huge part of our team,’’ Lillard said. “He does a lot of things that might not get mentioned all the time, might not show up on the stat sheet, but he is as big of part of our team as just about anybody.’’

Aminu on Wednesday had eight points, six rebounds and a block and had the team’s best plus/minus rating at plus-14. For the season, he is averaging 9.4 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point range. 

For all his wild forays in the open court, there is a heady instance of help defense, and for every wayward three-pointer, Aminu counters with a savvy deflection or tip rebound.

He is, quite frankly, as essential to the Blazers as he is, at times, maddening.

After the game, Aminu said he didn’t want to talk about the injury because it hadn’t fully sunk in.

“It’s always annoying not being 100 percent, but it’s part of the game,’’ Aminu said. “Everything happens for a reason but it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you have to know it’s there.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

All you need to know about tonight's Blazers-Lakers game.

You can buy a 15-game "Blazers' Pass" from NBC Sports. Find out more here.

Mike Richman at The Oregonian writes about the late-game woes this season

 

 

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

Al-Farouq Aminu and his 'monster' start propelling Blazers

INDIANAPOLIS – As Al-Farouq Aminu dressed quietly, and away from the cameras and microphones that surrounded his more high-profile teammates Friday, his name was being attached to several adjectives around the Trail Blazers locker room.

Maurice Harkless called him a “monster.”

Coach Terry Stotts called Aminu an “unsung” player.

And CJ McCollum called him the “glue” that keeps the Blazers together.

Pick any of those descriptions, and Aminu has been that and more in the first two games of this Blazers season.

On Friday, he was a steady force in helping the Blazers dispatch Indiana 114-96, amassing 16 points and 16 rebounds while playing his usual steady defense.  That came on the heels of a five-point, 12-rebound performance in the season-opening win at Phoenix.

“If we get him to play like that all season,’’ McCollum mused, “we will be special.’’

Aminu has long been one of the more under-appreciated players on the Blazers, in part because he is a quiet sort, and in part because often his contributions are not adequately measured by statistics.

He is one of, if not the best, defenders on the Blazers. He is able to switch liberally from guards to forwards and he offers probably the best help defense on the team. 

So far this season, the 6-foot-9 Aminu has also been an elite rebounder. His 14 rebound average through two games is sixth best in the NBA, but he is the only rebounder in the top 10 who is shorter than 6-foot-10.

So how does a 6-foot-9 player dominate the boards?

According to Aminu, much of it mental.

“You have to think every shot is going to be off,’’ he said. “Then go after everything.’’

Another aspect, Aminu says, is to go into a game with a defensive approach, something he has adopted since he signed a four-year, $30 million free agent deal in 2015.

“If I go into a game thinking I’m going to score 100 points, then that’s all that’s on my mind, ‘’ Aminu said. “But if I go in thinking I’m going to hold my guy to zero points, then that’s what is on my mind. You have to challenge yourself defensively; that’s half the battle.’’

And it was a battle on Friday that Aminu won more often than not. His 16 rebounds were the most he has recorded in his two-plus seasons as a Blazer and four off his career high.

“It seemed like every time I looked up, he was grabbing a rebound,’’ Damian Lillard said.

His final stat line didn’t go unnoticed around the locker room.

“That was crazy. Crazy,’’ Evan Turner said. “He is balling out. His energy is at a high level and we need it. Most of those are defensive rebounds, and if we don’t get those, we are in big trouble. You give any NBA team more than one possession and it will be along night.’’

It’s not like Aminu’s value is a revelation. Last season, when he missed 19 games with calf and back injuries, the Blazers’ defense nose-dived to the worst in the league. While much of the Blazers’ late-season turnaround was credited to the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic, a nuanced reason was also Aminu rounding back into shape to shore up the defense.

“He’s the glue. He is awesome,’’ McCollum said. “He does a lot of the dirty work and doesn’t get a lot of credit. Gets a lot of rebounds. Plays defense. Switches … makes threes for us. He’s big.’’

He will have to be big Saturday night for the Blazers in Milwaukee. Aminu figures to be one of the Blazers’ wings who will be charged with slowing down the Bucks’ do-it-all star, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is leading the NBA in scoring at 35.5 points a game to go along with 10.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

The Talkin' Ball panel discusses Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler being dropped from the Top 50 list. 

