Harkless 'probable' to return against Warriors, which Lillard thinks is key

Harkless 'probable' to return against Warriors, which Lillard thinks is key

On the eve of the final regular season matchup against Golden State,  Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was asked if there is a player who he thinks is a catalyst to Portland’s chances to beat the Warriors.

“I could name multiple guys … but I automatically think of Mo (Harkless),’’ Lillard said. “Just the impact he can have guarding pretty much (point guard through center) in that game … I just feel like this is the kind of game where Mo can have his hands all over the game.’’

Right on cue, the previously injured Harkless on Thursday went through practice, albeit in limited fashion, and has been upgraded to probable for Friday’s game against Golden State.

Harkless, who had started nine consecutive games before missing the last three with a left knee strain, was not made available to the media after Thursday’s practice.

It seems likely coach Terry Stotts will re-insert Harkless back into his starting small forward position, considering Harkless was in the lineup when the Blazers’ started their eight-game winning streak with a 123-117 win over the Warriors on Feb. 14.

“He’s had some good games against them,’’ Stotts said. “The way they play and the matchups they have, being able to guard multiple positions is important.’’

The Blazers (39-26) have won 14 of their last 15 at Moda Center, and have beaten the last four opponents with winning records to climb to third place in the West. But nobody inside their Tualatin practice facility on Thursday was viewing Friday’s game as a measuring stick.

“I think we are in a good place regardless (of Friday’s outcome), but I think tomorrow is a great opportunity to make a statement of the team we’ve become,’’ Lillard said.

Added McCollum: “It’s a good test, but where are now and where we will be (17) games from now is totally different,’’ CJ McCollum said. “And I’m sure they will be better when the playoffs start as well. So it’s a good test, but I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all, because teams continue to get better.’’

Golden State is in second in the West, entering Thursday one game behind Houston, and will be playing a back-to-back after taking on the Spurs on Thursday in Oakland. The Blazers are one of four teams within 1.5 of each other.

“At this point in the season, it’s not about a measuring stick,’’ Stotts said. “It’s about getting as many wins as possible.’’

Added McCollum: “It’s just another game, honestly. I think that’s how everyone is approaching it. It’s an important game because of the standings and where we are at in the Western Conference. But you see how good everybody is from 3-10 so every game is important. But don’t think we are looking at it like, ‘We are playing the Warriors.’’’

Streaking Blazers 'in best place in years' but know it means nothing

Streaking Blazers 'in best place in years' but know it means nothing

Not since LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland have the Trail Blazers looked so good on the court, and in the standings.

“It’s the best place we’ve been in years,’’ Damian Lillard said Tuesday after the Blazers beat Sacramento for their fourth consecutive win and 11th home win in their last 12.

The Blazers (34-26) are nine games over .500 for the first time since ending the 2014-2015 season with a 51-31 record – Aldridge’s last season in Portland – and they’ve climbed to those heights on the strength of solid defense, balanced scoring, and phenomenal play from Lillard.

Yet, as the team prepares to welcome March, and the season’s final 21 games, there is both an element of unease and perspective.

“We have it going, and we are healthy and headed in right direction, but after a while, you understand the big picture,’’ CJ McCollum said. “As good as things are right now, they can go downhill in a hurry. It’s about staying even keel and knowing it’s a long season.’’

March and April can be defining months for NBA teams, and in Portland, many seasons have turned. On March 3, 2001, Rasheed Wallace and the Blazers were 42-18 and in first place in the West,   and looked poised for a repeat appearance in the Western Conference Finals.

But Portland went 8-14 down the stretch and dropped to seventh, a free fall that was punctuated by a first-round sweep.

Four years ago, on March 5, the Blazers were 40-19 and third in the West when Wesley Matthews felt a pop in his Achilles during a game against Dallas. He went down, and so too did the Blazers’ season. They finished fifth in the West and were ousted in the first round.

And last season, the Blazers entered March 11 games below .500, but behind Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic, went 13-3 to fuel a push into the playoffs.

As the Blazers begin March on Thursday, 15 of their remaining 21 games are against teams with winning records. And as close as Portland is to hosting a playoff series (1 game behind San Antonio), they are almost as close to not making the playoffs (two games from ninth).

Coach Terry Stotts, who as an assistant with Milwaukee in the 2001-2002 season saw the Bucks enter March with a seven-game division lead. They finished 8-18 and did not make the playoffs.

“That’s why coaches are a nervous breed – during the course of a game or during the course of a season,’’ Stotts said. “We don’t take anything for granted.’’

A spring awakening is a familiar storyline in Portland, but Lillard says this season’s run feels different, in part because it has been a gradual build rather than a sudden blossoming like the past two seasons.

“We’ve been pushing in the right direction,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard’s optimism is rooted in two factors: the team’s mental makeup and its depth.

The Blazers have spiraled at times this season – a six-game losing streak at home in December and an 0-fer three-game trip to start February – but he says they have always stayed together and remained committed. 

Also, he says this Blazers team is deeper and more consistent than any of the post-Aldridge teams, which has allowed the Blazers to weather nights like Tuesday, when McCollum went 5-for-18 from the field.

