Shabazz Napier

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: An overview of what we do, don't know

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

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

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

WHAT WE KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This team is going to be better than people think.

Today's Blazers links:

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

A preview of tonight's preseason finale.

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

 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

Breakfast with the Blazers: Stotts has preseason 'challenge' at point guard

When the Trail Blazers open their preseason tonight against Phoenix, coach Terry Stotts admitted that his biggest task is not finding indications of who he should place in the starting lineup or even a playing rotation.

It’s keeping stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum off the court.

Because backup point guard Shabazz Napier is nursing a left quadriceps injury and will be unable to play, Stotts said the “challenge” of his night will be limiting the minutes of Lillard and McCollum.

“The concern without Shabazz is not running up Dame and CJ’s minutes,’’ Stotts said. “That’s an important thing in preseason.’’

It is unknown how long Napier will be sidelined. He has not practiced since injuring his thigh last Wednesday, but he has been seen doing light running and side-to-side movement.

Stotts said he plans to play everyone who is healthy, but he doesn’t figure anyone will play more than half of the game. Last season in the preseason opener, Evan Turner played the most (26 minutes) while Lillard played 23 minutes and McCollum 22. Napier helped ease the point guard minutes by playing 17 minutes.

Lillard, who averaged 36 minutes in the regular season last year, said limiting his minutes can sometimes be easier said than done.

 “Usually (Stotts) tries to save me from me,’’ Lillard said. “He knows once I go out there and start feeling good in the game, and get into the flow of the game, I will be like, ‘Leave me in. Leave me in.’’’

Perhaps that’s why Stotts noted Monday that “it will be a little bit of a challenge” to limit his prized backcourt on Tuesday night.

Lillard said he doesn’t see it as a problem, pointing out that shooting guard Pat Connaughton knows every position and that rookie point guard Isaiah Briscoe has been handling himself well in camp. Also, Turner could play some spot minutes at point.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pat out there handling it a bit,’’ Lillard said.

Briscoe stands the most to gain. The rookie from Kentucky is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot, along with sharp shooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin. He performed  very well in the team’s intra-squad scrimmage on Sunday, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists while hitting 6-of-7 shots.

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about Stotts' beginning his quest to find the right fit with lineups.

Willamette Week recaps an appearance Damian Lillard made on OPB.

Neil Olshey made an appearance on Courtside last night:

Here's Olshey on Jusuf Nurkic.

Here's Olshey on the Blazers' vision.

Here's Olshey on the rookies.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman previews the preseason opener.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

Breakfast with the Blazers: Shabazz Napier and his quest for playing time

EDITOR'S NOTE: Every morning, check in here for Breakfast with the Blazers, which will be your spot to catch up on what happened last night, or look ahead to what is pertinent today with the Blazers.

**

This morning, my "Inside the Blazers Podcast" debuts, which will include an interview with Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier.

I hope you give it a listen because it gives insight into the mental toughness and determination required for an NBA reserve. It takes a true professional to stick to his process and work ethic, even when minutes are not guaranteed. Also, it is an illuminating peek at Napier’s upbringing and morals, which have shaped him into the competitor he is today.

Napier, remember, started the season’s final two games, recording 32 points, six rebounds and five assists against San Antonio and 25 points against New Orleans. He also hailed by teammates as the MVP of a crucial game at Orlando coming out of the All-Star Break, when he led a comeback with 10 points, six assists and seven rebounds while providing critical defense.

Napier will be one of the subplots to follow this preseason, in part because his finish last season and in part because the work he put in this summer – which was enough to lead Neil Olshey to single him out during media day. Those factors raise the question whether he could command more playing time as the team’s backup point guard.

Napier, who is beginning his fourth NBA season and second with the Blazers, knows he is in a tricky situation on the Blazers: Starter Damian Lillard averaged 36 minutes last season and the 12 minutes Lillard rested,  CJ McCollum – or sometimes Evan Turner -- amply filled in.

“I’m stuck in this situation where they play a lot of minutes, and I can quit but that’s not who I am,’’ Napier said. “I understand that at any given time your number can be called – so I’m going to continue work my butt off.’’

Coach Terry Stotts on Wednesday said he still likely considers McCollum the backup point guard, and that he doesn’t know what Napier could do to earn more time.

