Noah Vonleh

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.

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

 

 

Trail Blazers' forward Noah Vonleh set to return tonight in Utah

Trail Blazers' forward Noah Vonleh set to return tonight in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers’ defense figures to get a big boost tonight when Noah Vonleh makes his season debut in Utah.

Vonleh, a sturdy 6-foot-9 forward, had been sidelined with a right shoulder strain suffered in pickup games on Sept. 7. The fourth-year player, who has spent portions of the past two seasons as the Blazers’ starting power forward, said he thinks he can help immediately on the defensive end.

“I just want to come in and play with energy, and defend multiple positions,’’ Vonleh said. “I just want to out there and talk and help guys on the defensive end. Sometimes I feel like we have lapses on the defensive end, sometimes guys forget to talk … I can fill that role.’’

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Vonleh will likely come off the bench, and will add to the team’s versatile defensive options. He has long been valued by coach Terry Stotts because he can switch on pick and rolls and guard both big men and athletic wings.

When Damian Lillard was asked what he is most excited about in regard to Vonleh’s return, he pointed to Vonleh’s defensive versatility.

“Guys won’t be able to present as many matchup problems,’’ Lillard said. “We can switch 1-through-5 pretty much with Noah.’’

Vonleh last season averaged 4.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while starting 41 games. His season blossomed after center Jusuf Nurkic arrived in a February trade, during which he recorded a 12-point, 13-rebound game against Phoenix, an eight-point, 14-rebound performance against the Lakers and a 12-point, 19-rebound game against New Orleans.

“He really came along last season when Nurk came in,’’ Lillard said. “They both played really well with Nurk diving to the rim on pick and rolls … I’m excited to see them back out there again.’’

Vonleh flourished with Nurkic when teams would double the center, usually resulting in Vonleh either cutting to the basket for a dunk, or hitting a baseline jumper.

Vonleh said Nurkic has already noted the chemistry the two had last year, and has instructed Vonleh to be ready when he is out there.

“Every night since he came from the trade, I’d be open on the baseline and he would make reads off what I’m doing,’’ Vonleh said. “If my defender would go to help (on Nurkic) or try to alter a shot, he notices it and says ‘Just be in the right spots and I will find you.’’’

It will be interesting to see how, or if, Stotts pairs Nurkic and Vonleh, and how much Vonleh will play right out of the gate. Either way, Vonleh says he is just happy he’s in the mix again.

“I’m ready to go. Excited,’’ Vonleh said. “Looking forward to the game.’’

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

Breakfast with the Blazers: An overview of what we do, don't know

What has been a productive and borderline impressive preseason for the Trail Blazers comes to a close tonight with an exhibition against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

Since much of the regulars will rest or play limited minutes, here is a look at what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know after this Trail Blazers’ preseason.

WHAT WE KNOW

Rookie Caleb Swanigan is going to play: The No. 26 overall pick looks and acts like he belongs and has brought an edge and toughness on both offense and defense. He is averaging 7.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in 16 minutes and has shown an ability to score inside and outside. Twice he has stood up for himself and held his ground – once against Toronto veteran Serge Ibaka, and Wednesday against Phoenix center Alex Len – both times drawing technicals. He was ejected for his altercation with Len.

“I think if we haven’t already, (we know that) Caleb is not backing down for anybody,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said after the Phoenix game. “And I think we will expect that.’’

Evan Turner is comfortable: There is a tendency to write that Turner is better this season, but it’s not like his skills have improved. He is just more comfortable with the playbook and his teammates and what is expected out of him than he was during his first season in Portland. As a result, Turner has been an incredibly effective weapon for the Blazers this preseason. He has been a beast on the block, posting up opposing guards and either scoring over them or drawing a double team and picking apart the defense with a pass.

He has also been excellent defensively, guarding every position during the preseason. Turner’s defensive rating (74.2) is No. 1 in the NBA during the preseason.

“I think he is just a lot more comfortable now,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He knows his spots and how to be effective in certain situations. It takes time sometimes, for a guy coming into a new situation, especially a guy coming in who is used to having the ball so much then coming here and not having the ball as much. But I think he’s done a tremendous job adjusting and I think he is only going to get better.’’

Turner this preseason is averaging 8.8 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 23 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range (3-of-6).

