Evan Turner

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.

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

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?

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

It wasn't surprising that the Trail Blazers lost another game Monday night. The fifth straight defeat came in Oakland to the Golden State Warriors, a team that has beaten Portland like a snare drum recently.

Yes, the Warriors were without all-stars Steph Curry, Draymond Green and others -- but they still had enough to handle the Blazers with relative ease.

Portland staged a fourth-quarter comeback, mainly due to Damian Lillard's heroics. Lillard was playing with yet another new lineup combination down the stretch, this one consisting of Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Noah Vonleh and Pat Connaughton. Later, CJ McCollum came on for Layman, but this was the group that played most of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, starters Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard, who helped stake their team to a lead after the first quarter, didn't appear in the final period. Just as Shabazz Napier -- who had put together a nice run of off-the-bench performances -- rode the bench for the entire game. Napier has not played in the last two games and has seen just eight minutes of action in the last three. This after Napier had played at least 14 minutes in all of the previous 14 games. Leonard's playing time has been odd, too -- he went four straight games without playing, then in his last 12 games has played a streak of 4, 22. 17, 4, 0, 0, 0, 8, 16, 3, 20 and 18 minutes.

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

Injuries have complicated Coach Terry Stotts' rotations recently, but Portland hasn't been crippled by injuries the way some other teams have. Stotts has said previously that he is more comfortable when he finds a set rotation but so far this season, it just hasn't been there.

I think it's become a problem for this team because players -- in any sport -- usually need a consistent role in order to perform consistently. Players need to know what's going to be expected of them every game.

But Stotts' job isn't easy. He has too many players who bring similar skills, too many who defend well but can't shoot and a roster that's unbalanced. His best two players -- McCollum and Lillard -- basically play the same position and he doesn't have any consistent scoring on the wings. In the middle, he has a center who hasn't played anywhere near what we saw from him during his sneak preview last season.

I don't know the answer to all this but I know the roster isn't going to change much. It's locked in. I think at some point the coach is going to have to make rotation choices and stick with them. I think, too, he may need to define who his shooters are and make sure they get more shots than the ones who can't make shots.

And hope that his team stays together long enough to get things straightened out.

The night Meyers Leonard tossed out a bucket of "How do you like me now?"

The night Meyers Leonard tossed out a bucket of "How do you like me now?"

The Trail Blazers laid another big egg Saturday night in Moda Center, losing to New Orleans 123-116 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. The Pels, a .500 team playing without Anthony Davis and on the second half of a back-to-back, dominated the Trail Blazers over the final three quarters.

The roller-coaster ride continues for the Blazers -- the most enigmatic Portland team in many years. Exactly who are these guys?

But the sub-plot of the game was a story of vindication. It was the night Meyers Leonard dumped a big bucket of "How do you like me now?" on his detractors. Leonard, booed in the previous game by some of the home fans, came up big -- hitting seven of his nine shots from the floor, including both his three-point attempts, on the way to 17 points in 15 minutes and 45 seconds. He also went head-to-head with New Orleans behemoth DeMarcus Cousins and gave about as much as he received.

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

There had to be a tremendous amount of pressure on Leonard Saturday. After Thursday's loss in Moda Center -- when Portland center Jusuf Nurkic came to Leonard's defense after the game  -- Leonard  became the center of an age-old debate: Should home fans boo their own players? Forget if they have the right to do it -- they do. But should they? What does it mean to be a fan? How are you supposed to react when you are unhappy with a player on your team?

They booed him. They booed him lustily as he got a short shift on the floor and missed a couple of shots, including an airball on a three-point attempt. I've always felt the big thing about the dissatisfaction with Leonard is his penchant for shooting three-point field goals. I run into fans every day upset about this -- as if a man seven feet tall shouldn't shoot be shooting from distance. Never mind the fact that he makes them more frequently than does Damian Lillard during their careers.

The trend in the league is that just about every good offensive player is shooting them, including Cousins -- a player Leonard has had some success guarding. Cousins, the most talented big man in the league, could torture people in the low post, but these days he spends a lot of time on the perimeter hoisting shots from distance. He took seven threes Saturday night in 34 minutes. He's not a particularly good three-point shooter (.325 this season so far) -- not even close to being in Leonard's league -- but he's taken 154 of them in 23 games. Leonard is a respectable .374 in his career from three (Lillard is at .367) and is hitting a sparkling 50 percent this season from behind the line.

Meanwhile, Evan Turner gets consistent minutes for Portland and throws up a couple of three-pointers in every game. So far this season, he's shooting .195 from distance -- but has the freedom to keep playing and launching threes. Without being booed, I might add.

But whatever, Leonard was almost in a put-up-or-shut-up situation Saturday night. It was time for him to make a statement and he did. And in the second quarter, after some physical defense on Cousins and making a few shots -- he had the home crowd in the palm of his hand. The arena was on fire.

Such is the life of a professional athlete. And if the previous stages of his career are any indication, Leonard will probably now go back to several games sitting on the end of the bench watching the others play. His biggest hurdle over the last couple of seasons has been a lack of consistent playing time. Even now, with the team's offense seemingly dazed and confused, I wouldn't expect him to find a regular role.

