Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

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

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

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

That humor came via Evan Turner.

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

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

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

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

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:

“Emotional?”

The last one busted up everyone in the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

The mystery of Moe Harkless: Is the Blazers' wing about to resurface?

Of all the confusing things going on with the Trail Blazers – from the wonky offense, an inability to make close-range shots, and the unsettled rotation – perhaps at the top of the list is the disappearing act of Maurice Harkless.

He considers himself the moodiest person on the team, and that has morphed into his on-the-court personality as well – at times (like during a promising preseason) a bundle of energy who can impact a game, and at other times (like for the past two months) a sullen and drifting player who becomes almost invisible.

Those swings have resulted in a yo-yo-like season that has seen him go from starter, to reserve, to out of rotation, to starter and then back to out of rotation.

“To me, that’s just how it goes,’’ Harkless said. “It comes and goes.’’

It has been one of the defining traits of his career, and in particular his two-plus seasons in Portland, where right when it appears time to give up on him, he resurfaces, effective as ever.

Case in point, the Blazers’ last game, a 95-92 win Saturday at the Lakers. Harkless had a team-high 22 points to go with six rebounds and two blocks, which included the go-ahead three-point play with 21.4 seconds left.

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The performance came after Harkless was buried on the bench for all but 9:04 of the team’s recent five-game trip. The 22-points matched his output since he first lost his starting job on Nov. 24 in Brooklyn.

Harkless points to his L.A. performance as a sign of his maturity, and being able to stay mentally engaged. Yet, he is either unable to process, or unwilling to say, why he continually finds himself falling out of rotations every season.

“I know my stuff will come around. It always does,’’ Harkless said. “It’s just a matter of when.’’

**

When he is right, Harkless is the type of player who can impact a game from a variety of areas.

He can be a pogo-stick rebounder, beating opponents with his second leap off the floor. He can be a shutdown defender, invaluable with his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls, and rare in his passion to defend. He can also be a reliable shooter, finishing at 35 percent from three-point range last season, and a crafty slasher.

But so much of those skills are incumbent upon his own motor kick-starting the effort. And for large parts of the season, Harkless’ motor has been quiet.

“(Energy) has to be consistent,’’ Harkless said after the Lakers game. “For me, I just have to figure out a way to do that every game. Bring energy. Sometimes I don’t. I just have to bring it every night.’’

He started the season’s first 18 games and averaged 26:32 minutes, but was largely ineffective, averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40 percent from the field and 24 percent from three-point range. He was pulled from the starting lineup after an 18-minute performance in Philadelphia, when he had one point and zeroes in every other statistical category.

After he lost his job, it appeared he also lost his confidence. He passed up shots – many of them in the key – and spent much of his time drifting around the perimeter.

Harkless on Wednesday, however, sharply denies losing his confidence.

“No. No, I didn’t lose my confidence,’’ he said. “When you come in the game, a lot of times … never mind.’’

He paused, then continued.

“When you come in the game, you have to get a feel for it. Sometimes you are not able to do that in a five-minute stretch. Everybody has their strengths. Pat (Connauhgton) is a shooter. Jake (Layman) is a shooter. Shabazz (Napier) creates with the ball. For me, I’m not a shooter. I mean, I can shoot, but I’m not a shooter.

“When I come in the game, the first time I touch the ball, and it’s a wide-open three, part of me doesn’t want to shoot it, but I have to, because I’m wide open. So I shoot it, but that’s the first time I’ve touched the ball, so likely, it may not go in. That’s just part of the game.

“The more you feel the ball the more you the more you get a feel for the game, the more comfortable you will feel out there. That’s part of it in the Laker game,’’ Harkless said. “We were just out there playing, we weren’t worried about coming out of the game. Shabazz as well. You could tell he was a lot more comfortable out there knowing he probably had a longer leash with Dame being out. It’s all about being comfortable in this league, if you have an opportunity and you know if you make a mistake, and you will be able to play through it, I think that’s huge. It helps guys. You look at a guy like Noah (Vonleh) as well. I think he’s another guy that has to be able to play through his mistakes. It’s just not the situation he is in.’’