But the stats don’t show everything. Just by the way he is dribbling, the way he is attacking, the passes he is making, you can tell he is playing free rather than thinking and worrying whether he is doing the right thing.

“He’s just been assertive,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He has been more comfortable having the ball and being in attack mode … He has played really well.’’

Pat Connaughton has earned rotation spot: In August, there was a question whether the Blazers would pick up Connaughton’s $1.4 million option. Two months later, the guard has won a rotation spot with a diverse and effective preseason.

If you still think Connaughton is just a spot-up three-point shooter, you haven’t been watching closely. He has shown the ability to create off the dribble and make mid-range pull ups, he has been an athletic defender who regularly contests shots.

A nice snapshot of Connaughton this preseason was in Los Angeles, during a hotly contested game against the Clippers. He blocked a driving attempt by Lou Williams, then came down and drilled a deep, 27-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.  

“I’ve always thought very highly of Pat, so I’m happy to see him actually get out there and do it in the flow of action,’’ Lillard said. “He’s always done what he is doing, it just looks better now, look more comfortable. He’s getting things done … making shots, attacking the basketball, getting his hands on the ball. It’s good to see Pat stretch himself, and I guess be a little more impactful on the floor.’’

The Blazers’ defense is much, much better: This might be the biggest development of the preseason, but everyone from writers to coaches to players have been wary of overhyping the Blazers’ defense because, well, it’s preseason.

Still, what the Blazers have shown has been impressive. Very impressive.

The last four opponents have shot below 41 percent, and overall in the preseason, opponents are shooting 40.6 percent. Overall, the Blazers have the 10th best defensive rating in the preseason, and the fourth best net rating in the NBA, behind Houston, Utah and Boston.

After last year’s disaster on the defensive end, the Blazers talked a lot about defense in training camp, and they have backed it up in the preseason.

“I think we have more focus and better communication,’’ Ed Davis said. “I feel if we are a top 15, top 10 defensive team we are going to be well off once the regular season starts, because we know are going to be a top 10 offensive team. On a bad day we are a top 10 team offensively. So as long as we lock in on the defensive end, that’s where we are going to win games.’’

Ed Davis will be backup center: Stotts said before Wednesday’s game in Phoenix that he is viewing Davis as a center, more or less ending any thoughts that Davis would be the opening-night starter at power forward.

Davis has been very effective this preseason and is the clear-cut backup to Jusuf Nurkic at center.

Davis famously set a goal to win the open power forward spot during Media Day, but he said that was more or less something to psyche himself up.

“When I said that, I wasn’t trying to make it a big deal … it was just something I said, so it’s not something I’m disappointed about, or feeling some sort of way, like hurt or anything,’’ Davis said. “It is what it is. The main thing is winning and coach is going to do what is best for the team. There’s going to be all different kinds of lineups on the floor. I just have to be ready each time my number is called.’’

The Big 3 are ready:  The biggest thing we know from preseason – the Big 3 of Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic are ready.

McCollum hasn’t shot the ball as well as he would have liked (35.4 percent from the field) but he has made 11-of-26 three-pointers (42.3 percent) and constantly looks like he is toying with the defense.

Nurkic has been dominant at times and Lillard looks as good as ever.

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

This section is the gray area between what our eyes are telling us and what Stotts won’t confirm or reveal.

Starting lineup: I think it has been clear that Stotts will open the season with Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nurkic as his starting lineup, but he has yet to confirm it.

This group knows each other and it shows on the court. Offensively, this unit flows. There is great ball movement, nice spacing and an overall familiarity that is invaluable in today’s NBA.

Defensively, the pairing of Harkless and Aminu is well documented. The two can switch on pick-and-rolls and both are among the Blazers’ better defensive players. Harkless in particular has been very “handsy” -- getting his hands on a lot of deflections, steals and blocks.

Second unit: Part of the equation in deciding a starting lineup is plotting the second unit and how the substitution patterns play out. If Stotts indeed goes with the above starting lineup, that leaves his second unit with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Swanigan at power forward and Davis at center.

There are a couple of intriguing aspects to this second unit. Offensively, it allows Turner to have the ball in his hands more often, which is when he is most effective. If he is paired with Lillard and McCollum – both of whom command the ball – it takes away much of Turner’s playmaking strengths while forcing him to uncomfortable spots on the floor as a spacer.

