Zach Collins

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.’’

From doghouse to darling: Zach Collins' big game had inauspicious start

From doghouse to darling: Zach Collins' big game had inauspicious start

One of the best nights in Zach Collins’ young career actually started with the rookie being in coach Terry Stotts’ doghouse.

See, before Collins hit his first seven shots and finished with 15 points, four assists and one block in the Trail Blazers’ important 105-96 win over the Clippers on Friday, he was being yelled at by Stotts.

First, he was late in recognizing he had a mismatch on Austin Rivers, and it wasn’t until Stotts barked from the sideline that he established post position on the point guard.  But even then, Collins didn’t use good form, allowing Rivers to front him and steal the entry pass.

On the next possession, Collins was again late, this time in setting a screen for Damian Lillard.

From the 200 level, fans could hear Stotts, red-faced and arms spread in exasperation:

“ZACH!?”

Stotts turned his head and sat on the scorer’s table in frustration. After Lillard drew a foul, Stotts remained leaning on the scorer’s table. When he established eye contact with Collins he nodded and sternly clapped twice, as if to awaken the rookie out of his trance.

“That’s the one that set him off,’’ Collins said. “He just kind of sat down and looked at me like, ‘C’mon.’’

Collins knew he messed up, and turned his back, not wanting to see or hear whether Stotts had more in store for him.

“I was like, ‘Aw God. I’m sorry,’’’ Collins said. “I moved past it. But yeah, he definitely got on me early.’’

One possession later, Collins botched a pass from Lillard under the basket.

“It kept piling on,’’ Collins said. “It had to turn around at some point.’’

It did, in a big way. 

His 15 points and four assists were career highs and Collins once again provided strong interior defense while playing important minutes during a crucial stretch run toward the playoffs.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of Collins’ big night was nobody was terribly surprised, even after the rocky start.

“The fact that I didn’t even notice he was having a rough start tells you that we have a lot of confidence in him, we have a lot of faith in him,’’ Lillard said. “But it also says a lot about him – that he can get past a rough start and not allow it turn into a bad game.

“But Coach deserves a lot of credit for the trust he has shown in him,’’ Lillard said. “He’s playing consistent minutes, playing in big moments, he’s hit big shots, he’s had big blocks, and that’s given him a lot of confidence and made everyone else trust him. So if he has a bad start, it’s not like we are looking at him like, Zach is struggling, we need to get him out, … we know, he’ll figure it out.‘’

One of Collins’ more distinguishable traits is how hard he is on himself, and Friday was important in showing his progress in being able to play through criticism, both his own and his coach.

“Growing up, if something like (his early miscues) had happened, I would be like, ugh, damn … and I would be thinking about it the whole game,’’ Collins said. “But I’m glad it didn’t get to me, and I let it go.’’

His favorite part of Friday’s game, however, was his interior offense. In what is becoming a more consistent element to his game, Collins on Friday showed great footwork inside,  which included a spinning drive that he finished with his left hand.

“So much throughout the year, I’ve been out there to stretch the floor and shoot the three,’’ Collins said. “But it’s been a process finding that balance, because I feel like I can contribute inside as well. It’s finding that balance between spacing the floor for Dame and CJ and going inside when I need to. I think tonight I did a good job.’’

Collins, who is averaging 4.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16 minutes a game this season,  says his inside game has progressed as he has become more comfortable with the pro game.

“In the NBA, footwork is so much about taking a bigger step, you have to hit a little harder, go up a little stronger. Getting used to that is slow, but it’s definitely steady,’’ Collins said.

Kind of like his Friday night.

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

The Trail Blazers are in the midst of another late-season run, but the surge this season has a different look and a different feel.

The Blazers (37-26) have won six in a row and 13 of their past 14 home games to vault into third place in the Western Conference with 19 games remaining, and perhaps more than ever their play has been defined by one thing: they are a team.

Sure, Damian Lillard has been spectacular. And CJ McCollum has hit some big shots. But this spring blossoming has largely been rooted in team defense and the nightly emergence of a role player.

Pick a player – Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis,  Maurice Harkless, Zach Collins, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Pat Connaughton – and they have made a game-changing impact over the past month.