**

If there has been an encouraging aspect to the Harkless dilemma, it has been how he has remained engaged with his teammates.

During his time in Orlando, when he fell out of favor with the coaching staff and management after the franchise drafted Aaron Gordon, he recoiled in the face of adversity.

“Back then … I was a lot more selfish,’’ Harkless said. “I kind of had a mindset where everyone was out to get me, a mad-at-the-world type mindset.  That’s not always good to have. It’s good to have on the court, but not in the locker room or when cheering your teammates on. At the end of the day we are a team, so we all need each other. Whether or not in the game, I’m going to support my teammates and be ready to go when number is called.’’

After he lost his starting spot to Connaughton in Brooklyn, Harkless was among the players to wait by the scorers table and exchange encouraging daps to the Blazers’ starters. When Connaughton made his way toward Harkless, there was no dap. Harkless embraced him and whispered into his ear.

Connaughton said what Harkless whispered was the same type of encouragement he used to give Harkless before he went out for the opening tip, and he said he meant the world to him.

“That’s just been one of our things,’’ Harkless said. “We give a hug, and say ‘Be confident, stay aggressive.’’’

And last week in Minneapolis, at the end of a five-game trip during which Harkless played only once – a nine-minute, four-second stint at Miami – he didn’t mope or grouse in the locker room.

Instead, he fished through his backpack and pulled out an envelope of money, taking from it a crisp $100 bill. He walked across the locker room to the stall of rookie Zach Collins, who was buttoning his shirt with his back to the approaching Harkless. With a pat on the back, Harkless mumbled something to Collins and slipped the $100 bill under a bottle of water, shaking off Collins’ protests.

“Thank you,’’ Harkless said.

Turns out, Harkless earlier this season didn’t have cash on him to pay for a pregame locker room meal, and Collins picked him up. Collins said he had long forgotten about it, and didn’t expect to be paid back.

“It wasn’t $100, though,’’ Collins said. “So that was Mo being generous.’’

Collins said Harkless’ generosity isn’t the only impression he has made. He has noticed Harkless since his demotion, and he says he has remained the same guy – the one with a contagious machine-gun laugh, the one everyone wants to be around.

 “As far as being a good teammate, Mo is up there with the best of them,’’ Collins said. “Him falling out of the rotation, it didn’t break his spirit at all. He has been the same guy as he was when he was playing. That’s something I could learn as I move forward.’’

**

The good news for Harkless is he has been through these types of trials before, both in Orlando and in Portland.

“I didn’t come out of it the way I would have liked to in Orlando,’’ Harkless remembers. “ I just kind of crashed and burned.’’

In his first season in Portland, he see-sawed with Gerald Henderson for playing time, eventually losing out to Henderson in January. But in mid-February, Vonleh sprained his ankle and Harkless was called upon to start in Houston, during which he was placed on James Harden.

Harkless responded with a solid performance, and soon enough, he became the team’s starting small forward during a late-season run that extended into the second round of the playoffs.

Now, he is back in the same situation, on the outside looking in.

“It’s something I’ve been through before,’’ Harkless said. “It’s a little different this time around; I know how to handle it, so to say. Last time I was in situation was when I was in Orlando and I didn’t know how to handle it, so it turned out a little different. I wasn’t always ready to play when I did play, but that’s part of me just being more mature now, and understanding that everything comes back around, so just be ready whenever it does.’’

The million-dollar question now is not how he handles the low points, it’s how to prevent himself from getting there in the first place.  It’s a question Harkless both struggles to answer and doesn’t like hearing.

“It’s different with every team. This team, it’s unique,’’ Harkless said. “Not everybody is Dame and CJ, where they are going to start every night. Coach is going to make changes, especially when the team is struggling. You just have to deal with it.’’