But it's pretty obvious he can play. He has had enough quality performances to show that.

He just doesn't always play. And that's not his fault.

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

Trail Blazers' key to success: What happens outside of Big Three?

As the Trail Blazers’ season settles in for the long winter’s grind, a progression that is crucial to the team’s success is worth keeping an eye on: How do the role players outside of the Big Three develop?

After the first 10 games, things appear to be settling for the Blazers. Damian Lillard is no longer struggling with his shot. Jusuf Nurkic has steadied after battling turnovers and foul trouble. And CJ McCollum is once again one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters.

But what to make of the rest of the Blazers?

Outside of Ed Davis, who has provided a consistent rebounding presence, the Blazers never quite know what they are going to get.

Maurice Harkless has been somewhat non-descript.  Al-Farouq Aminu is sidelined for at least a couple of weeks. Evan Turner, after a strong start, has become erratic. And against teams that don’t have Suns on the jersey, Pat Connaughton has been decidedly more miss than hit. 

“We play a lot, obviously through those three guys,’’ Harkless said of Lillard, Nurkic and McCollum. “So the rest of us have to just get in where we fit in. Some nights we are going to have big games, and some nights we are not. I think I’m still trying to figure out where I can be effective consistently.’’

Whether Harkless and the rest of the supporting cast figure that out will be perhaps the deciding factor in whether the Blazers are a fringe playoff team, or a contender for home court in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, not all contributions are measured offensively. By design, much of the Blazers’ supporting cast strengths are rooted in defense.

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

So even though Turner has been loose with the ball recently, he has been invaluable guarding everyone from Russell Westbrook to Blake Griffin. And both Harkless and Noah Vonleh might not shoot a lot, but their ability to switch on pick-and-rolls is priceless to an improved Blazers defense that holds the NBA’s fourth-best defensive rating through 10 games (99.9).

But the long-term key this season will be whether players can identify – and accept– their niche. It is perhaps the most unique trait possessed by upper echelon teams. It requires self awareness. A selflessness. And a maturity to sacrifice stats for success.

It is also easier said than done.

From what I know of this locker room, this Blazers team has those types of players. Turner has never cared about his stats, only about wins. Harkless said he came into the season wanting to embrace a bigger defensive role. And Connaughton and Vonleh are team-first guys who want to prove they belong.

Still, it is one thing to accept a role, and another thing to thrive or contribute in it. That’s where the stars are going to need to help.

It is important for the Big Three to realize how and when to recognize the supporting cast. Like in the second quarter on Sunday, with the Blazers up 28-24, Turner had Raymond Felton pinned on the block in a mismatch. McCollum, who was playing point guard, either ignored or didn’t see the advantage and went on to try and create something for himself. It resulted in a turnover.

Later, at the start of the third quarter, Nurkic had a window to throw a lob to Harkless, but at the last second decided against it and whipped a pass to Lillard that went out of bounds.

Little plays like that – where the stars are recognizing and feeding the supporting cast – can go a long way to making a team whole.

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says Nurkic sold the Carmelo Anthony elbow like a pro wrestler.

The feeling runs deep when it comes to Blazers fans and Raymond Felton.

On NBC Sports Northwest's Talkin' Ball, we talked about the Big Three showing up.

The Oklahoman writes that the Thunder took issue with the officials after Sunday's loss.

The Oregonian has a recap of Sunday's win.

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

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

“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.

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.

Trail Blazers' bench becoming one of league's best

Trail Blazers' bench becoming one of league's best

One of the early season storylines during the Trail Blazers’ 3-1 start has been the emergence of a deep and effective bench.

Led by Evan Turner, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, the Blazers’ bench has the top offensive rating in the NBA (115.8), the third best net rating, and the third best plus/minus behind Toronto and the LA Clippers.

Never was the bench more on display than during Tuesday’s home opener against New Orleans, when the starters struggled and needed big games from Davis, Turner and rookie Caleb Swanigan to pull out a 103-93 victory.

“Our bench has been huge,’’ starter Maurice Harkless said. “Especially on a night like tonight, when nobody really had it going. Ed, Caleb, and Evan kept us in the game the whole time, whether they were scoring, rebounding, defending. Especially Ed. But this is going to have to be a collective effort. We need everybody.’’

Turner has been the catalyst and could be establishing himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate as the league’s top reserve. Through four games Turner is averaging 13.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and amassing a solid ratio of 17 assists to six turnovers … all while playing solid defense.

“It’s starting with ET; he’s leading the show and playing well,’’ Davis said.

The same, of course, could be said of Davis, who was probably the Most Valuable Player of Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans with his 12 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.

It has been a resurgent return from shoulder surgery for Davis, whose 9.3 rebounds is second behind Miami’s Kelly Olynyk among bench players, and his play is backing up a vow he made to Lillard last spring.

Lillard on Tuesday recalled shaking Davis’ hand after the Blazers were swept by Golden State in the playoffs last spring. Davis, in street clothes and still recovering from March shoulder surgery, assured Lillard the team would be better fortified next season.

