Blazers exit interviews: No controversy, no conflict, no fractures

Blazers exit interviews: No controversy, no conflict, no fractures

Player after player marched into the auditorium one by one at the Trail Blazers' practice facility Sunday to meet the media one last time this season. It was a part of their final official day of the season that also included physicals and then exit interviews with Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts..

You can find those Trail Blazer media sessions all in one spot right here on this website, if you choose.

The main event of the day, of course, is always the sessions with the brass.  Stotts and Olshey met the media together, seated side by side at a table behind microphones. I think it would be possible to take that appearance as a not-so-subtle symbol of solidarity. A united front. Everybody on the same page, if you will.

The session lasted 26 minutes and 50 seconds and Olshey -- one of the NBA's great orators -- used the first 15 minutes and 51 seconds to answer questions. Stotts got a few minutes here and there, but most of the audio came from the team's president of basketball operations.

While he admitted that the team has "A lot of issues that need to be addressed as the result of the very abbreviated postseason," Olshey also expressed a preference for judging his team on the 82-game regular season, rather than the four-game playoff sweep.

He also mentioned that he felt the media missed an important storyline of the past season -- How important the character and chemistry of his players was to the success of the team. "The way they stayed together," he said. "We never fractured. You never heard that narrative. We stuck together."

So there is that.

And there was no fracture Sunday, either. The real story from exit-interview-day was that there was no real story. The players all said the right things and so did Stotts and Olshey. If you were expecting conflict, controversy or even just a few fireworks, you came to the wrong place.

Look, if I missed that story during the regular season I'm certainly not going to miss it now, at season's end:

No fracture. They stuck together.

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers over the years have experienced the pain of playoff loss, but it’s been a while since a series left a mark like this one to New Orleans. 

“I think this one probably hurts a little more because we had such a great season, and we came in with really, really high expectations,’’ Damian Lillard said. 

 Unable to stop Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and unable to solve the defensive schemes of New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, the Blazers were swept Saturday after a 131-123 loss at Smoothie King Center. 

“They were the better team for four games,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “They outplayed us, they outhustled us, they were more physical.’’

The 13-game winning streak, the Northwest Division title, the three seed and hosting a first-round playoff series were all erased with the ease of a Holiday layin and the force of a Davis follow dunk.

“I felt like coming into this playoffs, there was no way you were going to tell me we weren’t going to have a Game 5. You know?’’ Blazers big man Ed Davis said. “I mean, you can tell me, somebody was going to beat us in six or seven, but no way swept.’’

Davis surveyed the quiet locker room, with players cutting tape off their ankles for the final time.

“I mean, we are all shocked right now that we got swept by a team that we really felt like we were better than,’’ Davis said. 

Perhaps most shocking was the inability of the Blazers to free Lillard from the layered Pelicans defense that used two and sometimes three players to trap him.

After having his best overall season in his six-year NBA career, Lillard had his worst playoff series, being held to 18.5 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and amassing 16 turnovers to his 19 assists.

“You have to give them credit for how well they executed offensively and they came in with a great defensive game plan, threw something at us we haven’t seen, and it worked out for them,’’ Lillard said. “We just didn’t play great. We didn’t have our best series.’’

The loss brings the Blazers to a crossroads: Continue full speed ahead with the NBA’s youngest roster to make the playoffs? Or break up a core that has lost 10 consecutive playoff games?

“Ultimately, you are defined by the postseason,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s a little early to say what direction we are going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is Neil (Olshey) is really good. We’ve been to the playoffs five straight years and he continues to change and build the roster. I’m pretty confident with that.’’

Lillard, who in January met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, said Saturday that he believes the franchise is doing all it can. 

“I feel like to this point, we have,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve done what we can, but obviously there is room for improvement, especially when you come up short in the playoffs and get swept. Obviously there are a lot of things that can be done better on our part as an organization and as players. 

“But for me, the same thing remains: I’ll go back to work and do my part,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody has a job to do and I’ve got to focus on what my job is.’’

Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a standout series with averages of 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, said he hopes the team is allowed to grow together.

“The core of the team is still really young and these are some of the lumps we will have to take in order to get better and continue to grow,’’ Aminu said.

The Blazers have four free agents – starting center Jusuf Nurkic; Davis, the NBA’s top reserve center; reserve Pat Connaughton; and reserve Shabazz Napier. 

Davis, for one, says he wants to return. 

“Like I’ve been saying since Day One: I hope I’m back here,’’ Davis said. “I hope July 1 at midnight we have something done and it’s over with. That’s what I’m hoping and banking on.’’

For now, the Blazers will lick their wounds and try to forget the dominance of Anthony Davis (33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.9 blocks), the two-way play of Holiday (27.8 points) and the masterful game-management of Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists) and look ahead to the future of Zach Collins and what should be the prime years of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s careers. 

“I think we should be proud of what we did in the regular season,’’ Harkless said. “And then just learn from what happened in this postseason.’’