Whether this is the start of another mid-season awakening for Harkless, or just another wrinkle in a confusing season, will begin to unfold when the Blazers resume play Thursday against the 76ers.

The only known in the equation is Harkless is coming off the best performance of his season. The crux of the problem – where has it been all season? – is only muddled by Harkless’ response to that question.

“Sometimes I play well,’’ Harkless said. “Sometimes I don’t. That’s all that is.’’

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

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

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

The Blazers, themselves, are wondering as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

Five ways the Trail Blazers can break out of their slump

It’s no secret these days that the Trail Blazers are reeling.

They have lost three in a row, all at home, and all while trailing by 19 or more points.

Making matters worse, starters Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Maurice Harkless (left quad bruise) did not practice Thursday, making the next game – Saturday at home against the Western Conference-leading Houston Rockets – appear even more ominous.

So what do the Blazers (13-11) have to do to turn it around?

Here are five things that would help their cause:

1. CJ MCCOLLUM BREAKS OUT OF SHOOTING SLUMP

The Blazers’ silky shooting guard is in the midst of one of his worst shooting skids of his five-year career, despite his insistence that his shot feels good and his satisfaction with getting the shots he wants.

McCollum has four consecutive games in which he hasn’t made at least half of his shots, only the fifth time that has happened in his career. During the four-game skid he is shooting 34.2 percent (25-of-73), which includes just five of 20 from three-point range.

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The 34.2 percent shooting is the third worst slump he has endured in his career, behind a five-game slump in December of 2015 when he made only 29 percent (27-of-93) and a six-game slump in January of 2016 when he made 33.3 percent (39-of-117). That six game skid matches a spell in November and December of 2016 of his most consecutive games without making 50 percent or better of his shots.

One of the more confident players on the team, McCollum said he won’t change anything, except maybe try to get to the free throw line more.

“I’ve had some good looks,’’ McCollum saud. “I just have to continue to be aggressive.’’

2. TAKE BETTER CARE OF THE BALL

Two of the Blazers’ losses this homestand were defined by sloppy play that resulted in 19 turnovers. Against Milwaukee, it led to 29 points for the Bucks, while Washington cashed the mistakes into 23 points.

It’s not just the amount, it’s the type of turnovers – mindless passes directly to the defender. Dribbling the ball off the foot out of bounds. Passes into the stands.

After the Blazers’ practice on Thursday, Damian Lillard pointed to ball security as the number one priority moving forward.

“Having quality possessions and also valuing the ball,’’ Lillard said. “I think when we defend so hard and work so hard on the defensive end and come down on offense and don’t execute well and turn the ball over … that takes the life out of the team, takes the life out of the game … we have to be much better about it.’’

3. PLAY WITH SOME ENERGY

Speaking of life … the Blazers have shown little to none on this homestand. Lillard said it was fair to say the Blazers have been “flat.”

McCollum said it isn’t that the team is not showing effort, it’s that they aren’t executing, giving the appearance of a flat performance.

So how do the Blazers show some life, or "swagger" as Lillard called it after last game?

For one, says he will lead by example.

“I’m going to look to myself first,’’ Lillard said. “I’m going to hold myself accountable and I’m going to go out there and be the energy to start it off and get guys to vibe from that. Feel that, and want to get on the same page. I think everybody wants to win, everybody on the team are real team players so I think if the train goes that way, that’s what everybody is going jump on and do.’’

4. GET HEALTHY

Nurkic rolled his right ankle with about 6:30 left in Tuesday’s loss to Washington and although X-rays were negative, he was unable to practice Thursday. McCollum said he only saw Nurkic on the training table and on the exercise bike.

Harkless, meanwhile, bruised his quad in a first-quarter collision with Otto Porter and did not return for the second half. After the game, Harkless was optimistic he would be able to play by Saturday.