“He shook my hand and said ‘You are going to see a different me next year,’’’ Lillard recalled. “It was already in his mind. We already saw in his mind what he was going to do to impact the team this year.’’

Lillard said Davis throughout the summer was a mainstay in the weight room workouts, during which he made sure everyone could see the work he was putting in.

“We started calling him Shirt Off Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He’s in there doing push ups, pull ups and working out hard ... I just saw the commitment, I saw that he was trying to take action.’’

Throw in some solid shooting from Connaughton, who is 9-of-18 on three-pointers, and an effective outing Tuesday by Swanigan (five points, eight rebounds, three assists) and the bench is starting to rival what Lillard thought was the best reserve unit in his six seasons – the 2014-2015 group of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland, CJ McCollum and Thomas Robinson.

“There are so many guys we have been able to count on – not just tonight,’’ Lillard said. “Each game we’ve played, from preseason up to now, guys have come in and we’ve been able to have faith that the game is going to be fine. When you are actually doing that in games over a period of time, you see you are a deeper team.’’

And the bench figures to get deeper.

Power forward Noah Vonleh is nearing his return, and could be back as early as next week, further enhancing – or complicating – coach Terry Stotts’ options.

“People other than the coach say it’s a good problem,’’ Stotts said of his depth. “There will be tough decisions to make.’’

But a week into the season, the bench and the depth have been a blessing for the Blazers. In the opener, Connaughton was a spark early and finished with 24 points. In Indiana, Turner exposed Victor Oladipo on the block while scoring 17 and helping create separation. And against Milwaukee, Turner again was effective, dishing out a team-high seven assists.

But never did the bench come through more than Tuesday, and never was it more needed. With Lillard struggling through a 3-for-16 night and McCollum not catching fire until late, scoring 16 of his 23 in the fourth quarter, the Blazers leaned heavily on a 43-30 advantage in bench scoring.

“One of the positives after four games is we’ve had different guys have a game,’’ Stotts said. “If you go through each game, we’ve had different guys  -- whether it’s a starter or bench player -- come in and contribute, and I think that’s a sign of a good team.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes writes that juggling a talented roster can be tough.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about Shirt Off Ed.

KATU has the story of Meyers Leonard offering well-wishes to a hit-and-run victim.

The New Orleans Advocate notes the Blazers' broadcast crew offended some in the Bayou. 

Evan Turner helps lock down Devin Booker, then praises Suns' rising star

Evan Turner helps lock down Devin Booker, then praises Suns' rising star

PHOENIX – If the Phoenix Suns were “embarrassed” Wednesday by the Trail Blazers, as coach Earl Watson suggested after the 124-76 defeat, Evan Turner says they can take solace in something: the will of Devin Booker.

It was a big night for Turner, who earned the spot start in place of the suspended CJ McCollum, an assignment that pitted him against Booker, of the NBA’s most promising offensive stars. The marquee defensive assignment was what Turner wanted, and it was a spotlight start to his quest to become All-NBA Defense this season.

“I think I did great,’’ Turner said matter-of-factly after Booker was held to 6-of-17 shooting and 12 points – more than 10 points below his season average last season.

But Turner wasn’t boasting. In fact, he wanted to talk more about Booker than himself.

What stood out to Turner was the way Booker kept fighting on a night that was frustrating both on a personal level and a team level. The Blazers led by as many as 58 and Booker could never get anything going, constantly running into the swarming arms of Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, or the mobility of big man Jusuf Nurkic.

“Sometimes when you have young kids who don’t win ever, it seems like they become content with it,’’ Turner said. “But I think he has a next level, where he wants to win.’’

Turner could sense the frustration of the 20-year-old throughout the night, and it impressed him.

“He cares. I think that’s what I respect about him the most,’’ Turner said. “You go up against certain young guys in the league and they are … they get (an) NBA (attitude) … but I think that kid genuinely cares.’’

Turner said before the season he wanted to publicize his NBA All-Defense aspirations, much like Draymond Green did, in order to draw attention to his work on that side of the ball.

“I think it would be cool, and it’s an attainable goal,’’ Turner said. “Obviously, you have to put it out there first so the masses can get the idea to watch you play defense. You saw Draymond lobby for Defensive Player of the Year for four years, and he just finally got it.

“But sometimes, when it comes down to it, I think I’m an underrated defender. I will slide from guarding a 5-foot-9 guy to a 6-9 guy. So, I don’t know what it takes to be called elite, but I think I can be an elite defender in this league,’’ Turner said.

Wednesday against Booker and the Suns was a nice addition to his defensive portfolio, but Turner wanted to make sure his satisfaction with his defense wasn’t taken as a slight on Booker.

“I mean, not to knock the kid … he is super talented, super good - everything people think,’’ Turner said. “And he has a bright future because he can score in several different ways, and I think he is going to get even better. I just hope they are able to turn the corner. He has to understand there are going to be nights like this, where nothing clicks. That’s just how it goes. But I definitely respect the skillset he has as well as his knowledge of the game. You don’t see that much.’’

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' 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.