Phoenix Suns

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

It was just one game, Blazer fans -- but what a game it was

OK, Blazer fans, you know the drill.

Keep repeating this to yourself: "It's just one game. It's just one game. It's just one game"

And there are 81 yet to play. But I must admit, that 48-point win on opening night on the road was very impressive. And I don't care how bad the Suns are, it was quite a game for the Trail Blazers.

Let's talk about it:

  • The defense was obviously very solid. The Suns are a guard-oriented offensive team and the Blazers took those guards -- Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe -- out of the game, holding them to 11-for-35 shooting from the field and Phoenix had nothing left. And shortly after intermission, the overmatched Suns pretty much quit.
  • You can give several individual players their due for the defense, but what I liked best was the cohesion by the entire team at the defensive end. Pick-and-roll defense was improved and so was the interior stuff. Jusuf Nurkic makes a difference in the paint with his ability to leave his own man and intimidate drivers. Mostly, I saw a new alertness and aggression at the defensive end -- and that was special.
  • Pat Connaughton showed what he's capable of doing and it was plenty. Maybe it was just because this game was in Phoenix but he reminded me a lot of Dan Majerle, except he's a better three-point shooter than the ex-Sun.
  • Damian Lillard was, well, Damian Lillard. That leadership he provides is as important as his talent. He's a rare one, folks. A special player.
  • This was another illustration of Portland's overall talent level. Coach Terry Stotts played everybody and they all can play. This isn't a season when the Blazers will have two or three players at the end of the bench who are "projects" or merely players happy to be there. These guys all belong on an NBA court.
  • It's on to Indiana for a matchup against the Pacers, who amassed 140 points in their opening win over Brooklyn, so it should be a better test for the Portland defense. And remember, it's just the second of 82 games.

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

Blazers' Maurice Harkless starts his own All-Defense campaign

PHOENIX – Evan Turner says he wants to be named NBA All-Defense this season, but during the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday, he found he might have some pretty stiff competition.

And it’s coming from his own teammate, Maurice Harkless.

Harkless on Wednesday had such an inspiring and dominating defensive performance that at times during the Blazers’ 124-76 victory teammates stood and applauded him, while coaches bowed in respect.

Afterward, Turner feigned offense that Harkless stole his own defensive shine.

“I know I said I want to be All-Defense, but dang, Moe looked like he was about to do it!’’ Turner said. “He was all over the place. It was actually crazy. I was like, ‘Is that Moe again? Is that Moe AGAIN?!’’

Harkless had one block and tied Damian Lillard with a team-high five deflections, but his impact went beyond what any statistic could measure. If he wasn’t ball-hawking Suns’ touted rookie Josh Jackson, Harkless was offering help to cut off lanes for scoring specialist Devin Booker. And throughout the night, he was pairing with Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu on switches, providing a seemingly impenetrable wall of arms and hands.

Perhaps most notably, with the Blazers leading 43-30 in the second quarter, Harkless denied a perimeter pass to Jackson, but just missed. He recovered quick enough to cut off his baseline drive, then poked away the ball when Jackson tried to crossover dribble.

The play happened in front of the Blazers’ bench and had everyone standing. Assistant Dale Osbourne got so hyped, he pounded Harkless’ chest several times.

“Plays like that get the whole team excited,’’ Harkless said. “Sparks everyone to play like that on defense. If that’s what I got to do, then that’s what I got to do.’’

Harkless said that sequence took him back to the playground in Queens, where he learned to like defense.

“You are making the other guy mad. It’s funny. Like after that play, (Jackson) was mad,’’ Harkless said. “I was talking trash … stuff like that is fun, it takes you back to the playground,  playing one-on-one against guys, talking trash the whole time. That’s how I learned to play basketball, so it’s still fun to me.’’

Harkless has vowed this season to be a defensive leader, and that includes not letting a quiet offensive night carry over to his defense. Wednesday was exhibit A in being a defensive leader.

After his play on Jackson in front of the Blazers’ bench, Harkless had nice transition defense to stop Jackson, then later blocked a fast-break layin attempt. That prompted assistant David Vanterpool to yell to Harkless across the court and bow in respect.