“Bazz had a good summer, and he had some good runs last year when Dame was out,’’ Stotts said. “The question is defensively – how does that work? But certainly he is going to have an opportunity. I haven’t made a decision one way or the other on the rotation. It will just play itself out.’’

Lillard, who often goes against Napier in practices, said he could foresee the two-time former NCAA champion seeing the court more.

“Last year, I was surprised to see him not play as much,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played more.’’

McCollum, who not only played the ninth most minutes in the NBA last season, but who has also logged the most miles run on the court in the NBA the past two seasons, said he doesn’t feel like he needs a breather.

“I’m ok with whatever, honestly,’’ McCollum said. “However Coach thinks I can help the team, that’s what I will do. I feel like I’m in good enough shape to do whatever is necessary. I’ve led the league in miles the last two years, a lot of it is on offense and how we move on offense – lot of cuts, lot of flair screens – so I will be ready to do whatever.

“But I think Shabazz is very capable of playing backup point guard,’’ McCollum said. “There’s a lot of different lineups we will use this year to where a lot of us will be out there at once and it will be handle by committee, and that includes ET as well.’’

How to handle the point guard minutes is probably not the most pressing among Stotts’ preseason decisions – figuring out the starting forwards figures to take precedence – but how Napier plays will certainly be something worth watching next week when the Blazers open preseason play Tuesday at home against Phoenix and Thursday at home against Toronto.

All Napier wants is a chance.

“I’ve always thought the more you can be on court the better you can be as a player, because that experience is second to nothing else,’’ Napier said.

Here’s to rooting to see what he can do with a chance.

Today's Blazers' Links: 

CSNNW's Dwight Jaynes asks whether Pat Connaughton can step into Allen Crabbe's role?

CSNNW shows that there is a Bad Boys 3 in the making.

CSNNW's Peter Socotch has the video of Evan Turner explaining he will never go vegan

Socotch with more video of Jusuf Nurkic explaining why he is wearing a protective mask at practice.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about a slimmer Jusuf Nurkic.

The Oregonian reports that former Blazers' guard Bonzi Wells recently suffered a heart attack

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian writes that it's important for the Blazers to get off to a good start.

Trail Blazers finish regular season with loss to New Orleans, turn focus to Sunday's Game 1

Trail Blazers finish regular season with loss to New Orleans, turn focus to Sunday's Game 1

This time, there was no dramatic finish for the Trail Blazers.

The Blazers finished the regular season with a 103-100 loss to New Orleans after it couldn't recreate the late-game magic from its last game. One game after Noah Vonleh beat the Spurs with a last-second layin, the Blazers twice had a chance to go ahead in the final minute but Meyers Leonard he missed a hook shot with 37 seconds then lost the ball out of bounds with 10.6 seconds left and Portland trailing 101-100.

The loss ended an eight-game home winning streak for Portland, which finished 41-41 and as the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Blazers will play at Golden State in Game 1 on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ABC. The first playoff home game with be April 22 at 7:30 p.m. for Game 3.

With several key players resting -- including Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum -- the Blazers had as much as an 11-point lead behind the shooting of Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. The loss prevented a winning season but didn't put a damper on the Blazers' strong close to the season, which included an 18-6 run through March and April.  

The Blazers started Napier, rookie Jake Layman, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard as coach Terry Stotts elected to rest starters  Lillard and McCollum as well as key reserves Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe. New Orleans (34-48) played without stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and finished the season on a six-game losing streak.

Napier, who started and scored a career-high 32 in Monday's win over San Antonio, finished with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting while Connaughton added a career-high 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting as well as a career-high seven assists. Layman, in his first career start, added 10 points and Vonleh had 12 points and a career high 19 rebounds for his fifth career double-double. 

Maurice Harkless, who vowed not to take a three-pointer in order to secure a $500,000 bonus, finished with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting - all two-point attempts -- in 22 minutes. 

The Blazers now turn their attention to Golden State in a best-of-seven series in the first-round of the NBA playoffs. Game 1 is Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Golden State. 

On Wednesday, the teams were tied at 53 at halftime before Portland pushed to an 85-78 lead behind Napier, Layman and rookie Tim Quarterman. New Orleans however went on a 15-0 run to take a 99-93 lead in the fourth.

