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.’’’

What if the Trail Blazers took the (big) road less traveled this season?

What if the Trail Blazers took the (big) road less traveled this season?

Everybody in the NBA is trending toward small lineups these days. Golden State has set the tone and a lot of teams are copying -- either to better guard the Warriors or to improve their ability to shoot three-point shots, which is another thing trending upward in the league.

And that's why I'd like to see the Trail Blazers at least give careful consideration to playing big.

Why try to be Golden State Junior? Why do whatever everyone else is doing? Do you really think you can do it better than the Warriors? I doubt it. They have a roster full of unique players with versatile ability. Portland, on the other hand, is suddenly blessed with some big players who can shoot from the outside, yet do great damage on the inside -- with scoring and rebounding.

I know, the first thing everyone asks is "How are those big guys going to guard those small guys?" Sure. And I'll respond simply with "How are those small guys going to guard those big guys?"

There was a time in the NBA -- in the years when centers were really CENTERS -- when you didn't dare put a small player on a big player, at any position.Teams were very skilled at finding those size mismatches swiftly and dealing with them deftly. I can still remember former Portland Coach Mike Schuler standing in front of me yelling, "'Duck' has a little one! 'Duck' has a little one!" -- meaning center Kevin Duckworth was switched onto by a smaller player. Duckworth would drop into the post, his teammates would get him the ball and he'd put a few moves on, culminating in a layup or dunk very quickly.

I'm not sure today's teams are as willing and able to take advantage of such mismatches -- but they should be. I sit and watch NBA coaches today respond to small-big matchups in the opposite way. I swear, if some of them had Wilt Chamberlain at center and the other team put a 5-11 guard on him, Wilt's coach would quickly yank Wilt out and throw his own 5-11 player into the game to match up with the little man. And I'm not trying to be a wise guy.

If the Trail Blazers have jusuf Nurkic and Caleb Swanigan in the game together, I'd love to see an opponent try to go small on them. Sure, Portland would get burned at the defensive end some -- but there are schemes to deal with such things. You can switch, you can zone, you can double-team -- all sorts of creative solutions. And meanwhile, your bigs are eating their lunch at the low post.

There is not an abundance of post players in the NBA right now but the Trail Blazers have Nurkic, Swanigan and Zach Collins -- and I'd like to see them operate near the basket.

Really, what do you have to lose by trying it? It's more fun to be different. As people trying to bump through traffic to get to the Moda Center in time for a 7 p.m. game will tell you, sometimes the road less traveled is the best way to your destination.

OK, so tell me about Durant's "legacy" now

OK, so tell me about Durant's "legacy" now

As much as I detest the word "legacy" when people are talking about pro athletes (basketball players have careers, they don't have a legacy. Things like that are reserved for the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy) I'm going to use it here.

Where are all those people who insisted that Kevin Durant would affect his "legacy" by jumping from Oklahoma City to Golden State and, as I heard so many times, "ride those guys' coat tails to a championship."

Well, as it turned out, Durant did the right thing. The Warriors would not have won without him. He was the MVP of the series. And he escaped having to play in a city YOU wouldn't live in to the Bay Area. And he escaped having to play with Russell Westbrook on a dysfunctional team and landed with a squad that was the most unselfish in the league.

When people look back on his career they're going to say he carried the Warriors to this championship -- not that they carried him to one.

And he did so while sacrificing pieces of his game for the sake of playing on a winning team. He would have scored more points and his stats would have looked much better had he stayed with the Thunder. But the NBA Finals stage allowed him to show just how talented he is -- leading many people to conclude he's the next big thing in the league.

As far as the Cavaliers are concerned, the Finals showed they have some work to do on that roster of theirs. Instead of stacking their bench with LeBron's buddies, they need to get some serious role players with talent. They need guys capable of contributing instead of just sitting and watching. In Game 5, the Warrior bench outscored the Cavalier bench 35-7, typical of the entire series.

The Warriors, too, had a big coaching edge. Golden State plays the prettiest game in basketball on offense and just about the best defense in the league. The Cavs take turns playing one-on-one with not enough defense.

The right team won. And Kevin Durant made the right move.

