Blazers move one-step closer to clinching a playoff birth

usatsi_10749049.jpg
USA Today

Blazers move one-step closer to clinching a playoff birth

The Blazers moved one-step closer to the playoffs on Friday, beating the Los Angeles Clippers, 105-96. The game started about a slow as possible, with both teams missing their first six shots before settling in. Portland had the 26-23 lead after the first quarter, but then flipped the switch in a big way in the second.

The Blazers set sights on doing damage to the rim. Dunk after dunk went down with authority, and the lead quickly ballooned to a point the Clippers just couldn’t come back. Portland put on a show and in the end they cruised to victory.

However, the win may have come at a price. Ed Davis rolled his ankle in the third quarter and did not return to the game. X-rays were negative, and coach Stotts said Davis was getting an MRI postgame. Davis’ status for Sunday’s game against Memphis is unknown. 

With or without Davis, the Blazers will be looking forward to Sunday’s matchup. They not only get a chance to avenge the tough loss the Grizzlies handed them in Memphis on Wednesday, but a victory will clinch the playoffs.

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

usatsi_10718903.jpg
USA Today

Blazers go Hollywood for lucky number 13

If you see a member of the Trail Blazers in public, try not to get too close. There is a high chance you could burn yourself because this team is on fire! The Blazers went to Los Angeles on Sunday and dismantled the Clippers, 122-109 for their thirteenth win in a row. That’s right – 13 wins in a row! Portland continues to hold on to the three seed in the Western Conference, and now has a two game lead on No.4 Oklahoma City. 

Box Score: Blazers 122 – Clippers 109

Next up:  The Blazers play host to the league leading Houston Rockets (56-14) on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7:30pm at Moda Center. 

Quck Hit: 

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win in LA

usatsi_10577602.jpg
USA Today

It wasn't pretty, but it was a win in LA

Sometimes it looked easy. At other times it looked hard. The Blazers got the victory in Los Angeles, but it wasn't without its share of nail biting. Portland led by as many as 22-points in the third quarter, and held a 19-point lead heading to the fourth, but it all unraveled from there. The Clippers started to mount a comeback, and with 2:34 left to the play the Clipper cut the lead to just six. However, Portland would end up getting a key putback from Nurkic, and a huge dunk from Aminu to finally close to the door on the Clippers comeback.

Final Score: Blazers 104 - Clippers 96

 

Rockets, you want to fight? Do it out there where we can watch

Rockets, you want to fight? Do it out there where we can watch

I love it when NBA teams actually show animosity between each other during a game. There's too much hugging and chatting between opponents for me these days.

So when the Clippers and Rockets showed some genuine hate toward each other yesterday during their game, I enjoyed it. But when I heard that Chris Paul led a trio of teammates into the threshold of the Los Angeles locker room after the game, I was astounded. Paul, after all, is the president of the NBA players' union. And he's pulling this thuggery on Martin Luther King Day?

It's been no secret that Paul and the Clippers' Blake Griffin did not get along during Paul's tenure in Los Angeles. And I've always heard that Paul is often not the best of teammates. And on the other side, Los Angeles' Austin Rivers has been seen as a player who is only there because his father, Doc, is the coach of the team. The perception is that the son takes advantage of the situation by being critical of his teammates under the protection of his father. Not in uniform for the game, the younger Rivers was apparently yapping from the bench throughout the contest.

This from Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times:

The incident was a reminder of something about Paul that bothered all of his teammates. Paul was never so much a team leader as a team instigator. He was tough to play with, and tougher to play with when you didn’t play his way. He was Kobe Bryant without the ability to finish. For all his greatness, he was the guy who would lose the game, then look for a back door to pick a fight.

I would expect the NBA to hit the Rockets with a very big fine. An excursion into the opponents' locker room after a game could be a very dangerous move -- although I would still say the number of NBA players ready to get into an actual fight is very small.

The whole thing reminds me of a time when my long-departed friend, local wrestling promoter Don Owen, was telling me about a couple of his workers squaring off in the locker room after a match. After all the scripted entertainment, these guys were ready to go at it for real.

Owen was ready, too. "I told them it would be fine to settle it that way but to hold on for a couple of minutes. Let me go out and announce a rematch and we'll put it in the ring where it belongs."

I feel the same way about these guys. If somebody really wants a piece of another player, do it out there on the big stage where everyone can see it.