“I think that’s it,’’ Lillard said, referring to the depth. “The past few seasons we had guys – random games here and there - where (Allen Crabbe), or Chief (Aminu) would get hot … Mo (Harkless) has a big game … but it was here and there. A lot of what we did depended on me and CJ to get things done  - not that guys weren’t doing anything - but I think this is the most consistent we have performed as far as balance. Chief has shot ball great, Bazz is consistent, E.T. has been consistent, … when you have that you are able to sustain level for longer.’’

But it’s one thing to beat the Phoenix’s and Sacramento’s of the NBA. In the coming weeks, Portland faces Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Cleveland, Houston and Boston.

“What we are doing now? It doesn’t mean much to me, because it’s February,’’ McCollum said after the win over the Kings. “(Stuff) don’t mean nothing … I mean, this is great but I’ve seen too much, been through too much … so I just stay here (raises hand horizontally). It’s on to next game.’’

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

After an 0-for-10 shooting night Saturday in Phoenix, Trail Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier had one thought on the flight home: getting back in the gym to work on his shot.

“I was thinking about coming (to the practice gym) when we landed, but we didn’t land until around 1 a.m.,’’ Napier said.

So, after a night’s sleep, Napier came to the gym Sunday morning, even though the Blazers’ had the day off. Truth is, Napier would have been in the gym on Sunday had he gone 10-for-10 in Phoenix, but considering he is now in the worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, having gone 7-for-36 in his last four games, there was an added urgency to get to his shooting routine.

“Have to keep shooting,’’ Napier said.

On Monday, Napier was the last Blazers player to leave the practice courts following the team’s workout. He put in so many extra shots that sweat was dripping from his chin.

“I have to keep shooting, keeping working out and try to erase all the shots I’ve missed,’’ Napier said. “Eventually, it’s going to fall. I mean, I put up a lot of shots every day, so I have a lot of faith in my craft. It’s going to fall.’’

The next chance for Napier to break out of his slump will be Tuesday when the surging Blazers (33-26) – winners of five of the past six – play at home against Sacramento (18-41). The last time Napier played the Kings, he made all five of his shots.

In the meantime, nobody on the Blazers is worried about Napier, who this season is shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.

“I think good shooters work themselves through it,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “You gotta have confidence and know the next shot is going in.’’

Added team captain Damian Lillard: “I don’t worry about him … Bazz is not a mental midget. You see (against Phoenix) he missed a couple and he kept shooting. That tells you all you need to know.’’

While confidence is never a problem for Napier, two things have entered his mind. During his slump – and particularly against Phoenix – several shots have appeared to go in, only to spin off or bounce out of the rim.

“The one that are the worst are the ones that go in the hoop, then come out … it kind of sticks with you,’’ Napier said.

Also, he has detected a couple flaws in his shooting stroke. For one, on some shots he says he can feel the ball is too far back in his palm. He wants the ball to come off his fingers and not be touched or influenced by his palm. Also, he doesn’t feel he is getting the same lift on his shots because both of his big toes are swollen and injured. His right big toe was hurt this season in Philadelphia, and his left big toe swelled up so much after the game in Toronto he had to miss the game in Boston.

“At the end of the day, when you put that thing up, you have to forget about all the excuses and just shoot the ball,’’ Napier said. “And hopefully, you make it.’’

Napier this season has been one of the best stories on the Blazers. After playing bit roles with Miami, Orlando and Portland in his first three seasons, Napier is now a key player on a team in the playoff hunt. He forged his role amid the most unlikely landscapes – playing behind two All-Star caliber guards.

He forced his way into the rotation during a stellar December, when he averaged 13.8 points in 11 games. He then cemented his place while filling in for the injured Lillard, during which he started eight games and averaged 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

For the season, Napier is averaging a career-high 9.1 points and 2.2 assists in a career-high 21.2 minutes a game.

It’s that body of work this season why nobody is worried about the last four games, and Napier admits it is easier to cope with the slump knowing he has a secure spot in the rotation.

“It helps when teammates and coaches say ‘Keep shooting,’’’ Napier said. “(Assistants) Jim Moran, Nate Tibbetts, Coach Stotts - every time I get to the huddle they keep saying ‘Keep shooting. The next one is going to fall.’ They believe in my shot as much as I do. And I know it’s my job to knock down the next shot.’’

That’s why he was in the gym early Sunday, and then again late on Monday. He’s a shooter, and shooters shoot, even when they are in a slump.

“That’s why I’m always here,’’ Napier said as sweat dripped off him at the practice facility. “I gotta figure it out.’’

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

After some sharp words from coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers on Thursday received a message: It’s time to get serious about this season.

“I can’t call back exactly what he said,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “But it had to do with we have big aspirations and we are not playing up to that.’’

After blowing a 17-point lead with seven minutes to go against a subpar Charlotte team, the Blazers were pushed into overtime, where some big plays from Maurice Harkless finally got them over the hump in a 109-103 victory.

Normally a mild-mannered coach who teaches through positive reinforcement, Stotts, players say, laid into his team afterward, and it left a mark.

“He knows we are capable of much more,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We haven’t played our best basketball. We have been pissing away games and not executing. We have to do some things better so we are not in those situations where … we could have lost tonight.’’