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

NEW ORLEANS –If there is a snapshot that captures this first round series, it was taken in the third quarter of Game 3, and later framed for all to see around the NBA.

Anthony Davis soaring in, untouched, and grabbing a rebound with his left hand and flushing it for a dunk. Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic was literally floored, knocked to his hands and out of the way by Davis’ athletic and physical play.

In the aftermath of the play – which gave New Orleans a 79-60 lead – Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday stood at Nurkic’s feet and pointed in wide-eyed dismay at him. For a long time. Too long. 

It was everything this series had become: a laugher, an embarrassment for the Trail Blazers. And it underscored why it had become so lopsided: the Pelicans beating Portland to another ball, a Pelicans’ star shining while the Blazers remained frustrated. And overall, another example of New Orleans being more aggressive, more physical and more … everything.

“Outplayed us in every way,’’ Lillard would say after the Game 3 blowout. “Every way, man.’’

But what about that show of disrespect by Holiday? The pointing. The posing. The mockery of it all?

Fittingly, the Blazers were apparently oblivious to Holiday’s actions, even though they had a front row seat for it, and even though it was splashed across the internet Thursday night.

 “Huh?’’ Nurkic said when asked about it Friday. “I didn’t see it.’’

Damian Lillard?

“Did he? I didn’t see it,’’ Lillard said. “When things going well for you, you do stuff like that. That’s I guess kind of something you do when you are feeling really confident, you are feeling yourself a little bit. It’s not like we’ve done anything about it .’’

CJ McCollum was shown a clip of the play. He shrugged his shoulders and chose not to comment. 

And if the Blazers’ coach took offense to it, or thought anything of it, he didn’t say Friday as Terry Stotts was strangely made unavailable to the media even though he was 10 feet away from the camera and microphones, talking to Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. 

According to a team spokesman, there wasn’t enough time for Stotts to talk, because the team had to practice, which ignored the fact that the team was more than 15 minutes late in arriving.

In all, Game 3 magnified what in this series has been a strange display by a team that prides itself on culture, hard work and accountability.

At least Lillard on Friday showed some spunk and fight as Saturday’s Game 4 neared. When asked about making adjustments, he said he wanted to see the Blazers adjust their physicality.

“They were up into us a lot. A lot more aggressive than we were and we didn’t dish it back out,’’ Lillard said. “I think in the playoffs and a situation like this, when a team is coming for you like that, you have to maybe go out of your way to do it back. Even if that means some foul trouble or some altercations happen out there or whatever, but when a team comes from you like the way they did after last game, maybe we just need to make it a point of emphasis to go back and get back at them.’’

The Blazers have tried talking about adjustments to counter the Pelicans’ traps and gameplan against the backcourt, but their plans are both not working and not being executed fully. 

“It’s easy to draw up and say this is what we want to do after you watch film,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you get out there and they are playing so disruptive … they’ve got their minds set on what they are going to do – it’s hard to execute it.’’

Defensively, the Blazers are in the spin cycle. Three different Pelicans have scored 30 or more points in the first three games – Anthony Davis (35 in Game 1), Holiday (33 in Game 2) and Nikola Mirotic (30 in Game 3) – all while Rajon Rondo has played the defense like a yo-yo.

So maybe there was nothing for Stotts to say, and no change in the game plan needed. 

“Coaches can only do so much,’’ McCollum said. “They are not guarding Mirotic, they are not guarding Jrue holiday, or Rondo, or any of these guys. So it’s on us. We just need to play better.’’

If they don’t, Game 4 will bring a sweep and more finger pointing in their faces.

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

NEW ORLEANS -- Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he is considering lineup changes as his team heads into Thursday’s Game 3 in New Orleans in an 0-2 hole. 

One of the lineup changes might be forced upon him: Evan Turner, who started at small forward the past 11 games, is questionable with a bruised big toe suffered in Game 2. 

“Evan is always positive and he said he will be ready to go,’’ Stotts said Wednesday in New Orleans. “We will see how it goes tomorrow. He was in no position to play last night (after suffering the injury).’’

Maurice Harkless is a likely candidate to move into the starting small forward position after making his series debut in Game 2. In his first game since he had surgery March 28 to clean out his left knee, Harkless played 27 minutes, hitting all five of his shots and finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and a block. Stotts said the 27 minutes exceeded what he and the health-and-performance team had outlined.

FREE-THROW DROUGHT

Damian Lillard isn’t the only one not getting to the free throw line – the Blazers as a team have been kept off the line.

Lillard, who finished seventh in the NBA in free throw attempts (538), which included a 7.4 average per game, has attempted only four free throws in two games. And the Blazers, who averaged nearly 21 free throws a game in the series has attempted only 22 total in the first two games.

“That’s a touchy one,’’ Stotts said when asked about the dip in free throws. “They haven’t been calling a lot of fouls.’’

With Lillard, he said there isn’t an adjustment to be made to get him to the line more. 

“It’s a little frustrating at times because the ball is in his hands and he is getting pressured and getting to the basket,’’ Stotts said. “I don’t know that you can do anything else to get more calls.’’

