Pat Connaughton

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

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

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

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

After win of the season, have the real Trail Blazers arrived?

After win of the season, have the real Trail Blazers arrived?

A Trail Blazers season that has lacked consistency and definition finally delivered one bit of clarity on Wednesday: The 123-114 funfest victory over Minnesota was the best win of the season.

“I feel the same way,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It was confident, played at a good pace, and we were doing the right stuff.’’

The Blazers (26-22) have won 4 of 5, and the question now, of course, is whether this is their latest bait-and-switch on the fan base.

After all, it’s been a tough season of trying to figure out the Trail Blazers.

One minute, the Blazers think they are turning the corner as they won four of five on a November trip, only to return home and lose four in a row in convincing fashion.

Later, after an emphatic win at Oklahoma City in January, giving the Blazers a three-game winning streak, there was again talk of turning a corner, only to absorb three straight losses.

But there seemed to be something different about Wednesday’s game. Not only did the rout (the Blazers led by 19 with less than three minutes left) come against a talented, albeit shorthanded, Minnesota team, it came via some beautiful basketball.

More than any other time this season, the Blazers were connected, intuitive, unselfish and dynamic. Pat Connaughton was cutting and dunking. CJ McCollum was stop-and-go crafty. And if Ed Davis wasn’t making heady passes to shooters on the perimeter, he was high-fiving fans who got out of their seat in appreciation for his blue-collar work inside.

And the defense was unwavering, despite mismatches all over the floor. But Al-Farouq Aminu held his own against the taller Karl Anthony-Towns, and even though nobody could stay in front of Andrew Wiggins, there was always a wave of help defense to provide resistance.

Never was the total package more on display than during the 43-point third quarter, which helped give the Blazers a 13-point lead heading into the fourth. The Blazers were so in tune with each other during the quarter it seemed as if ball handlers were anticipating cuts before they were made. And if an extra pass was there to be made, it was. And on top of it all, there was a style, elegance and precision to the display – from Connaughton dunking lob passes, to teammates finding Aminu open on the perimeter and McCollum and Lillard putting the Wolves’ defense on skates.

“It was a showcase,’’ Lillard said. “A great display of Blazers Basketball.’’

Blazers Basketball. Now that’s a phrase we haven’t heard much of, if at all, this season.

It’s a term coach Terry Stotts came up with years ago to describe the free-flowing, unselfish and intuitive style of his motion offense. The team has a brass bell mounted on the wall in its practice facility, and when a Blazers Basketball play was made – “You know it when you see it,’’ Stotts would say – Stotts would issue a directive to ring the bell.

Can’t say I’ve heard the bell much this season from inside the media room, which is separated from the practice courts by a steel door, and that has translated to game nights.

But Wednesday felt something like an awakening.

The Blazers have been playing better lately – save for those dreadful last three minutes at Denver – and have been finding different ways to win. Against Indiana, they made less than 40 percent of their shots yet still won convincingly.

But if this team is going to be dangerous come playoff time, it has to play something close to what we saw on Wednesday – tough, confident, together and with more than a hint of a hell-bent-for-leather attitude that comes with playing free.

Lillard, to his credit, has been forecasting this awakening for the past 10 to 14 days. He could sense the team was becoming sharper, more focused and more together. Guys are holding screens better, and longer. Guys are remembering plays better. And when an opponent has a play scouted and sniffed out, the Blazers have become better at improvising.

“Instinct and feel,’’ Lillard said.

It’s an interesting dynamic to keep an eye on as the Blazers near the All-Star Break. Stotts has pretty much settled on his rotation – out are former rotation players Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh – and players say there is a developing comfort level with each other, which is allowing for more improvising and playing with instincts.

“It’s us gaining continuity and being able to make those types of reads,’’ Connaughton said. “We’ve gotten better at playing basketball with the guys who are on the floor. We’ve done a great job of knowing each other’s strengths and knowing what guys can consistently do, and play off those strengths.’’

It sets the stage for what under Stotts has become a Portland tradition as reliable as the April cherry blossoms: a late-season surge by the Blazers.

If indeed the Blazers have figured things out – and keep in mind, we have been here before this season – Connaughton said he thinks the timing bodes well.

“I think it just says we are a dangerous team,’’ Connaughton said. “We’re a team that still hasn’t reached our ceiling yet. Halfway through the season, teams have shown what they can do, and the best that they can do it. For us, I think we have a lot of stuff we can grow on. The sky is the limit.’’

Lillard, who has remained steadfastly optimistic about this team throughout the season, said the Blazers right now are showing “growth.’’

“Over time, you go through things,’’ Lillard said. “I always say it about our team: We have bad times, and we have good times. But regardless of what is going on, we stay together. We talk. We watch film. And I think because of that, we are able to grow as the season goes on. And it’s why over the last few years, at the end of the season is when we just start rolling – because we stay together through the trials and tribulations of a season.’’