The funny thing about Harkless’ standout night was it started so poorly. He was whistled for two fouls just 2:34 into the game and had to go to the bench. Sometimes when players get in early foul trouble, it creates a tendency to be tentative when they return.

Not Harkless.

“I think I have more of a hit-first mentality, whereas before I had a hit-back mentality,’’ Harkless said. “I’m approaching this year a little bit different. That’s how I’m looking to approach every game.’’

Like Turner, who’s hoping his talk about All-Defense will draw attention to his craft, Harkless is hoping that eventually referees will catch on to his more aggressive and physical defensive style and perhaps prevent a repeat of his two early fouls.

“Eventually, the refs will see I’m just physical, and let me play,’’ Harkless said.

Today's Blazers' links:

Speaking of Harkless, Mens Fitness writes about his core workout.

I wrote about Pat Connaughton making the most of his opportunity.

Damian Lillard says the Blazers couldn't ask for better effort.

The Arizona Republic writes about the worst loss in Suns' history.

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes that Connaughton proves he belongs on the court, not the diamond.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonain writes about Connaughton and Harklesss leading the way.

Blazers lay the smackdown in Phoenix, beat Suns, 124-76

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Blazers lay the smackdown in Phoenix, beat Suns, 124-76

The Blazers layed the smackdown on the Suns, making every aspect of the game look easy. The offense was clicking and the defense was on lock. Big blocks and big steals were followed by big buckets. Even with CJ McCollum on the sideline the Blazers didn't skip a beat. Pat Connaughton had a career night scoring 24 points, and the Blazers left little doubt. Not a bad way to start the season. 

Final Score: Portland 124 - Phoenix 76

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

Blazers' shootaround notes: Stotts mum on lineup, but do jerseys give answer?

PHOENIX – At Wednesday morning’s shootaround, Trail Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts declined to reveal his starting lineup for tonight’s game at Phoenix, but the jerseys his players wore went a long way to speaking for him.

Only five players were wearing black jerseys – the rest grey – when the media was allowed onto the court at the conclusion of the hour-long walk-through practice.

Those in black: Damian Lillard at point guard, Evan Turner at shooting guard, Maurice Harkless at small forward, Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward and Jusuf Nurkic at center.

No big surprises, as Turner will fill in for the suspended CJ McCollum and likely start the game guarding Suns’ rising star Devin Booker. Turner has set a goal to be named All-NBA Defense this season and what a way to make a statement than going against the player who scored 70 points last season at Boston.

Other news and notes about the opener:

Shabazz Napier: Stotts said he has seen enough in practice from Shabazz Napier to play him in tonight’s game. Doesn’t mean Napier will see time, but he is cleared medically and has shown enough to Stotts in three practices to give the coach comfort to call on him if needed. Napier injured his left hamstring on the second day of training camp and didn’t return to practice until Sunday.

The rookies: Of all the tough decisions ahead for Stotts, his biggest entering the season might be which rookie to play. A low-key development in the preseason has been the rapid improvement of rookie Zach Collins. While much attention has been given to fellow rookie Caleb Swanigan, who started the preseason with a bang, Collins has quietly impressed to the point where he could command playing time over Swanigan.

Meyers Leonard: The Blazers' big man said he understands that he will not be in the rotation to open the season, and says he has adopted a “be ready” mentality.

“I thought I had a really good training camp, and for the most part in the preseason I thought I was solid,'' Leonard said.  "I didn’t like the Toronto game, but outside of that, I felt I was very focused and shot the ball well and definitely improved with defensive rebounding.

“But it’s an uphill battle. I can say that I didn’t give them a reason last year to have trust  me … so I’m going to take it day by day,’’ Leonard said.

Stotts and Leonard chatted briefly this week about his role and Leonard says he is in a good place mentally.

“That’s one thing I’ve come to understand after this summer, and coming into my 6th year is understanding the true, true professional side of things. That no matter what happens I have to stay in shape, keep working … because when number is called, you have to be ready.’’

