It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

On a night when the only thing in Moda Center representing Portland that was NBA playoff quality was Storm Large's rendition of the National Anthem, a few things should be pointed out about the Trail Blazers' 97-95 playoff-opening loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night:

  • I heard a lot of fans complaining loudly about two things after the game: The presence of Pat Connaughton and Meyers Leonard on the floor over the final 12.4 seconds of the game. Let me deal with those issues separately.
  • Connaughton's plus-7 tied with Ed Davis for the best plus-minus in a Portland uniform during the game. He played well and was part of a couple of his team's comeback efforts. Yes, he got a shot blocked late but the real problem with that play was his team was down by 3 and it was just too late to be inbounding to him for a two-point shot. The Trail Blazers are built around making threes and at that point of the game it's too late to play the quick-two-and-foul-game. It was either a faulty play or a poor decision by the inbounder to make that pass.
  • Leonard is a great screen-setter and a solid three-point shooter. The question in his case was this: If he's worthy of being on the court in the waning seconds of the team's first playoff game with the team down by three, why wasn't he on the court in similar situations during the regular season? I believe he should have been. And I believe to throw a guy on the court in a situation like that who has played minimal minutes all season and tell him, in a sense, "Go win us a playoff game for us," is absurd. And unfair.
  • The atmosphere in the arena was terrific. The Portland game-ops staff did a terrific job with the gimmicks and the place was wild. Too bad the patrons went home unhappy.
  • Nobody seemed to be talking about two fateful possessions prior to those last fwe seconds. With 44 seconds left and Portland bum-rushing the Pels to the finish with all the momentum the Moda Madhouse could provide, CJ McCollum turned the ball over in the lane with his team trailing by just a point. And then Damian Lillard, with the same score, misfired on an ill-advised "shot" wth 15.3 seconds to play. Lillard appeared to be trying to draw a foul from Jrue Holiday on that shot and it might have been better for him to find a real shot with his feet under him and squared up to the basket. A made basket on either of those attempts by Portland's two marquee players would have thrown the burden of pressure back on New Orleans after blowing a double-digit lead.
  • Lillard and McCollum were 1-15 from the field in the first half, which shocked me. I expected more from them. But at the same time, for the Trail Blazers to get an overall 13-41 shooting night from them and still lose by just a bucket could bode well.
  • But if I hear "We just couldn't make shots" or "We got the shots we wanted and just didn't make them," one more time I'm going to laugh. It's been the familiar refrain over this team's offensive struggles ever since the 14-game winning streak ended. And really, when that happens repeatedly you better examine those shots or the people shooting them. The law of averages won't work for you if the wrong people are taking the shots or the shots aren't good ones.
  • Losing the first game of a playoff series doesn't mean a team will lose a series. There are a lot of games left to be played. The Trail Blazers surely must have more to give than what we saw Saturday night. It was a terrific atmosphere, though -- a night when the fans brought it and their team didn't.

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis targets early return from sprained ankle

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis targets early return from sprained ankle

Trail Blazers center Ed Davis says he will be back from injury sooner than later.

Davis on Sunday told NBC Sports Northwest he expects to return from his sprained right ankle either Saturday at San Antonio or Monday in Denver.

Davis rolled the ankle in the third quarter of Friday’s game against the Clippers and left the arena in a walking boot after x-rays showed no break and an MRI confirmed a sprain.

On Saturday, the team said he would be evaluated in seven-to-14 days.

Davis before Sunday’s game against Memphis was no longer wearing the boot and was walking without a limp. There was swelling on the outside of the ankle, but Davis said he was confident his return would be closer to the seven days than the 14 days.

If he returns against San Antonio, it would be seven days after the team announced the timeline.

Davis is having one of the best seasons of his career as he has emerged as the NBA’s top reserve center. He is averaging 5.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 minutes a game. He has led the Blazers in rebounding 23 times this season and has recorded six double-doubles. If he returns in San Antonio, Davis will have missed only three games because of the injury.

In the first game without Davis, coach Terry Stotts used Meyers Leonard and rookie Caleb Swanigan at backup center. Leonard had six points, five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes and Swanigan had four points, four rebounds and two assists in nine minutes.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Quick: Trail Blazers need a more consistent Nurkic]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillard tensed up when offered that reasoning.

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

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

**

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

“On the line.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s our guy,’’ Davis said.