Nurkic, obviously, is a big part of the Blazers’ improved defense while Harkless was just put back in the starting lineup on Tuesday before suffering his injury. Harkless first made his name in Portland two seasons ago when he defended Houston’s James Harden well during a February game in Houston. It earned him a look in the starting lineup that he never relinquished until last month.

5. GET OUT AND RUN

The Blazers are in the bottom third of the league in offense, and are dead last in the NBA in fast break points, but several players Thursday said they welcome the matchup against the Rockets because it will likely mean a fast-paced game with increased possessions and open-court play.

“It’s more possessions, so kind of ride a wave, get a high-scoring total … an opportunity to somewhat get buckets,’’ Turner said. “That’s the focal point everybody is focusing on – why we haven’t been getting scoring at a high level – so maybe trick the message.’’

The Rockets, behind MVP candidate James Harden – who is leading the league in scoring and assists – are the league’s second highest scoring team, and have the best record in the West, which both McCollum and Lillard said is just the type of opponent the Blazers need.

“Why not?’’ McCollum asked with a smile.

“It’s perfect,’’ Lillard said. “Our next two games are against the best two teams in the West. Losing three straight games, what better situation than to have a chance to take a shot at the two best teams. To me, it’s the perfect situation to put something together.’’

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

NEW YORK – It was a revealing scene before the Trail Blazers’ game Saturday in Washington, when Pat Connaughton prepared to step onto the court for his second start of the season.

As he walked down the sideline before the opening tip, Connaughton slapped hands and exchanged quick hugs with several teammates. The last teammates waiting, near midcourt, was Maurice Harkless, the man Connaughton replaced in the starting lineup.

Harkless embraced Connaughton, and held on while speaking into his ear. It was by far the longest hug of any teammate in the line, and the show of support touched Connaughton.

“I always made sure I spoke some positive things before he would go out for the starting lineup, and now he has done the same for me, which I think has been really cool,’’ Connaughton said.

Connaughton replaced the struggling Harkless as the starting small forward before the Friday win in Brooklyn, and he said he has adopted a mindset to help his teammates in this starting role, a process he says has been aided by Harkless’ approach.

“In this league, you have to be ready to play every single night, and the decision Coach makes are the ones  you go with as a team, and the ones you trust as a team, ‘’ Connaughton said. “So I think (Harkless) has taken a real mature outlook on that, and he has been nothing but helpful for me.’’

Connaughton made an impact in the Washington start, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block in 37 minutes. Beyond the boxscore, he guarded Wizards guard Bradley Beal for the final 8:53 after CJ McCollum picked up his fifth foul. Beal went 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter. Connaughton also scrapped for a crucial rebound with 2.6 seconds left, and made both free throws after being fouled.

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Team captain Damian Lillard said Connaughton coming through in crunch time moments like that have strengthened his already considerable trust in the third-year wing.

“My trust level with Pat is like very, very high,’’ Lillard said. “He is always solid, always going to do the right things, knows every play, knows every coverage we are in and it just shows. To be able to come through and have those big plays … it just shows where he is maturity wise.’’

Part of that maturity is knowing and embracing his role. Connaughton said he has adopted the mantra of his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots: Do Your Job, which he says is to make his teammates better.

“His role is to be a role player,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “He complements the players he is out there with – he did that when he is coming off the bench and he is doing that as a starter. He doesn’t make many mistakes, he makes open shots, he makes hard cuts, he’s very alert defensively … To me it’s a perfect role for him right now.’’

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

PHILADELPHIA – A growing question inside the Trail Blazers’ early season has been the noticeable drop off in production from Maurice Harkless.

The Blazers’ starting small forward is not scoring. He’s not rebounding. He’s not producing much of anything these days

“I just feel like I’m just out there to be out there … I don’t know,’’ Harkless said Wednesday after he had 1 point, zero rebounds, zero assists and zero blocks or steals in the Blazers’ 101-81 loss in Philadelphia.

Harkless has never been a player whose value is best measured by statistics. He is primarily a defender, whose value is enhanced by his ability to switch and guard anyone from forwards to guards on pick-and-rolls.