GOAT? Who knows... but there's never been another team like the Warriors

GOAT? Who knows... but there's never been another team like the Warriors

You can talk all day and all night about the greatest teams of all time. And you really can't come to any conclusions. Differing eras makes it too difficult.

But there has never been another team like this version of the Golden State Warriors.

Folks, time changes. And it has changed basketball in a very big way. You know that, of course, but it may be a bigger change than you think.

Yes, the Warriors shoot the three-point shot like nobody else -- in volume and accuracy. In Game 3, they made 16 of their 33 threes while Cleveland was hitting just 12 of 44. That's a huge edge.

And I must say, Steph Curry is just as unique as his team. I know Kevin Durant is getting most of the headlines from Wednesday's game -- as he should -- but we're already taking Curry for granted because he's been doing his amazing thing for a few years now.

It wasn't just that Curry made five of his nine three-point shots. It's that he made shots -- and continues to make shots -- from spots where other players don't dare shoot them. And he gets them off quickly, too. Curry's edge over most every other player in the NBA is that he's accumulating points three at a time on shots that nobody else makes with consistency. If he gets a glimmer of daylight from about 25 feet and in, he can be deadly. I don't remember any other player in the history of the game as proficient as he is at shooting in volume from distance.

And above that, he's a perpetual motion machine. He had 13 rebounds Wednesday because he's so active. He gets to the ball, whether in the air or on the floor. In his own way, he's as difficult to defend as any of the game's legendary players.

And yes, the Warriors also have other shooters. Klay Thompson and Durant are terrific. But what makes these guys special is that they move the ball and move bodies. They play an unselfish, equal-opportunity offense that doesn't allow the defense to lock in on anybody. In contrast to the Cavaliers.

Cleveland plays too much one-on-one. It's really not sustainable -- even as good as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are at it -- over the long haul against a team moving the ball the way the Warriors do.

Wednesday, 72.5 percent of Golden State's made field goals were assisted. For Cleveland, it was just 42.5. EVERY SINGLE SHOT by Thompson, Draymond Green, David West and Shaun Livingston came off an assist. That's crazy.

And of course, when a lot of people are evaluating this series at some point, they're going to point fingers at the Cavaliers' "supporting cast" and conclude Cleveland didn't get enough production out of it. I think it's easy to say that, but my observation over many years of watching this game is that when one or two players are as ball dominant as James and Irving are, other players simply don't get a good feel for the game. What you end up with is players who are so eager to actually get a shot they burp up a bad one (J.R. Smith) or become more reluctant to shoot (Kevin Love). It's a natural response when you aren't getting consistent touches.

Basketball is changing at warp speed and the Warriors are leading the way. Shooting from distance is of paramount importance these days. You simply cannot afford to get outscored by a big number from behind the three-point line. It's so difficult to overcome that. And you've got to move the ball and play unselfishly to get open three-point shots.

And to beat the Warriors, you're going to need a great team. And there is only one great team out there right now and it's the Warriors. And they are so much different than any of the other great teams in history that it's hard to say where they fit.

A few other thoughts about Game 3:

  • I'm still not understanding why James didn't get out past the three-point line on Durant on that critical shot late in the game. That shot was too important to allow it to be wide open.
  • I'm also bewildered as to why the NBA allows these games to degenerate into a wrestling match. So many obvious fouls are being ignored that if you actually get called for a foul -- or a travel or a double dribble -- you're just flat-out unlucky. It's a joke.
  • People are saying that Green isn't playing his best during this series but he does so many things for his team. Wednesday night he led all players in contested shots with 15, had the best plus/minus of anybody with 14 and had a team-high seven assists to go with a team-high five screen-assists. That doesn't sound like a bad game to me.
  • The only team capable of beating the Warriors is the Warriors. If they don't move, or move the ball, or take a night off on defense, they can be had. But that's the only way.

 

 

Cavs down 0-2, will the NBA decide games need to be officiated differently?

Cavs down 0-2, will the NBA decide games need to be officiated differently?

Last season, with the Golden State Warriors on the verge of a second consecutive NBA Finals win, the officiating of the series suddenly changed. Cleveland began holding and bumping Steph Curry as he attempted to move without the ball. The game got more ugly.

And not a lot of fouls were called.

I've seen this kind of thing before and it's about time to start bringing out the usual NBA Conspiracy Theories.