Bella, Meyers Leonard’s beloved pup, loses battle with cancer

bella.jpg

Bella, Meyers Leonard’s beloved pup, loses battle with cancer

The most well-known dog in Portland has moved on to doggy heaven. Bella, the beloved dog of Trail Blazers center Meyer’s Leonard, passed away following a months long battle with cancer.

Leonard took to Twitter on Tuesday to let fans know about the passing of Bella.

As expected, the outpouring of support came pouring in from Rip City.

It was back in March when Leonard took to Twitter letting the world know that Bella was in poor health.

Bella became a celebrity of sorst in Portland. Whether you were a Meyers Leonard fan or not, we were all fans of Bella. Even the media had a soft spot for her. It was during exit interviews in 2016 that Bella snuck in and took the spotlight away from coach Stotts.

Bella may be gone, but she is most certainly not forgotten. As Leonard said in his tweet, “We will love you forever Bella. RIP baby girl."

 

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rockets dictated Portland's 4th-quarter lineup and then the ensuing defeat

Rockets dictated Portland's 4th-quarter lineup and then the ensuing defeat

I'm not big on moral victories. As I said last night on Talkin' Ball, this is big-boy basketball and winning on the scoreboard is the only thing that matters.

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But that's not to say we didn't learn some positive things from Saturday night's loss to the Houston Rockets, which finished off an 0-4 homestand for the Trail Blazers. What did we learn? Here's what I saw:

  • Meyers Leonard in the starting lineup worked. I don't care what you think, the guy can flat-out make shots. And this team needs more players who can do that. He probably should have seen fourth-quarter playing time but...
  • Coach Terry Stotts was busy trying to match up with the Rockets' fourth-quarter small lineup. However the problem with Portland's small lineup is that it usually contains more defenders than scorers. And the unfortunate part of that Saturday night was, even though it may have been the team's best defensive group, it was totally incapable of getting defensive stops. In fact, I can't remember a time when I've seen a team stack layup on layup down the stretch of a game the way Houston did to the Trail Blazers. Chris Paul and James Harden not only got to the basket whenever they wanted, they did so with their strong hand -- Harden from the left side and Paul from the right. So...
  • It wouldn't have hurt to have had some help in the basket area to at least harass those layups a bit. I'm not sure why that's so difficult for Portland to do when I see other teams doing it to the Portland guards quite frequently. And the real bottom line to all of that was ...
  • If you aren't getting stops while using your best defenders in that small lineup, forget about it! Face it, the Rockets can be impossible to guard. So...
  • Why not just go with your best offensive players, regardless of size or defensive ability? Make them worry about guarding YOU. Houston hit 15 for 18 from the field in the fourth quarter and murdered Portland from the foul line. Why not just put your best offensive players on the court and try to score with them? Because....
  • YOU WEREN'T ABLE TO STOP THEM AT ALL WITH THAT SMALL LINEUP SO SCRAP IT AND GET SOME SHOOTERS OUT THERE!
  • I may be obsessed with this -- well, I AM obsessed with this -- but I don't like it when the opposing team dictates Portland's lineups. Play the ones who got you the lead instead of the ones who are in the process of blowing a 14-point lead inside one quarter.
  • Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot their way out of slumps, which was a good sign moving forward.
  • Zach Collins did a terrific job during his time on the floor. He's not afraid to shoot an open shot and he's got a real instinct for blocking shots. I'd sneak him onto the floor as often as possible in the upcoming games to try to kickstart his development by getting him more comfortable. This team is in serious need of rim protection and he might be just the guy to provide it.
  • I don't envy Stotts with the lineup and rotation decisions he has to make on a nightly basis. He almost has too many versions of the same players and he is probably never quite sure what he's going to get from some of them on a night-to-night basis.
  • That said, I'd make sure to not only get Pat Connaughton on the floor every game, I'd make sure he got his shots. He's alert on defense and opportunistic on offense. And he is becoming a reliable scorer if he is allowed to be.
  • Ed Davis may be having one of his best seasons but he's going to struggle getting playing time because, all things being equal, some of the younger players are going to need developmental time and they are going to get it. I see Davis as a valuable trade piece at the deadline -- a big help to a contender looking for a rebounder off the bench.
  • Please, somebody in the league office, take a look at the way Harden is officiated. He often mixes in an extra little hop during his Euro-step and he deserves no extra benefits. And when he misses a shot, it's not always because he was fouled. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Trail Blazers' loss, Jusuf Nurkic sticks up for Meyers Leonard

After Trail Blazers' loss, Jusuf Nurkic sticks up for Meyers Leonard

For a Trail Blazers team that was thoroughly handled by Milwaukee on Thursday, the best thing to come out of the 103-91 loss was the way Jusuf Nurkic stood up for teammate Meyers Leonard.