 

There was plenty of blame to go around for Portland's loss to Clippers

There was plenty of blame to go around for Portland's loss to Clippers

The Blazers took a real bad loss Thursday night at Moda. Losing by a point anytime is tough to take but leading by two at home and losing on a buzzer-beating three-pointer is even more difficult.

There are so many things you could point to that would have made a difference in the outcome. Among them:

  • The Trail Blazers made only 15 of their 40 shots IN THE PAINT! There was some real intimidation by the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan at work there. He played 38:18 and didn't get called for a single foul. You may want to blame that on referees, but really -- Portland just didn't challenge him enough. You must make shot blockers block shots. They will foul and they will get themselves out of position -- and I don't care how skilled they are. You cannot allow them to make you miss just by standing there. Yes, Jordan had three blocks. So what? The Blazers 25 shots in the paint and he got only three of them? That 15 for 40 is an embarrassment.
  • The Clippers did a solid job on the Blazers' starting guards, making their life miserable with overplays, deflections and just taking them out of their comfort zone, especially in the first half.
  • The Trail Blazer bench, which had been playing at a high level, went 4 for 20 from the field. When you lose by a point, it's pretty easy to look back and say just one more basket by the bench guys and you would have won the game.
  • There are nights when the Blazers are just too small. Sure, a lot of teams look small when they play against Jordan and Blake Griffin, but this is a problem Portland will eventually deal with. At some point, Noah Vonleh will be back and take a turn at defending Griffin. And at some point, either Zach Collins will be ready to take a shot at keeping Jordan off the boards or Meyers Leonard will somehow regain the confidence of his coaches enough to body up Jordan. There were times Thursday that Jordan was blocked off by Ed Davis or Jusuf Nurkic or somebody else and merely snatched an offensive rebound right over their head.
  • Patrick Beverley may have had his best game ever against the Trail Blazers. He had FIVE offensive rebounds, which shouldn't happen. And his defense is relentless.
  • CJ McCollum missed two free throws inside the final five minutes of the game. He owned it after the game, which is to his credit. He knows a shooter of his stature -- a man who led the league in foul shooting last season -- just cannot miss in late-game situations. It shouldn't happen and I like that he took responsibility for it.
  • Damian Lillard's shooting still isn't what he'd like it to be. But who is worried about that? It will come, as it always does
  • Nurkic isn't playing at the level he did last season in those magical 20 games after his trade to Portland. He doesn't seem as aggressive on offense and is not finishing around the basket. One would assume that will improve. For this team to reach a higher level, he's going to have to find a higher level.
  • The Trail Blazers fouled too often last season and that problem is cropping up again this year. Twenty-six fouls is too many and being minus-14 in free-throw attempts to your opponent is a big hole to dig.
  • It's very early in the season and too soon to draw any major conclusions. But at the same time, it's never too early to fret over losing home games you should have won.

Blazers-Clippers now includes Lillard vs. Beverley rivalry

Blazers-Clippers now includes Lillard vs. Beverley rivalry

A long-standing rivalry will renew tonight when the Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard and the Clippers' Patrick Beverley square off at the Moda Center in an early matchup of Western Conference teams off to good starts.

Dating back to the 2014 playoffs, when Beverley was with Houston, the defensive-minded point guard has tried to get under Lillard’s skin with a series of physical bumps, nudges while at times adding some stand-in-your-face intimidation tactics.

After the first game of that playoff series, I remember Lillard in the hallway dismissing Beverley’s tactics, pointing out that as a kid in Oakland, he was mugged.

“What I’ve seen and what I’ve been through growing up, what he’s doing isn’t going to intimidate me,’’ Lillard said. “I’m from Oakland.’’

Now that Beverley is in his first season with the Clippers, it doesn’t look like he has changed his tactics. In the preseason in Los Angeles, Lillard dove on the floor for a loose ball. Beverley jumped on top of him and the two squirmed and jostled, with Lillard eventually ripping his arms from the fray.

It seemed to light a fire under Lillard, who ended up leading the Blazers to a win behind his 35 points.

After the game, I asked Lillard about his history with Beverley.

“He’s a competitor, a super edgy player, kind of a pest out there,’’ Lillard said. “But I respect him. I respect what he does. But somebody gets physical with me, or tries to -- not bully me, but impose their will on me -- I take exception to it. Usually when that happens, in my mind, I have to take my game to the next level.’’