In the old days, the story was often told that David Stern would just send an officiating team of "fixers" out to manipulate the outcome of games in order to ensure a longer Finals (more games = more money for the league).  And, it was often said, the league had a desire for the large-market teams to win. And I have to admit I actually suspected some hanky-panky in those days regarding certain games.

But Stern is gone and Adam Silver is now in charge.

So I'm just asking, can we look forward to some radical change in how the rest of the Finals games are going to be called? Will the Cavs be able to wrestle the Warriors into submission?

Well, I'd guess not. I'm not sure Cleveland is close enough to Golden State that officials could actually do much to help.

The Warriors are good. REAL good. I've seen a lot of teams come and go and I think this is certainly at least among the best. This team is in that conversation. And just like the Trail Blazers, the Cavs need help to beat them. I said from the start the only way Portland could beat the Warriors is to play its best game and have the Dubs play their worst.

And it's not much different with the Cavaliers.

Three things to monitor during the NBA Finals

Three things to monitor during the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals (finally) start tonight in Oakland and here are three things to keep an eye on during the series, three things that could decide the Finals rubber match between these two superteams:

  • How will this series be officiated? Last year the Cavaliers were able to get very physical with Steph Curry -- holding him, bumping him and keeping him from the constant movement that helps him get free. If that happens in this series, not only with Curry but the other players who make the Golden State motion offense the best in the league, the Warriors are going to have trouble.
  • Can the Warriors bring down Cleveland's three-point field-goal percentage? The Cavaliers are making an impressive 43.5 percent of their threes and if that continues it's going to keep Cleveland in this series. And that percentage is not based on a small sample size. The Cavs have made 45 more three-point shots than the Warriors have in the playoffs. And people wonder why LeBron James is playing so well this postseason? He's got help in the form of shooters who have spread the floor, allowing him to get to the basket easier than ever. People talk a lot about Kyrie Irving but Kevin Love is critical for this team. So far, he's averaging 17.2 points per game in 32 minutes, with 10.4 rebounds per game and a 47.5 shooting percentage from three-point range. If those numbers hold firm in the Finals, the Cavaliers have a real shot.
  • How much coaching is Steve Kerr going to do in the Finals? I have tremendous respect for what he's done for that team and I think the Warriors can only reach their maximum potential with Kerr on the sidelines. Mike Brown is probably a very capable replacement but he's a replacement -- and substitute teachers are never as good as the real thing. Kerr has created a team that is superior on offense and very good on defense and it would be a shame if he couldn't be there to guide it to the end of the season. And it could also be detrimental to the Warriors' chance of capturing the championship.

Who do I think will win? Golden State. This is one of the league's all-time great teams and if Kevin Durant doesn't crack under the pressure of the Finals the Warriors should win. But I'm not sure it's going to be as easy as many people figure. Cleveland is the one team that can match Golden State's three-point production and that's a big key in the modern game. And to beat Golden State, you better score a whole lot of points.

Forget the likes of Paul George, Blazers need to stay patient and build

Forget the likes of Paul George, Blazers need to stay patient and build

I think back to the Trail Blazers' first-round exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Golden State Warriors and can't help but smile.

So many people were frustrated and disappointed that the Blazers were swept. They expected more out of their team and couldn't accept that they couldn't win one game or even take a game down to the final shot before losing.

Well, how does that look now? Nobody in the West could handle those guys and I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

So if somebody asks me what we learned from the playoffs to this point it's that fans of the Trail Blazers must find some patience. Folks, you aren't close enough to the Warriors -- barring a miracle or catastrophic injury to more than one Warrior player -- to challenge them anytime soon. It's just not yet realistic to believe.

Yes, Portland improved last season with the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic. But the Blazers -- and just about everyone else in the West -- still have a long way to go.

That's where the patience -- and some understanding of the situation -- comes in.

Instead of making a futile, desperate effort to beat what appears to be at least a temporary dynasty, it's best to plan to be the franchise on the rise. You want to be the team patiently putting the building blocks together so that when the Warriors begin to fade, you will be ready to challenge. The Trail Blazers are doing this -- making incremental changes to improve their roster WITHOUT MORTGAGING THE FUTURE! I give them full credit for resisting the pressure to make a panic move.

