Orlando Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused, then continued.

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,’’ Harkless said.

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blazers find their own brand of magic in Orlando

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Blazers find their own brand of magic in Orlando

Make that two wins in a row for the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland went to Orlando and dominated the Magic from start to finish. The Magic put together a run in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to take down the Blazers. The Blazers used the hot shooting of Al-Farouq Aminu (15pts, 3-5 from deep) to improve to 2-1 on this 5-game road trip. Not only did the Blazers grab another win, they also saw the return of Jusuf Nurkic from a right ankle sprain. The Blazers look to make it three wins in a row on Saturday when they travel to Charlotte to take on the Hornets.

Final Score in Orlando: Blazers 95 – Magic 88

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

ORLANDO -- Who were those guys?

It seemed as if three new players rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter to rally the Trail Blazers from deficits as high as 14 points Thursday night and a 112-103 win over the Orlando Magic.

The "new" guys?

Well, certainly nobody expected Shabazz Napier to play the entire fourth quarter and a total of 26:21 as a defensive stopper and cool offensive presence.

When all else failed -- and defensive stoppers Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner on the sideline with injuries -- Coach Terry Stotts turned to Napier to defend the Magic point guards, who were burning a path to the rim for layups. And it was part of a three-guard lineup that Stotts stayed with down the stretch of the game.

"It was Shabazz's defense that kept him in the game," Stotts said afterward. "Elfrid Payton had taken the ball to the basket three straight times and I just liked Shabazz's quickness on the ball. I just wasn't comfortable taking him out."

And Orlando seemed comfortable with not taking advantage of Portland's smaller lineup. Can Portland use that extensively the rest of the season?

"I don't know," Stotts said. "It worked tonight. With Evan and Al-Farouq out of the lineup, rotations are going to change. I thought defensively we were not hurt much by it, so it will depend on the matchups but it something we have to consider."

Napier was just pleased to be a contributor -- and in a city where he once played. He scored 10 points, had seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and just one turnover. This was a game, by the way, when turnovers were a real issue. Portland had 15 of them at the half and finished with 20, for 27 Orlando points.

"I'm just glad I could help us win," he said. "I have to contribute in whatever way I can."

Damian Lillard, whose fourth-quarter onslaught provided the firepower for the Portland comeback, lauded Napier's contributions.

"I said he was MVP," Lillard said. "He came into the huddle and said, 'Do we want to win?' He kind of challenged our team and this was before he even checked in. When he got into the game he impacted the game. He backed up what he was saying."

Lillard, by the way, was another "new" guy. This was a Damian Lillard seemingly refreshed from the All-Star break, who scored 17 points in the fourth quarter -- taking over the game with a ferocity and a purpose that we haven't seen from him since early in the season. He finished with 33 points on 12 of 23 shooting, including 4 of 7 from three-point distance.

Lillard has usually played well after the All-Star break and he said he enjoyed recharging his batteries during the time off.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," he said. "Over the break I took a lot of time to myself. I was sitting in the house and would go get treatment, then sit in the cold tub, shoot some free throws and then sit in the house all day watching TV, relaxing, drinking water, just chilling. That allows you to come back fresh, mentally and physically."

Lillard brought the whole package with him to the fourth quarter, hitting difficult, twisting layups and long bombs from the outside. It was some vintage stuff.

Meanwhile, the other "new" guy was a legit new guy -- center Jusuf Nurkic, playing in just his second game since arriving in a trade with Denver. He got his first start, too, and took full advantage of it.

He made half his 12 shots, had 12 rebounds, scored 12 points and had five assists. He was a plus-23 in his 34 and a half minutes on the floor. And he's excited.

"It feels great to play with those guys, especially CJ and Dame," he said. "They make my life easier. I really love to be here. The coaching staff has done a great job of putting me in position as to where I am supposed to be and my teammates are looking for me. This is the first time in two years I'm having fun.

"It was a tough two years (in Denver) and that is all I can say. I was just frustrated and not being in position that I am supposed to be for some reason, but I wish them good luck. I'm just having fun here and I love it, man. I enjoy every day here.

"When you have those type of All-Star guards it is so easy to play with them. First time in my life I have those guys and those type of guards. It feels great and finally I am happy."

And so were the Trail Blazers. But ahead on this trip are a couple of difficult assignments.

Sunday there is a game at Toronto, followed by a Tuesday contest at Detroit.

Perhaps the "new" guys will still have some energy.

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

ORLANDO – At the outset of the Trail Blazers’ first game after the All-Star break, the most interesting topic would be how long it would take for new center Jusuf Nurkic to get into the starting lineup.