And defensively, this is a tough and solid unit. Davis and Turner are plus defenders and Swanigan has shown he can rebound. Connaughton has great hops and is smart, and McCollum has sneaky defensive moments where he will block a shot or anticipate and disrupt passing lanes.

It also reminded me of what Turner said this preseason when I asked him what is important in deciding lineups. I was expecting him to say something like spacing, or balance, but he said he found the best teams had a second unit that had an identity. It could be offense, defense, toughness, run-and-gun … but an identity.

I think this unit could have a physical, rough-and-tough defensive identity while still remaining dangerous offensively with McCollum’s brilliance and Turner’s playmaking/post game.

Anthony Morrow will win 15th spot: If there is one thing left to decide in tonight’s game against Maccabi Haifa, it’s probably the final roster spot, although I think Anthony Morrow won it last week against Toronto, when he made four three pointers in eight minutes.

The competition is between Morrow, Archie Goodwin and Isaiah Briscoe.

Goodwin’s chances probably evaporated Wednesday in Phoenix when he didn’t hustle for a loose ball, which the Suns scooped up and took in for an uncontested layin. It wasn’t an egregious lack of effort by the former first-round pick, but it lacked the intensity and wherewithal you want to see from a guy trying to win an NBA roster spot.

Briscoe, a rookie point guard from Kentucky, has actually been good during mop up time throughout the preseason, but there’s no way the Blazers keep a fourth point guard.

That leaves Morrow, the sharp-shooting 32-year-old, who also appears to be a good locker room guy.

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

What happens when Noah Vonleh returns? Vonleh on Wednesday said he is on schedule with his rehabilitation of a right shoulder strain, and is three weeks away from returning.

Vonleh has started at power forward for parts of the past two seasons and is valued by Stotts for his rebounding and defense. What happens when Vonleh returns?

I’m guessing Vonleh plays right away, and it will likely be at the expense of some of Swanigan’s minutes.

How much does Zach Collins play? This might be at the top of my curiosities entering the season. I can’t get a feel of how the team views Collins right now.

Make no mistake, they are encouraged and pleased with the No. 10 overall pick, and think he is going to be a star down the road. But I don’t know how they view him in the immediate. I could see him sitting the bench and getting spot minutes, but I could also see him playing during meaningful games.

With Collins, I think fans are going to have to look deeper than his points and rebounds. He is exceptional at protecting the rim. Absolutely fearless. Perhaps, even, the best on the team at protecting the rim. He is also very good at moving his feet and being in the right spots defensively. These two factors could get him on the court.

That being said, he gets pushed around very easily, which is why Stotts said the team mostly views Collins right now as a power forward, because he has trouble holding his ground against bigger centers.

But I’m interested in seeing how Collins is used out of the gate.

Where does Shabazz Napier fit in? One of the few letdowns of the preseason has been the unavailability of point guard Shabazz Napier, who hurt his left hamstring on the second day of training camp. Neil Olshey gushed about Napier at Media Day, and there was some intrigue of what the point guard who scored 32 and 25 points as a late-season starter last year would bring.

It sounds like Napier has a chance at playing tonight against Haifa, as his status has been upgraded to questionable. It may take some time for him to get up to game-time speed, but I’m imagining Stotts using Connaughton and Napier interchangeably depending on opposing lineups.

In case you haven’t noticed, Stotts is in for a heckuva juggling job this season. He has an obvious nine-man rotation (Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu, Nurkic, Turner, Davis, Connaughton, Swanigan) and I’m guessing he will extend his rotation early in the season to 10 and maybe 11 to work in Vonleh and Napier. If Collins is in that equation, that makes 12. And what if Meyers Leonard keeps playing like he did Wednesday in Phoenix, when he had 17 points and 8 rebounds?

Lot of questions ahead, but they are mostly good questions. This has been an exceptional preseason for the Blazers, one that has offered a lot of encouraging signs, and one that keeps leading me back to one thought:

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

Blazers' radio voice Brian Wheeler is taking a leave of absence.

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

On the road, Evan Turner taught room service a lesson.

 

Trail Blazers forward Noah Vonleh likely to miss start of season after suffering right shoulder injury

noah_vonleh.jpg
USA Today

Trail Blazers forward Noah Vonleh likely to miss start of season after suffering right shoulder injury

Trail Blazers’ forward Noah Vonleh has suffered a right shoulder strain that will keep him out of training camp and likely the first two weeks of the regular season, CSN has learned.

Entering his fourth NBA season, Vonleh is one of the Blazers' better defenders and he was expected to be in the mix for the Blazers’ starting power forward spot.

He suffered the injury Sept. 7 during pickup games at the team’s practice facility. The injury will not require surgery.

Last season, Vonleh averaged 4.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in 74 games, including 41 starts.

A 6-foot-10, 240-pounder, Vonleh was the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by Charlotte and acquired by Portland with Gerald Henderson in a June 2015 trade that sent Nicolas Batum to Hornets.

The Blazers’ at power forward could turn to Al-Farouq Aminu, who started at times last season, or rookie Caleb Swanigan. They could also shift Ed Davis or Meyers Leonard from center or Maurice Harkless from small forward.

The Blazers open training camp on Tuesday. The season opens Oct. 17 at Phoenix. 

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

OAKLAND -- Sometimes, you swear the Golden State Warriors are playing with six defenders against their opponent's five offensive players.

Draymond Green makes it look that way.

At 6-7, Green is capable of defending every position on the floor. He's listed as a forward but against the Trail Blazers Sunday afternoon it seemed as if he was the world's tallest free safety. Or goalie. Whenever the Blazers got into the basket area in the fourth quarter, he was lurking nearby -- ready to smother jump shots or dunks. His timing is amazing and his instincts are even better. There's nobody else in the game like him and he hurt the Trail Blazers down the stretch of their 121-109 loss to the Warriors. Portland was outscored 33-21 in the fourth quarter after running up 27, 29 and 32 points in the three previous quarters.

What happened? Well, the best way I can explain it is to point you toward this video from BBall Breakdown. It clearly shows what was going on in key stretches of the game at the Portland end of the court. Green was leaving Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu wide open when he was matched up with them. Those two players, often positioned in the corner behind the three-point line, combined to go 1-7 from long distance. Green obviously had no respect for them and I'd also say the two Portland forwards frequently didn't even get the ball when they were open.

When Green has the freedom to leave his own man and help out on everybody else he's trouble. Make that TROUBLE. He blocked five shots in the game and affected a few more. He snuffed dunks from Damian Lillard and Noah Vonleh and those plays were momentum busters for Portland and momentum builders for the Warriors. In spite of all the points scored, the Blazers defended adequately -- given the opposition. But to beat this team, you have to score big and Green just wasn't going to let that happen.

Portland is going to have to find somebody hitting enough shots to occupy Green or it's going to be a very short series. Which it may be, anyway. Obviously, Jusuf Nurkic would help. But who knows when or if he'll play? In the meantime, a big shooting night is needed by Harkless, Aminu or anyone else playing forward for the Trail Blazers.

And looking to the future, there is no doubt that the biggest remaining role to fill on this team is a deadly three-point shooter at one -- or even both -- of the forward spots.

 

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With starters out, Blazers keep rolling as Noah Vonleh beats buzzer and Spurs

With one eye on the upcoming playoffs, the Trail Blazers on Monday rested their stars, but that didn’t stop Portland's late-season momentum.

Noah Vonleh picked up a loose ball and scored the game-winning layin before the buzzer on a busted play, leading the Blazers to a stunning 99-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, giving the Blazers a chance at securing a winning season with a victory in their season finale on Wednesday. 

Behind a Damian Lillard-like performance from point guard Shabazz Napier, the shooting of center Meyers Leonard and the passing of Evan Turner, the Blazers beat one of the West's top teams without stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Napier had a career-high 32 points, Vonleh 12 points and 11 rebounds and Pat Connaughton had a career-high 15 for Portland (41-40) while Leonard hit his first five shots on the way to 13 points. Turner had 16 points and seven assists. 

The Blazers' final shot came after the Spurs threw away an inbounds pass with 6.0 seconds left. 

The Blazers rested stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as starter Maurice Harkless and had Allen Crabbe (foot), Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Ed Davis (shoulder) sidelined with injuries.

It was the season’s penultimate game and the first since the Blazers clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West on Sunday.