The Celtics have done that, too. General Manager Danny Ainge has resisted the urges of fans and media to pull the trigger on a big deal that would cost his franchise all those draft picks and young players. He's been waiting for the Cavaliers to drop back a little. But Boston has been ahead of schedule getting to the Eastern Conference finals and has nothing to lose at this point. I think, though, it's obvious the Celts are still a player or two away from being able to seriously challenge Cleveland.

Of course, that's what Boston's first-round pick is for this season.

The key thing to remember, Portland is not -- and should not -- be in the market for a high-priced rent-a-player. This is not the time for a big-ticket free agent who will be here for a season and then head to another franchise. One season of Paul George, for example, would not do this team any good and it's time people --including Portland players -- stopped talking about it. George has his sights set on southern California, most likely with the Lakers, and the price that would have to be paid to acquire him is too steep.

Now don't misunderstand me, if there's a chance for Portland to make a major leap by trading multiple players not including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic, I would expect the Trail Blazers to do so. As long as the player acquired is under team control for the long term. This is no time to roll the dice on a futile one-year mission to catch Golden State.

The plain truth is, those guys are just too good right now. Whether they win the title this season or not, it's one of the most formidable rosters ever put together in the NBA. At some point, though, that roster will split up through injury or free agency and come back to the pack.

The smart play is the long play. Be the team in waiting.

Build. And build one piece at a time, taking the long view. Think about two or three seasons from now. Be smart and strategic. Develop the players who are here now -- there is time for improvement, individually and as a team. Use the time as a positive so that when the situation is right, this team is fully prepared to make the next step.

Yes, that's going to be difficult for some fans (and players) to swallow but until we see signs of cracks in the Golden State foundation, it's best to show some patience.

It's a virtue, you know.

 

Golden State puts finishing touches on sweep of Trail Blazers with dominating first quarter

Golden State puts finishing touches on sweep of Trail Blazers with dominating first quarter

The Trail Blazers’ season is over, their final attempt at redemption buried amid an avalanche of greatness from Golden State on Monday.

In a devastating start to Game 4, Golden State bolted to leads of 14-0 and 41-13 before eventually sealing a sweep in the best-of-seven series with a 128-103 win at the Moda Center.

Golden State tied an NBA-playoff record with 45 first quarter points and handed the Blazers their first playoff sweep since the Lakers in 2002 won a best-of-five series in three games.

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 34 points and Al-Farouq Aminu had 25 points, but CJ McCollum missed his first nine shots and finished with six points and one assist on 2-of-12 shooting and the Blazers were held to 38.8 percent shooting.

Golden State, which welcomed the return of Kevin Durant after the star missed Games 2 and 3 with a calf injury, was led by Stephen Curry (37 points), Klay Thompson (18 points) and Draymond Green (21 points, six rebounds, four assists). Durant had 10 points in 20 minutes.

Golden State entered the playoffs with the NBA’s best record, and never did they play more like it than in Game 4, and in particular the first quarter.

In a whirlwind of three-pointers, blocks and dunks, the Warriors instantly sucked the air out of the sold out Moda Center. Portland didn’t score until 3:38 into the game with an Evan Turner three-pointer, but the Blazers never could put together a run against the NBA’s second best defense.

The Blazers started the third different starting lineup of the series in Game 4, inserting Meyers Leonard at center, but the move turned out to be moot after the Warriors’ hot start. Leonard played the opening five minutes, during which he grabbed one rebound, and did not play again until the final five minutes, as coach Terry Stotts started Aminu in the second half.

Any hopes for a Blazers’ comeback from a 72-48 halftime deficit were quickly dashed when the Warriors scored the first six points of the second half as the lead eventually swelled to as many as 33.

Shabazz Napier finished with 14 points and Noah Vonleh 14 rebounds for the Blazers. 

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It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

For quite a while Saturday night during the interminable telethon that NBA playoff games have become, it appeared that the Trail Blazers had found the right formula to beat the Golden State Warriors.