FAMILIAR ROLE

Stotts said if there is one good thing about the Blazers standing in this series it’s that they are back in a familiar spot: the underdog.

“We are good in an underdog role,’’ Stotts said. “This team has been resilient, this team has been written off, and it has bounced back.’’

AREA OF CONCERN

When the Blazers met Wednesday in New Orleans for a film session, one area was a point of contention: hustle.

Several times throughout the series, and in particular at the end of Game 2, the Blazers were beaten to loose balls or to rebounds. Stotts says he noticed it and was concerned enough to address it in front of the team.

“It was brought up to the team,’’ Stotts said. “Those are possessions that determine winning and losing.’’

Lillard noted the Pelicans’ will after Game 2. 

“I think these first two games came down to a lot of 50-50 balls,’’ Lillard said. “They were just more grimy than we were, they played a more physical game. They gutted it out more than we did in both games.’’

BLAZERS ON HOLIDAY

An emerging storyline in the series has been the play of Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday. Coming into the series, the talk was of his defense, but the guard has averaged 27 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. 

Stotts on Wednesday was asked who has guarded Holiday the best.

“I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that,’’ Stotts said. “Because I don’t think we have guarded him very well.’’

ROOKIE BRIGHT SPOT

Blazers rookie Zach Collins has been a bight spot in the first two games, in particular his Game 2, when he had 12 points and five rebounds.

For the series, Collins is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes a game.

“I’ve been very pleased with Zach,’’ Stotts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. He’s been aggressive in his post-up mismatches and defensively his length has been helpful around the rim.’’

Stotts said three times late in Game 2 Collins was switched on Holiday and the Pelicans’ guard scored only once. 

“There’s a lot to like,’’ Stotts said. “And it’s a great experience for him, but I’m not playing him to get experience, I’m playing him because he’s been able to put us in position to win.’’

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

NEW ORLEANS – By the time Damian Lillard had touched down in New Orleans on Wednesday, there had been a day of swirling criticism and questions surrounding his playoff play.

The Trail Blazers’ star paid no mind.

“I’m not concerned with anything being said,’’ Lillard said. “I just gotta find a way to get it done.’’

Perhaps never in Lillard’s six-years in Portland have the Trail Blazers faced a more precarious time. They have not only lost home court advantage in this best-of-seven series, they are in a 0-2 deficit heading to New Orleans. 

Most unsettling for the Blazers is they are in this predicament largely because Lillard, the man who always delivers, quite simply has not in the first two games.   

Not since the 2015 playoffs against Memphis has the NBA world seen Lillard so out of sorts. 

The Trail Blazers’ star has been taken out of the first round series against the Pelicans as a pack of guards -- Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, chief among them – have limited his space to operate with traps and physical play.

In the first two games, both Blazers’ losses on their home court, Lillard is averaging 17.5 points – nearly 10 points below his season average – while shooting 31.7 percent from the field (13-for-41) and 31.3 percent from three-point range 5-for-16). In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, he had seven turnovers.

“I’ve just got to be better,’’ Lillard said after the Game 2 loss. “I think it’s as simple as that.’’

This isn’t the first time Lillard has been stymied at the start of a playoff series. In 2015, against Memphis, Mike Conley and Tony Allen put the clamps on Lillard in the first two games, holding him to a 16.0 scoring average on 27 percent shooting (10-of-37) while limiting him to a total of four assists. 

Lillard did rebound over the next three games against Memphis, albeit amid a 4-games-to-1 series loss, averaging 25.3 points while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. 

Lillard on Wednesday declined to draw parallels to his 2015 playoffs and his situation against the swarming Pelicans, saying he is a different player, on a different team. 

What’s more, Lillard noted, is the Pelicans are not only sending two players at him, sometimes it is three. 

It has presented him with a dilemma: make the right play and pass to open teammates? Or try to absorb the scoring load the team so relies on by shaking the defenders and taking a tough shot?

“I think the right thing to do is trust and make the right play, find the next guy,’’ Lillard said after Game 2. “But it’s finding that balance of being aggressive and making those right plays.’’

Stotts said he installed some new wrinkles to the offense before Game 2 that helped the offense, and he added that as coach, his primary focus is getting the team – not just Lillard – going.

One of Lillard’s primary weapons – getting to the free throw line – has been disarmed against the Pelicans. In two games, Lillard has attempted a total of four free throws. In the regular season, he averaged 7.4 attempts a game, and his 538 free throw attempts ranked seventh in the NBA. 

 “There’s contact,’’ Lillard said Wednesday. “I’m just not getting the calls right now. But I’m surrounded most of the time, so I get it out to the open guy. There just comes a time where I have to be aggressive anyway, and that means I have to take tough shots against a scheme obviously set up to make me do that.’’

Game 3 is Thursday in New Orleans (6 p.m., NBC Sports Northwest), and after the Game 2 loss, Evan Turner said the Stotts urged the team to take on the greatest cliché in sports: One game at a time. 

“That’s legit; exact words: Take it one game at a time,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is to think about one game at a time and not worry about the big picture. Clearly, it’s the first to four wins.’’

The Blazers will try to become the fifth team to lose their first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, joining the 2017 Celtics, who beat the Bulls in six, the 2005 Mavericks who beat the Rockets in seven, the 1994 Rockets who beat the Suns in seven and the 1969 Lakers, who beat the Warriors in six.

Stotts: Trail Blazers considering Game 2 changes

Stotts: Trail Blazers considering Game 2 changes

The Trail Blazers’ brain trust has discussed changes for Game 2 after New Orleans opened the series with a 97-95 win at the Moda Center.

“We’ve discussed matchups,’’ Blazers coach Terry Stotts said Monday after practice. “Whether we pull the trigger on change, that’s to be determined.’’

Stotts wouldn’t reveal whether those internal discussions involved lineup changes or assignment adjustments. 

Game 2 is Tuesday night in Portland. 

“I think you have to be prepared to do something like that,’’ Stotts said, referring to a lineup change. “Matchups certainly matter. Changing the start lineup can have an impact. But I also think it depends on how you feel after that game – if you feel something that significant is worthwhile.’’

Throughout the course of Sunday and Monday's media availabilities, it did not sound like Stotts felt the Blazers needed major changes. In fact, he felt the Blazers' defense was sound, and that the offense executed the game plan, outside of making open shots.

Still, coaches often don't telegraph big moves, and both Stotts and New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry have experience in changing series with surprise decisions.

In 2010, when he was head coach of the Phoenix Suns, Gentry and the Suns lost Game 1 at home to the Trail Blazers after Andre Miller bullied Steve Nash with 31 points. In Game 2, Gentry switched assignments, moving 6-foot-8 wing Grant Hill to guard Miller and stashing Nash on second-year player Nicolas Batum. 

With Hill’s length, Miller was neutralized for the rest of the series, scoring 12, 11, 15, 21 and 4 points as Phoenix rebounded and won the series in six games. Meanwhile, Blazers coach Nate McMillan never tried to expose Nash guarding the taller Batum, saying Batum at the time didn’t have a post-up game and wasn’t ready to assume a scoring role.

Stotts, meanwhile, was part of the Dallas staff in 2011 that switched its starting lineup in the middle of the NBA Finals, inserting jitterbug JJ Barea into the Game 4 starting lineup instead of Deshawn Stevenson. Down 2-1 at the time, the Mavericks went 3-0 with Barea and secured the NBA title in six games.

“It’s a tough call,’’ Stotts said. “It often depends where you are in a series. When we went to the finals in Dallas and changed the starting lineup and brought in JJ Barea, which was pretty significant, that kind of turned the tide for us.’’

So is there a tide-turning change in store for Game 2?

One change that could happen is the return of Maurice Harkless for the Blazers. The starting small forward has been upgraded from out to questionable for Game 2 after he missed the season’s final nine games and Game 1 recovering from a March 28 surgery on his left knee. 

Other possible changes: Starting Zach Collins or Ed Davis on Anthony Davis, moving Al-Farouq Aminu to Davis, or using the athleticism of Pat Connaughton to combat Jrue Holiday. 

Stotts on Monday also openly analyzed the defensive performances against three of New Orleans’ top Game 1 weapons – Anthony Davis (35 points, 14 rebounds), Holiday (21 points) and Nikola Mirotic (16 points).

Stotts said he felt starting center Jusuf Nurkic “did a good job” against Davis, noting that five of his eight baskets against Nurkic were outside shots, which indicated Nurkic did a good job of keeping Davis away from the basket.

And he indicated that Evan Turner on Holiday and Aminu on Mirotic were not so much matchup problems as much as momentary breakdowns in team defense. 

“It’s easy to say Evan started on Jrue and he had (21), maybe you have to change the matchup,’’ Stotts said. “I think you have to look closer at it, than just making changes. It would be different if a guy was posting up all night and it was 1-on-1, but the way he’s moving around, it’s not so much about matchup. And if they are scoring off pick-and-roll, is it about the matchup or the pick-and-roll defense? I just think there are a lot of factors that go into it.’’

Either way, Game 2 became a little more suspenseful after Stotts acknowledged his staff has talked about making changes. When told his answer was intriguing, Stotts smiled.

“Well, so was your question,’’ Stotts said.

Game 2 adjustment for Blazers: Nurkic looking to attack

Game 2 adjustment for Blazers: Nurkic looking to attack

It is yet to be seen whether the Trail Blazers will be able to make shots in Tuesday’s Game 2 against New Orleans, but one offensive factor figures to change: A more assertive Jusuf Nurkic.

“I need to be more aggressive, there is no doubt,’’ the Blazers’ center said. “Last game I wasn’t that aggressive.’’

More directly: the Blazers want Nurkic to dunk … or at least go stronger to the rim more often.

In Game 1, Nurkic finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting, and both Damian Lillard and coach Terry Stotts felt the 7-footer could have taken more shots off the pick-and-roll. However, in the days leading up to Game 1, Nurkic was schooled on how often the Pelicans sent a second man to help on the roller, which he said created a mindset to pass to an open man on the three-point line. 

“He was making the pass without realizing who was under the basket,’’ Lillard said. “He has to see that.’’

The most glaring decision to pass rather than attack the rim came in the third quarter, when he rolled to the rim and was met by 6-foot-4 guard Jrue Holiday. Within a foot of the rim, Nurkic passed out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who then passed to Evan Turner in the corner for a wide open three that missed.

As Nurkic came down on defense in front of the Blazers’ bench, Stotts yelled to Nurkic to dunk the ball, motioning his clenched fist like he was pounding a hammer.

“We would love to see him go through that contact and dunk on him,’’ Lillard said of that play. “Make them foul you.’’

How Nurkic performs out of the pick-and-roll will be a key subplot to the best-of-seven series. If he can exploit the Pelicans at the rim, Lillard said it figures to loosen how aggressively they trap. And if the Blazers can start making three-pointers – they made 12-of-39 (30.8 percent) in Game 1 – it will create a dilemma for the Pelicans.

Stotts emphasized that Nurkic didn’t make any bad decisions in Game 1 (he didn’t have a turnover), and noted that on nearly every pick-and-roll the Blazers got an open shot.  In fact, he noted that on the play he yelled at Nurkic, giving him the hammer motion, the Blazers got a wide-open three.

“I have a hard time complaining about an open three in the corner,’’ Stotts said. 

However, they never converted one of those shots as Nurkic was not credited with an assist. 

“He was tying to be unselfish a couple times where he probably could have finished at the basket,’’ Stotts said. “We had talked about how they collapse and he was very aware of that. It’s tough. It happens quickly and they have a good shell. He is going to have to make passes sometimes and he is going to have to finish sometimes.’’ 

After the game, Nurkic said he was satisfied how he played out of the pick-and-roll.

“I feel all decisions I take were good decisions,’’ Nurkic said. “An open shot is what we want. I feel confident in those guys out there waiting for the shot and I can’t ask for better shots. We had wide open shots and we don’t make them. If we make half of them we would be in good shape.’’

Nurkic’s play around the basket has been a topic nearly all season for the Blazers. Early in the season he had trouble finishing at the rim as he often opted for finesse rather than power. After the All-Star break, he worked on power moves and finishing, and it resulted in more efficient play, which included more dunks.

But Game 1, Nurkic seemed to revert to his early-season approach, perhaps because he said the game plan was entrenched in his head. 

“Coach wants me to do something so I try to listen to him,’’ Nurkic said. “When I get in the paint, they want me to make a decision: pass or go to the basket. I feel early in the game I tried to find open shots.’’

Most big men would drool at the thought of rolling to the basket with only a guard between him and the rim. Nurkic on Monday was asked whether he likes to dunk.

“I do. I do,’’ Nurkic said. “But I like to pass, too, so … like I said, it’s a decision I have to make. Sometime good, sometimes bad, and you learn from it.’’

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

When the playoffs begin Saturday in Portland, the games will mean a little more to three Trail Blazers.

After they were doubted, labeled and discarded early in their careers, something happened when Maurice Harkless, Shabazz Napier and Wade Baldwin arrived in Portland.

Their careers were resurrected. 

“Rejuvenated,’’ star Damian Lillard noted of the three players.

All three were former first round picks who had one foot out of the NBA after their teams gave up on them. Baldwin was waived by Memphis after one season. And in separate trades, Orlando sent Napier and Harkless to Portland for next to nothing. 

All three are expected to play a role in the Blazers’ first round series against New Orleans. Harkless, an energetic starting forward, is hopeful to return from knee surgery sometime next week. Napier, a jitterbug guard, has become one of the team’s top scoring reserves. And Baldwin, a barrel-chested guard, late in the season emerged as a defensive weapon that coach Terry Stotts said could be an option in the playoffs. 

While each player’s Rip City rebirth took different paths, and included much of their own work, each ascension spawned from what have become the defining traits of the Blazers’ franchise: astute scouting, nurturing and hands-on coaching, and an inclusive locker room culture. 

And of course, there is timing.

[WATCH: The Blazerlist - '77 Champions]

“What we have tried to do is get guys when we know they are ready for basketball to be the most important thing in their life,’’ said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations.

Here are their stories, and the background to how Olshey, Stotts and his staff have become one of the NBA’s best player development success stories.

**

When Maurice Harkless flew to Las Vegas in the summer of 2015 he was anxious.

He had just been traded to the Blazers from Orlando, where he was trending toward being a first-round bust, and he was scheduled for a workout in front of the Blazers’ coaches. 

 “I was like … over excited,’’ Harkless remembers. “It was almost nerve-wracking.’’

His emotions were on tilt because he knew he was getting a fresh start. Three seasons into his NBA career, two teams had traded him, and he was coming off a season in Orlando where he sat the bench more than he played. 

“Any time you can get a fresh start, it’s motivating, because it’s like you can create your own destiny at that point,’’ Harkless said.

In the Vegas gym, Harkless was a ball of energy. In fact, he and assistant coach Nate Tibbetts recently chuckled at the memory of how amped he was in the workout.

“I was just bouncing all over the place,’’ Harkless said. “I was … yeah, I was pretty good.’’

To Olshey and the Blazers’ coaches, Harkless’ impressive workout wasn’t a total surprise.

[RELATED: 1st Round Playoffs on NBCS Northwest]

Olshey said he nearly drafted Harkless in 2012 with the 11thoverall pick, but after much deliberation he instead selected center Meyers Leonard. Harkless went to Philadelphia at No. 15, then was later traded to Orlando as part of the massive three-team deal that included Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala.

 “The big takeaway from the first workout was that he had far more potential as a shooter than he had shown,’’ Olshey said. “And he was thrilled to be given a new lease on his basketball life.’’

Harkless has a hard time talking about his time in Orlando, mostly because he doesn’t fully understand what happened. 

“It was a weird situation in Orlando – brand new coach, whole new front office – they were trying to figure things out,’’ Harkless said. “And for some reason in my third season, I couldn’t get on the court, no matter what. We had guys playing, starting games, that aren’t even in the league anymore. Rookies, second-round picks, starting games.’’

In his three seasons in Portland, Harkless has averaged 71 games a season and he has started 120 times. He is widely credited this season with helping turn the Blazers’ season around with his defense and three-point shooting after he recovered from an early season benching. 

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 1]

“The way they run things here, as long as you work hard, eventually your opportunity is going to come,’’ Harkless said.

Harkless’ emergence also underscored one of Olshey’s most consistent traits since becoming the team’s top executive in 2012: scouting. 

“I think the one thing that has to be recognized is Neil has an eye for talent,’’ Stotts said. “There are a lot of players you can take a chance on; you just can’t pick anybody. You have to have an eye for a guy who is worth taking a chance on.’’

And in the summer of 2016, nobody wanted to take a chance on Shabazz Napier. 

Except Olshey.

**

Napier’s once proud resume as a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut, which garnered him much ballyhooed praise from LeBron James, had been tarnished two years into his NBA career.

His rookie season in Miami, he admits he was headstrong and difficult.

“In Miami, I was very stubborn. Very stubborn,’’ Napier said. “I guess they felt I was entitled to something, but I never felt entitled. I just never felt I got an opportunity. I was being told different things, and I became moody, and they didn’t appreciate it. And looking back, I couldn’t agree with them more.’’

After one season, the Heat traded him to Orlando, where he played sparingly. Then, after acquiring D.J. Augustin, it became clear to Napier he had no future in Orlando.

The former first round pick was traded to Portland for $75,000.

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 2]

When he arrived in Portland, he found a coaching staff different from his previous two stops. They listened to him, and they didn’t judge his past. 

“The staff here understands different stories. It’s not about just one guy. They understand Dame’s story, Pat’s story, Shabazz’s story … and they all want to not comfort, but support and push you,’’ Napier said. 

One of the tenets of Stotts’ coaching philosophy is giving everyone a chance, which requires an open mind.

“I don’t like having preconceived notions of guys coming in,’’ Stotts said. “There are situations that are created and everybody has a history – but you don’t know the whole story. So when I get a player, I don’t even want to call a previous coach … because now you are getting a bias. Whatever it is with a player – their personality, their character – it’s going to come through sooner or later. So why not start out with a clean slate?’’

What they found with Napier was a strong work ethic, a tenacious playing style, and a player who had learned from his past mistakes. 

This season, he emerged as a game-changing reserve whose offense played an instrumental role in keeping the team afloat during a trying early season. 

And to think, two seasons ago, he was worth $75,000 to an NBA team.

“This league is all about having an opportunity,’’ Napier said. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.’’

And as Wade Baldwin found out, sometimes it’s how you handle that opportunity.

**

When Memphis raised eyebrows across the league in October by releasing Baldwin, one year after they selected him 17thoverall, Olshey decided to take a chance, with one stipulation: Baldwin would have to prove himself in the G-League.

“There’s a reason why we didn’t just bring Wade right to Portland,’’ Olshey said. “We made him go to the G-League for two months. It was to humble him. And it was an important lesson.’’

In the weeks before he was released by Memphis, coach David Fizdale said Baldwin needed to “be a better teammate” and veteran Mike Conley said Baldwin was “too cocky” as a rookie.

“My attitude might have been misconstrued,’’ Baldwin said.  “That’s all I can really say.’’

Still, the reports were enough to give Olshey pause.

“I wouldn’t have traded for him,’’ Olshey said. “I wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick because I don’t know if that humbles him to the point where he is broken down and you can build him back up.’’

Olshey said the first step in Baldwin’s reclamation was “showing him love.’’

He needed thumb surgery, and the Blazers flew him to New York for the procedure, then guided and monitored him through six weeks of recovery.

After a 17-game stint in the G-League, when he averaged 18.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the Texas Legends, it was time to call him up to Portland.

On his first day, a Jan. 31 game with Chicago, Baldwin said he knew things would be different with the Blazers.

Veteran Evan Turner was one of the first to approach him.

“He invited me over after the game,’’ Baldwin said.

They sat on Turner’s couch and watched television, and shot the breeze. 

The next day, the team flew to Toronto, and when the team landed, Baldwin was asked out to dinner by the team’s two stars, Lillard and CJ McCollum.

And when they returned to Portland, Lillard again invited Baldwin to dinner, this time at Lillard’s home.

“That’s coming from starters, you know, seasoned vets. And I’m coming in as a two-way player from the G-League,’’ Baldwin said with a chuckle. “That’s not really supposed to happen. But it did.’’

Turner, for one, was keyed on the attitude of the second-year player. He figured attitude problems led to his release in Memphis.

“I was actually waiting to see it, to tell you the truth,’’ Turner said of Baldwin’s attitude. “I mean, it had to be something if they cut their lottery pick. But I was a guy who got the bad rap too, so I had sympathy. I know how it can be: The right (jerk) made the wrong decision and said it loud enough.’’

From the rap sessions on the couch, to the dinners on the road and in Portland, Baldwin had become accepted, something he said he never really felt in Memphis.

“The initial feeling I got here … like when I got drafted it was totally different feeling than joining the team here. I was welcomed, invited, and it kind of makes you want to give back,’’ Baldwin said. “What you receive you want to give back. It makes it easy.’’

Baldwin’s comfort became another layer in the Blazers’ storied culture. The players, led by Lillard, are about inclusion, and the coaches are dedicated to development.

“When Wade came here, nobody looked at him like a two-way player,’’ Lillard said. “That first day coaches were pulling him to the side, going over film, and he was being invited to dinners … it’s almost like a family. When players come here, they feel like they are being looked after, and that somebody actually cares about you. And I think you get more out of them when they feel like that.’’

**

As the playoffs start today, perhaps no team is getting more production for so little. Between Harkless, Napier and Baldwin, the Blazers had to give up a grand total of $75,000.

How do they do it?

While Olshey points to the Blazers’ exhaustive scouting, the development skills of the assistant coaches and Stotts’ ability to utilize and maximize that development, another factor is at play.

Maybe more so than any other NBA power structure, the Blazers can relate to the underdog story.

In their own careers, Olshey and the Blazers coaching staff know what it feels like to be a Harkless, Napier or Baldwin. They’ve been doubted, fired, and deemed not good enough for the NBA. 

Olshey admits he has an “underdog mentality” because he went from soap opera actor to player development coach to front office executive. And Stotts notes that every coach on his staff either coached or played in the minor leagues. 

“I think that is very unique,’’ Stotts said. “If you’ve spent time in the minor leagues, there is an appreciation for what you have, what it takes to get there, and what it means to be a guy who has to get better to take root with a team.’’

Added Olshey: “There’s an empathy here. What we have built, and what we take great pride in is we are a team, and we want to be in the gym helping guys get better.’’

It’s one reason why amid the rain clouds and Douglas Firs so many players have found an oasis of opportunity in Portland. Some, like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Mason Plumlee, JJ Hickson, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland have had career years. And others, like Tim Frazier, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe used the chance to springboard to bigger and better things.

What will be the final verdict of the Blazers’ latest reclamation projects? Neither Harkless, Napier nor Baldwin wanted to say. 

“All I know is I love it here,’’ Napier said. “But I don’t call it resurrection or reclamation, because it’s just starting.’’

Missing in action: Trail Blazers looking for their shot, mojo as playoffs near

Missing in action: Trail Blazers looking for their shot, mojo as playoffs near

DENVER – Al-Farouq Aminu was the last player to leave the Trail Blazers locker room Monday, and no matter how long he sat in front of his locker, he still couldn’t find the answer to what has happened to his shot and the Trail Blazers’ once invincible mojo.

Since the Blazers’ magical 13-game winning streak, Aminu’s shot has been decidedly off, and so too has the Blazers’ game. Monday’s 88-82 loss in Denver was the fourth consecutive defeat and lowered Portland to 4-7 since its memorable run through late February and March. 

Home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is now in jeopardy, although a win in Wednesday’s season finale against Utah will secure the third seed and the coveted right to host a best-of-seven series. Lose, and the Blazers could fall to as low as fifth, which would put them on a jet to start the playoffs. 

It is an odd feeling for a team that just weeks ago was brimming with confidence and playing with a swagger that caught the attention of even the most elite NBA teams. They are not far off from that brand of basketball, they insist, pointing to their defense and their grit during what has been 10 days of intense, playoff-caliber tune-ups.

The hardest thing for the Blazers to digest is why their shots are not falling. Coach Terry Stotts and every player insist the offense is producing good shots, and the players are taking the right shots. 

But, for whatever reason, those shots are off the mark.

It’s one of the things Aminu was pondering as he sat silently in front of his locker, and he smiled uneasily when asked if he can sense a hitch in his shot or a defect in his delivery.

“I wish. I wish,’’ Aminu said. “I wish it was that simple, in the sense it felt off, then it would be easier to correct. Just as a whole team, myself included, the ball hasn’t gone in as much as we would like to.’’ 

Aminu, who went 3-for-13 from the field including 1-for-8 from three-point range in Denver, echoed what many of his teammates said Monday – the law of averages will someday end this shooting slump. 

As often is the case, Aminu has been the bellwether of the Blazers’ aim. Since the streak ended, he is 12-for-59 (20.3 percent) from three-point range. During the Blazers’ run, he went 28-for-64 (43.8 percent) from three.

He is hardly alone. 

CJ McCollum continues to shoot a lot, and miss a lot. Pat Connaughton has disappeared. Shabazz Napier has cooled considerably after a breakout season. And Evan Turner continues to struggle if he is not posting. All told, the Blazers from three-point range the last 11 games are shooting 29 percent (101-for-348).

“Right now, we are just waiting for our shots to go down,’’ Turner said.

Aminu points out that the Blazers have been here before.  The offense sputtered at season’s start, but found its groove in January as the ball movement and shot-making improved. And even amid their recent three-point clankfest, the Blazers rank in the top 10 in three-point field goal percentage. 

It’s why the Blazers were borderline defiant Monday when peppered with questions about their shooting.

“There’s nothing to make of it,’’ Stotts snapped. “As long as we get good looks, I’m fine. That’s part of the game.’’

Added Lillard, when asked why he is optimistic their shot will return: “Because we can shoot the ball. If we were shooting bad because we are taking bad shots, then that would be a problem. But we are getting good looks. We are NBA players and we shoot the ball, that’s what our team does. It’s not a concern. It always comes back.’’ 

But will it in time to secure home court? And more important, in time for the playoffs?

It is a fitting predicament for a Blazers team that has been unpredictable and streaky throughout the season. Just when you think they are good, they slump. And just when you are convinced they are average, they surge.

Who are the real Blazers? And where is their collective shot? The answers will begin to reveal themselves on Wednesday in a pressure-packed finale. 

Lillard, for one, remains confident the shots will fall, and when that happens, the Blazers will once again look like an elite team.

“It happens,’’ he said of the missed shots. “I think everything balances itself out. You have times when you go on stretches when you shoot the ball really well, and then other times you struggle. I think right now, we are happy with the kind of basketball we are playing. The way we are playing is allowing us to get the good shots but those shots aren’t going in. you have to be able to deal with it, and take the good with the bad.’’

Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth, but say 'there is more work to be done'

Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth, but say 'there is more work to be done'

It was a modest celebration inside the Trail Blazers’ locker room Sunday when they clinched a playoff berth for the fifth consecutive season, the feeling of accomplishment not yet complete.

“There is more work to be done,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Indeed, with five games remaining, the Blazers (48-29) have an enticing bundle of carrots in front of them to keep them engaged. Portland can still earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, win the Northwest Division, reach 50 wins, and secure the Western Conference’s third overall seed.

“We still have some more goals to accomplish,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “There’s still a lot to play for.’’

The Blazers on Monday left for a four-game trip that will stop in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Denver. Win two of the games and the Blazers will reach 50 wins for the third time in Stotts’ six seasons, and they will wrap up homecourt advantage in the first round.

“Each game has some type of significance; I’m looking forward to all of them,’’ Lillard said. “If we get the job done on this trip, maybe we get some rest to finish up and get ready for the playoffs.’’

Both Lillard and CJ McCollum said they are in favor of getting some rest before the playoffs start April 14, and that will certainly be a motivating factor as the Blazers make their way through Texas.

At the same time, the Blazers would like to find their three-point shooting stroke. In their last six games they have shot below 32 percent from three-point range, although nobody seems overly concerned for the time being. For the season, the Blazers are shooting 37.1 percent from three.

Lillard and McCollum said the good news is the Blazers are still winning without shooting well, and added that it would be of greater concern if opponents’ defense was the cause of the misses.

“The fact that we are winning without making as many threes as we would like to is a good sign,’’ Lillard said. “And also knowing that when this happens, it comes back around. Hopefully, when we get in the playoffs, it will hit again, and it will be right on time.’’

Added McCollum: “I would like to think we will make them when it counts.’’

In the meantime, the Blazers turn their attention to Texas, and some lofty goals. Yes, there will always be that Easter Sunday locker room celebration, but they envision greater ones ahead.

“We still have things to do,’’ Lillard said. “It will be a better feeling when we can say – we’ve got home court, we won the division, we’re in playoffs again. Then you celebrate for real and give yourself a real pat on the back.’’