Notes: Allen Crabbe, who has missed the last three games with a sore left foot said he will "for sure" be ready for Sunday's Game 1 at Golden State. "I'm not in as much pain in the mornings, so that's a good sign,'' Crabbe said before Wednesday's game. 

Up next: Blazers at Golden State, Game 1 best-of-seven series, Sunday 12:30 p.m. (ABC).  Full Schedule Here

Podcast: Special edition which includes Terry Stotts' entire time on Talkin' Ball from tonight

Blazers' win vs. Spurs reflects talent, hard work by players and coaches

Blazers' win vs. Spurs reflects talent, hard work by players and coaches

It was quite a night in Moda Center Monday. Given the expectation level,  it was a shocking evening.

With the San Antonio Spurs committed to using their starting lineup at least a part of the game and the Trail Blazers saying they weren't going to use Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, there was every reason to expect a night of little emotion without high drama.

But sports are funny that way. You never quite know what you're going to find with your next ticket. Portland's 99-98 win over the Spurs was exciting and even featured a surprise ending, as Noah Vonleh found a gift directly under the basket and dropped in a layup to win the game a whisper before the final horn.

A few things I wanted to point out about this game before we move on to all the playoff fuss:

  1. I say this over and over but a lot of people don't seem to understand it. Men on NBA benches are very good basketball players. In many cases, they just don't have the opportunity to show it. When you watch Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman play, you're seeing people with terrific athletic ability and good basketball instincts. They can play this game -- but they are in line behind more experienced or talented players. It's all the more reason I just laugh when people tell me some of the great college teams could beat an NBA team. They wouldn't come close. These days it takes a heck of a talented player just to make a roster in the league.
  2. I can't emphasize enough what a terrific job the Trail Blazer assistant coaches do in keeping their entire squad ready for duty and on solid improvement curves. Portland's bench played the normal San Antonio starting lineup on an even basis whenever it was matched up that way. That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. Yes, the fourth quarter was a bench game, but prior to that the Blazer reserves didn't blink against Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and the rest of that roster. Kawhi Leonard, by the way, managed no rebounds or assists in his 20 minutes of duty. Those guys wearing Trail Blazer jerseys Monday night competed hard and smart.
  3. A lot of times a team will run a lineup consisting of bench players out for a late-season game and chaos ensues. These guys played together and with purpose -- and just nine turnovers. It was an impressive display of unity, talent and confidence. And after decades of covering the NBA, I can tell you that kind of game doesn't happen without countless hours of work by the coaching staff and the individual players.

Games like that one Monday are good for a team. They build pride in the franchise and confidence within all involved. It was a very impressive night.

And fun, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blazers shoot around: Aminu to play key role in defending Davis

Blazers shoot around: Aminu to play key role in defending Davis

NEW ORLEANS – Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he will consider using a twin-towers approach tonight against New Orleans, defending Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins with Jusuf Nurkic and Meyers Leonard, but he said he will more likely go with another strategy: Al-Farouq Aminu against Davis.

“I’m open to it (Nurkic and Leonard together), but Chief is my first option,’’ Stotts said. “Chief has guarded Anthony Davis in the past.’’

Stotts said he will not start Aminu – likely sticking with Noah Vonleh and Nurkic as his frontcourt – but the Blazers’ defensive ace will likely see the most time on the Pelicans’ star.

Aminu was hurt in the first meeting between the teams,  prompting Stotts to start Ed Davis alongside Mason Plumlee. Davis is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery and Plumlee was traded to Denver in February.

New Orleans is 3-6 since acquiring Cousins. One of the wins came while he was suspended for technical fouls, another he fouled out and the latest win – in overtime against Charlotte – he didn’t play for the final 9:25.

“It’s difficult to bring a guy into a team and learn things on the fly and get chemistry,’’ Stotts said. “ What has happened with us and Nurk, is the exception rather than the rule. Like I said, both are such talented players they are going to figure out what works and Alivin Gentry is such a terrific offensive coach. That part of it will come around but for the time being they are working on figuring it out.’’

Damian Lillard said the Blazers, who have won 5 of 6, need to capitalize on the mood of each team.