Tonight, the Clippers (3-0) are one of two undefeated teams left in the NBA, and Beverley is a big reason why. Meanwhile, Lillard and the Blazers (3-1) are coming off a stale home-opening win over New Orleans, when Lillard went 3-for-16 from the field. 

In 15 career games, Beverley has held Lillard to 20.7 points and 6.4 assists and a 39.8 shooting percentage. 

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

Damian Lillard 'leading the troops' by establishing Trail Blazers' mindset

LOS ANGELES –Turns out Sunday was more than just a preseason game for the Trail Blazers. It was also a refresher course in embracing the proper mental approach when the season starts in 10 days.

And it was no surprise who was leading the seminar: Damian Lillard.

The Blazers’ star point guard looked in All-Star form Sunday while scoring 35 points in 26 minutes as the Blazers continued a promising preseason with a 134-106 win over the LA Clippers at the Staples Center.

Most veterans, especially one with resumes like Lillard, treat the preseason with the enthusiasm of a teenager eating lima beans. But Lillard on Sunday said he is intent on establishing a sense of urgency to the start of this season in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s sputtering start.

“We want to get off to better starts in games, and a better start to the regular season, so our mentality has to be that this is a game … doesn’t matter if it’s preseason, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go on our record … we have to be ready,’’ Lillard said. “Our mentality has to be, ‘We are going to handle our business.’ And that’s it. So when the season comes, it’s not like we have to tell ourselves, OK, this one counts.’’

The Blazers last season had a losing record from Dec. 10 through April 1, eventually using a late-season push and the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic to squeak into the playoffs with the eighth seed and a 41-41 record.

In retrospect, players and coaches say last year’s team lost its edge, and perhaps forgot how tough it was to stay persistent and on task throughout the grinding season.

Twelve players return this season, but Lillard is intent on making sure that familiarity doesn’t lull the team into contentment, even in the preseason.

So on Sunday, there was Lillard – stripping Milos Teodosic at halfcourt, making hard drives into traffic, and rolling on the court amid the antagonistic defense of Patrick Beverley.

“He knows its important for us to get off to a good start this season,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “and he is kind of leading the troops.’’

All told, Lillard made 9-of-17 shots, all 13 of his free throws, and added three assists and two steals.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice or a preseason game, our mentality has to be like this,’’ Lillard said. “So regardless of the situation is, it’s always there and we don’t have to try to take it up a level or any of those things … we are  not good enough to do that. We are not the Golden State Warriors … the little things matter for us and it starts with our mentality.’’

Evan Turner said the team has made a point to focus on their start this season, and it helps when the captain is not only talking about it, but also showing it.

“Clearly, he’s our leader, and when he is doing it himself and practicing what he preaches, it definitely sets a tone and holds people accountable,’’ Turner said. “We are all aware of one, how good the West is; and two, how hard it was to battle back last season and make the playoffs; and three, making it easy on ourselves.’’

Sunday featured more than just Lillard’s excellence.

Turner played a heady game out of the post, amassing eight assists, many of them after the Clippers sent double teams at him.

Maurice Harkless continued his strong preseason by making all six of his shots, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists.

Nurkic was dominant for stretches, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out in 24 minutes.

There was also 12 points from Zach Collins; 10 rebounds in 11 minutes from Meyers Leonard; and CJ McCollum had 12 of his 20 points in the second half.

From a lineup standpoint, Stotts on Sunday looked heavily at rookie Caleb Swanigan as a starter. He began the game with Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Swanigan and Nurkic, then started the second half with Harkless in place of Aminu.

Swanigan was “solid”  according to Stotts, and finished with five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes while mostly going against Clippers’ All-Star Blake Griffin, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.

On Monday, the Blazers play in Sacramento, and Stotts said he will play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes.

No matter how the minutes allotment turns out, rest assured Lillard and the rest of the Blazers will approach it like a regular season game.

“Hey, how you practice is how you play and how you approach the preseason is how you start the season,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously the wins and losses don’t matter but how you approach it mentally … it’s important you approach it like a real game, because the season is what nine, 10 days away? There’s no going back once it starts.’’