Pat Connaughton and the moment that helped turn him into a dunker

Pat Connaughton and the moment that helped turn him into a dunker

Long before Pat Connaughton was wowing Trail Blazers’ crowds with dunks, there was a seminal moment during his youth that spurred moments like Wednesday, when his three soaring dunks highlighted the Blazers’ latest win.

He was in 7th grade in Arlington, Mass., and he read a Sports Illustrated For Kids article on Vince Carter, one of the NBA’s greatest dunkers. In the article, Carter said he first dunked in 8th grade.

For Connaughton, then a 5-foot-11 teenager, an obsession was hatched.

“I thought: ‘I want to be able to dunk’ … I just really wanted to do it,’’ Connaughton remembered.

His dad bought him a weighted vest, and throughout the summer between 7th and 8th grade Connaughton would jump up two steps and back down while wearing the vest, doing three sets of 20 repetitions.

In the winter of 8th grade, he finally dunked.

“Then, I was addicted,’’ Connaughton said.

Today, Connaughton is 6-foot-5, and his childhood addiction has served as a base for his NBA breakout season, where he is averaging 6.6 points in 20 minutes while shooting 36.8 percent from three-point range. 

Behind explosive athleticism, accurate shooting, and reliable court savvy, Connaughton has become not only a key rotational player for the Blazers, but also one of their more highlight-worthy players. He is fourth on the team in dunks with 15, and most of them are in spectacular fashion. 

Never was that more evident than Wednesday night, when Connaughton had three dunks during one of the Blazers’ more dominant and entertaining victories of the season, a 123-114 rout of Minnesota. Two of the dunks were ally-oops – including one where he had to twist in mid-air and finish with a reverse – and the other a blow-by drive that he flushed by going under the basket and over the rim.

“I always wonder what the other team is thinking,’’ teammate Damian Lillard said afterward. “They are like, ‘This white dude is up here …’ because I’m sure on the scouting report he is a shooter, a hard-right driver. But I always wonder what they think when he is catching lobs. He is one of our most explosive players. It’s impressive; fun to watch.’’

Connaughton chuckled when Lillard’s ‘white dude’ comment was relayed back to him, because he knows the stereotype lives beyond the movie “White Men Can’t Jump.”

“I get it quite a bit,’’ Connaughton said. “It’s something I’ve tried to disprove – that stereotype – since I was a kid. I never wanted to be -- for lack of a better term -- a slow, white kid who could shoot. I wanted to have athleticism and use it. That’s what drew me to basketball.’’

So in his youth, with the help of a personal trainer, he started working with elastic, resistance bands. Did jumping drills. And weight-training that focused on what he calls “explosive” muscles.

For many, leaping ability is genetic, and Connaughton said his dad often credits Pat’s mother for his athletic ability. But today, with a vertical leap that Connaughton says is over 40, he can’t help remembering back to the 7th grade summer, with the weighted vest and countless leaping exercises.

“A little bit of hard work went into it,’’ Connaughton said.

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Lillard knows it sounds crazy, but the best thing that might have happened to the Trail Blazers this season is his recent bout with hamstring and calf injuries.

With Lillard forced to miss seven of the team’s past nine games, a funny thing has happened to the once struggling Blazers: the offense has found its groove, role players have emerged, and the team has gone 6-3.

Blessing in disguise?

“Definitely,’’ Lillard said of his time on the sideline. “The last two years that’s what it seems to be the case. I get hurt and guys have to step up.’’

The latest and most emphatic example came Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the Blazers routed the Thunder 117-106 behind an All-Star-like 27 points from CJ McCollum, an efficient 20-points from Jusuf Nurkic, and another steady fill-in performance from Shabazz Napier (21 points). Topping off the best performance of the season was sterling bench contributions from Pat Connaughton (10 points), Zach Collins (nine points) and Maurice Harkless (nine points).

It was another affirmation that the team’s dormant offense was awakening. In the last five games, the Blazers have scored 124, 110, 110, 111 and now 117 – outputs that have been punctuated by rapid ball movement, crisp cutting and a blend of inside and outside play.

“We are forced to play that way because I’m not playing,’’ Lillard said after the Thunder win. “Because we have to lean on each other. That’s not to say we don’t when I’m playing, but there’s so much more opportunity out there.’’

Around an already smiling Blazers locker room, nothing caused players to laugh more than to suggest Lillard’s theory that his absence may turn out to be a good thing. 

“I don’t think Damian Lillard getting hurt is ever a blessing,’’ Connaughton said. “However, I think it has allowed guys to at least see what an extended role in their NBA career would look like. And that has value. There’s validity to the fact that guys have stepped up and have shown things they can do that they might otherwise not.’’