Often times this season, the Blazers players have been outwardly positive following wins with subpar play. Not Thursday.

“Unacceptable,’’ Davis said. “We want to be one of those elite teams and elite teams don’t play around at home, especially a game we are supposed to win and had control of the whole game.’’

In his postgame address to the media, the Blazers coach was terse, choosing to release one sentence answers through pursed lips in what probably stands as his most uptight and irritated session during his six seasons. 

Maybe it was because it’s that time of year. Or maybe it was because the Trail Blazers were so spectacularly awful in the fourth quarter. Or maybe Stotts had just had enough of  the up-and-down play.

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

Harkless said it was the most angry Stotts has been after a victory, and Meyers Leonard said “he was definitely upset with us” – but both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis said it wasn’t a notable tirade.

“It wasn’t like he was m’fing this, m’fing that – but it was like, ‘This is what it is: we are playing great basketball for three quarters then we (poop) the bed in the fourth and give a team that is not supposed to be in the game a chance to win.’

Lillard said he has seen Stotts more angry, and he noted that the group even laughed at one point.

That humor came via Evan Turner.

According to the players, Stotts at one point realized he was harping after a victory. He caught himself, and said, “I don’t want to be …”

As Stotts started to search for the right word, Turner chirped from his corner stall.

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

“No,” Stotts said. “I need another one …”

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:


The last one busted up everyone in the room.

“It definitely helped lighten the mood,’’ Harkless said.

The win ended a three game losing streak and pushed the Blazers’ home winning streak to nine, the longest home run in five seasons. Portland (30-25) is in sixth place in the West, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

As the team boarded a plane later Thursday night for a flight to Sacramento for Friday’s game against the Kings (17-36), it was a group that knows time is running out to back up their own talk that they can be an upper-echelon team.

“We are at a point in the season where we have to start separating ourselves,’’ Davis said. “The games where we need to blow teams out, we need to do that, and tonight was that night.’’

Instead, they got a talking to from their normally laid-back coach.

“He gave us the same message we’ve been preaching all year: we have to be consistent,’’ Harkless said. “When we are consistent we are a pretty good team. But over the course of one game, we can go from really good to average, to good, to average … we just have to maintain.’’

CJ McCollum's 50-point night came with a special spectator in stands

CJ McCollum's 50-point night came with a special spectator in stands

After all the records CJ McCollum set Wednesday, and after all the accolades showered upon him following his 50-point performance, what stood out for the Trail Blazers guard was who watched it.

His 92-year-old great aunt, Aileene, was in attendance for her first game in Portland.

“During the game, I was like, ‘She probably thinks this is a really good game to come to,’’ McCollum quipped after he became the seventh Trail Blazer to reach the 50-point milestone.

There were about 20,000 others inside the Moda Center who thought the same thing, as McCollum’s performance led to a 124-108 victory over Chicago, the Blazers’ fourth in a row.

In one of the more memorable performances in the 22-year history of the building, McCollum set a franchise record with 28 points in the first quarter, which was fueled by a franchise-record for field goals in a quarter (11).

By the end of the night, he had made 18-of-25 shots and scored his 50 points in 29 minutes. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter as the Blazers led 102-75, joining Golden State’s Klay Thompson as the only player in NBA history to score 50 or more points in three quarters.

Among NBA players, there is a certain mystique with the 50-point plateau, and when McCollum acknowledged that it meant something for him to join the club. He reached the mark with a free throw with 12 seconds left in the third quarter, after which coach Terry Stotts decided the fifth-year guard’s night was over.

“The elite players - no offense to Corey Brewer -- but a lot of the elite players score 50 points, that’s just the way it is,’’ McCollum said. “It shows you are a really unique scorer and have a lot of abilities.’’

He was so electric he had the Moda Center crowd buzzing with anticipation any time he touched the ball throughout the night. His teammates said the game became easier because they didn’t have to worry about the game plan or running plays. Rather the focus was clear: get McCollum the ball.

Interestingly, on a night when so much went right, he remembered two misses: a block by Robin Lopez on an attempt at the end of the first quarter, and a missed three-pointer after a nice pass from Evan Turner.

“The makes are whatever; I feel like I should make every shot,’’ McCollum said. “So when I miss (I think) how did I miss that?’’ McCollum said.

With nine minutes left in the fourth, the Moda Center crowd wanted to see McCollum make a run at Damian Lillard’s franchise-record of 59 points, set last April against Utah. A chant of “We want CJ” briefly rolled through the crowd, and McCollum on the bench smiled.

“I was thinking, ‘I hope I don’t have to come back in,’’’ McCollum said with a smile. “That means we are not playing the way we should be playing … I’m not into chasing records. I just want to win.’’

Still, the performance was an emphatic affirmation for one of the Blazers more methodical and relentless workers.

“It’s like seeing all your work come out for everyone else,’’ McCollum said. “All the work put in behind closed doors, all the sacrifice, the hours … it’s nice to see it pay off. It’s nice to see the results.’’

And on Wednesday, everybody saw those results. Including one special 92-year-old, his great aunt, who McCollum said would have the say in where his family would celebrate that night.