“We have to use that to our advantage: us playing the way we are and them trying to figure it out,’’ Lillard said. “We should come out and prepare for them to play well, because you never know, as good as they are to come out and explode on any given night.’’

Captain carry:  In the Blazers’ win Sunday in Phoenix, Stotts praised Lillard for shouldering the responsibility of carrying the team to victory.

“We willed us to that win,’’ Stotts said.

Lillard, who scored 28 of his 39 points in the first half, said he doesn’t feel any burden or responsibility to carry the team because he trusts his teammates. He went through each teammate – from Aminu to Maurice Harkless to Allen Crabbe to Shabazz Napier -- and remarked how everyone is contributing of late.

“So I don’t feel like I have to shoulder and carry the load,’’ Lillard said. “It’s more just leading and making sure we are sharp in our coverages, and making sure we communicating and managing the game more than anything else. Just trying to control it. Last game I felt like I did a good job of it.’’

Meyers mid-range:  One of the evolving aspects of the Blazers has been the mid-range game of Meyers Leonard, who has become effective with floaters and short jumpers of late.

Leonard said he found that coming off the bench into the game and then immediately taking a three was challenging. He said he finds he can get into a rhythm better by making a dunk or a short-range shot.

“I check in and get an open three and it’s not an easy shot to make,’’ Leonard said. “So I’m looking to play more in the mid-range because then the three’s become easier.’’

Stotts said it’s good for players to change their approach, and it reminds him of how Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki was constantly adapting.

“Meyers is reading the game, and the half-roll to mid-range is there for him,’’ Stotts said. “You have to change it up because the defense game plans for certain things. You can’t do the same thing all the time.’’

Shabazz shining: One of the subtle contributions recently has been the contribution of point guard Shabazz Napier off the bench, both offensively and defensively.

“I like the way he is running the team,’’ Stotts said. “I think he is really focused on getting guys shots, looking to the run the offense. Defensively he has always been a good defensive player for us.’’

Stotts said the major benefactor has been CJ McCollum, because it allows McCollum to play off the ball more.

Tonight's game: Blazers at New Orleans, 5 p.m. (CSN).

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

Peaking Blazers come back and beat Thunder behind strong finish

OKLAHOMA CITY – If it wasn’t the win of the season for the Trail Blazers, it was up there on Tuesday when the Blazers came back from 14 down, then held off a furious 58-point performance from Russell Westbrook to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 126-121 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jusuf Nurkic made two big baskets inside in the final minute to break a tie at 116 and the Blazers rode the hot shooting of Allen Crabbe, the superb defense of Al-Farouq Aminu and clutch free throw shooting from CJ McCollum to win three in a row for the first time since Nov. 30-Dec. 5.

The Blazers’ surge couldn’t come at a better time, as their best basketball is coming as the playoff race in the West tightens. Portland (27-35) moved to within 1.5 games of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 20 games left. Twelve of the Blazers’ final 20 games are at home.

Nurkic continued to be a season-changing addition for the Blazers, as he finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and Aminu has proven to be a difference maker when he is healthy. He had 12 points and seven rebounds and three blocks, including two at the rim in key moments in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Crabbe led the Blazers with 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting, showing an assertiveness seldom seen this season. He led a bench unit that turned the game around in the second quarter, as Shabazz Napier and Aminu led the defense and Crabbe and Meyers Leonard (12 points) provided an offensive spark.

Westbrook set his career-high with 58 points, and added nine assists and three rebounds, but he shot 21-of-39, which included 6-of-19 down the stretch.

Oklahoma City took at 67-61 halftime lead in a rip-roaring first half that saw the Thunder shoot 67.6 percent and the Blazers 55 percent. Westbrook had 28 points by halftime as the Blazers alternated defenders between Lillard and Maurice Harkless.

The Thunder led by as many as 14 in the first quarter, but the Blazers’ second unit opened the second quarter on an 11-0 and 14-2 run, which was keyed by the defense of  Napier and Aminu and the offense of Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard.

Notes: Damian Lillard set the franchise mark with a three-pointer in his 42nd consecutive game, breaking the mark held by Clifford Robinson in the 1995-1996 season … The Blazers announced that Ed Davis underwent successful surgery on his left shoulder on Tuesday. He is expected to be back for the start of the 2017-2018 training camp. 

Next up: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN).

 

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.