It has created an empowering and confident sense within the locker room that this team is not only hot and dangerous, but for real.

“In the past two years, when we went on great runs, it’s always been CJ has a great stretch, or I have a great stretch,’’ Damian Lillard said. “But now, it’s much more collective – both this season and during this run.’’

On Saturday, Oklahoma City’s game plan was to make someone other than Lillard beat them. They trapped and blitzed him, forcing him to get rid of the ball.  If the Thunder’s dare for someone other than Lillard to step up, it didn’t work out.

Turner hit three three-pointers. Collins had a career-high 12 points, including a critical fourth-quarter three. And Connaughton added some scrappy and timely baskets.

“We are not losing anything because guys are pulling their weight,’’ Lillard said. “Any time you have that kind of production, and that type of focus from guys, it makes an impact. It’s team effort. We are improving. We are becoming a better team.’’

It’s human nature to want a roster to come together immediately. But as the Blazers are showing, it often takes time. Development. And attention to detail.

Here is a collection of snapshots from the past week that show the subtleties and the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into the Blazers becoming a better team.

NURKIC GOES TO WORK ON SHOT

It has long been legend at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility that Lillard is one of, if not the first, player to arrive daily. But in the past couple weeks, the Blazers’ captain has arrived and noticed a player walking off the practice courts: center Jusuf Nurkic.

Nurkic, of course, was at the center of one of the biggest early-season storylines: the inability to finish around the basket. It was such an epidemic that the normally reticent coach Terry Stotts started publicly mentioning Nurkic’s poor shooting and finishing.

It’s unclear exactly what caught Nurkic’s attention, but the big man decided it was time to do something about the problem.

“I told the coaches: ‘I’m better than that,’’’ Nurkic said. “And that I’m going to work on it during the (All-Star) break. Thee break gave me time to work and rest mentally.’’

Nurkic said he has been showing up 30 minutes to an hour before practices to execute shooting drills with assistant coach Nate Tibbetts. One of the emphasis’ during the drills is taking only shots that he would take in the game and going to the basket with stronger moves.

During the Blazers’ six-game winning streak, Nurkic has been key. He’s averaging 14.7 points and shooting 51.3 percent from the field, which has included much better efficiency around the basket.

“He’s been spending a lot of time working on that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “The coaches have been challenging him, in our live practices he’s been real physical with (the ball) and I can tell he has been focusing on playing a more physical game, going stronger to rim and he is getting results from it.’’

THE COMING OF COLLINS

After the Blazers beat Minnesota on Thursday, the locker room was full of smiles and playful banter. But rookie Zach Collins, his lips tight and his eyes pierced, was in no mood to celebrate. He bee-lined for the door, one of the first to leave.

He had been entrusted with fourth-quarter minutes in a crucial game, but on back-to-back possessions, with the score tied, Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng secured offensive rebounds.

“I was really frustrated with that,’’ Collins said later. “There were a couple of times I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.’’

So the next game, against Oklahoma City, Collins didn’t disappoint.

Playing all but the final 27 seconds of the fourth quarter, Collins was one of the catalysts in one of the Blazers’ most important wins of the season. He hit all three of his shots in the fourth and had two blocks down the stretch. All told, he finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes and was the epicenter of a huge media gathering afterward.

“Any time I have a bad game, this will be the one to watch,’’ he quipped, noting he is notoriously hard on himself.

Around the locker room, the rookie has earned a healthy dose of respect. The veterans love his toughness, and everybody sees that he cares, both through his work ethic and intensity.

“He has a bright future ahead, and I’m not saying that just because he’s my teammate,’’ Davis said. “I really think he is going to be a good player. I mean, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have won this game (against OKC). ‘’

Nearly every player talks about Collins’ makeup, from his intensity, to how he isn’t intimidated.

“He’s just not going to back down. That’s all you can ask for in a player,’’ Davis said. “Especially a young guy from a small school. Guys in this league, they are grown men, and they are going to try you, test you, and he’s standing up to everybody. I can’t do nothing but respect him.’’

Harkless sees Collins’ mental roller coaster more than anyone. He dresses next to Collins at home games and often sees the 20-year-old wear his frustration.

“Me and him have similar attitudes,’’ Harkless said. “I know talking too much doesn’t help, so I just hit him with little things here and there and then I just let him have his space. For me, that works for me rather than someone trying to over talk.’’

Like Davis, Harkless loves the fire and toughness in Collins.

“He doesn’t back down to anybody. Ever,’’ Harkless said. “And the passion he plays with (chuckles) I remember one time he went up for verticality and came down, mouth all bloody. He licked his lips and kept playing. Stuff like that. Little things like that show you the traits of a tough player, a tough person.’’

It’s that mindset, along with a solid work ethic, that has allowed Collins to go from a project coming out of Summer League to a player who is entrusted with crunch time minutes in the middle of a playoff push.

“He has continued to improve throughout the season, and I think this was a culmination of a lot of work,’’ Stotts said.

NAPIER’S LATE-GAME EMERGENCE

During the comeback victory over Minnesota, when Portland trailed by 10 with one minute left in the third quarter, much was made about Lillard’s 13 fourth-quarter points.

But in the comeback, it was a Shabazz Napier three-pointer that tied the score in the fourth, and a Napier fast-break pull-up jumper that gave the Blazers the lead, continuing a season-long trend of clutch play by the backup point guard.

It prompted Ed Davis to note that one of the emerging strengths of the Blazers is the ability to have three “closers” – players who can make a big shot, or put away a game with their shot-making ability.

“All season long, Bazz has had moments where he has hit a big pull up or hit a big three, or made a big steal,’’ Lillard said. “He’s a game-changer, a big-time play maker. I think Ed is right.’’

Napier has long lived for the big moments. Now that it’s March, the two-time NCAA champion from UConn says he welcomes the big games looming on the Blazers’ schedule.

“I’ve always felt my game does change when -  not really because it’s March - but when I know its coming down to the wire. It fuels me, puts more wood to fire – like, what impact can you make today? Because I know: it’s winning time. I know that my biggest goal is to win a championship so you have to play your best games at the end of the year. ‘’

Of course, his big moments against Minnesota came on the heels of his worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, a slump that was punctuated by an 0-for-10 night in Phoenix. On the Blazers’ off day, he was in the gym working on his shot, and after the next practice, he was the last player to leave the practice courts.

“I’ve always felt failure is a learning experience,’’ Napier said. “And I’ve always felt especially in those times where the game is on the line, you know, clutch moments, that I would rather be the guy who is taking the shot. Because I can deal with being the hero and I can deal with being the zero. It’s kind of who I am.’’

Trail Blazers hire former referee Don Vaden as a consultant

Trail Blazers hire former referee Don Vaden as a consultant

There is a new member on Trail Blazers, but Friday’s transaction had nothing to do with adding shooting, perimeter defense or veteran leadership.

Still, the addition of Don Vaden gives the Blazers something no other NBA team currently has: a former NBA referee to serve as a consultant who offers everything from education on league rules, background on referee personalities and tendencies, and views into how to avoid, or draw, fouls.

Although Vaden signed on Friday, he has been around the Blazers since January and has already offered these insights and coaching tips to players and coaches:

*Vaden has instructed rookie Zach Collins that his defensive style of vertically challenging shots – which often drew fouls early in the season – is fundamentally sound and will eventually earn the respect of the officials.

*Ed Davis, who has been called for a rash of pushing fouls underneath the basket, needs to keep his arms closer to his body if he intends to get away with the move.

*And if you thought Damian Lillard has increasingly tried to draw fouls while attempting three-pointers, it’s because Vaden admits with a sheepish chuckle: “That’s being taught.’’

“He’s going to be a tremendous resource,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Vaden has 30 years of experience between the NBA and WNBA. He spent 15 seasons as an NBA referee, retiring in 2003, and spent 15 years in the WNBA, where he worked as the director of referees and their officiating programs.

The position is unique in today’s game, but not groundbreaking. Vaden says the Houston Rockets years ago employed a former referee for a similar role. Vaden says his company, Interactive Consulting, is open to signing with other teams.

Vaden was at Thursday’s Blazers-Pacers game and offered the team a few observations and explanations. While CJ McCollum prepared to shoot a jumper, a foul was called under the basket as a Pacers defender wrestled with Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic. McCollum made his shot, but after review, the basket was disallowed and play resumed after an inbound.

Vaden explained that the basket would have counted had McCollum been in the upward shooting motion of his shot when the foul occurred, and Nurkic would have been awarded a free throw.

Also, he pointed out how a player should have been called for an offensive foul while going up for a layin, because his off-ball arm was extended beyond a 90-degree angle.

And he also eased the mind of Blazers guard Pat Connaughton, who thought he was fouled on a shot. Vaden confirmed he was.

He said he hopes these types of observations and comment can help clear the minds of players and better educate them why fouls are, or are not, called.

Vaden’s hire comes at a time when tensions between players and referees have escalated.  He said he hopes that escalation doesn’t reach the Blazers.

“I look at it this way: We are in the same office. They have to be able to work together and they have to figure it out,’’ Vaden said.

“There is enough problems in the league between referees and players that I don’t want it to happen here, and I don’t want it to happen within the league. So the more we can help figure that piece out, and open the lines of communication, the better off we will be.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He paused, then continued.

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,’’ Harkless said.

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach Collins joins the club: Trail Blazers rookie part of postgame lifts

Zach Collins joins the club: Trail Blazers rookie part of postgame lifts

For the past three years, a group of Trail Blazers have formed an unofficial club that lifts weights immediately after home games.

And this year, with the encouragement of some veterans like Maurice Harkless and Ed Davis, there is a new member: rookie Zach Collins.

“I make Zach go,’’ Harkless said with a chuckle.

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Added Davis: “Every day I’m in there, I see him in there. Kid is smart.’’

The post-game lifts are another layer to the team’s culture of hard work and togetherness, and in the case of Collins, it could be one of the more subtle developments to the season.

Collins, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is skilled and savvy, but at age 19 (he turns 20 on Nov. 19) he is at times physically outmatched by veterans.

Whether he is able to add muscle and gain strength figures to play a part in how quickly he makes an impact.

“For him, if I were in his shoes, I would just live in the weight room,’’ Davis said. “I think he understands that.’’

Collins is listed at 7-feet and 235 pounds. He said he has already put on “a couple” pounds of muscle since he has joined the Blazers, and he says he has embraced the weight room culture, even if he entered somewhat curiously.

It was after a preseason home game in which he didn’t play, and Collins had thoughts of getting in a workout. He peeked inside the weight room, which is down the hall from the Blazers’ locker room, and was taken aback.

“There were a bunch of guys in there,’’ Collins said. “Post game at home … it’s what they do, I guess. So I started going, and I’m happy to be a part of it.’’

The core group includes Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Pat Connaughton, Meyers Leonard and Harkless.

They usually lift for 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes emphasizing core, sometimes upper body, sometimes lower body.

“You do it just to stay right,’’ Davis said.

Added Harkless: “It feels good. It’s like putting in work, and we all like to work.’’

Collins said he is already seeing progress in the mirror and on the court.

“In practices, I’m not getting pushed around as much,’’ Collins said. “So it’s getting there.’’

Harkless, whose locker is next to Collins, and Davis, who often goes against him in practices, are both keeping an eye on his progress and making sure he remains diligent.

“For him, that’s like his next step,’’ Davis said. “Once he gets more strength and is able to hold his own, he’s going to be a problem.’’

Collins has appeared in two of the Blazers’ seven games and has played 15 minutes this season, both Harkless and CJ McCollum said he continues to have a good attitude and proper perspective.

“I’ve gotta get stronger,’’ Collins said. “And once I get stronger I feel like everything is going to get a lot easier for me. So I’m trying to get in a routine and not run away from the weight room. If I keep doing that, things are going to come quicker.’'

Today's Blazers' links: 

How and where to watch tonight's Blazers-Jazz game.

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes says the Blazers need to work more for open shots

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes that Noah Vonleh is cleared to return tonight versus Utah. 

Some Utah Jazz notes, including the friendship between Lillard and Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell.

 

Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Interesting opening night for the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday. It was far from pretty but there are no bad wins -- you take it and move on.

The Blazers are blessed with a lot of talent and it makes for some interesting rotations and substitution patterns for Coach Terry Stotts, particularly on a night when the starters aren't carrying the kind of load they usually handle. In Milwaukee on Saturday, he used only eight players in the first half and then Tuesday vs. New Orleans tried 11 in the first half. And he had a couple of real short bench stays that were interesting, too. Jusuf Nurkic had one 51-second trip to the bench in the third quarter and Evan Turner sat just 1:58 at one point of the fourth quarter.

Stotts has so many players who deserve playing time but then you also want to stay with the ones who are playing well. Then there's the issue of developing players. There is no doubt that Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins need playing time if they're to develop -- but not at the expense of losing a game. Rookies can be a risk in close games -- at least a lot of coaches seem to think so.

Veteran players bring problems of their own. If they don't get the playing time they think they deserve they can often become locker-room problems. It's a difficult situation to navigate for a coach. Frankly, there is nobody on the Portland bench this season just happy to be on a team and drawing a paycheck. In the past, there has been a few of those.

All in all, handing out minutes can be a complicated situation with so many capable players.

Meyers Leonard played Tuesday, which was not surprising given his success defending DeMarcus Cousins in the past. Leonard got only 6:25 but during his time on the court Cousins had a couple of turnovers, missed two shots and appeared to be his usual frustrated self when confronted by Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard made both his shots from the floor, including a three-pointer, had two rebounds and a steal. But he got no second-half time.

After the game, Stotts praised many members of his bench:

"I thought Ed Davis, and Caleb gave us a nice spark off the bench," he said. "As did Pat."

He was asked how he felt about Leonard's work against Cousins.

"I thought he was OK for the time that he was in there," Stotts said. "Look, Cousins had a great game. He did a lot of good things. He got to the basket, got to the free-throw line, but I thought Ed, Meyers, Nurk, they all had their turn on him and you can't look at 39 (points) and 13 (rebounds) and say anybody did a great job."

I suppose not. But when you give up only three of those 39 points, you can't get a lot of the blame -- particularly when you outscore him while you're on the court. But as I said, there are a lot of players to keep track of off that Portland bench and perhaps Leonard had nothing to do with Cousins' struggles while they were on the court at the same time. Or maybe he just got lost in the shuffle. Eleven Blazers played Tuesday night, including Shabazz Napier, who got just three and a half minutes.

That's a lot to of players to use in a close game.

Bench talent is a blessing, not a curse. At some point of the season, everybody on that bench is going to have a chance to make a significant contribution.

But for right now, juggling all that talent can be a real coaching challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other news and notes about the opener:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

The under-the-radar Trail Blazers could win 50 games in the tough West

Ready or not, here they come. The Portland Trail Blazers will unpack those new Nike uniforms and open the regular season tonight in Phoenix.

And I must admit, I expect big things. I think the Trail Blazers are flying under the radar a little bit this season. They didn't add a big-name free agent, make a blockbuster trade or get a top-five draft choice, but they've improved a lot. How does that happen? Well, this team has been one of the youngest in the league for the past three seasons and it's growing up and growing together. Experience matters and so does player development -- and not many teams do that as well as the Trail Blazers.

This roster is improved from top to bottom. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are all-star level players but we know by now they do not sit around all summer doing nothing. You will see they've gotten better. I expect Pat Connaughton to have a breakout season, earning playing time with an all-around game that's better than what was lost with the trade of Allen Crabbe to Brooklyn. The rookies, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins, will improve as the season progresses and I expect that somewhere along the line each will play a part in winning games.

Yes, the defense is still a question mark. It looked better in the exhibition season but to be fair, the preseason games didn't include any of the NBA's premier offensive teams. We shall see. And it goes without saying, too, that Jusuf Nurkic must stay healthy.

But I expect this team to have a shot at 50 wins and contend for a spot in the upper half of the West playoff bracket. It's going to be a dogfight but this group is ready to take it to another level and show its potential as a future West contender.

And it all starts tonight -- on NBC Sports Northwest, where you will always find Rip City Live before the game and Talkin' Ball after the game,