Zach Collins joins the club: Trail Blazers rookie part of postgame lifts

Zach Collins joins the club: Trail Blazers rookie part of postgame lifts

For the past three years, a group of Trail Blazers have formed an unofficial club that lifts weights immediately after home games.

And this year, with the encouragement of some veterans like Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis, there is a new member: rookie Zach Collins.

“I make Zach go,’’ Harkless said with a chuckle.

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

Added Davis: “Every day I’m in there, I see him in there. Kid is smart.’’

The post-game lifts are another layer to the team’s culture of hard work and togetherness, and in the case of Collins, it could be one of the more subtle developments to the season.

Collins, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is skilled and savvy, but at age 19 (he turns 20 on Nov. 19) he is at times physically outmatched by veterans.

Whether he is able to add muscle and gain strength figures to play a part in how quickly he makes an impact.

“For him, if I were in his shoes, I would just live in the weight room,’’ Davis said. “I think he understands that.’’

Collins is listed at 7-feet and 235 pounds. He said he has already put on “a couple” pounds of muscle since he has joined the Blazers, and he says he has embraced the weight room culture, even if he entered somewhat curiously.

It was after a preseason home game in which he didn’t play, and Collins had thoughts of getting in a workout. He peeked inside the weight room, which is down the hall from the Blazers’ locker room, and was taken aback.

“There were a bunch of guys in there,’’ Collins said. “Post game at home … it’s what they do, I guess. So I started going, and I’m happy to be a part of it.’’

The core group includes Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton, Meyers Leonard and Harkless.

They usually lift for 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes emphasizing core, sometimes upper body, sometimes lower body.

“You do it just to stay right,’’ Davis said.

Added Harkless: “It feels good. It’s like putting in work, and we all like to work.’’

Collins said he is already seeing progress in the mirror and on the court.

“In practices, I’m not getting pushed around as much,’’ Collins said. “So it’s getting there.’’

Harkless, whose locker is next to Collins, and Davis, who often goes against him in practices, are both keeping an eye on his progress and making sure he remains diligent.

“For him, that’s like his next step,’’ Davis said. “Once he gets more strength and is able to hold his own, he’s going to be a problem.’’

Collins has appeared in two of the Blazers’ seven games and has played 15 minutes this season, both Harkless and CJ McCollum said he continues to have a good attitude and proper perspective.

“I’ve gotta get stronger,’’ Collins said. “And once I get stronger I feel like everything is going to get a lot easier for me. So I’m trying to get in a routine and not run away from the weight room. If I keep doing that, things are going to come quicker.’'

Today's Blazers' links: 

How and where to watch tonight's Blazers-Jazz game.

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says the Blazers need to work more for open shots

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes that Noah Vonleh is cleared to return tonight versus Utah. 

Some Utah Jazz notes, including the friendship between Lillard and Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell.

 

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

After Monday’s disastrous second quarter that led to a humbling 99-85 loss to Toronto, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was the one player who was able to cut through the clichés and distance himself from the everything-will-be-fine mentality.

McCollum, who went 5-for-16 from the field and spent large parts of the Blazers’ record setting six-point second quarter playing point guard, said Portland’s sputtering offense needs to get back to its roots.

“We have to do a better job of movement – not just ball movement, but player movement,’’ McCollum said. “A lot of times, we are standing there watching each other.’’

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

The Blazers (4-3) entered Monday’s game with the NBA’s third best offensive rating, but much of those numbers were padded during the team’s rip-roaring three-game opening trip, when they averaged 116 points and shot 47 percent from the field.

But during the team’s four-game home stand, the fluent and artistic collaboration that is coach Terry Stotts’ flow offense has sputtered. Much of the concern would be alleviated, of course, if the Blazers could make even the easiest of shots. Even the Portland players have mocked their poor point-blank shooting, and as a whole, the Blazers have made only 39.9 percent of their shots at home. 

But beyond the blown layins and inconsistent close-range shooting, the Blazers’ offense has greater problems, or as Evan Turner so succinctly put it after the Toronto loss: “What we like to do ain’t happening.’’

McCollum’s assessment – that there isn’t enough movement – probably comes closest to addressing what is likely several small things gone awry, which adds to a big problem like Monday, when the Blazers missed 20 consecutive shots from the end of the first quarter until nearly halftime.

The Blazers struggled with spacing, often having three players in close proximity, played a lot of one-on-one, and had nine of their shots blocked and several others that were heavily contested.

Those were all a byproduct, McCollum said, of poor movement.

“It puts pressure on the ball handler,’’ McCollum said. “We are used to reading and reacting off each other, but when we all look at each other, it puts pressure on the guy to make something happen. That’s when we get turnovers. When we get contested shots. And late shot-clocks.’’

The one-on-one play has been particularly alarming, and is in part reflected in the Blazers low assists. They average 19.2 assists – nearly two less than last season - and are ranked 26th out of 30 teams.

The assists will go up once the Blazers start shooting better, but McCollum said he thinks everything is related. Stotts’ flow offense is predicated on movement, and sharing the ball, and that right now isn’t happening smoothly or often enough.

And McCollum said it will start with himself.

“We have to do a better job moving, and I need to set screens,’’ McCollum said. “The rest of the guards can’t just rely on the bigs to set screens. We all have to be active.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest says the Blazers need more fast breaks.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian wrote about the Blazers' offense, or lack thereof

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes about an "irredeemable" loss to Toronto.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer blogger suggests it's bad that Damian Lillard went vegan.

Damian Lillard answers theorists who wonder if vegan diet is tied to slump

Damian Lillard answers theorists who wonder if vegan diet is tied to slump

After the last two home games, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard has left the arena with a zip-lock bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of guacamole, courtesy of the Moda Center kitchen.

They are a special request by the franchise star, who has found the arena’s chip-and-dip – particularly the guacamole -- to be exemplary.

It helps, too, that the snack happens to fit into his new vegan diet, adopted in part this summer to help Lillard get from 198 pounds to his desired weight of 190.

But these days in this basketball crazed city, some are wondering if there is a connection between Lillard’s early-season shooting woes and his decision to adopt a vegan diet this summer.

So, I took the bullet Saturday and asked Lillard if he was sure his shot wasn’t off because of his new diet.

“I mean, it’s basketball, so I can’t blame making or missing shots on what I’m eating,’’ Lillard said. “If that’s the case, then … that’s crazy.’’

Lillard through six games has made 40-of-108 shots, or 37 percent of his shots. He is coming off a career-high 44.4 percent shooting last season, and is a career 43 percent shooter.

He has said his shot feels good, and that he is not worried. And he says his mind is trained to fight through it thanks to his workout sessions with Phil Beckner, his former college assistant coach who helps him train in the offseason.

Lillard said Beckner would train his mind to not dwell on misses during workouts, and to shoot through the lulls.

“I think because of that, I’m able to move onto the next thing,’’ Lillard said.

The next thing for Lillard and the Blazers is Monday night, against Toronto. Last season, in his only game against Toronto, Lillard had 28 points and hit 10-of-20 shots, including 4-of-7 from three-point range.

Today's Blazers' links:

How to watch tonight's Blazers-Raptors game.

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes wonders about the Blazers' ball movement.

Chris Haynes at ESPN says Neil Olshey was investigated by NBA for a hand gesture after the Clippers game.

Rip City Project looks at how former Blazers players are doing this season. 

 

Damian Lillard says Blazers defense needs to make own adjustments

Damian Lillard says Blazers defense needs to make own adjustments

In the aftermath of Thursday’s loss to the Clippers, during which the Trail Blazers had no answer for Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard made an important and potentially crucial observation.

When situations like Thursday arise – when Griffin repeatedly backed down Blazers defenders for easy baskets down the stretch of a close game – Lillard said it is on the players to deviate from the game plan and call their own double team.

He didn’t say it out of disrespect to coach Terry Stotts or his staff, and he didn’t say it in criticism of the Blazers’ game plan against the Clippers, which didn’t call for double teams.

He said it as a basketball player who knows that the best teams are ones that trust, play freely, and feed off instinct.

“We have to give each other more help,’’ Lillard said. “If a guy (Griffin) that strong and that athletic has 10 dribbles, he is going to score. I think that’s when as players, we have to take control of the situation and come together and say, ‘All right, if he does that again then you go (double) and I will have your back. And then we have to be ready to help.'’’

Griffin in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game had three post ups in which he methodically backed down his defender and scored easily inside. First, he did it to Evan Turner to tie the game at 91. Three possessions later he backed down Maurice Harkless, hitting a tough hook to increase the Clippers lead to 97-94. And later, he backed down Al-Farouq Aminu and scored off his miss, after which he flexed both arms as the Clippers led 99-96.

It wasn’t until the next possession, when the Blazers sent Harkless to double team Griffin, that the Clippers turned it over.

Lillard said in future scenarios, the Blazers shouldn’t have to wait for double-team instruction from the bench.

“We have to take responsibility – not by going against coaches – but we have to have a feel for what’s going on,’’ Lillard said. “We have to be able to trust each other. We are playing with each other out there.’’

Stotts after the game said he didn’t double team because it would have required leaving either DeAndre Jordan, who is lethal at finishing lob passes, or one of the Clippers’ shooters, such as Danilo Gallinari, or Austin Rivers.

But Lillard said much like the best teams on offense are the ones who can improvise and play off feel, the Blazers on defense  need to be able to adjust on the fly, and that can only come from the players.

“That’s the next step. We have to take responsibility,’’ Lillard said. “We see a guy who is getting backed under the basket … it’s a bucket. So if we go help, and they score, it’s a bucket either way. But you’ve made them work harder for it if we’ve made that decision.’’

This can be filed under the maturation of Lillard, who has taken more pride in his defense this season, and therefore feels more comfortable asserting leadership on that end. To be clear, Lillard was not questioning Stotts’ strategy, but merely saying sometimes as players, they have to make adjustments on the fly.

Like a dummy, I forgot on Friday to ask Stotts how he would feel about Lillard and the Blazers deviating from the game plan at certain times. But knowing Stotts during his six seasons in Portland, he has long been a proponent of giving players freedom. He frequently says the players have the best feel for the game, and he always invites input.

It’s hard to say when the Blazers will next be tested with this kind of scenario, where a forward is too much to handle and requires doubles -- perhaps Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder on Nov. 5. But Lillard cautioned  it takes a connected team and players who trust one another to pull off a spontaneous defensive adjustment.

If they are able to show they can make those adjustments, he says it will only help Stotts continue to give them that freedom.

“Now, when Coach says ‘What was that?’ … and it worked, now it gives him more trust for what’s going on.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has you covered for tonight's game versus Phoenix. Here's how to tune in and stay up to date.

The Blazers have video of Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells appearing on TV with Kevin Garnett.

Bright Side of the Sun has a preview for tonight's game against Phoenix.

Mike Richman of The Oregonian talks about the return of beloved Blazers' assistant Jay Triano, who is now Suns head coach.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about CJ McCollum, who doesn't believe in bad luck.

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis is back and playing better than ever

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis is back and playing better than ever

After Saturday’s loss in Milwaukee, Ed Davis sat before his locker with a large wrap of ice around his left ankle.

When I asked him if he hurt the ankle in the game, he shook his head.

“Nah. I’m just not 21 anymore,’’ Davis said, indicating he was just taking preventative measures.

Davis, who turned 28 in June, might not feel young anymore, but he is playing like it after returning from a left-shoulder surgery that knocked him out of the final two months of last season.

Davis is averaging 7.7 points and 9.0 rebounds in 16.7 minutes through the Blazers’ first three games. He leads the NBA in defensive rebound percentage (38.6) and rebounding percentage (31.0), besting the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan in each category.

Of course, it’s only three games into the season, but still, Davis’ play is great sign for the Blazers. During the Blazers’ surprise season of 2015-2016, when they won 44 games and advanced to the second round, Davis was a sometimes overlooked factor in the success. During that season, he set a franchise record for rebounds by a reserve and ranked second in the NBA to Enes Kanter in rebounds and offensive rebounds by a reserve.

Hampered last season by the injury to his dominant shoulder, Davis so far has looked even better than the 2015-2016 season. In each game, Davis has recorded a positive plus/minus (plus-26 versus Suns, plus-12 versus Pacers and plus-4 against Bucks) joining him with Maurice Harkless as the only Blazers to have positive plus/minus in every game.

“Ed really gave is a lift,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after the Indiana victory.

It was an even bigger lift the next night in Milwaukee. Davis had six points and 11 rebounds in 16 minutes, and would have been one of the unsung heroes had Giannis Antetokounmpo not ripped the victory away from the Blazers in the final seconds.

Davis’ NBA-leading rebound percentages were noticeable in the Bucks’ game. After Davis left the game for good with 6:49 left and the score tied, Milwaukee grabbed four offensive rebounds, which resulted in three points – which also happened to be the margin of defeat. All told, Milwaukee had seven offensive rebounds on the night, but only two of them coming on Davis’ watch.

Whether or not his left ankle was under wraps Saturday for preventative measures or if it is really hurt will be worth watching. Never once last season did Davis complain or mention his ailing left shoulder, which he later said prevented him from standing under the basket and making five layins in a row. The point: even if his ankle is hurt, Davis is too tough, too old school to say anything.

In the meantime, the Blazers will take what appears to be a 21-year-old version of Davis – bouncy, active and hard-nosed – even if he says his body doesn’t feel like it.

Today's Blazers' links: 

Dwight Jaynes said there is a lot to like from the early showings of the Blazers. 

The league report from the end of the Blazers-Bucks game is still generating talk. 

Jusuf Nurkic appears in the Sporting News' rankings for young players.

 

 

Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic trying to find touch, rhythm after bumpy start

Trail Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic trying to find touch, rhythm after bumpy start

MILWAUKEE – Of all the good things that emerged during the Trail Blazers’ opening trip – and there were many – the play of center Jusuf Nurkic was curiously not among them.

Considered one of the pillars of the Blazers’ foundation alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Nurkic was perhaps the team’s only unsteady element during an encouraging 2-1 trip to open the season.

If he wasn’t struggling with foul trouble or turnovers, Nurkic was missing close-range shots, or getting beat to rebounds, a frustrating and puzzling combination that came to a head when his driving attempt to win Saturday’s game at Milwaukee was blocked at the rim by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final seconds.

 “I must be better, and I’m going to be,’’ Nurkic said. “It just takes time.’’

Why Nurkic feels he needs time is unclear. He was brimming with bravado

after a summer when he lost 34 pounds, and a training camp where he learned the Blazers’ full playbook. He followed that up with a promising preseason.

But in the first three games he has looked unsettled. He has been rattled by contact, beaten to rebounds, and unpolished inside, which has left him either complaining to officials or shaking his head in frustration on the court.

“I think obviously he is trying to figure some things out,’’ McCollum said.

Nurkic is averaging 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while hitting 16-of-37 shots (43.2 percent). He has six assists and 13 turnovers.

Lillard agreed that Nurkic was “having a little bit of a hard time” and excused it as only three games and perhaps a scheduling anomaly.

“We’ve been playing a little bit faster pace, and a lot of that has to do with first three teams played – (the opponents) play a faster pace so it’s been up and down,’’ Lillard said. “So it hasn’t been much throw it to him on the block. He’s been setting a lot more screens and running back (on defense) … it’s been a lot more fast paced than it was when he first got here.’’

Lillard also noted that Nurkic is processing a full playbook compared to last season, when Nurkic was given an abridged version after arriving from Denver in a February trade for the season’s final 20 games.

“It’s a lot of thinking for him right now,’’ LIllard said.

Certainly three games is no cause for alarm, and his teammates pointed to his strong second half at Milwaukee, when he rebounded from a 3-for-10 first half by hitting four of his last seven shots, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Also, Nurkic said he has been encouraged by his defense, which included a impressive block of Antetokounmpo at the rim in the second half, one of three in the game.

“I’m getting there,’’ Nurkic said. “Slow start. On defense I’m doing what I’m supposed to, effort and all those type things …’’

It is clear, however, that Nurkic is out of sorts. His midrange jumper has been steady, but inside he has been erratic, sometimes a victim of finger-roll finesse and other times just flat-out missing open layins.

When asked if his start is weighing on him, Nurkic shrugged.

“If I could make (shots), it would be different,’’ Nurkic said.  “Unfortunately, I’m missing, so I just have to get back to work and trust myself.’’

Nurkic twice referenced trusting himself, and he has appeared to hesitate at times, something that McCollum noticed.

“Obviously he is trying to figure out where he is going to get his touches from, and then trying to find his rhythm,’’ McCollum said.

That rhythm will come, his teammates are sure, because they have seen his body of work in practice.

“He’ll figure it out,’’ Evan Turner said. “Everybody gets frustrated, but it’s about the unit. At the end of the day, it’s whatever you have to do to win. He stepped up in the second half (at Milwaukee) and made some shots and played to his abilities, where he wasn’t too much thinking of how it was going to go. He just let the game come to him. When he doesn’t think about it, he is better.’’

Lillard, who more than anybody has Nurkic’s ear, said he too was encouraged by Nurkic’s second half in Milwaukee, and he will try to keep Nurkic filled with positive thoughts.

“He bounced back,’’ Lillard said. “We just want to keep pumping confidence in him, show that we believe in him and that he’s a big part of what we are doing. I don’t think anybody is worried. We have a lot of confidence in him and we expect good things from him.’’

So too, does Nurkic, who before leaving the Milwaukee locker room vowed to get over what has been a small bump to start the season.

 “I need to be more sure of what I do. Stay true to self and figure it out,’’ Nurkic said. “And I will figure it out.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Damian Lillard let us know what he thought of one of Saturday's crucial late-game plays.

CJ McCollum offered his opinion of the key late-game play on social media. 

After his career night, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a special moment with game ball.

The Milwaukee Sentinel recaps Saturday's win by the Bucks ove the Blazers.

The Ringer is already declaring Antetokounmpo an MVP candidate.

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. 

 

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

PHOENIX – Evan Turner says he wants to be named NBA All-Defense this season, but during the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday, he found he might have some pretty stiff competition.

And it’s coming from his own teammate, Maurice Harkless.

Harkless on Wednesday had such an inspiring and dominating defensive performance that at times during the Blazers’ 124-76 victory teammates stood and applauded him, while coaches bowed in respect.

Afterward, Turner feigned offense that Harkless stole his own defensive shine.

“I know I said I want to be All-Defense, but dang, Moe looked like he was about to do it!’’ Turner said. “He was all over the place. It was actually crazy. I was like, ‘Is that Moe again? Is that Moe AGAIN?!’’

Harkless had one block and tied Damian Lillard with a team-high five deflections, but his impact went beyond what any statistic could measure. If he wasn’t ball-hawking Suns’ touted rookie Josh Jackson, Harkless was offering help to cut off lanes for scoring specialist Devin Booker. And throughout the night, he was pairing with Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu on switches, providing a seemingly impenetrable wall of arms and hands.

Perhaps most notably, with the Blazers leading 43-30 in the second quarter, Harkless denied a perimeter pass to Jackson, but just missed. He recovered quick enough to cut off his baseline drive, then poked away the ball when Jackson tried to crossover dribble.

The play happened in front of the Blazers’ bench and had everyone standing. Assistant Dale Osbourne got so hyped, he pounded Harkless’ chest several times.

“Plays like that get the whole team excited,’’ Harkless said. “Sparks everyone to play like that on defense. If that’s what I got to do, then that’s what I got to do.’’

Harkless said that sequence took him back to the playground in Queens, where he learned to like defense.

“You are making the other guy mad. It’s funny. Like after that play, (Jackson) was mad,’’ Harkless said. “I was talking trash … stuff like that is fun, it takes you back to the playground,  playing one-on-one against guys, talking trash the whole time. That’s how I learned to play basketball, so it’s still fun to me.’’

Harkless has vowed this season to be a defensive leader, and that includes not letting a quiet offensive night carry over to his defense. Wednesday was exhibit A in being a defensive leader.

After his play on Jackson in front of the Blazers’ bench, Harkless had nice transition defense to stop Jackson, then later blocked a fast-break layin attempt. That prompted assistant David Vanterpool to yell to Harkless across the court and bow in respect.

The funny thing about Harkless’ standout night was it started so poorly. He was whistled for two fouls just 2:34 into the game and had to go to the bench. Sometimes when players get in early foul trouble, it creates a tendency to be tentative when they return.

Not Harkless.

“I think I have more of a hit-first mentality, whereas before I had a hit-back mentality,’’ Harkless said. “I’m approaching this year a little bit different. That’s how I’m looking to approach every game.’’

Like Turner, who’s hoping his talk about All-Defense will draw attention to his craft, Harkless is hoping that eventually referees will catch on to his more aggressive and physical defensive style and perhaps prevent a repeat of his two early fouls.

“Eventually, the refs will see I’m just physical, and let me play,’’ Harkless said.

Today's Blazers' links:

Speaking of Harkless, Mens Fitness writes about his core workout.

I wrote about Pat Connaughton making the most of his opportunity.

Damian Lillard says the Blazers couldn't ask for better effort.

The Arizona Republic writes about the worst loss in Suns' history.

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes that Connaughton proves he belongs on the court, not the diamond.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonain writes about Connaughton and Harklesss leading the way.

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. 

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.