Jusuf Nurkic was back, if but a shell of his usual self. The Trail Blazers seem to take inspiration from his return to the lineup, even though he was dragging a broken leg up and down the court. But it wasn't just the inspiration. Nurkic got his team off to a great start with just his presence. The Portland pick-and-roll offense was suddenly potent again, with Nurkic planting a brickwall of a pick and then rolling down the lane toward the basket. There was either an open three or a pass to Nurkic -- and he'd find the open man with his usual knack for such things.

It was nice while it lasted -- he had 11 rebounds and four assists -- and the Nurkic Effect lasted much longer than the 16 and a half minutes he spent on the court. There was an obvious lift. The Blazers played gallantly until the inevitable Warrior surge, about midway through the third quarter. At that point, the Blazers were hanging on for dear life -- trying to get an open shot for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum against a defense that was willing to allow open shots for anyone but them.

Moda Center was loud and proud most of the night but the tale of this playoff series was never a mystery. The Blazers lost for the third time and there's a fourth one headed their way Monday night. This Golden State team is too much for them and probably too much for anyone else in the league.

But for just under 17 Nurkic minutes Saturday night there was a glimpse of the future, a snapshot of things to come.

Nurkic makes this team better. Much better, even in the condition he was Saturday.

He confessed to a lot of pain after the game and I think it would be unwise to put him through all of that again Monday. I don't think it was a mistake to play him in this game because I trust Portland's medical staff to know what's best for him and the franchise. He got a taste of the playoffs and his teammates found a rallying point. He was pretty much the last card the Blazers had left to play in the series.

Throughout the last few weeks none of us knew exactly what kind of shape he was in. There was hope that when he came back he would be near 100 percent. As it turned out, he was nowhere close ("I'm not the same guy," he said). And for just 15 or 16 minutes a game, I don't think it's worth doing it again. He tried it and it was what it was -- a fun time for us if not for him. He showed the kind of impact he can have when he's right and tried his best to help his squad win one game.

The mission of getting him on the floor was accomplished, if not the part about winning a game. But at this point, it's all about being healthy for next season.

And all about the dreams of what a franchise center can do for this team.

Warriors overhaul Trail Blazers in fourth quarter, take 3-0 series lead

Warriors overhaul Trail Blazers in fourth quarter, take 3-0 series lead

Jusuf Nurkic finally played Saturday night... and it seemed to give the Portland Trail Blazers a little spark. For a while, that spark turned into a raging fire as the Blazers jumped to leads as high as 16 points over the Golden State Warriors. But in the end, the Warriors doused that fire with solid fourth-quarter defense and timely shooting.

The end result was a 119-113 win that pushed Golden State into a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues Monday night in Moda Center. CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 32 points and Damian Lillard added 31. Steph Curry had 34 for the Warriors.

The lead seesawed throughout the fourth quarter as two seemingly tired teams traded punches. Portland's shooting percentage, over .500 most of the night, dipped and the Warriors' rose.

The Trail Blazers came out on fire – and the crowd was deep into it when Portland had  an 11-3 lead as the Warriors called a timeout with 9:11 to go in the first quarter. Portland opened the game by hitting its first five shots from the field.

Nurkic, who received a thunderous ovation when introduced with the starting lineup, scored his first basket 2:26 into the game on a bank shot in the lane over Zaza Pachulia.

He left the floor at the 7:06 mark of the quarter and played about five minutes per quarter. He finished with two points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 17 minutes.

The Warriors withstood Portland’s opening salvo and crawled to within four points late in the quarter but the Trail Blazers held a 37-30 lead ater the first quarter behind Lillard’s 15 points, fueled by 3-for-4 shooting from three-point range.

Portland shot 57.7 percent from the field in the opening period and held Golden State to 38.5 percent. But the Blazers had seven turnovers over the first 12 minutes while the Warriors had but one.

In the second quarter Portland stretched the lead as high as 16 as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson struggled from the field for the Warriors.

Lillard and McCollum were the backbone of the Portland offense in the first half, combining for 39 points. The Blazers led 67-54 at halftime on the strength of 53 percent shooting. Portland also held a 29-14 rebound edge at halftime.

The lead ballooned to 16 again in the third but then the Warriors made one of their patented runs and closed to within 82-78 when the Blazers called for a timeout with 3:29 left in the third. Golden State turned up its defense and Portland had trouble getting open shots all of a sudden. By the end of the quarter the Blazers were clinging to an 88-87 lead.

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