“It’s just a game,  a game I love and I sacrifice a lot for it, but at the end of the day family is what is important and that’s what doesn’t last forever, as well as this game,’’ McCollum said.

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Lillard knows it sounds crazy, but the best thing that might have happened to the Trail Blazers this season is his recent bout with hamstring and calf injuries.

With Lillard forced to miss seven of the team’s past nine games, a funny thing has happened to the once struggling Blazers: the offense has found its groove, role players have emerged, and the team has gone 6-3.

Blessing in disguise?

“Definitely,’’ Lillard said of his time on the sideline. “The last two years that’s what it seems to be the case. I get hurt and guys have to step up.’’

The latest and most emphatic example came Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the Blazers routed the Thunder 117-106 behind an All-Star-like 27 points from CJ McCollum, an efficient 20-points from Jusuf Nurkic, and another steady fill-in performance from Shabazz Napier (21 points). Topping off the best performance of the season was sterling bench contributions from Pat Connaughton (10 points), Zach Collins (nine points) and Maurice Harkless (nine points).

It was another affirmation that the team’s dormant offense was awakening. In the last five games, the Blazers have scored 124, 110, 110, 111 and now 117 – outputs that have been punctuated by rapid ball movement, crisp cutting and a blend of inside and outside play.

“We are forced to play that way because I’m not playing,’’ Lillard said after the Thunder win. “Because we have to lean on each other. That’s not to say we don’t when I’m playing, but there’s so much more opportunity out there.’’

Around an already smiling Blazers locker room, nothing caused players to laugh more than to suggest Lillard’s theory that his absence may turn out to be a good thing. 

“I don’t think Damian Lillard getting hurt is ever a blessing,’’ Connaughton said. “However, I think it has allowed guys to at least see what an extended role in their NBA career would look like. And that has value. There’s validity to the fact that guys have stepped up and have shown things they can do that they might otherwise not.’’

Added Ed Davis: “Obviously, we want him out there, but when your star player goes down, other guys have to step up and there is going to be more shots, more movement and that helps us in the long run. Confidence wise guys like Pat, Bazz is playing well, Moe … it has helped them. So sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise.’’

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 12-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Lillard said he is unsure if he will play Wednesday in Houston. On Tuesday, he had a morning workout, then an extensive pregame workout where he pushed himself, followed by a conditioning session that left him drenched in sweat and catching his breath.

The next hurdle, Lillard and his teammates say, is keeping the same rhythm and momentum when he does return to the lineup.

“The biggest thing is making sure when he gets back, that things don’t change,’’ Connaughton said. “In the sense of guys are still being aggressive, guys are still moving without the ball, and things that we can and have done in the past.’’

Napier, who has been a star in Lillard’s absence, said he thinks the Blazers were beginning to find their offensive footing even before Lillard became injured.

“No one person can make up what he does, so it has to be a collective group, everyone has to pitch in,’’ said Napier, who in six starts is averaging 18.7 points. “But I always felt like we were trending that way when he was playing.’’

Lillard agreed, saying the Blazers’ loss at Cleveland and home rout of Atlanta were the first steps to show the offense was coming along.

“So I think (when he does return) I just have to play the same way as always – make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Right now, that once sputtering offense that had a devil of a time making layins and close-range shots, is starting to cook. Nurkic is starting to make more of his layins, McCollum has found a better balance of passing and shot-making, and the team has made more cuts and dunks in the past week than seemingly all season.

“The shot making is the biggest thing,’’ Lillard said. “You make shots and you keep defenses honest. Tonight, we were running offense and (Oklahoma City) didn’t know what to do. CJ and Bazz were hitting, Nurk was finishing, Moe was cutting … now you get down the stretch, and they are trying to make a run, and we are picking them apart. Because we had been doing it all game. It’s not like this is a flash in the pan.’’

So maybe, just maybe, the player the Blazers could least afford to be injured was a good thing. Or maybe the team was already trending in this direction. Either way, it was symbolic of the Blazers offense that McCollum left the locker room feasting on some bread.

The Blazers’ offense is back, eating up opponent’s defenses once again.

“We have been saying so much about our offense: ‘It’s going to come around … It’s going to come around ‘… and y’all like, When?’’ Lillard said with a smile. “And now, it’s happening.’’

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

Time for Stotts to go? No chance if you ask the Trail Blazers players

A Trail Blazers team unable to gain traction this season while playing below their own expectations has found something to fight for: their coach.

Amid chatter that Terry Stotts is on the coaching hot seat and in jeopardy of losing his job, several Trail Blazers players said their coach not only has the team’s attention and respect, but has become a rallying point for the players.

“We all know what’s going on,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “The guys on the team, we read about it, and I know Coach does … that ‘Hot Seat’ stuff and things like that. Everybody sees it, and I know while I’m here, (along with) a bunch of the rest of the guys in the locker room, we are going to fight for Coach. Every night. There is no quit in us. He’s our leader.’’

The Blazers (20-18) are seventh in the Western Conference, but have a losing record at home (9-10), and have scuffled for much of the season with inconsistent, disjointed play that several times has led disgruntled Moda Center crowds to leave games early, and in exodus.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more consistent Nurkic]

Stotts, who is under contract through next season, has become a lightening rod for fan discontent as the team has struggled offensively and at times looked unmotivated as it dropped games to bottom-tier teams like Atlanta, Brooklyn and Sacramento.