Suns injury update: Leonard’s chances of playing Wednesday probably lessened after it appears Suns backup center Alex Len will miss the game with a sprained ankle. Len told Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic that he is “probably out” for tonight’s game beause of the left ankle sprain, but that he hopes to play Friday.

Extra work for CJ: CJ McCollum, who is suspended for tonight’s game after leaving the bench during an altercation in last week’s preseason game against the Suns, stayed after Wednesday’s shootaround to get in more court work. He is not allowed to be in the arena up to two hours before the game. 

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

Blazers want a good start to season - how does 12-4 sound?

PHOENIX – When Damian Lillard erupted for 35 points against the Clippers this preseason, he said it was to establish a “handle our business” tone to carry into the regular season.

Ten days later, Lillard and the Trail Blazers have reached opening night in Phoenix looking every bit like a team ready to handle business.

Rooted in a preseason of alert and active defense, and an effective and diverse offense, the Blazers appear to be in position to achieve one of their early goals: a successful start to the season.

How successful?

How about 12-4?

After watching this team in the preseason, I think Portland wins 12 of its first 16 games. Before you call me a homer, or optimistic, look at the schedule.

Eleven of the first 16 are at home. Nine of the 16 are against non-playoff teams from last season. On top of it all, the Blazers so far have looked deep, connected and … good.

I have Portland losing at Milwaukee, at home to Toronto, at Utah and at home to Oklahoma City. The rest are wins.

If the Blazers head into their five-game Thanksgiving trip 12-4, I think they can check off the first of their season goals: a good start.

That goal was prompted by the experience of last season, when a Blazers team with second-round playoff aspirations was nearly buried by a poor start. The Blazers scuffled in the early season, eventually dropping as many as 11 games below .500 by February before they recovered and finished 41-41 and with the final playoff spot in the West.  

This season, led by Lillard, several players have talked about the need to get off to a good start, particularly with what figures to be an ultra-competitive Western Conference.

With a promising preseason, and what appears to be a favorable schedule, don’t be surprised to see the Blazers among the league leaders.

Am I being overly optimistic?  Look at the first 16 games and tell me where you have the Blazers on the morning of Nov.19.

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes writes that former Blazers' broadcaster Mike Barrett is involved with group trying to bring baseball to Portland. 

The Arizona Republic takes a look at the Phoenix Suns' expectations heading into tonight's opener. 

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian notes that defense has been a focal point for the Blazers in the preseason. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Breakfast with the Blazers: Pat Connaughton looking at quite a debut

Wednesday’s season opener figures to be quite the debut for Trail Blazers’ guard Pat Connaughton.

Not only has the third-year guard secured a spot in the rotation with a solid preseason, he also figures to play an integral part Wednesday in patching the hole left at backup point guard by the suspension of CJ McCollum.

Coach Terry Stotts on Monday said it is likely either Connaughton or Evan Turner will initiate the offense at Phoenix when starter Damian Lillard rests, with Shabazz Napier also a possibility providing his left hamstring is cleared by the medical staff.

“Most likely, if Pat were out there and Dame was not, I’m sure Evan would be on the court as well, so probably between Evan and Pat, whoever the point guard was not be guarding would initiate the offense,’’ Stotts said.

If initiating the offense in a season opener seems like a huge step for a guy whose future was in question until the Blazers picked up his contract option in late August, it’s really not. Stotts last season developed a comfort level with Connaughton’s smarts, versatility and steadiness, which led to him playing spot duty during some key situations.

Of course, there is a big difference between spot duty and running the offense in a season opener. The two skills that will be tested are ball handling and retention of the plays.

Connaughton said he has honed his ball handling skills over the summer, which was evident in preseason when he was able to split a blitzing double team.

“CJ has helped me a lot, Shabazz helped me a lot – just making sure ball handling is up to par with what it needs to be a two-guard in this league,’’ Connaughton said. “Not just to make plays for myself, but others.’’

As coach, Stotts said his role will be to keep Connaughton out of a scenario where he is pressured full court.

“I’m comfortable with Pat handling the ball,’’ Stotts said. “If he has a ball-hawking defender like Patrick Beverley, or somebody like that guarding him, I wouldn’t want to put him in that situation. But if he is out there and can bring the ball up and initiate the offense without a lot of pressure, yeah.’’