Added Ed Davis: “Obviously, we want him out there, but when your star player goes down, other guys have to step up and there is going to be more shots, more movement and that helps us in the long run. Confidence wise guys like Pat, Bazz is playing well, Moe … it has helped them. So sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise.’’

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Lillard said he is unsure if he will play Wednesday in Houston. On Tuesday, he had a morning workout, then an extensive pregame workout where he pushed himself, followed by a conditioning session that left him drenched in sweat and catching his breath.

The next hurdle, Lillard and his teammates say, is keeping the same rhythm and momentum when he does return to the lineup.

“The biggest thing is making sure when he gets back, that things don’t change,’’ Connaughton said. “In the sense of guys are still being aggressive, guys are still moving without the ball, and things that we can and have done in the past.’’

Napier, who has been a star in Lillard’s absence, said he thinks the Blazers were beginning to find their offensive footing even before Lillard became injured.

“No one person can make up what he does, so it has to be a collective group, everyone has to pitch in,’’ said Napier, who in six starts is averaging 18.7 points. “But I always felt like we were trending that way when he was playing.’’

Lillard agreed, saying the Blazers’ loss at Cleveland and home rout of Atlanta were the first steps to show the offense was coming along.

“So I think (when he does return) I just have to play the same way as always – make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Right now, that once sputtering offense that had a devil of a time making layins and close-range shots, is starting to cook. Nurkic is starting to make more of his layins, McCollum has found a better balance of passing and shot-making, and the team has made more cuts and dunks in the past week than seemingly all season.

“The shot making is the biggest thing,’’ Lillard said. “You make shots and you keep defenses honest. Tonight, we were running offense and (Oklahoma City) didn’t know what to do. CJ and Bazz were hitting, Nurk was finishing, Moe was cutting … now you get down the stretch, and they are trying to make a run, and we are picking them apart. Because we had been doing it all game. It’s not like this is a flash in the pan.’’

So maybe, just maybe, the player the Blazers could least afford to be injured was a good thing. Or maybe the team was already trending in this direction. Either way, it was symbolic of the Blazers offense that McCollum left the locker room feasting on some bread.

The Blazers’ offense is back, eating up opponent’s defenses once again.

“We have been saying so much about our offense: ‘It’s going to come around … It’s going to come around ‘… and y’all like, When?’’ Lillard said with a smile. “And now, it’s happening.’’

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.’’

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

A few thoughts about the Trail Blazers after a dynamite 4-1 eastern trip, as I take a break from wading through the dozens of "Cyber Monday" emails still in my inbox:

  • Putting Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup was a very big boost in more than one way for Portland. Of course, it never hurts to have another reliable shooter on the floor -- he not only nails threes with regularity but the threat of him doing that keeps the floor spread for the guards to once again get some room in the paint. There has been no obvious decline in defense with him, either. And then there's those smart, hard cuts he makes off the ball, allowing Jusuf Nurkic to show off his passing skills at the post. I'd stay with it even when Al-Farouq Aminu returns from injury.
  • Now that Connaughton is getting extended minutes, I'd expect Portland's three-point attempts to go up. The Blazers are seventh in the league in three-point accuracy but 28th in the number of attempts. With the lack of fast-break points and points in the paint, I would think more three-point attempts will eventually be necessary.
  • So far, is this looking like Damian Lillard's best season? I hear people saying that but I'm not sure. He's had some very good ones. I would say this, too, the better this team plays, the better his chances of being an all-star.
  • CJ McCollum is soon going to be getting heavy all-star consideration, too.
  • I truly believe, even as well as they have been playing in the last few games, the Trail Blazers have a lot of room for improvement. Nurkic is still not quite in sync at the offensive end. He's shot above 50 percent in only three games this season and that's not appropriate for a man who gets most of his shots in the paint. When he gets it going the way he did last season, the Trail Blazers will take another step forward.
  • I don't think I've ever seen a team make a one-season defensive improvement -- with no coaching change and no real difference in personnel -- the way Portland has this year. It's ridiculous how much better they are. Of course it's still a relatively small sample size but as long as McCollum and Lillard continue their transformation into reliable defenders, the Trail Blazers should be at least a decent defensive squad.
  • Kudos to Terry Stotts and his coaching staff for engineering that defensive improvement. The Trail Blazers are a solid third in the league in defensive efficiency. Getting basketball players to defend hard every game is not easy at any level. Defense requires a lot of hard work that often goes unnoticed and many players would rather pay lip service to it rather than actually do it. In the NBA, it also requires intelligence and preparation. The coaching staff has made some technical and philosophical tweaks and some obvious changes in emphasis to pull this thing off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

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“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.