In November, after a loss to the Kings, team captain Damian Lillard took to social media to defend an Instagram post criticizing Stotts, noting that it wasn’t Stotts who was missing late-game free throws, making crucial turnovers, or forgetting plays.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" premium-game Blazers streaming package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest - $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

On Friday, after the Blazers’ victory over the Hawks, Lillard said the players all hear criticism of Stotts, and just like in November, he says it is unwarranted. The players, he says, are 100 percent behind Stotts.

“And I think it’s unanimous for a reason,’’ Lillard said. “Like I always say: we play for a great person, and whatever struggles that we have, it’s not his fault. I will tell you that: it’s not his fault.’’

The support from the locker room is not a surprise. In his sixth season in Portland, Stotts has always been well liked by players for his communication skills and his philosophy of teaching through positive reinforcement rather than pointed criticism. His style of play also empowers players to make their own decisions and play with freedom.

Those traits have painted Stotts as a “players’ coach,” a label that can often be interpreted as soft, or unwilling to discipline, which could be a reason why the players want to keep him around.

Lillard tensed up when offered that reasoning.

“I don’t work well with soft people,’’ Lillard said. “So, if he was soft , I would be like, he soft. I would tell you, he soft. I mean, he will call guys out … and he will … he does his job. He’s not a guy trying to be a hard ass, but when he needs to harden up he will harden up.’’

Case in point: A recent practice, when Stotts said three words that are seldom uttered in an NBA gym.


During a December practice in Portland, when the Blazers were in the midst of a six-game home losing streak that included several blowouts, the players heard what is largely an unspoken phrase in the NBA.

“On the line.’’

The stern command was from Stotts, and it was prompted after yet another mishap during the practice. The order was for the players to toe the baseline for a running drill – a common punishment tactic for high school and college coaches – but virtually taboo at the professional level.

“You don’t do that in the NBA,’’ Lillard said.

If there was a fracture in the ranks, making an NBA team run would surely reveal it.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need CJ to elevate his play to All-Star level]

As the players squeezed between each other along the baseline, Stotts barked another command. They had to run the length of the court, and back, in less than 10 seconds.

“I’ve played with players who would have looked at him and been like (sucks teeth) ‘Man, this dude trippin’ … whatever,’’ Lillard said. “And they would have missed (the 10 second cutoff) on purpose.’’

Without a word uttered, each Blazer toed the line and took off.

“Everybody made it,’’ Lillard said. “Down and back. Ten seconds. Sprinted hard. To me, that is a sign of respect.’’

It was vintage Stotts: pointed, yet not abusive or disrespectful.

“In an NBA sense, most coaches don’t do that,’’ Davis said. “But the point wasn’t that we have to run, the point was him making a statement that ‘You (expletive) up, let’s go.’ It was him saying ‘I’m going to grab your attention … without having to yell.’ ’’

Stotts, who earlier this week declined an invitation to talk about coaching this season amid growing criticism, did say that a common misconception is that he is easy on the players. He pointed to the film session last week after the Blazers lost at Atlanta, the team with the NBA’s worst record,.

“It wasn’t pretty,’’ Stotts said of the film session.

The players agreed, noting that Stotts this season has become more direct and more forceful in calling out mistakes during film sessions.

“He’s turned up the dial,’’ Meyers Leonard said. “And to be honest, I like it.’’


A telltale sign of a coach in trouble is when players stop listening, stop responding and stop playing for a coach.

It has happened in Portland, when the 2011-2012 Blazers rebelled against coach Nate McMillan and what they felt was an outdated offense, and it happened to Mike Dunleavy in 2000-2001 when he could no longer reach or control Rasheed Wallace.

This season, the Blazers players say Stotts still has their full attention, and full respect, and that he has not lost the locker room.

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more aggressive Evan Turner]

“I see everybody in this locker room,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We go to dinner. Some come to the house. I see them on the plane. We are around each other more than we are around our families. If he has lost the locker room, I would know. But we believe in him.’’

During the final months of McMillan’s tenure, the locker room became toxic. Players like Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby could be seen huddling and whispering after games, a scene Davis said can become common when a coach has lost a team.

“Usually when a coach is starting to lose the locker room you have guys who are like, ‘Ah, coach doesn’t know what he is doing.’ We don’t have that right now,’’ Davis said. “Obviously we have guys who are going to be upset if they aren’t playing; I’m upset if I only play 12 minutes. But we don’t have a cancer or bad energy. We are in this together. And it starts with Coach and it starts with Dame.’’

Lillard in 2015 said as long as he is in Portland, he wants Stotts to be his coach. On Friday, he said one of the main reasons he chose to re-sign with Portland was because of Stotts.

 “How he is as a coach, and how he is as a person, is what I want to play for,’’ Lillard said. “When I signed up to be here and go through the rebuild and to move forward, he was a huge part of that. It’s because of our relationship and what I think of him and what I know of him to be to a team.’’


As the Trail Blazers near the season’s midpoint, several questions abound:

Why is the offense, ranked 25th out of 30 teams, so bad?

Why can’t a roster with 13 returning players, including all five starters, seem to gel?

Is the roster adequately constructed? Or are there too many bigs and not enough shooters?

And what happened to the fun, fluid Blazers who used to outwork opponents on a nightly basis?

The players say they only have one answer to the many questions: The problem is not Stotts.

“Everybody wants everything to happen right away,’’ McCollum said. “But it takes time. It takes time.’’

The question is how much time is owner Paul Allen willing to give? With the NBA’s sixth highest payroll, and a group that has largely been together for three seasons, this was supposed to be a season of progress.

The Blazers have improved in two key areas – defense and their record on the road – but have dramatically slipped in two areas that are usually a hallmark of Stotts and Portland teams – offense and homecourt advantage.

Along the way, there has been key injuries to Lillard (five missed games), Al-Farouq Aminu (13 games), and Jusuf Nurkic (three games) – and subpar play from much of the roster, which has prompted Stotts to use nine different starting lineups and several iterations of a playing rotation. No starting lineup has played more than eight games together, and only within the past 10 days has Stotts settled on a nine-man playing rotation.

Lillard said he has a relationship with Allen, but the owner has never asked him his thoughts on Stotts or personnel. Lillard also has an open relationship with Neil Olshey, the architect of this roster, that involves input and conversations about the team.

If Olshey approached Lillard and indicated the team was making a coaching change?

“I would want to know why,’’ Lillard said. “Because I honestly don’t feel like he is the issue. As players we have to do things a lot better. I honestly feel like he is one of the better coaches in the league as far as being an offensive coach, but also in giving players an opportunity, and connecting with the players, too. And then we have a great coaching staff. That is not the issue.’’

The issue is whether the team can turn it around. The next five games are against teams with winning records, four of them on the road.

“There’s a sense of urgency because we should be better, but we are not,’’ McCollum said. “That’s the reality of where we are. We have to build on it, win games at home and … I think it’s coming.’’

So they will forge ahead, pointed toward improvement, aiming for the playoffs. And playing, in part, for their coach.

“That’s our guy,’’ Davis said.

What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

What can Blazers do to fix their season? They better do something!

OK, as we finish up a healthy post-Christmas break and near the end of the calendar year, it's probably a good time to assess the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland sits in a tie for the seventh spot in the Western Conference, with a 17-16 record. So far, the Blazers have been the definition of a .500 team -- win a few, lose a few, neither sinking nor swimming but just treading water.

It's really not much different than the past two or three seasons. But I sense the natives are getting restless. It feels as if Trail Blazer fans are tiring of it all. Where is the excitement? Where  is the buzz? There hasn't been much so far.

So what must a franchise do? Just stay the course and hope that the anticipated roster improvement expected this season finally kicks in? Or is time to make a move?

I think it's time for a change.

And I mean something that changes the nature of this team. Something that changes the course of the franchise.

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What are we talking about here? Well, there's only so much that can be done. But the first order of business would be to figure out the nature of the problem. Is it the roster or is it the coach? When you examine that question you could find answers on both sides of the issue.

This team's roster isn't balanced. It isn't complete. But it's a very high payroll for a .500 team seemingly headed nowhere.

Or is the problem on the sidelines with the coaching staff? Is Terry Stotts getting the most out of his team? Are they playing hard for him? Is the team fully prepared for each game?

If you believe the answers to the questions above are "yes" then you must look to the front office. Has Neil Olshey done a good job of putting a winning roster together? Has he drafted and traded well? Is he doing a better job than could be done by somebody else? And you ask the same question you'd ask with a coach -- is there someone out there available who could do a better job?

I often look at the Portland roster and think it's not ideal for the kind of offense Stotts favors. There aren't enough outside shooters, for sure. But then the question becomes this: Is this Olshey's fault for not getting his coach the pieces he needs to do his job or is it the coach's responsibility to take the talent given him and tailor his offense to their talents, rather than stick with his own system?

Of course, we haven't even talked about the players yet. Changes can come there, too.

Is it finally time to give up on the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? I ask that question because it seems to me the only trade piece of real value would be one of those guards. Most likely that would mean McCollum. What could you get for him? Do you really want to give up on a player on the verge of all-star status?

And what about Jusuf Nurkic? Once thought to be the team's franchise center of the future and a reason to be excited about the team's potential, Nurkic is shooting just .458 from the field and acting sa if he doesn't have a care in the world. Nurkic Fever? So far this season he seems to be infected with a bad case of Nurkic Disinterest.

But would any team be willing to take Nurkic in a deal? Maybe -- but not with a lot of value in return. And that's the case with a good many Trail Blazers. Highly paid doesn't necessarily mean highly valued.

So where do you go with the Trail Blazers? What do you do? How do you fix this?

All I can say is that this point you better do SOMETHING before it's too late to salvage the season. This franchise is begging for a change of direction, a momentum-changing event. The fans are, too.

And it's time.

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

What to make of the Trail Blazers: Good team waiting to blossom, or average team revealing who they are?

If you can’t figure out after 30 games who the Trail Blazers are, you are not alone.

The Blazers, themselves, are wondering as well.

“We are a team trying to find our way,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Their path has included struggles at home, while finding ways to win on the road, none of it easy, none of it smoothly, as they seem to take one step forward, two steps back, then another step forward.

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It has left them with a 16-14 record and in a tie with Denver for fifth in the Western Conference, a team whose direction seems to change by the week. One week, they are surging, coming back from 17 down in the fourth to win at Washington, offering a signature moment on a 4-1 trip. The next week, they are losing all four home games, three of them with massive deficits and the other after losing a 14-point fourth quarter lead to the NBA’s top team.

And now, they return home after a murky 3-2 trip, which included three less-than-impressive wins over struggling teams, and a heartbreak loss at Minnesota after losing a 10-point fourth quarter lead, which ironically was their best performance of the trip.

It has been the most undefined of starts – neither good, nor bad -- which has created a rather confounding question: Who exactly are the Blazers?

It is a question that will become increasingly relevant for top executive Neil Olshey over the next seven weeks as the Feb. 8 trade deadline approaches.


During their latest trip, I struggled with which lens to examine the Blazers. and shared my conundrum with three of the Blazers’ leaders – Lillard, McCollum and Ed Davis.

Should they be viewed as an upper-echelon team in the West, capable of securing homecourt advantage in the first round? Or are they what they have been for the past three years – an average, middle-of-the-road team that struggles with consistency?

None of them really endorsed the team as upper echelon, perhaps knowing the body of work the last two-plus seasons has shown otherwise, but they all said they were banking on things turning, and viewed the Blazers’ situation with glass-half-full optimism.

After a nine-minute back-and-forth with McCollum, he patted me on the shoulder and walked away, knowing he offered little help in answering those questions.

“You don’t know whether to write us off or give people hope,’’ he said smiling. “That’s your job.’’

A curious rallying point for all of them is taking solace in the scuffling of other Western Conference teams like Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Denver and Utah.

“Obviously, we would like to be better, but considering how we have played … we have to count it as a blessing,’’ McCollum said. “I mean, look at OKC. It could be worse.’’

Lillard predictably said no matter which team he is on, he always views it as a contender, a feeling that existed even when he was at Weber State, and he viewed his team as a candidate for the NCAA title.

He said he hopes one day this season it will click for these Blazers, much like it did years ago for Golden State.

“I think it’s important for us to view ourselves highly, and have that belief, but you have to earn it,’’ Lillard said. “Ups and downs, winning some, losing some … looking like we turned the corner, then it looking like it was just a few games that we were turning the corner … I think it’s one of those thing you will never know until it happens.

“Like, we could have this type of stretch, then have a strong rest of the season and say we do get a top four seed and get to playoffs and get to Western Conference Finals? I understand your view of it, like should we just accept we are mediocre? But I think with a lot of teams, it just ends up clicking.’’

Davis, meanwhile, was curious before the trip, when the Blazers were mired in a lethargic slump at home.  He said I should come talk to him after the final game, in Minnesota. He was confident then, he said, the Blazers could right the ship. But he added, if the Blazers were 1-4, it would be a team in trouble.

The Blazers went 3-2, but didn’t play well until the final game, a loss in Minnesota. Two of the wins – at Orlando and at Charlotte – were sloppy and generally bad basketball, wins because of the opponent, not because of how well the Blazers played.

In Minnesota, at the morning shootaround, Davis said he wasn’t concerned with style points in December.

“At the end of the day, all that matters is wins and losses,’’ Davis said. “When I check the scores, I don’t look at – oh, they played well, they should have won – I say, oh, they won. They lost.  That’s how I look at things. And if you look around league, there are so many teams in same position as we are. It’s not like we are a mystery team – we obviously want to focus on us - but you have to look around the league and there is a lot of teams – OKC, the Pelicans, everyone in that 5-to-9 range … you just don’t know.’’

By the end of the Minnesota game, Davis said he emerged from the trip encouraged by where the team is headed, but agreed it was difficult to determine the type of team Blazers were.

“We know are a playoff team,’’ Davis said. “But you know, are we home court advantage in the first round team? Or are we going against Golden State in the first round? That’s a big difference.’’


Few thought the Blazers would find themselves in this undistinguishable middle ground.

This is the third year since the dismantling of one of the franchises more popular and successful cores (Lillard, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez), and perhaps never has the roster felt more stale and more distant from returning to a 50-win team.

There was hope the Blazers would build off the lightening-in-a-bottle magic from late last season, sparked mostly by Jusuf Nurkic’s February arrival. In addition, the Blazers figured the continued emergence of McCollum and the comfort of Turner in his second season would translate to measurable progress.

But we have discovered Nurkic is not so much a savior as much as he is a 23-year-old project with suspect ball security and raw touch around the basket.

And while McCollum has been good, his All-Star destiny is probably another year away, his bouts of turnovers, shooting slumps and erratic late-game play still keeping him from being elite.

And Turner, for all his intangibles on defense, still can’t shoot and still has a knack for wild, head-slapping turnovers, appearing more and more like an odd fit in this Blazers’ system.

Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless has become invisible. A key starter last season, Harkless is now a mental pretzel, his mind so twisted amid his own frustrations of where he fits that he can’t remember that he is best when he plays hard and aggressively to create his own opportunities.

And the players showing promise –Davis, Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Meyers Leonard – have had trouble carving a niche in what is a confusing and undefined rotation.

On the bright side, Aminu is having the best shooting season of his career and ranks second in the NBA three-point percentage, Lillard continues to be a stellar player and leader, and the team has done an about-face on the defensive end, ranking fifth.

Yet, the Blazers are roughly in the same position as last season's disappointing campaign – approaching Christmas with a so-so record, with bloated salaries and limited upside on the horizon outside of rookie Zach Collins.

To be fair, three years isn’t enough time to expect a team to rise from the ashes and contend with the Golden State’s and Cleveland’s of the NBA. But it is not unreasonable to expect some signs of measurable progress, or at least reasons for hope.

Olshey often trumpets the team’s average age (at just more than 24 years it ranks fourth youngest in the league) but those notes are becoming out of tune.

This is an experienced core that has played the greater part of three seasons together, which should translate to upside and cohesion. I don’t think any fans are considering Damian Lillard young. Same with CJ McCollum. And Ed Davis. And Al-Farouq Aminu … Evan Turner … Meyers Leonard … Maurice Harkless. They are all on their second contracts.

The Blazers’ youth is largely weighted in the back of the roster. Of the Blazers’ main rotation players, only 23-year-old starting center Jusuf Nurkic and 22-year-old reserve Noah Vonleh can be considered young.

It’s why questions about this era are becoming increasingly valid as the Feb. 8 trade deadline begins to come into focus.

For the past two seasons, postgame interviews and offday media scrums have been dominated by fruitless question-and-answer sessions trying to uncover why this team is struggling with this, or failing at that. Last season it was defense and closing out games. This season it’s the offense and the inability to fast break.

Some players have their theories, but don’t want to become a headline by voicing them publicly. Others are either speechless or have become defensive why their games are always being nitpicked.

Maybe it’s time to stop prying and prodding the players and accept the roster for what it is: an average team that lacks shooting and role players who can consistently produce.

Or maybe it’s time for that day to arrive, the one Lillard has been waiting on, when the Blazers show they are ready to take the step from middling low-tier playoff team, to one that is relevant and hosting a playoff series.

In the meantime, the fans, the players, and probably Olshey wait with a curious eye.

 “We could be a mediocre team. We could be an above average team. Or we could be a great team,’’ McCollum said. “ It’s hard to tell, because we have to be healthy and when we are healthy we have to play well.’’

The Blazers today are healthy. Will they now play well?

Blazers get just five free throws for an entire game -- how crazy is that?

Blazers get just five free throws for an entire game -- how crazy is that?

I would assume the frustration bucket is nearly full today for the Trail Blazers and their fans.

Last night in Minneapolis there were some very strange happenings.

You don't hear much about referees in this space. I leave them alone because they have a tough job and are too often used as a crutch for poor performances by teams or players. But sometimes, stuff simply must be discussed. Especially when strange things happen.

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The Trail Blazers shot only five free throws against the Timberwolves, who shot 21. Five? Damian Lillard gets more than that by himself on an average night. Worse than that, Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to take 35 shots, a good many of them surrounded by some heavy traffic. Yet they combined to take just one free throw and that was from Lillard. That is absurd. The Blazers got only two free throws in the second half while getting 34 points in the paint. They shot zero foul shots in the fourth quarter. That's just silly. And you don't see it often in the NBA, where officials are usually very careful not to look like "homers."

There was another play of concern, too:

Trailing by a point with 8.6 seconds to go, the Timberwolves got a rebound and called a timeout. Not before taking a dribble -- at least that's what it seemed. That's a big deal because if you dribble, you aren't allowed to advance the ball into front court after a timeout. And that was the original call. But then I heard something about one of the officials hearing someone yell for a timeout PRIOR to the bounce of the ball. Bingo -- the Wolves got the ball in front court, which was important at that point.

Stuff like that just doesn't look right. Bad optics.

I do not believe the officiating crew of Scott Foster, Leroy Richardson and Ben Taylor had a very good night. Lillard shoots 93 percent from the foul line and averages nearly seven attempts a game. McCollum shoots 88 percent and averages three attempts per game. You don't think it made a difference that they couldn't get to the line more than one time Monday night? And I'm sorry, I've been watching them play since they came into the league and know how often they get bumped or hammered on the way to the basket.

And look, there were plenty of reasons for the Trail Blazers to lose that game after blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. For one thing, Evan Turner's technical foul with 6:17 to go in a game lost by a single point was a big deal. And Al-Farouq Aminu's wild foul on Jimmy Butler with the game in the balance and two and a half seconds to play was a real doozy. I'm not sure what his plan was but he left his feet way too early, landed on top of Butler and that made it a very easy call to send Butler to the foul line for the winning points. Man, just stay solid, straight up and make him hit that shot.

I'm not blaming the officials for the Portland loss. Four straight turnovers in the middle of the fourth quarter had something to do with that.

But on a strange night in chilly Minnesota, the Trail Blazers deserved much better from the guys with the whistles. And it's only fair that they get their share of criticism for a loss that shouldn't have happened.