Casey Holdahl of the Trail Blazers' writes about the post game of Evan Turner

The Indianapolis Star writes about Caleb Swanigan being a steal in the draft.

Bleacher Report takes a look at whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the game. 

 

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

INDIANAPOLIS – The Trail Blazers rolled past their second straight opponent Friday night, this time a 114-96 dusting of the Indiana Pacers, and once again all anyone wanted to talk about was the Blazers’ improved defense.

Portland is 2-0 in the regular season, and dating back to the preseason has won seven in a row, all of the games examples of a connected, alert and active defense.

“We’re playing defense,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said when asked what he likes most about the Blazers’ start. “I mean, in the past it hasn’t been one of our strongest suits, and this year, top to bottom, everybody is playing defense.’’

So how can a roster where 12 of the 14 players are the same as last season make what appears to be such a dramatic turnaround?

The answer is layered, but may best be explained with two simple concepts: The Blazers, Aminu says, are talking more on defense; and that communication is happening, CJ McCollum says, because the players are finally seasoned enough to know what to talk about on defense.

“Early on in your career you don’t talk because you don’t know,’’ McCollum said. “What do you say? If you don’t know what is going on, what do you talk about?’’

When teams bring up defensive communication, it could be anything from recognizing and then anticipating another team’s play, to calling out screens, to letting teammates know where they have help.

They are subtle developments that come through film study, game experience and repetition.

McCollum, for example, says as he begins his fifth season, he is talking more than ever.

“A lot more,’’ McCollum said. “My rookie year, I didn’t say anything, I was just trying not to vomit on myself … going down the court just trying to stay in the right spot and try not to mess up.  Think about it, you are young, you don’t know. All I know is: ‘Go score.’ That’s it.’’

The Blazers for the past three seasons have been among the youngest in the NBA. But that youth has experience. Damian Lillard has been a starter going on six seasons. McCollum is going on his third season as a starter. And Aminu and Harkless are beginning their third season where they are paired as interchangeable defensive forwards.

So even though Portland starts this season with the fourth youngest roster in the NBA (24.317 years), it is a roster that has not only played a lot of games, but done it together.

So now, Lillard and McCollum can recognize a team’s play call and can better anticipate where they need to be. And Harkless and Aminu are doing a better job communicating where and when their help is coming from the weakside.

“The big change that I’ve noticed is just how much we are talking,’’ Aminu said. “Guys are saying the coverages … and it becomes contagious.’’

After two games, Blazers' opponents have combined to shoot 37.7 percent from the field.

But that doesn't mean the Blazers’ defense is a finished product, or that there still aren’t lapses.

On Friday in Indiana, on the Pacers’ second offensive play, forward Bojan Bogdanovic went backdoor on Maurice Harkless for a layin. Irritated he wasn’t alerted to a back screen, Harkless motioned with his hands that his teammates needed to talk to him.

Still, coach Terry Stotts was pleased Friday with the overall defensive effort, particularly the team’s transition defense, which has been a point of emphasis.

And while nobody is going to confuse the Blazers’ first two opponents – Phoenix and Indiana – with a playoff-caliber team in the West, they are both teams that last year put up 118 points on the Blazers. That fact wasn't lost on Lillard.

"We came in here ready to guard,'' Lillard said. "We’ve had a lot of fun actually playing defense; we see what it can do for us.''

 

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. 

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.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts says lineup, rotation not decided

SACRAMENTO -- Terry Stotts said he has yet to decide on his opening night starting lineup or his playing rotation, even after he coached what appeared to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season on Monday night in Sacramento.

Stotts started both halves with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic and played them all about 29 minutes. Through the first three quarters, he only played four reserves – Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Pat Connaughton.

Nobody inside the Blazers locker room said they have a clue how Stotts will approach the season opener, which is now just eight days away, but several intimated that it wouldn’t shock them if Monday’s game against the Kings is how the Blazers approach the Oct. 18 opener at Phoenix.

“I think obviously, everybody knows who the horses are,’’ Turner said. “And the rest of us have to stay prepared and stay ready for whatever the situation is. I think the biggest thing in the rotation situation is defensively … are we getting better defensively?’’

The only debate is how Stotts handles the forward position, and it seems the leading candidates from the start of camp have been Harkless and Aminu, who have developed a familiarity and defensive chemistry over the past two seasons. The other options are having Swanigan in place of Aminu, or perhaps Turner instead of Harkless.