Some thoughts on Z-Bo as a King, the Clippers' investments and Mason Plumlee's logo

Some thoughts on Z-Bo as a King, the Clippers' investments and Mason Plumlee's logo

A lot going on in the NBA since the draft, with trades and free agency. Some thoughts about what we've seen lately:

  • Zach Randolph signed a two-year, $24 million deal to join Sacramento. All over the internet I've read people hailing this as a great move for the Kings, bringing that "veteran presence" to the Kings' young squad. Well, maybe. The Memphis Z-Bo was, by all accounts, a community contributor and a team leader -- a beloved player in that town. But we've seen the other side of him in Portland and when you talk about a player on the downside of his career signing with a team for the money, rather than for a chance at a championship, I'm not sure if you can depend on Randolph to be a leader or an example of how an NBA player should handle himself. But who knows? I do know they don't want the Portland Z-Bo in Sacramento.
  • When you win, you can often retain your players at a lower cost, quite obviously. I've never been able to convince many people that a big part of playing in the NBA is the day-to-day culture and atmosphere on a team. Yes, championships are the thing -- but it's just as important to be able to get through the marathon 82-game season with a minimal amount of drama and sadness. The Warriors have a great culture where players are unselfish and play hard. And they win almost every game they play. If you think that's not important, try to picture yourself on a team that loses more games than it wins and features selfish players who don't want to share the ball. I wouldn't want to spend time in a situation like that. Golden State got Shaun Livingston back at $8 million a year, Andre Iguodala at $16 million a season and Kevin Durant at two years for a total of $53 million -- about $9 million a year under what he could have gotten with a max deal. Durant declined a player option and become a free agent to allow the Warriors to retain Iguodala and Livingston.
  • Blake Griffin got $173 million over five years to stay with the Clippers. I've always liked Griffin and wondered what he'd be like away from the Clips, but I don't think I'd ever give him that kind of money. He's missed 79 games over the last three seasons and I've always felt that when players start to break down, they can go downhill in a hurry.
  • Paul Millsap got a three-year, $90 million deal with the Nuggets. Millsap is a steady player who grinds every night. But should a guy who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game over 11 seasons in the league make 30 million bucks a year?
  • Maybe so, if Danilo Gallinari is going to get $65 million over three seasons from the Clippers. He's a very good shooter when he plays -- but this is another guy who spends a lot of time on the bench in street clothes. He's averaged about 50 games a season over his last seven years in the league.
  • Mason Plumlee has still not signed a contract but the Nuggets have reportedly extended him a qualifying offer of $4.9 million. This is a good guy, good teammate and I hope he finds a team that appreciates his unique skillset. And to while away the time until he signs a deal, Plumlee has been active on his website at masonplumlee.com -- where you can buy your Mason Plumlee logo T-shirt.

Blazers found passion, rim protector Monday in LA

Blazers found passion, rim protector Monday in LA

Sometimes when things aren't going well for your team, you can lose your fourth straight game even when playing at a pretty high level.

The Trail Blazers found some deep passion against the LA Clippers Monday night, but fell prey to some mistakes and Chris Paul's clutch play en route to a one-point loss. In the end, when you think about it, three technical fouls and a dead-ball foul really hurt Portland. The emotion that inspired those techs was special, though. The Trail Blazers laid it all on the line Monday night against a team they despise and the result was a riveting game.

There was so much to like in this game for Portland fans:

  • Mason Plumlee played like "Magic" Plumlee, bringing the ball up the court and dishing to teammates, scoring, defending, blocking five shots -- a spectacular all-around performance. When the Trail Blazers get five blocked shots behind them, the defense is automatically better. Turning Plumlee loose on pick and rolls, allowing him to double team, has gotten him more active, which is the way he needs to be. He was a real force in this game, against a very gigantic and physical opponent in DeAndre Jordan.
  • I loved, LOVED that Evan Turner stood up to the mammoth Jordan, slapping his hand away when Jordan tried to intimidate him with a finger point. The Trail Blazers have needed a player with that sort of edge, that toughness. I hope it continues to come out because it can be contagious.
  • There were times when Portland's offense was back to moving the ball with quickness and intelligence as it has in the past. That was a great sign. It needed to continue late in the game but broke down into a little more one-on-one stuff.
  • I liked Terry Stotts' emotion on the sidelines all night long. And trust me, that's not his personality. To his credit, the Trail Blazer coach was not going to let Doc Rivers gain any kind of advantage with the referees. It's a smart move because Rivers' game-long diatribes have a way of gaining his team an edge. Yes, Stotts got a technical foul but in this case, I understood it. His emotions were genuine and his willingness to fight for his players will serve him well over time.
  • The return to the starting lineup by Al-Farouq Aminu made a difference.
  • I enjoyed this game as much as any this season. The Clippers play the villains as well as any team in sports and it really spices up a game.