When it comes to knowing the playbook, there are no worries. Teammates have often said Connaughton knows the role all five players have on each play.

“I know where everyone needs to be, not just myself,’’ Connaughton said, noting the Blazers put in a couple new plays Monday that he will have to review. Coming from the other sports I played, you have to have a high mental IQ when it comes to the athletic side of things, and it’s better to know where everyone is going to be rather than just where you are going to be … you want to be able to pick guys up.’’

While part of Connaughton’s appeal is his versatility, nobody expected he would be in this role for opening night. But McCollum, who is the Blazers’ starting shooting guard and backup point guard, was suspended Sunday for walking onto the court during a preseason altercation, creating a void.

The unexpected opening night role is just another opportunity for Connaughton, whose $1.4 million option wasn’t picked up until Aug. 31. When Allen Crabbe was traded to Brooklyn in July, it opened up 29 minutes in Stotts’ rotation, some of which will go to Connaughton, who earned them by embracing what he envisions as a jack-of-all-trades role.

“Whatever is needed,’’ Connaughton said in describing his role. “Just making sure I can get guys the ball in spot they want to get it, hopefully take pressure of Dame, CJ, ET, guys who always have the ball in pick and rolls, things like that …  and make shots and defend.’’

And for a night, help out at backup point guard.

Today's Blazers' links:

My Inside the Blazers podcast includes an interview with Evan Turner.

Damian Lillard knocked off a bucket list item.

ESPN has the Blazers ranked 14th in its opening day power rankings.

The Oregonian's Mike Richman writes that Connaughton has gone from towel-waver to rotation player.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman writes on the Blazers' improved defense.

The Trail Blazers' Casey Holdahl and Freeman recorded their Rip City Report.

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Breakfast with the Blazers: Health of Shabazz Napier key subplot for opener

Perhaps the most pressing subplot to the Trail Blazers season opener is the health of injured point guard Shabazz Napier.

With CJ McCollum suspended for Wednesday’s opener in Phoenix, the Blazers are not only losing their starting shooting guard and a player who averaged 23.0 points a game last season, they are also losing their backup point guard.

That’s why the progress of Napier is something worth monitoring over the next two days.

“Probably more than anything will be the minutes when Dame (Lillard) is out of the game,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Sunday in addressing the complications created by McCollum’s suspension for leaving the bench during a preseason altercation on the court. “That’s the obvious (question), is how will we manage those minutes?’’

Normally, Stotts would just turn to Napier, the fourth-year point guard who came on strong at the end of last season. But Napier has been sidelined with a left hamstring injury since Sept. 27, the team’s second day of training camp.

Napier on Sunday practiced for the first time since suffering the injury, but his participation was limited by the medical staff, who wants to ease him back into action.

“They say each day I will get to do five or 10 minutes longer, ‘’ Napier said. “But supposedly, I’m going to be ready for the start of the season, so I’m excited about that.’’

Stotts says he will be in a wait-and-see mode during the next two practices before penciling Napier into the opening night rotation. After all, Stotts said the plan was to have Napier play last week during the Blazers’ three-game preseason trip, but Napier was never cleared by the medical staff.

If Napier is not cleared for Wednesday, Stotts will most likely have to use Evan Turner, and possibly Pat Connaughton at point guard in the 8-to-12 minutes Lillard figures to rest.

Napier hopes Stotts isn’t left with that dilemma.

Napier said he can explode off his left leg and that he doesn’t feel any limitations when he plays. He said the team is taking a “preventative” approach to make sure the hamstring doesn’t become a nagging, season-long injury.  But in his mind, he is ready, and he is treating the Monday and Tuesday practices as if it were the regular season.

“I just have to make sure when I’m out there in practice that I take those reps as game reps, offensively and defensively,’’ Napier said.

Napier said missing the entire preseason, while not ideal, doesn’t worry him.

“It will be different, because preseason is a way to get your legs back, and show what you can do to help the team, but at the end of the day, it’s still basketball, and I’ve been doing that all my life,’’ Napier said.