But for a team whose offense is well defined with Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, it seems the defensive cohesion between Harkless and Aminu – they are able to switch easily on pick-and-rolls – has long been attractive to Stotts.

“The continuity – we finished out the year like that for the most part and I think we are all comfortable with that group out there,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know if that’s going to the be group we start with on opening night, but whether it is or isn’t, I think that group we have out there is good offensively or defensively.’’

Stotts usually likes to play nine or 10 players, and his biggest decision will likely come in early November, when Noah Vonleh returns from a shoulder strain. Vonleh has been a part-time starter over the past two seasons and figures to command playing time because of his rebounding and defensive play. Also, point guard Shabazz Napier – who has been unable to play in preseason because of a hamstring injury -- figures to be considered alongside Connaughton at guard, depending on matchups.

“We have a lot of lineups out there, but it will ultimately be coach’s decision,’’ Lillard said.

Stotts also typically likes to have one preseason game when he plays it similar to a regular season game, and it appeared Monday against the Kings was that night. The Blazers’ two remaining preseason games figure to be exercises in caution and the final auditions for the 15th roster spot.

Portland plays Wednesday at Phoenix, and Stotts has previously said he is leery to show much of his regular-season package against the Suns considering the Blazers open the season in Phoenix on the 18th. And Stotts has already said in the preseason finale – Friday at home against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa –he plans to rest many of his main players.

After what appeared to be a dry run during Monday’s 97-83 win at the Kings, Turner said there doesn’t appear to be much left to decide in this preseason.

“I guess who is going to be on the team,’’ Turner said, laughing. “But other than that, we have to figure out rotations so guys know their roles,  and I think we are getting closer and closer to it.’’

Here’s a look at Stotts’ substitution pattern/lineups and how they fared in the first three quarters Monday:

Starters: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 6:11, Kings 16-15.

1st sub: 5:49 -- Connaughton for McCollum. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 2:40, Blazers 11-2.

2nd sub: 3:09 -- Davis for Nurkic; Swanigan for Aminu. Lineup: Lillard, Connaughton, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 27 seconds, no scoring.

3rd sub: 2:42 – McCollum for Lillard; Turner for Harkless. Lineup: McCollum, Connaughton, Turner, Swanigan, Davis. Time played together: 7:22, Kings 12-11.

SECOND QUARTER (Blazers lead 29-24)

4th sub: 7:20 -- Lillard for McCollum; Harkless for Connaughton. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Davis.  Time played together: 18 seconds. Blazers 1-0.

5th sub:  7:02 -- Nurkic for Davis. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:47. Kings 3-0.

6th sub: 5:15 -- Aminu for Swanigan. Lineup: Lillard, Turner, Harkless, Swanigan, Nurkic. Time played together: 1:46. Blazers 7-0.

7th sub: 3:29 -- McCollum for Turner. Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 3:29. Kings 10-9.

HALFTIME: Blazers lead 54-43

THIRD QUARTER

Lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic. Time played together: 12 minutes. Kings 22-17.

Today's Blazers Links:

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, Dwight Jaynes says he thinks Pat Connaughton is in for breakout year.

ESPN's Zach Lowe weighs in on the Blazers

Matt Moore at CBS Sports previews the Blazers' season.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers says not much was decided in Sacramento.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts 'in formative process' of rotation

LOS ANGELES – Terry Stotts said his starting lineup and playing rotation is still under consideration as the Trail Blazers enter their third preseason game Sunday, but the coach did offer two factors into his thinking:

One, he is not opposed to starting rookies; and two, visualizing what the second unit and the player rotation patterns is to him as important of a factor as identifying the starting five.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,’’ Stotts said before the Blazers played the Clippers.

Stotts has named three of his five starters: Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

In the first two preseason games, Stotts has paired the starting forward positions with Evan Turner and Ed Davis and then Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Also, in the second half of the second preseason game, he started rookie Caleb Swanigan at power forward.

Stotts did not want to reveal his starting lineup for Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. game against the Clippers because he had yet to tell the team.

“There are a lot of different combinations and after two games, it has been productive, but I haven’t made a decision yet,’’ Stotts said. “I think it’s still in the formative process.’’

As Stotts mixes and matches his combinations, two early storylines have emerged: Swanigan, the rookie big man from Purdue, has played himself into consideration for a starting role; and the combination of Harkless and Aminu has once again proven to be an effective combination.