But in Portland he has also been able to make an impact on offense by getting out in transition, scoring off offensive rebounds, and making quick cuts to the basket.

But little, if any, of those things are happening lately.

“I’m just out there, and that’s frustrating,’’ Harkless said. “I’m just out there playing defense, which is cool … running back and forth. Out there running track.’’

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Coach Terry Stotts last week described Harkless’ defense this season as “solid … like the rest of the team” but his non-descript play begs the question of how much longer Stotts can afford to start Harkless when the team’s offensive woes are so prevalent?

I asked Stotts that exact question after Wednesday’s loss and received a blank stare. In other words, he didn’t want to address it.

Harkless, for his part, says he wants to contribute more, but is not sure how he can in this offense.

“We gotta figure out ways … not only me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’

Harkless was referring to guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic, who have combined to take 57 percent of the team’s shots this season, which is about on par with what other talented trio take (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony take 60 percent of the Thunder’s shots while Golden State sees 55 percent of its shots go through Steph Curry/Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson).

 That leaves the likes of Harkless, Evan Turner, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh, to “get in where you fit in” to steal a phrase from Harkless.

“Everybody else is just …. It’s hard to get into a rhythm,’’ Harkless said. “It’s that simple.’’

To be clear, Harkless wasn’t whining, and he wasn’t trying to throw shade on teammates. He was being asked uncomfortable questions about his lack of production and he was trying to give explanations in the most professional and honest way.

“I’m not concerned … I don’t know. We just have to figure something out,’’ Harkless said.

In the last three games, Harkless’ impact has been minimal. Before his quiet night in Philadelphia, he had three blocks and scored two key inside baskets in the third quarter of a win at Memphis, which was the highlight of a 4-point, 4-rebound performance. The game before against Sacramento, he didn’t attempt a shot and finished with zero points, one rebound and two assists in 19 minutes.

Last season, he averaged a career-best 10 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. This year, he is averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from three-point range.

It’s not like this has been a sudden development. Since a sterling debut, when his defense was one of the big talking points of the season-opening win in Phoenix, he has drifted into anonymity. He and I have had a couple talks along the way, addressing and analyzing where he is, and where he fits.

“It gets frustrating at times,’’ Harkless said after the Orlando game on Nov. 15. “I feel like I could bring more to the team. Especially on the offensive end. It just is what it is. The way we are playing right now, it’s just my role right now.

“I’m not going to try and go over the coaches head, or something like that, or complain. I feel like we are playing pretty solid right now, so I just have to do what I can do to help us win. When the shots come, I have to knock them down, and that’s it. I just have to make the most of it.’’

Part of the puzzle in unlocking Harkless is it takes other players to get him going. He rarely has the ball in his hands, and he has to score either on spot-up three’s or while slashing to the basket, both of which require somebody to make a play for him.

“It’s not like, I’m Evan (Turner) - when he comes in the game, he has the ball in his hands and he can shoot whenever he wants to,’’ Harkless said. “I’m pretty much in a position where I’m just waiting around and you have to pass me the ball. A lot of times I’m open and guys may miss me or I make a cut and they miss me. I just have to keep playing, I can’t worry about that stuff.’’

Last season, through the first 18 games Harkless was averaging 10 shots a game. This season, he is averaging 5.6. The difference, of course, is the Blazers now have Jusuf Nurkic.

Instead of Lillard and CJ and a supporting cast, the offense has become the big three and shots have dried up. Perhaps, too, has the movement, as more players know they aren’t likely to be involved.

Lillard, for one, says he tries to remain cognizant of the role players like Harkless, and keep them involved in the offense.

“If you want a guy to go out and rebound and defend and play as active as we want Moe to, you have to give him an opportunity to touch the ball and be involved with it,’’ Lillard said last week. “So I’m always conscious of who hasn’t gotten a shot, who is involved and who hasn’t been involved.’’