I believe every team finds the Clippers as obnoxious as do the Trail Blazers. And I think it's one of the reasons LA has trouble winning in the playoffs. Even the very best teams will find another gear against this team. The Clips inspire an uncommon degree of hatred and intensity that can elevate an opponent to its highest level.

And now the Trail Blazers need to find that level against other teams.

Another painful loss for the Blazers, this time after playing well in LA

Another painful loss for the Blazers, this time after playing well in LA

LOS ANGELES -- Four straight games. Four straight losses. Four different ways of heartache. 

In a biting conclusion to a painful five-game trip, the Trail Blazers on Monday played valiantly, but couldn't close the deal during a 121-120 loss to the LA Clippers at the Staples Center. 

The play-well-but-lose conclusion to the trip came after a third-quarter collapse in Milwaukee, a last-second loss in Memphis and blowing a 20-point lead in Indiana. The season-high four-game losing streak comes with the Blazers leading every game at halftime.

The turning point in Monday's loss to the Clippers came with 4:14 left in the fourth, when the Clippers had a four-point possession that turned a 107-105 deficit into a 109-105 lead. A technical on Blazers coach Terry Stotts came after he lost his cool when CJ McCollum was called for fouling JJ Redick during a three-pointer.

The game was delayed in the final seconds when Evan Turner and DeAndre Jordan exchanged words and a series of hand slaps with 11.5 seconds left, leading to the ejection of both players. Jordan had just fouled Damian Lillard on a layin attempt, and as Turner went to help up Lillard, he brushed the shoulder of Jordan, who immediately turned and placed his finger in Turner's face. Turner slapped it away, and Jordan did it again, prompting Turner to again slap it away.  

The Blazers (12-14) got 25 points from CJ McCollum while Mason Plumlee recorded 18 points, seven rebounds, six asssists, five blocks and drew a charge. Lillard finished with 24 points and eight assists. 

The Clippers (18-7) tried to throw the game away when Wesley Johnson threw an inbounds pass to no one with 11.5 seconds left, and after Blake Griffin dove to save the ball, he slid out of bounds with 9.5 seconds left, awarding Portland the ball, down three. LA chose to foul McCollum with 7.9 seconds left and the Blazers guard made both free throws, drawing Portland within 118-117. 

But McCollum fouled JJ Redick before the ball was inbounded, awarding Redick a free throw, then after the Clippers inbounded, McCollum again fouled Redick with 6.5 seconds left and the 90.9 percent foul shooter made both. The foul before the inbound proved costly as Lillard raced downcourt and nailed a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left, drawing Portland within 121-120. 

The Clippers had one inbound deflected out of bounds and when they inbounded again, the clock ran out, hanging Portland with a 1-4 trip that started with a victory in Chicago.

The Clippers led 89-86 heading into the fourth after Johnson hit a tie-breaking three-pointer with 25.9 seconds left, capping a 33-point third quarter for LA. The Blazers fought back and went on a 10-0 run in the fourth to take a 101-96 lead with 7:20 left after Lillard hit him with a long pass that Crabbe converted for a layin. 

The Blazers took a 60-56 halftime lead on the heels of a 10-0 run late in the quarter that was fueled by its defense. The Blazers had stops on eight of the Clippers' final 10 possessions, which included two blocks by Mason Plumlee and the forcing of a 24-second shot clock violation. 

It was the seventh consecutive game the Blazers led at halftime, and the fourth consecutive loss when holding the halftime lead after starting the season 10-0 when leading after two quarters. It was a markedly better start than the last time the Blazers were in Staples versus this team. The Clippers on Nov. 9 took a 50-18 lead a nd led 61-32 at halftime en route to a 111-80 victory.

The Blazers were bolstered by the return of Al-Farouq Aminu, who not only returned from a back injury, but started for the first time since injuring his left calf on Nov. 8. He airballed his first shot, but then made his next four, including two three-pointers and was the primary defender of Griffin. Aminu finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes. 

Turner had 15 poitns, six assists and four rebounds before being ejected and Crabbe added 13 points.

Griffin led the Clippers with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists and Chris Paul had 21 points and 14 assists. 

 

Next up: Oklahoma City at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (CSN/ESPN)