“I know everybody is curious about the forward position,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s not going to get resolved (immediately) … But I’m not opposed to starting rookies. I don’t know why I’ve gotten this reputation for not wanting to play young guys.’’

Stotts pointed to his history of starting Noah Vonleh the past two seasons and playing Lillard big minutes as a rookie.

The unit with Harkless and Aminu has excelled in the first two preseason games, going on a 9-2 run in the first game then starting the second preseason game with a 20-7 run. Stotts said he was recently given numbers that said the foursome of Lillard, McCollum, Harkless and Aminu over the last two seasons is a Top 10 unit in net rating.

“When you look at that foursome, you have to take that into consideration,’’ Stotts said.

If it all seems confusing and jumbled,  it is what preseason games are designed for: letting things play themselves out. But as Stotts reminds, it goes beyond identifying the best five players.

“I think people get caught up in the starting lineup,’’ Stotts said. “But it’s also about rotating players. There’s a lot that goes into it: starting familiarity, spacing, offense, defense, not only what happens with starting lineup but rotating players going in. I don’t think that gets enough consideration.’’

It will today when the Blazers reach the midway point of the preseason. 

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

Terry Stotts and his Trail Blazers' puzzle: Finding a fit in preseason

The puzzle that is the 2017-2018 Trail Blazers roster will begin to be sorted out Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix.

Coach Terry Stotts says he has three starters locked in for the October 18 season opener at the Suns – Damian Lillard at point guard, CJ McCollum at shooting guard and Jusuf Nurkic at center – but the starting forward spots and the rest of the rotation are up for grabs.

“I have a pretty good idea some of the lineups we will try, but I’m not sure what will be the final product,’’ McCollum said. “Coach isn’t set in stone; he’s going to let guys play for minutes, earn minutes, or lose minutes.’’

The small forward competition is between Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu while the power forward starting spot will be between Aminu, Ed Davis, Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Noah Vonleh, who is nursing a shoulder injury, will also be in the equation when he returns in early November.

Both Lillard and McCollum said they are most interested in how the power forward position shakes out, and Stotts said the starting power forward is probably his biggest decision.

“We have a lot of very good players at that position – a lot of them have similar skillsets,’’ Stotts said. “So, seeing which ones complement each other. I like the versatility of those guys and the different combinations, so it’s going to be interesting over the preseason games to see how they play with each other.’’

Stotts said he intends to play everybody on Tuesday, except injured players Shabazz Napier (quad), Vonleh (shoulder) and CJ Wilcox (knee). He said nobody will play more than a half and one of his main concerns is limiting the playing time of Lillard and McCollum, especially without Napier being able to handle point guard duties.

The players say several factors go into what they think should be a starting unit and the second unit.

Harkless, who has started 83 of his 156 games in Portland the past two seasons, said continuity is important. In that regard, the best lineup would probably be Harkless at small forward and Aminu at power forward.

“Any time you have a group that has been together for some time, they can only get better,’’ Harkless said. “You guys watch, (he and Aminu) are able to do so many different things defensively.  We can switch pretty much anything between us two. We both do a really good job communicating with each other so we can help other guys. We pretty much got each other’s back in any situation, and that’s important, especially defensively.’’

Stotts, who ended the 2015-2016 season and began last season with Harkless and Aminu as the starting forwards, said their track record will be noted.

“Playing Mo and Chief together has been good in the past. The last two years that has been a good combination,’’ Stotts said. “So we will take that into account.’’

Stotts has favored the Harkless/Aminu combination in the past because he likes their defensive versatility in being able to switch interchangeably.

However, last season, he eventually went to Vonleh as the starting power forward after Aminu had early season injuries to his calf and back.

“Chief got hurt and that kind of changed the dynamics of the season,’’ Stotts said.

Another factor to consider is Turner, who started to find his footing late in January once he was made the starting small forward. Turner took on the opposing team’s point guard defensively, and started getting into more of an offensive rhythm when he broke his hand at Dallas in February.

Turner says he thinks the collective intelligence of units is important when considering lineups, while also looking at whether a unit has an identifying strength.

“You have to have a sure-fire advantage in one area – whether that’s offense or defense,’’ Turner said. “You need to have something that makes that unit go, or something that makes it unique.’’

McCollum said two factors stand out to him when considering the starting lineup: balance and chemistry.