Stotts has often tried to start games by running a play for Harkless. And in the Denver game – a game in which Harkless got just two shots – the team turned the ball over twice early trying to get him the ball.

“His shot attempts are a product of the game,’’ Stotts explained, noting he is a player who excels in transition and scoring off rebounds. “And some of it is him looking to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.’’

So, as the Blazers (10-8) try to gain traction offensively this season, Harkless is trying to figure out how and where he can help. It has been a frustrating endeavor because he understands and accepts his role, but also wants to, and knows he can, help more than he has so far.

“A lot of the things I do don’t show up on the stat sheet, that’s a part of the game we need and I know that’s a part of my role on this team is to do those things, ‘’ Harkless said last week. “But at the same time, I obviously want to produce a little more and get more opportunity to produce. So, I feel like a lot of that I create on my own, whether that be offensive rebounds or whatever. You look at last year, I averaged 10-11 points but a lot of it came from offensive rebounds and transition and stuff like that, and that’s stuff I create on my own.

“It’s frustrating playing and getting only two shots and the game and the game I did get 11 shots (Brooklyn), I made three. So it’s a little frustrating, but I just have to keep going and be ready for when the opportunity comes. It’s been hard with the inconsistency, but it’s part of the game, and it’s just the situation I’m in right now, and I just have to continue make the most of my situation.’’

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.

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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 deal with a loss inside a loss

Trail Blazers deal with a loss inside a loss

SALT LAKE CITY – It was another late-game disappointment Wednesday for the Trail Blazers – this letdown courtesy of some hideous turnovers and a potential game-winner blocked– but the 112-103 overtime loss to Utah wasn’t even the worst news of the night. 

By the time the team boarded its bus, it knew it probably lost starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu for the immediate future.

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Aminu, one of the team’s best defenders who leads the team with intangible contributions, hobbled to the team bus in a protective boot, his puffy and sprained right ankle an ominous indication of a lengthy stint on the sidelines.

Aminu rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter while fighting for an offensive rebound. X-rays were negative, but Aminu dragged himself through the locker room unable to fully put pressure on the ankle, walking as if he was attached to a ball-and-chain.

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There is little time to regroup, as the Blazers (4-4) return to action tonight at home against the Lakers. It is unknown whether coach Terry Stotts will now turn to Noah Vonleh – who made his season debut Wednesday with a five-point, one-rebound performance in 13 minutes – or whether he will move Maurice Harkless from small forward to power forward and put Evan Turner in the starting lineup.

What is known is this: the Blazers are worse off with Aminu sidelined. Last season, the Blazers were 8-13 when Aminu didn’t play, including a 13-game stretch when he had a strained left calf, which ironically happened on the eighth game of the season and began a team-wide defensive nosedive.

“He’s an important part of team; he has shown that for two years,’’ Stotts said.

So important, in fact, that team captain Damian Lillard put Aminu among the team’s most valuable.

“Chief is a huge part of our team,’’ Lillard said. “He does a lot of things that might not get mentioned all the time, might not show up on the stat sheet, but he is as big of part of our team as just about anybody.’’

Aminu on Wednesday had eight points, six rebounds and a block and had the team’s best plus/minus rating at plus-14. For the season, he is averaging 9.4 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from three-point range. 

For all his wild forays in the open court, there is a heady instance of help defense, and for every wayward three-pointer, Aminu counters with a savvy deflection or tip rebound.

He is, quite frankly, as essential to the Blazers as he is, at times, maddening.

After the game, Aminu said he didn’t want to talk about the injury because it hadn’t fully sunk in.

“It’s always annoying not being 100 percent, but it’s part of the game,’’ Aminu said. “Everything happens for a reason but it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you have to know it’s there.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

All you need to know about tonight's Blazers-Lakers game.

You can buy a 15-game "Blazers' Pass" from NBC Sports. Find out more here.

Mike Richman at The Oregonian writes about the late-game woes this season

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today's Blazers' links: 

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

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

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

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