Napier last season averaged nearly 10 minutes while appearing in 53 games, including starts in the final two games, when he had 32 points against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. For the season, he averaged 4.1 points and 1.3 assists.

Today's Blazers' links:

Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune recaps CJ McCollum's thoughts on his suspension

KATU has a nice tidbit on the Blazers brightening the day of a teen recovering from an accident.

Maurice Harkless was behind the camera lens Sunday, taking photos of the Timbers. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

Breakfast with the Blazers: Evan Turner and his lofty defensive goal

This summer, during a conversation with one of Evan Turner’s closest friends, my eyebrows were raised.

Jelani Floyd, who is one of Turner’s childhood friends from Chicago, had just returned with Turner from a 12-day, nine-city shoe tour in China. Floyd was telling me about their trip, and Turner’s workouts, and how he had witnessed a spark ignite in Turner.

Turner had started doing pilates, was working on his outside shot, and had set a lofty goal that caused me to pause and raise my brow.

Turner, Floyd told me, had set his sights on becoming named All-NBA Defense this season.

I bring that conversation up because Turner and his defense suddenly figures to be a central storyline in the Trail Blazers’ season opener on Wednesday in Phoenix, when Turner will likely spend much of his night defending Suns’ rising star Devin Booker.

On Saturday, the Blazers were hit with a bombshell that CJ McCollum will be suspended for the opener after he left the bench last week during a preseason altercation between Caleb Swanigan and Alex Len.

With McCollum out, coach Terry Stotts essentially has two options for a starter at shooting guard -- Pat Connaughton or Turner – and although I have no idea which way Stotts is leaning, I would imagine either way, Turner will be checking Booker extensively on Wednesday.

And hey, if there was ever a way to kick off an All-Defense campaign, putting the clamps on a gifted scorer like Booker – who at age 20 last season scored 70 points at Boston – is a heckuva start.

Booker in four games last season against Portland averaged 24.3 points while shooting 44 percent from the field and 3-of-12 from three-point range. For the season, the 6-foot-6 guard averaged 22.1 points. 

Turner’s first assignment comes on the heels of what was an encouraging preseason for him. He had the NBA’s best defensive rating (74.2) in the preseason, which came while he guarding literally every position on the floor, while also showing heady passing and unstoppable moves in the post.

Last season, among players who played 20 or more games, Turner ranked 14th among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, a couple tiers below the top group of Kyle Anderson (San Antonio), Andre Roberson (Oklahoma City), Tony Allen (then Memphis), Danny Green (San Antonio) and Victor Oladipo (then Oklahoma City).

The defensive real plus-minus metric is influenced by which teammates you play with, and Turner this season figures to have a better figures playing more with Jusuf Nurkic, and less with the traded Allen Crabbe, whose defensive numbers last season were below average. 

Either way, Turner’s All-Defense goal is more of a novelty than the actual point: Turner is entering this season with a reinforced and perhaps even sharpened defensive mindset. Any time a player not only buys into defense, but embraces it … it usually bodes well for the team.

So no CJ for the opener? Total bummer.

But let’s watch Evan Turner and his defense against Booker and the Suns. It just might raise your eyebrows.

Today's Blazers links:

After being suspended for opener,  CJ McCollum tells NBC Sports Northwest "Lesson learned."

The Oregonian's Mike Richman details Jusuf Nurkic's summer workouts, and notes the big man wants to stay in Portland

Blazers drop first preseason game to the Suns, 114-112

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Blazers drop first preseason game to the Suns, 114-112

The Blazers lost their first preseason game of the 2017-2018, falling to the Phoenix Suns, 114-112. 

Box Score

Our Jason Quick breaks it all down

Talkin' Ball Podcast:

Quick: MIght be hard for Leonard to get on the court

Orlando ain't a fan of taking a chard in the preseason

Lillard: "Our young guys did a great job"

Collins: Felt pretty comfortable out there

Nurkic's confidence is in mid-season form

McCollum: Overall, it was a step in the right direction

Swanigan impresses in preseason debut

Stotts: Had a lot of good runs through the first three quarters

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).