“And guys who are willing to accept roles,’’ McCollum said. “Once you get past that starge, you can pretty much elect whoever you want in those spots. A lot of times, it’s not the five best  player. Part of maturing and being a man is understanding your role, understanding how you help the team.’’

Stotts said he figures to mix-and-match lineups throughout each game, trying to find the right combinations. Tuesday will be just the start, the first of six before the real season starts.

“There are a lot of different routes we can go,’’ Lillard said.

Tuesday's game: Phoenix at Portland, 7 p.m. (NBCNW).

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Some observations after the Trail Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage Sunday at the Moda Center, keeping in mind that is was just a intra-squad workout:

CJ’s ‘target practice’

As crazy as it sounds, it looks like CJ McCollum is primed for an even better season than last, when he averaged 23 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and an NBA-best 91.2 percent from the line.

Some of the shots McCollum made Sunday had Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, shifting in his seat and chuckling at the absurd ease in which McCollum scored over blanket coverage. All night -- be it with his ball handling, court vision or shot making --  it seemed as if McCollum was toying with the competition.

All told, he hit 6-of-9 shots and all three of his three-pointers and finished with 15 points and the MVP trophy.

“Pretty good target practice,’’ McCollum quipped afterward.

This training camp, McCollum seems more at ease. Confidence has never, ever, been a problem for him, but in the past, it seemed like he carried an angry confidence, like he was in a rush to get recognized, or in a hurry to prove people wrong.

This season, that confidence seems more … peaceful, more comfortable.  I think that was on display pregame, when McCollum and Damian Lillard had a midcourt conversation with television broadcasters Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd.

In those settings, Lillard is usually the one who owns the stage. But on Sunday, it was McCollum who held court, telling stories about his travels to Africa, and making quips about social media posts.

To me, it looks like a young star coming into his own, as a player and a person. When that synergy happens, look out … and it’s why I think it’s possible McCollum surpasses Lillard as the team’s top scorer this season. 

The surprise

The biggest surprise Sunday was the play of guard Isaiah Briscoe, the rookie from Kentucky who is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot.

Briscoe scored 14 points and hit 6-of-7 shots while adding six rebounds, five assists and two steals.

After the game, coach Terry Stotts shrugged and said that’s what the staff has been seeing all training camp out of Briscoe. He is in competition with NBA veteran sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin, a 2013 first round pick – a spot I think many figure will go to Morrow – but after seeing Briscoe on Sunday that might be more of a battle than we think.

Solid Swanigan

Caleb Swanigan had 13 points and four rebounds, and what I liked best was his no-hesitation three-point attempt, which he made.

His ability to be a spacing power forward will only help him get on the floor in what figures to be the most heated position battle of the preseason. Between Swanigan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, and eventually Noah Vonleh when his shoulder heals, coach Stotts will have many options.

I’ve been curious this training camp how Stotts and the players view Swanigan from a spacing standpoint, and all have had basically the same response: He hasn’t shot it well the first week, but they know he can. If he can consistently hit the jumper, that will give him a better chance to be on the floor with Lillard and McCollum.

Of course, the bread-and-butter for Swanigan is his nose for the ball, and that was on display Sunday. He is not afraid to bang inside and he is one of those guys who is constantly in motion.

“What saw from Caleb is what we’ve seen for the last month: Effective scorer, tough, feels very confident on the block,’’ Stotts said.

Odds & Ends

While Swanigan has earned much of the attention and figures to be more game ready, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Zach Collins. On Sunday, Collins had a nice block on Swanigan at the rim, and word out of practices is that Collins has emerged as the team’s best rim protector … Speaking of defense, Meyers Leonard looked much better at contesting shots on Sunday. People often fixate on his shot, but for the coaches, it’s his defense that has prevented him from playing more. Leonard knows this and perhaps that’s why he was pumping himself up and talking to the crowd after holding his ground during a couple of Jusuf Nurkic’s forays into the lane … Ed Davis was really active and bouncy, which is exactly what the Blazers need from him. Next game, spend a couple possessions where you just focus on Davis and you will notice how many little things he does – keeping a ball alive, tipping a rebound to a teammate, showing help defense to cut off a drive, setting a hard screen. He makes this team better … Looks like it could be another hold-your-breath-and-pray shooting seasons for Al-Farouq Aminu. He went 0-for-4 with one airball and a near airball … Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless were late scratches to the scrimmage, but Stotts said both should be available to play Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix.