Noah Vonleh

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

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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)

Podcast:

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).

Playoff race tightens as McCollum's 25 not enough for Trail Blazers in Utah

Playoff race tightens as McCollum's 25 not enough for Trail Blazers in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – Buckle your seat belts, Portland, the Trail Blazers’ pursuit of the playoffs is looking like it will be a wild ride.

Portland had its lead over Denver reduced to a half-game Tuesday when Utah pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 106-87 win at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Coupled with Denver’s 134-131 win at New Orleans earlier in the night, the Blazers (38-40) and Denver (37-40) look like they will take the race for the final playoff spot in the West into the final week of the season.

Portland will have its four remaining games at home, where it has won five in a row. The Blazers will close against Minnesota, Utah, San Antonio and New Orleans. Denver has five games left: at Houston, at home against New Orleans, at home against Oklahoma City before finishing the season on a road back-to-back at Dallas and Oklahoma City.

The Blazers might have the favorable schedule, but they will have to do it without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, whose absence was felt again Tuesday in his third game out with a broken right leg. One game after Minnesota big man Karl-Anthony Towns went for 34 points and 12 rebounds, Utah center Rudy Gobert had 20 points and 11 rebounds and reserve center Jeff Withey added 10 points and two rebounds.

The Blazers are 1-2 without Nurkic, and against Utah coach Terry Stotts shuffled his starting lineup, putting Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and moving Noah Vonleh to center. The move never had time to materialize, however, as Vonleh picked up two early fouls and headed to the bench with 8:57 left.

Vonleh’s early foul trouble was just the start of the Blazers’ troubles. They missed their first seven shots and fell behind 11-0 as Rudy Gobert hurt them inside and Gordon Hayward from the outside.

It didn’t help either that star point guard Damian Lillard had a rare off night, making just 5-of-20 shots for 16 points, tied for his third lowest output of the season.

But behind some offensive spark from McCollum and Meyers Leonard, and a defensive jolt from Evan Turner, the Blazers scrapped back and took a 31-30 lead in the second quarter. The lead was short-lived, however, as Utah called timeout and responded with a 13-2 run that helped them take a 47-41 halftime lead.

Portland was within 72-64 near the end of the third quarter, but Joe Johnson hit a three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left – the second of four consecutive three-pointers he hit in a three minute span that turned a 65-58 game into an 83-68 blowout in the fourth.

Utah (48-30) stretched its lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter, even though they were playing without three starters – point guard George Hill, shooting guard Rodney Hood and power forward Derrick Favors. Gordon Hayward finished with 30 points, and Johnson  13 off the bench. Utah is now one game ahead of the Clippers for the fourth seed in the West.

McCollum led Portland with 25 points while Aminu had 11.

Next up: Minnesota at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Blazers wake up in the fourth quarter and put away Phoenix for sixth straight win

Blazers wake up in the fourth quarter and put away Phoenix for sixth straight win

It wasn’t until things got a little uneasy in the fourth quarter that the Trail Blazers woke up Saturday and remembered they were in a playoff race.

After letting a 25-point lead dwindle to four in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers went on a 14-0 run to put away the young and foundering Phoenix Suns, padding their lead for the final playoff spot in the West with a 130-117 win at the Moda Center.

It was the sixth straight win for Portland (38-38), which moved to .500 for the first time since it was 12-12 on Dec. 8. The Blazers lead Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot by 2.5 games with six games remaining. Denver plays at Miami on Sunday.

"It's been a long season, a long journey,'' Coach Terry Stotts said about reaching .500. "But we are not done yet. To battle back and be in the eighth spot is an accomplishment, but again, our work is not done.''

Phoenix (22-55) lost its 11th in a row despite 31 points from Devin Booker. 

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 31 points and seven assists and CJ McCollum had 29 points and seven assists, but it was Evan Turner, whose strong fourth quarter helped steer the Blazers out of trouble. Turner scored nine of his 18 points in the fourth, his strongest outing since returning to the Blazers on March 18 from a broken right hand. Coach Terry Stotts after the game said he liked Turner's defense on Booker even more than his offense.

Phoenix, which has shut down many of its usual starters, including Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler, was within 99-95 with 9:56 left, but Portland called a timeout then went on a 14-0 run that was keyed by a three-point play from Turner and three-pointers from McCollum and Lillard.

It was the first game for the Blazers since learning starting center Jusuf Nurkic will be lost for the remainder of the season with a fractured right leg. Meyers Leonard started in his place and had seven points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.

The Blazers looked like they would put the game away early, jumping to a 50-25 lead as Phoenix didn’t look interested in playing defense or staying focused on much of anything. But the Blazers got complacent and started settling for outside jumpers, which were off, and Phoenix closed the half on a 24-11 run to draw within 63-53 at halftime.

Noah Vonleh had 12 points and 13 rebounds, Maurice Harkless 13 points and Al-Farouq Aminu 12 points and six rebounds as the Blazers continued their season-long winning streak and completing the season series with Phoenix 3-1.

Next up: Blazers at Minnesota, 6 p.m. Monday (CSN).

Leading the Blazers: A look at how, and who, has steered team to Tuesday's showdown

Leading the Blazers: A look at how, and who, has steered team to Tuesday's showdown

As a Trail Blazers season has turned from infuriating to intriguing with an inspired run out of the All-Star Break, two figures have navigated the team’s quest for the playoffs.

Coach Terry Stotts and captain Damian Lillard have led the Blazers into Tuesday’s showdown with Denver (7 p.m., CSN) with tactics befitting of their personality – Stotts more measured and subtle; Lillard more blunt and direct – with the contrasts in styles seemingly balancing the Blazers in the challenging waters of the season’s stretch run.

During the Blazers’ 11-3 march through March, Stotts has continually pushed the right buttons. Off the court, he delivered a key speech at a Phoenix breakfast, and at calculated times, he has shifted practices from game preparation to team building.

On the court, Stotts has stuck with Noah Vonleh in the starting lineup, a move that is reaping benefits such as a career-high 14 rebounds on Sunday, and he has

beautifully integrated newly acquired Jusuf Nurkic into the flow offense, with Nurkic becoming a force both literally and spiritually for the team.

Meanwhile, Lillard has stacked powerful performance upon powerful performance, living up to a brash promise to his team that he would “man up” when the Blazers reconvened from the All-Star Break.

“I’m a man of my word,’’ Lillard said.

At the nadir of their season, the Blazers on March 2 were 11-games under .500 and in 10th place in the West, three games behind Denver, and the debate in Rip City was whether chasing a high lottery pick was more beneficial than chasing the Nuggets.

On Sunday night, after their blowout victory over the Lakers, the Blazers were in control of their own destiny, and as they boarded their flight home, it was with words from their two leaders echoing in their ears.

“Our work,’’ Lillard said, “is just getting started.’’

Added Stotts: “We haven’t accomplished anything.’’

**

On March 12, a weary and emotionally spent Blazers team gathered for breakfast in their downtown Phoenix hotel when Stotts delivered a subtle, but powerful message.

The night before, the team suffered one of its most gutting defeats, a last-second dagger by Washington’s Markieff Morris that completed the Wizards’ comeback from a 21-point halftime deficit. Adding insult to the ignominy of the defeat: Replays clearly showed Morris stepped out of bounds while making his move to set up the winning shot, a fact the Blazers vehemently protested on the court, and later in postgame interviews.

An added twist of the dagger came later in the night, when the team had to board a 2 ½ hour flight to Phoenix for the start of a five-game trip.

The best of times, it seemed, were not ahead.

But the next morning, when the Blazers met to go over that night’s game plan against Phoenix over eggs and orange juice, any frustration and angst from the night before was quickly eliminated when Stotts addressed the team.

According to Meyers Leonard, Stotts quickly eliminated any sense of the team feeling sorry for themselves over the blown call by turning the attention from the referees to themselves. Much of the loss, Stotts told them, was on the team for losing a 21-point lead. The team, Stotts said, had to become smarter with their decisions.

“We talked about the two truths of that game: the blown call, and us being unable to hold a lead,’’ Leonard said an hour before tipoff against the Suns. “And we always talk about controlling what we can control, and that lead was something we could control, so ultimately, it was on us.’’

It was, in a sense, a flushing of the toxins associated with the Washington loss, and the bitterness of the blown call.

“After Coach talked to us, and got us thinking that way -- that it was about us, and not the refs -- I really felt like we moved on from it,’’ Leonard said. “We became focused on what was ahead of us, not on what had happened to us.’’

That night, the Blazers beat the Suns, starting what would be a season-changing 4-1 trip that concluded with impressive wins at San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami.

Stotts on Sunday downplayed his breakfast sermon.

“Honestly, I don’t remember what I said,’’ Stotts said. “I’m not one to dwell on too much, but I’m sure we were talking about the loss and preparing for Phoenix.’’

It was vintage Stotts: always in the moment, always deflecting praise, always even-keeled, yet always calculated.

“That’s part of coaching, no matter when it is in the season,’’ Stotts said. “You gauge your team and what needs to be said, what needs to be done at whatever part of the season, whether you’ve won three in a row or lost four in a row and are coming off a good win or a bad loss.’’

**

When the Trail Blazers entered the All-Star Break, they carried with them a vow from Lillard, their leader.

“You have two options: Run from it … or man up,’’ Lillard said in the Utah locker room after the Jazz manhandled the Blazers to lower their record to 23-33, two games behind Denver. “I’m going to come back and man up. Period. That’s what has to happen.’’

With the help of a week off to rest his body and heal his heart, Lillard has made good on his vow, playing some of his most inspired basketball of his accomplished career. Since the All-Star Break, Lillard is averaging 30 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 49 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point range.

What’s more is how Lillard is amassing those numbers. He has been electric in the first quarter, averaging 12.3 points in the opening stanza during the team’s crucial five-game trip, continually leading Stotts to point out that Lillard is “shouldering the responsibility” and “leading the charge.”

When teammate Maurice Harkless tried to explain the Blazers’ late season turnaround on Sunday, he started down a path of clichés and generalizations before stopping himself.

“And Dame has been great,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know what he has been averaging over this stretch, but he has been great.’’

**

Lillard and Stotts haven’t done it alone.

CJ McCollum has been a picture of offensive artistry, and Al-Farouq Aminu a symbol of defensive toughness. Vonleh has graduated from project to productive, and Allen Crabbe has had moments when he has rescued the team with his shooting.

Up and down the roster there have been contributions, which might be another subtle nod to how Stotts has managed the season.

He has worked to keep the team both fresh physically and engaged mentally, whether they are streaking or slumping.

Last week, he turned a Friday practice into a shooting competition, inviting a playful and carefree air into the tension of a playoff race. The next day, he cut the team’s shootaround short, allowing the team to head home early.

“Days like that help build camaraderie,’’ Stotts said of the shooting practice.

Part of that decision is based on recommendations from the team’s Health & Performance staff, which among other things monitors players’ weight, heart rate, hydration, and sleep patterns on a daily basis to paint a picture of how the players’ bodies are holding up.

McCollum, for one, tipped his hat to Stotts for the Friday practice and abbreviated shootaround before the Minnesota game, for playing a role in his 32-point performance against the Timberwolves.

“It was one of those ‘Terry Specials,’’’ McCollum said of the Friday practice. “He does a great job mixing up the practice schedules and trusting our Health & Performance staff. If they say rest, he gives us rest, and I commend him for that.’’

**

On Tuesday, the biggest game of the season to date will tipoff at the Moda Center, and again Stotts and Lillard figure to be at the forefront of what has already been a memorable season series with the Nuggets.

In the first meeting, Portland came back from nine points down with about 90 seconds left to beat the Nuggets 115-113 in overtime in the season’s third game. Lillard was the hero, hitting the game-winning basket off a floater in the lane with 0.3 seconds left.

In the second meeting, in November, Denver built a 17-point first half lead, prompting the normally stoic Stotts to deliver what Mason Plumlee would call “a speech for the ages” at halftime. Evan Turner recalled that Stotts’ cowlick was “flying around” and his face became red during the speech, which worked, as the Blazers outscored Denver 36-15 in the third quarter in what would turn out to be a 112-105 victory.

Now, with Denver and Portland tied with nine games remaining, and the final playoff berth in the West hanging in the balance, the stage has never been bigger, and the words of the Blazers leaders never more important.

“I told the team we put ourselves in good position,’’ Stotts said after Sunday’s game. “But the hardest work is ahead of us.’’

Added Lillard: “This is where our work really begins.’’

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

Trail Blazers beat Lakers, assume 'driver's seat' in playoff race

LOS ANGELES – It took 51 days, but the Trail Blazers have finally regained possession of a playoff position.

Behind 22 points from Damian Lillard and some hot shooting from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers beat the Lakers 97-81 on Sunday at the Staples Center to move into a tie with Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining.

Denver, which lost 115-90 to New Orleans earlier in the day, plays at Portland on Tuesday at the Moda Center (7 p.m., CSN). Portland leads the season series 2-1, but can clinch the tie-breaker over Denver even if it loses Tuesday by virtue of winning one of its remaining four division games or having Denver lose one of its three remaining division games.

Seven of the Blazers’ final nine games are at home while seven of the Nuggets final nine games are on the road.

“We know if we can string a few games together at this point, we can be in the driver’s seat,’’ Lillard said before the game. “That’s a great position to be in.’’

Denver has held the eighth spot since Feb. 3, when Portland lost at home to Dallas to fall to 22-29 and Denver beat Milwaukee to improve to 22-27.

The Blazers have caught fire in March, improving to 11-3 in the month, with much of the surge being sparked by center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a February 12 trade with Denver for Mason Plumlee.

On Sunday, Portland struggled early against the last-place Lakers, but a third-quarter surge, led by Lillard’s 14 points, pushed a 51-46 lead to 77-56 entering the fourth quarter.

It was the Blazers’ 12th consecutive victory over the Lakers, a franchise record.

While Portland was misfiring early, Crabbe rescued them. He made six of his first 10 shots, including three three-pointers. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds, keeping the Blazers afloat long enough for Lillard to heat up and take them home

Noah Vonleh set a career high with 14 rebounds and Al-Farouq Aminu had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench.

D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers (21-52) with 22 points while leading scorer Jordan Clarkson had an off night, making only 4-of-16 shots for 10 points.

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).

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