“It was the time and the opportunity to do it,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said before the game of resting players.

Stotts started Napier at point guard, Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Vonleh at power forward and Leonard at center while the Spurs started their regulars -  Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewyane Dedmon. 

The biggest benefit of the night was supposed to be resting Lillard and McCollum. Lillard entered the game averaging 35.9 minutes (9th in the NBA) while McCollum averages 34.9 minutes (16th). But now, the victory has given the Blazers the chance to secure a winning season with a victory over New Orleans on Wednesday. 

Stotts and the team’s health and performance staff met with the starting backcourt in the morning to tell them they would like each to sit in order to rest for the upcoming playoffs.

Lillard said he intended on playing in the Blazers regular-season finale on Wednesday against New Orleans.

McCollum, who had played in every game leading up to Monday, said it wasn’t his choice to sit, but he said he understood after listening to the reasoning.

“It’s a chance to refresh, recharge,’’ McCollum said. “It works for the Spurs, so we might as well follow their blueprint.’’

McCollum and Lillard both engaged in a hard workout before the game, going against each other in pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scenarios, while also taking part in extended three-point shooting drills.

Lillard, who scored a franchise-record 59 points on Saturday, said he planned on playing Monday against the Spurs.

 “I was prepared for an encore,” Lillard said.

Lillard has always been a proponent of playing whenever he is able, but he knew what was coming when he was called in for a meeting and told to take a seat.

“They knew they would have to sit me down,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “But after hearing them, I know they are coming from a good place.’’

Without the big names, the Blazers got a look at some of their youngsters, and for the most part, they played well against the Spurs’ accomplished lineups.

The Blazers led 31-28 after the first quarter, thanks largely to Meyers Leonard’s 5-of-5 shooting, and 47-43 at halftime after both teams survived a dreadful second quarter. Both the Spurs and Blazers started the second quarter by missing their first 10 shots. 

The Spurs (61-20) have the West’s No. 2 seed locked up and have been resting players during April, but after their last game, coach Gregg Popovich was unhappy with their physicality and effort and declared that no players would rest for the remainder of the season.

Popovich played his starters for the first three quarters, which is how long they needed to establish a lead. Portland led from the early moments of the game until midway through the third, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of his 18 points and Tony Parker had six of his 12 points.

Next up:  New Orleans at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (KGW/ESPN)

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Lillard: Blazers making playoffs is 'biggest accomplishment of my career'

Lillard: Blazers making playoffs is 'biggest accomplishment of my career'

Once written off for dead, the Trail Blazers are going to the NBA playoffs, and on Sunday the man who drove them there didn’t mince words on what it meant to him.

“Biggest accomplishment of my career,’’ team captain Damian Lillard said. “Lot of fingers were pointed at me from the outside when we struggled, and people said a lot of things about me. I didn’t make excuses or cry about it. I said I would be better and I would man up – and I did just that.

“Now we stay locked in and go try to shock the world,’’ Lillard said.

The Blazers (40-40) will play Golden State (66-14) in Lillard’s hometown of Oakland in a best-of-seven series that will start next weekend.

The Blazers were 11 games under .500 as they entered March and overcame as much as a three-game deficit to the Denver Nuggets. But behind a torrid March – during which Lillard was named Western Conference Player of the Month for averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists – the Blazers went 13-3 and overtook the Nuggets.

The final steps of their comeback came this weekend, when Lillard scored a franchise-record 59 points in a 101-86 win over Utah on Saturday, then watched Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook eliminate Denver with a three-pointer at the buzzer on Sunday afternoon.

"This season has had its challenges,'' Coach Terry Stotts said Sunday. "But the players never stopped competing. We had some difficulties along the way. I am so proud of our players and staff for grinding it out, believing in themselves and never quitting on the season.''

The season turned in mid-February with two major events: The Feb. 12 acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkic in a trade with Denver, and the All-Star Break, which allowed Lillard to rest a nagging sprained ankle and clear up some consuming personal issues. 

It was heading into that break, in a locker room in Utah after the Jazz blowout, where Lillard vowed to man up and play better when the team would regroup a week later in Orlando.

In the first game, Lillard scored 17 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to lead a come-from-behind win and the resurgence began to take life.