That question was answered immediately Thursday night. He started against the Orlando Magic and played well.

But Damian Lillard stole the show down the stretch of the game. Lillard went on a shooting rampage that helped bring his team out of a game-long funk and to a 112-103 win over the Magic, putting an end to Portland’s three-game losing streak.

Lillard was sensational in the fourth quarter – on a scoring rampage with difficult twisting layups and contested threes.

He finished with 33 points, 17 of them in the fourth quarter.

Nurkic earned his first Trail Blazer start and during his eight minutes of play in the first quarter he hit two of his four shots, had two rebounds and an assist.  He finished with five assists and a double dozen -- 12 points and 12 rebounds while doing a nice defensive job against Nikola Vucevic, who is usually a Blazer killer.

The first quarter ended with Orlando holding a 25-23 lead. Portland had six turnovers in the period and put the Magic at the foul line 11 times. Fortunately for the Trail Blazers, Orlando hit just seven of the 11.

Lillard had seven points and McCollum six for Portland over the first 12 minutes.

The Blazers quickly fell behind as the second quarter unfolded, continuing to turn the ball over as Orlando warmed up at the offensive end. When Terry Stotts called a timeout with 9:36 to go in the first half, the Magic had a 33-26 lead.

The turnovers were the story in the first half for the Blazers. They coughed up 15 of them for 20 Orlando points – leading to a 55-46 halftime lead for the home team.

McCollum led Portland at halftime with 14 points. Lillard, saddled with three fouls early in the second quarter, had seven.

Portland fell behind by 13 in the third quarter but got going with a three-guard lineup that featured Shabazz Napier with Lillard and McCollum. The trio helped cut the lead to 71-68 with 4:39 to go in the third.

Orlando carried an 85-77 lead into the fourth quarter when the Blazers were trailing by five and had the ball for the last shot. A McCollum turnover on a play when the Trail Blazers were screaming for a foul resulted in a three-point field goal at the other end – a huge momentum buster for Portland.

Orlando got the lead back up to 11 four minutes into the final period but the Trail Blazers kept on fighting back. But they couldn’t stop the steady flow of turnovers, which kept costing them critical points and momentum.

And with 5:22 to play Lillard’s three-pointer from the corner put pushed Portland into a 96-95 lead. Orlando couldn't respond and the Blazers owned the final minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trail Blazers stunned out of the gate, lose to Orlando Magic

Trail Blazers stunned out of the gate, lose to Orlando Magic

The win of the season for the Trail Blazers was followed Friday by one of their more frustrating losses. 

In a microcosm of their season, the Blazers went from great to puzzling in the span of one game, falling behind 18-1 before losing 115-109 to the Orlando Magic at the Moda Center. The loss came one game after the Blazers handled the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 102-86 and proclaimed themselves as turning the corner on their disappointing season. 

The Blazers (18-24) recovered from the 18-1 deficit -- which included missing their first nine shots and allowing Orlando to make their first nine -- and actually led 63-58 in the third quarter, but center Nikola Vucevic was too tough, finishing with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Orlando (17-24) snapped a four-game losing streak and won in Portland for the first time since 2012. 

The Blazers played without starting small forward Maurice Harkless, who was scratched before the game because of a left-calf strain. Allen Crabbe started in his place and had seven points and three rebounds on 3-of-10 shooting. 

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 34 points and eight rebounds, but he was 2-for-11 from three-point range. CJ McCollum scored 26 points, marking the eighth consecutive game he has scored at least 25, which is now tied with Geoff Petrie (1970-1971) for the third longest streak in franchise history. 

The Magic led 82-78 heading into the fourth and never relinquished the lead, even though the Blazers tied it at 90 with 8:41 left. Orlando got big contributions from bench players D.J. Augustin (15 points) and Jodie Meeks (12 points) and clutch play from Elfrid Payton (19 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Vucevic, who scored eight of his 30 in the final period. 

The Blazers were trying to match their season high with three straight wins, and signs pointed to Friday being a good bet. In the past 11 games, the Blazers have emerged as the fifth best defensive rating in the NBA, and with McCollum and Crabbe shooting lights out and Evan Turner beginning to conduct the offense in an efficient and effective manner, the Blazers figured they were ready to make a late-season push that mirrored last season. 

Instead, they were stunned out of the gate by the Magic, who were up 18-1 and 20-3 before many had settled into their seats.

Next up: Blazers at Washington, 2 p.m. Monday (CSN)

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