Leonard, who entered the game for the first time in the third quarter and the Blazers trailing by 19, was booed by some in the Moda Center crowd after he airballed a three-pointer.

Afterward, Nurkic –unprompted – stood up for Leonard.

“It’s tough when you have fans who boo Meyers for no reason,’’ Nurkic said. “If they boo him, boo everybody. Don’t just boo the guy who just missed a shot. It’s not good. We don’t look good. Overall … I missed a shot. Dame missed a shot. Everybody missed a shot. I think does not deserve to be booed for no reason.’’

Leonard, who has become a lightening rod for fan discontent, finished 1-for-3 from the field and grabbed three rebounds in 8:19 of action. 

Leonard was showering when Nurkic made his comments, and when told afterward what Nurkic said, Leonard was moved.

“Honestly, I appreciate Nurk saying something,’’ Leonard said. “That’s huge. I mean, for the people who boo …yeah. Truly, in my down-home country roots, I have some nasty words for those people. But I’m going to keep it professional.’’

Leonard, who is in the second year of a four-year, $41 million deal, has appeared in seven of the Blazers’ 22 games this season, averaging 10 minutes. Earlier this month it looked like he was beginning to carve out a niche off the bench when he had 11 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes against the Kings, then played a game-changing 17 minutes the next game at Memphis when he hit all four of his shots and finished with eight points and four rebounds.

But he played only once since then – a four-minute stint against Philadelphia – until Thursday’s call with the Blazers trailing 76-57. After missing his second shot badly, an audible collection of boos came down – not overwhelming – but enough to be noticed.

“If I’m being dead honest, I guess it’s no surprise,’’ Leonard said of the fans. “It happened at the end of last year.

“But you know, I put in a ton of work this summer and I feel really good about where I’m at as a player. Did I love the situation in which I was put into? No. But that’s part of being a professional, so I have to be ready and I have to take shots that were open,'' Leonard said. "And the fact of the matter is our franchise player threw me the ball for a reason: because I can friggin shoot.''

Leonard after the game appeared unfazed by the crowd reaction and addressed it only after he was told about Nurkic's remarks.

“I’ve made a big jump in terms of tuning the negativity out,'' Leonard said. "Now, do I want to hear it? Of course not. But the one thing I know I can leave the arena knowing is I am working as hard as I can. I do still truly believe that I have a lot to offer.’’ 

Plenty of heroes in a game that was critical for Blazers to win

Plenty of heroes in a game that was critical for Blazers to win

There were plenty of Trail Blazer heroes to go around Monday night in Memphis as Portland pulled out a 100-92 win over the Grizzlies. Here is my list:

  • Damian Lillard -- Come on, playing the second half on a badly sprained ankle? There are not a lot of players who would have -- or could have -- done that. And he came up big down the stretch. I just hope no further damage was done by playing on it.
  • Noah Vonleh -- The man played under 31 minutes and totaled 11 points and a whopping 18 rebounds. He played with confidence and toughness against a physical team. He's getting better with opportunity. And that's often what happens in the NBA. You need a chance and Vonleh has made the most of his chance this time.
  • Shabazz Napier -- His 16 points off the bench were critical, as was his cool playmaking under pressure. He's carving out a niche for himself on a team that already has two outstanding point guards. I really like the way he competes.
  • Meyers Leonard -- He was 4-for-4 from the field to spark a big second-quarter surge for the Trail Blazers. Against undersized defenders he did a lot of work inside and didn't even attempt a three-point field goal. He's playing well enough that I'd assume we're going to see a lot more of him.
  • CJ McCollum -- A total of 24 points and eight rebounds and a very big jump shot to all but seal the game. If he's not the very best shooter in the league he's right there near the top.

There are still four games left on this road trip with tougher games ahead, including perhaps the toughest Wednesday night at Philadelphia. But there is no question that a loss Monday would have been a brutal way to start the trip. Memphis without Mike Conley at point guard, coming in with a four-game losing streak, is a team you must beat.

Mission accomplished.