While Nurkic become a cult hero in Portland – his passing, shot blocking, and late-game pick-and-roll magic causing “Nurkic Fever” --  it was often Lillard who was setting the tone. During a season-defining 4-1 road swing, Lillard averaged 12.3 points in the first quarter of those games, leading coach Terry Stotts to alternatively say Lillard “willed” the team or “set the tone” or “carried the responsibility.”

There were other contributions along the way, of course. Lost in Nurkic’s big night against Denver was CJ McCollum’s 39 points. Allen Crabbe scored 10 points in 48 seconds to resurrect the Blazers from the dead in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. Al-Farouq Aminu got hot just enough and played some yeoman’s defense, and Noah Vonleh became a solid rebounder and valuable perimeter defender.

But more than anything, it was Lillard, who is averaging a career-best 27.0 points with two more regular season games remaining.

Of all his accomplishments – Rookie of the Year, two All-Star appearances, two-time All-NBA, the shot to beat Houston, the 59-point night – Lillard now has his favorite: leading the Blazers back from dead and into the playoffs with a chance to shock the world.

Playing without Nurkic: Whether Blazers' small lineup can come up big becomes question of season

Playing without Nurkic: Whether Blazers' small lineup can come up big becomes question of season

SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers’ postseason fate won’t be decided until the last week of the season, and the suspense of their late-season push for the eighth spot is now matched by a new pursuit: Figuring out how to play without Jusuf Nurkic.

The Blazers (38-40) are 1-2 since Nurkic was sidelined for the season’s final seven games with a fractured right leg, reducing their lead over Denver for the final playoff spot to a half-game with four games remaining.

In a season spent fighting mostly on a slippery slope, the Blazers with Nurkic the past six weeks appeared to have found their footing, playing with a balanced inside-and-outside attack on offense and a more imposing and staunch interior defense. 

Now, without the Bosnian big man, the Blazers have been exposed inside and have become, as Damian Lillard suggested after Tuesday’s 106-87 loss in Utah, more predictable on offense.

The defense in particular is of concern, as opposing centers have had their way inside in the three games without Nurkic. The trio of Alex Len, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have combined to shoot 26-of-37 while averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Blazers have alternated at center between playing 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, and 6-foot-9 forwards  Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu.

“I think we are still adjusting,’’ Maurice Harkless said of playing without Nurkic. “It’s different. You know, we just got used to playing with him. I think we hit our stride playing with him. Then for him to go out, it’s obviously tough … We are trying to find balance. We know what we need to do, we just have to go out and do it.’’

How quickly the Blazers figure out how to play without Nurkic is paramount in their quest to secure the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.

On offense, the Blazers have talked about experiencing stagnant moments, where player movement has stalled without the anchor of Nurkic initiating pick-and-roll actions. In Tuesday’s loss in Utah, the Blazers had just five assists heading into the fourth quarter before ultimately finishing with eight.

And on defense, they have been at times overpowered by bigger centers, which doesn’t figure to get any easier with upcoming games against Towns, Gobert, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.

“Right now, we are just paying a lot of small ball … (which) takes away some dimensions of our offense,’’ Lillard said. “I guess it makes it a little more predictable, easier to guard, but I don’t think it will be that way once we figure out we need more movement, more activity on that end of the floor.’’

Aminu has played admirably at center, both offensively and defensively, but he admits he is still adjusting to play calls as center after playing the last two years as a forward.

Still, it appears coach Terry Stotts is more comfortable playing small – with either Aminu or Vonleh at center – using those lineups more often than Leonard at center.

That’s why Harkless noted that the Blazers need time to adjust to their new small-ball style.

“I think it’s good for us in spurts,’’ Harkless said of the small-lineup. “But I’m not sure how good it us for us over long periods. It gives us versatility – we just have to get used to it.’’

Whether the Blazers have enough time, or margin for error, will add to the intrigue of the season’s final week. Heading into Wednesday night, when Denver plays at Houston, the Blazers own all the advantages over Denver – a half-game lead, the tie-breaker, and a more favorable schedule.

“We know we have a shot – we are still ahead of Denver,’’ Harkless said. “So as long as we just win our games we will be fine. We control our destiny right now … so I think we are in a good spot.’’

Up next: Minnesota at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT).