Mike Richman

Pau Gasol's availability is the last Blazers rotation question to be answered

Pau Gasol's availability is the last Blazers rotation question to be answered

There is one lingering question facing the Trail Blazers as the regular season nears: Is Pau Gasol going to be ready by opening night?

If healthy, the 39-year-old center is going to play. But he hasn’t been fully cleared yet and his availability for the regular season is still an unknown, leaving the backup center spot the last real question mark as the Blazers edge toward opening night.

After two real preseason games, the rest of the playing rotation is starting to come into focus.

The big decisions for this team were probably made well before the exhibition games, mostly in July as Neil Olshey and the front office reconfigured the roster.

The starting group is almost certainly set with Zach Collins and Rodney Hood manning the forward spots alongside guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and center Hassan Whiteside. 

Anfernee Simons and Kent Bazemore have been locks for major playing time since June and Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver also figure to be a regular part of the opening night rotation, as Terry Stotts has said he’ll likely start the year going 10-deep into his bench. 

With uncertainty over the final big man spot lingering, Stotts has tested out a few different groupings to see what combinations work should Gasol still be sidelined when the games start to count. On Saturday, Stotts started Anthony Tolliver at power forward, giving the starting lineup another shooter while sacrificing some of the rim protection Collins provides.

“I wanted to see Anthony out there with Dame and CJ and Hassan as a spacing four-man,” Stotts said after the Blazers lost to the Phoenix Suns. “He’s a good team-defender. He talks out there. I thought I wanted to see him what that group because of his ability to space the floor with those other guys.”

Stotts has also made a point to test out the Collins-Skal Labissiere pairing, a duo that could anchor the bench frontline if Gasol isn’t healthy. Labissiere didn’t play in summer league because of a shoulder injury, but he’s been cleared for full contact since the end of July and has been working out daily at the Blazers practice facility since he arrived in Portland on August 31. 

Gasol, who had surgery on his left foot in March, has gone through a light on-court shooting routine before each of the past two games, but that’s as much basketball work as the future Hall of Famer has done in the public eye. His health has pushed Labissiere from bench insurance to possible rotation regular.

“I think the big man (rotation) is going to be fluid until Pau comes back,” Stotts said Saturday night.  “Skal … playing Anthony, playing Mario at (power forward). I think it’s going to depend on how the game is going and matchups. But Skal’s had a really good camp and I think he’s earned at least a chance to earn some more minutes.”

For his part, Labissiere admits he’s still learning the system, and just trying to do the little things to earn the coaching staff’s trust.

“I’ve just tried to find ways to help the team out,” Labissiere said. “It doesn’t have to be scoring. Just setting good screens for Dame and CJ. Just talking and communicating. I feel like that’s what’s going to get me on the court to be honest.”

The Labissiere/Gasol question is the last playing time issue to be addressed. Most of the rest of the rotation is clear and got even sharper during the loss to the Suns: McCollum is going to get more minutes running the second unit as a de facto backup point guard alongside Simons. The Blazers are going to go small at times with Hezonja playing power forward and initiating the offense. 

With a likely dress rehearsal coming Tuesday at Utah, the picture will get even clearer next week even if the biggest question remains unanswered.

Why Nassir Little's injury was a significant missed opportunity

Why Nassir Little's injury was a significant missed opportunity

The Trail Blazers' second game of the preseason was supposed to be an opportunity for young players and the back half of the roster to play extended minutes.

Instead it turned into just a brief cameo for rookie Nassir Little.

With Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside getting the night off, Terry Stotts had hoped to give the rookie forward at least 20 minutes against visiting Maccabi Haifa. But Little’s night lasted just three minutes after he sprained his left ankle early in his first shift and had to leave the game for good during the second quarter.

Little got into the paint and rose up for a layup drawing a foul as he landed awkwardly on his left leg. He stayed in the game to attempt both free throws, but the Blazers committed an intentional foul to get their first round pick out of the game. Little walked straight back to the locker room and didn’t return.

Afterwards he didn’t sound concerned, calling his ankle “a little sore but nothing major.”

“It’s been doing good, it was just a minor tweak,” he added.

It was a lost opportunity for Little who had solid showing at the end of the Blazers first preseason game against Denver on Tuesday. He didn’t get an x-ray after Thursday's game, saying team doctors deemed in unnecessary, but he admitted that it was unlikely he will be cleared to play by Saturday night when the Blazers take on the Phoenix Suns (5pm on NBC Sports Northwest).

Thanks to the early injury, Little remains largely an unknown in the very early stages of his rookie season. Blazers fans got a chance to see him in summer league, but he’s played just 16 total minutes in preseason after spending September sharpening his game at the Blazers practice facility.

“Training camp was really good,” he said. “Just learned a lot, trying to get better each and every day. So, I thought it was pretty productive for me.”

Behind the scenes, the Blazers have been impressed with Little’s work ethic and his athleticism as a 19 year old going up against pros. But he isn’t likely to get much playing time during the regular season, which makes his absence from exhibitions games even more unfortunate.

The two weeks of the preseason were going to be a chance for him to get valuable on-court experience in a competitive setting against real opponents. With the minor injury, he’ll have to wait a few days before getting back out on the court. But a timeline of a couple days isn't bothering Little, who offered a much wider view before making his way out of the locker room.

“I’ll have a long career, I’m confident in that,” Little said with a smile. “So there will definitely be more games down the road.”

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Listen here for a special Trail Blazers edition of The Bridge Podcast with Kevin Calabro:

Been there done that: How this veteran group of Trail Blazers is governing themselves

Been there done that: How this veteran group of Trail Blazers is governing themselves

Anthony Tolliver has done this before. Three years ago he was a in Sacramento, then Detroit and last season it was Minnesota. 

The Blazers 34 year old forward is very familiar with learning a new system and new teammates during training camp and preseason.

“I’ve been in enough situations now personally to be able to adjust pretty quickly,” Tolliver said after the Blazers first preseason game. “For me it’s just still always a process learning the new language. Every culture, every process, every coach, every team has its own language for the same type of stuff. As soon as you get that down it really becomes just basketball after that, and that’s the easy part.”

The defensive coverage that the Kings called “gold, the Timberwolves called “down", and the offensive action that was “motion” with the Pistons looks a little bit different with the Blazers. But the veteran forward isn’t sweating the new lingo. He’s had 12 preseasons worth of practice to perfect the adjustment process. 

He isn’t alone on the Blazers roster either. Unlike in the summer of 2015 when the Blazers’ roster upheaval left Portland with the youngest roster in the league, the team’s next major roster turnover five summers later granted Terry Stotts and his coaching staff with a veteran group.

Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside and Pau Gasol have all played at least seven NBA seasons and their institutional knowledge from years in the league make them quick studies as they try to learn Stotts’ system.

“Pau Gasol, and Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazemore after a day picked up on everything,” Stotts said. “The learning curve is a lot easier with veteran guys.”

Stotts said the practices have been more nuanced, instead of hands on teaching he can explain a concept or new set and then let guys work through it in live settings.

“We’re picking stuff up. I think it’s a good mix of experience and young talent. That’s allowing us to keep moving along,” Damian Lillard said. “We’re able to teach each other. I’m always pulling somebody aside and sharing something with them, Kent is pulling somebody aside, CJ is pulling somebody aside, even Pau. We’re governing ourselves in those situations instead of coach having to go over stuff two, three, four times. It’s like first time and then we’re on the sideline discussing it. I think that’s been a huge part of us being ablt to keep moving instead of one thing at a time.”

Even with a veteran group picking up concepts on the fly there will still be challenges. New teammates have to learn each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. And for all their familiarity with the offensive and defensive calls, the Blazers still struggled to shoot against the Nuggets in their preseason opener and the offense stalled after halftime. They looked like a new group playing together against real competition for the first time.

But with vets across the rotation, the team has been able to skip over some early season challenges that come with less experienced rosters. They have plenty of guys that have been here before, next up is figuring out how to do it together.

“That’s what this time, what preseason is for, early in the season if for,” Tolliver said. “To really get through those humps and figure things out.”

The Portland Trail Blazers made memories worth clinging to

The Portland Trail Blazers made memories worth clinging to

Before Meyers Leonard left the arena for a final time this season, he needed to make one more stop.

He walked down the back hallway inside the Moda Center with his wife and a small group of friends and then made a hard left, dipping back into the long deserted locker room to grab a memento from a special night that concluded a unforgettable season.

Leonard snagged a final box score, which included his stat line from the best game-winner of his seven year NBA career: 30 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in 40:17.

He said he probably wouldn’t frame, but he wanted the keepsake.

It’s safe to say Leonard is not the only person in Rip City who will want to save the memory from this Trail Blazers run. This team played long enough and racked up enough special moments that depending on who you ask, those lasting memories are different.

For rookie Anfernee Simons it will be the first round series against Oklahoma City.

“That … that was fun,” the Blazers rookie said through a massive grin, recalling Damian Lillard’s 37-foot series-clinching dagger that sent a bitter rival packing.

For Jake Layman, it will probably be Game 7 in Denver when the Blazers climbed back from down 17 to win on the road after avoiding elimination in Game 6.

And Seth Curry will always appreciate earning the chance to go head-to-head against his older brother, Stephen, a backyard sibling rivalry turned Western Conference Finals showdown. Like Leonard, Seth Curry left with his brothers’ Golden State jersey. It was a night to leave with a souvenir.

Perhaps those aren’t the moments you’ll cling to weeks, months or years from now when remembering this iteration of the Blazers. Maybe you’ll remember a four overtime marathon capped by Hood’s heroics. Or Lillard waving goodbye to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Or CJ McCollum drilling a mid-range daggers over a helpless Torrey Craig. Or a hobbled Enes Kanter fighting off Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic with a separated left shoulder.

“On the whole probably just getting here to Western Conference Finals,” Evan Turner said when asked what will stick with him about this season. “I think that’s pretty cool when you look at it. But there’s a lot of little moments in between.”

The little moments is what made this season special, and made the big moments possible. Even the Blazers joyous and exhilarating run was dotted with heartbreak and setbacks along the way. Three days before the season Paul Allen, the team’s long time owner, passed away suddenly. Then in the waning days of the regular season, center Jusuf Nurkic fractured his leg, ending his best NBA season nine games before the playoffs. After the triumph of the first round win over, Oklahoma City video coordinator and development coach Jon Yim was in a serious car accident that caused him to miss the remainder of the playoffs.

“We lose our owner,” Lillard said. “We dealt with injuries -- CJ missed a lot of games at a crucial stretch in the season, and we just kept answering the call. And that takes a group of guys to maybe go from not playing minutes, stepping up, giving us good minutes, trusting each other, leaning on each other. It takes a real group to be able to come together in those hard times on more than one occasion, and I thought we did that.”

It was Meyers Leonard on Monday. But it had been Evan Turner in Games 6 and 7 against Denver. Rodney Hood came off the bench to deliver a game-winning at the end of four overtimes after Enes Kanter had sealed a playoff-opening win with a two crucial late-game rebounds. Up and down the roster, the Blazers answered the call.

This year was always going to be defined by what the Blazers did in the playoffs. It was a core that had proved it could be consistently good but rarely great in years past. They had been swept out of consecutive playoffs and another early exit could have led to a major overhaul. Through adversity and with Lillard’s steady leadership guiding a collective push, the Blazers dashed preseason expectations and then exorcised their postseason demons.

“We all stayed ready,” Turner said. “Nobody really bailed out if things didn’t go their way. We stayed together as a team. I think that was the most special thing. We really stayed together as a team. You can really see how, in a lot of different ways, we grew as a team. We reached our full potential. Because before the season nobody really had us pegged to do any of this.”

You cannot capture this moment again. That’s not because the Blazers can’t get back to this stage, in fact, Lillard spent much his postgame press conference explaining exactly why he thinks his team showed they can repeat their run. That’s not because the nature of the business means this team will look a little different next season. The Blazers might come back better, stronger for having made this playoff push and wiser for passing the tests along the way.

This moment isn’t repeatable because expectations mute joy. The first time with its shocking unanticipated delight is always going to be the sweetest. The Blazers won’t be able to duplicate this even with identical results.

It’s why Seth Curry made sure to swap jerseys with his brother. It’s why Leonard made that last stop to grab a box score. It was a night to savor the memories and appreciate the ride.

“When you look back at this it’s going to be special for all of us individually and as a team,” Hood said. “We made it to the Western Conference Finals. People don’t understand how hard that is to do. And to do it in the Western Conference. And to play great basketball against the defending world champions. We can’t ask for nothing better.”

'Wrecking ball' Draymond Green is demolishing the Trail Blazers

'Wrecking ball' Draymond Green is demolishing the Trail Blazers

With Rip City nearly reduced to rubble, the leader of the demolition lingered at midcourt to celebrate with his co-workers.

Draymond Green hugged Stephen Curry and then hi-fived Alfonzo McKinnie, Kevon Looney and Klay Thompson. Behind a virtuoso performance from their fiery do-it-all forward, the Golden State Warriors grabbed a commanding 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals, moving them one win away from a fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He was like a wrecking ball, destroying everything in his path. The pace that he was generating was incredible. It just seemed like he never got tired.”

Game 3 in the Moda Center played out much the same way as Game 2 at Oracle Arena had two days earlier. The Blazers put together a brilliant first 24 minutes then the wrecking ball came crashing through in third quarter. The Warriors have a way of making double-digit leads crumble in an instant, the Blazers’ 18 point lead in Game 3 last longer than their 17 point lead in Game 2, but the final result was still the same.

In the decisive third quarter Saturday night, Green took two shots, drawing a shooting foul on one and finishing a transition layup on the other. But he changed the game with his force, creating 13 points off six assist and grabbing six rebounds while pushing the pace at every opportunity. He overwhelmed the Blazers and shifted the series likely for good.

Defensively, Green was seemingly everywhere. He would trap Damian Lillard above the three-point arc and then recover to disrupt the back end of the play to make life miserable for the Blazers if they could maneuver into the paint.

Even before the game-changing third quarter, Green kept the Warriors in striking range in the first half. Getting easy transition buckets by relentlessly pushing the ball after the Blazers would score. He kept the window open for a Golden State run, and then decided to just kick the front door down instead.

“He was the difference-maker,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “What he did, he kept them going, even though we had a lead in the first half, his energy, the way he was pushing the ball, kept them going, and you know, he has such an impact on the game on both ends.”

Curry and Thompson get the headlines for the Warriors and rightfully so. Curry’s long-range shooting threat has helped the Warriors leverage easy baskets all series long. But it’s Green’s decision making that has helped Golden State take advantage of a team so concentrated on a Splash Brothers onslaught. Trap Curry, and Green will happily make the right play out as he rolls to the rim. Fail to get over a screen, and Green will deliver a pass with impeccable timing to capitalize on the mistake.  

“It’s an interesting challenge,” Blazers forward Moe Harkless said. “Because he so good playing with his teammates. He’s like the perfect fit for the guys around him.”

The Blazers have made their adjustments, and mostly they have been effective. They’ve ratcheted up the perimeter pressure on Curry and Thompson to take away the opens three-pointers Portland conceded in Game 1. Stotts inserted Meyers Leonard into the starting group in Game 3, a move that helped the Blazers get more space on offense and loosen up the Warriors defense with an additional long-range shooter and strong screen setter.

Those adjustments weren’t enough. In large part because Green is hard to scheme against. Daring a non-shooter to take unguarded jumpers can work, unless of course that non-shooter is driving the ball at full speed towards the rim, compromising a defense and finding his all-world teammates with uncanny timing. Avoiding an All-NBA defender on offense works, until he steps into passing lanes from the weakside or meets a drive in the paint with swarming ferocity.

The adjustments limited the easy splashes. They haven’t stop the wrecking ball. Green’s relentlessness has seemingly worn down the Blazers. Portland’s stars looked tired, Golden State looks to be rounding into title chasing rhythm.

“We just want to try to wear guys down over the course of 48 minutes,” Green said when asked if Golden State pressure had exhausted Lillard and Blazers teammates. “It's not necessarily that he's going to start the game gassed but if you can just wear him down over the course of 48 minutes, that makes those shots as the game goes on a little bit tougher.”

In the past, Green could be rattled. His biggest nemeses were the people with whistles, not those in opposing jerseys. Admittedly, Green said he “got to a point where I was doing more crying than playing.” His feud with the officials on hold, he can get back to making life miserable for his opponents. His multi-faceted brilliance has all but ended the Blazers seasons.

The Blazers have played back to back excellent first halves, they made subtle defensive adjustments and found a better solution in their starting lineup. Sometime this summer the Blazers may be able to appreciate what they accomplished during this run to West Finals. But that time isn’t now, because they’re seemingly out of moves and out answers. Their inevitable demolition is coming. They can’t avoid the wrecking ball.

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Entering Game 7, Jusuf Nurkic has become the Trail Blazers biggest fan

Entering Game 7, Jusuf Nurkic has become the Trail Blazers biggest fan

The Trail Blazers staved off elimination Thursday night at the Moda Center. But when they board the team plane to head to Denver on Saturday afternoon ahead of Game 7, the guy who wants to be there the most likely won’t be on the flight.

“It’s ridiculous,” Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic said almost scoffing at the challenge of watching his team play the biggest games of the season while he is forced to watch from the sidelines. “But I gotta take it. For me, it’s harder when you’re out there (on the bench) and not out there (in the game). When you’re watching and you actually just can only watch as a fan, it makes even harder.”

Six weeks ago, Nurkic suffered a gruesome leg injury, sustaining compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula. That he’s even at the games walking around without support is a surprise. Yet he’s become a bench staple at second half of home games, emerging from the Moda Center tunnel with a suit and a custom t-shirt to be welcomed by an eruption from the Blazers faithful when he is shown on the arena screens.

He smiles. Waves. Pumps up the crowd. And basks in the cheers for a moment. But there’s agony under the surface. There is nothing Nurkic would like to do more than help his team on the floor during these playoffs.

“I wish I could play,” he says more than with a hint of resignation.

Nurkic was telling anyone that would listen that he wanted to be in uniform Thursday night. He told assistant coaches, he told the team’s security guard, he told Terry Stotts, and he told Damian Lillard.

“Today was actually the first time that he said to me when I was sitting next to him on the bench, he said, ‘Man I wish I could play with my broken leg. I would go out there right now and get hurt again if I could,” Lillard said. “And I was like, ‘This dude is crazy.’”


On the bench, Nurkic is believably vocal. He’s calling out defensive coverages, encouraging his teammates’ effort and of course seizing the moment to talk trash to his former Nuggets teammates.

“He’s talking,” Seth Curry said. “He always talking. And just … he’s just Nurk.”

Nurkic is brash, bold and, as Lillard has described him, as petty as they come. That’s why when he made his post-injury debut at the Moda Center he came wearing a custom t-shirt that read “Got Bricks? Next question” to directly mock Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. On Thursday, the t-shirt had names of Bosnians killed in conflicts during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. A strange, but not so subtle nod to Denver’s Serbian star Nikola Jokic.

“All I can do is cheer for my teammates and just be who I am,” Nurkic said.

He’s just Nurk. More playful than incendiary, but incendiary nonetheless. He and Jokic have a rivalry on the court, but they’re friendly off it. It’s why Jokic ended his press conference with an unprompted message to Nurkic.

“I know he had a tough injury and, yes he was with us and we’re conference whatever; we’re rivals,” Jokic said. “But for me it’s really nice to see him walking by himself in such a short period.”


Custom shirts aside, Nurkic said he’s happiest when he’s seeing his teammates win the very same games that he would do nearly anything to be a part of. While it’s been hard for him, he has been a welcomed addition to the Blazers bench.

“He’s a part of the team so having him there it feels more complete,” Lillard said. “Sometimes you look down there and when he’s not there, it’s like, ‘Man …’ You can tell somebody’s missing, a player’s missing. He’s also a talkative person. So you feel his presence.”

The Blazers will play will their most important game in nearly two decades on Sunday. Nurkic almost certainly won’t be there. He’ll be at home, filling up Twitter timelines with GIFs, anxious that he can’t be on the court.

“I’m excited for Game 7,” he said. “It’s going to be a really interesting game.”

There was some torment hidden behind that answer. It’s been a challenge being reduced to spectator. But if the Blazers pull off the road win and end up in the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, no one in Rip City will be happier than the self proclaimed Bosnian Beast.

“Can I enjoy them?,” Nurkic asked ruminating on the question for a moment. “If we’re winning I enjoy every game, man.”

By slowing down Damian Lillard, Denver evened the series

By slowing down Damian Lillard, Denver evened the series

How does a team bounce back from an excruciating quadruple overtime loss?

The Denver Nuggets simply decided it wasn't important.

“We just said to ourselves, ‘If we win today, then the last game doesn’t really matter that much,’” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said. “Yes we played four overtimes. It was exhausting but we won tonight so that last game doesn’t really matter.”

Behind Jokic’s 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists and a brilliant 34-point game from point guard Jamal Murray, the Nuggets evened the series, refusing to let a grueling Game 3 bleed into Game 4. 

The Nuggets' success came in familiar fashion. Denver bludgeoned Portland on the backboards, turning 17 offensive rebounds into 20 second chance points, and feasted on Blazers’ miscues, converting 14 turnovers into 18 points on the other end. With their season on the line on in a quick turnaround from a deflating loss, the Nuggets were better in the margins and sharper on the details.

“Our guys our tough, we’re resilient,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “To come in here, win this game 36 hours after losing in four overtimes speaks to just how tough we are. I wasn’t worried.”

When the buzzer sounded, Malone made a beeline for Murray, pulling him in for a quick hug before the 22-year-old point guard conducted a national television interview. The Nuggets young star was the best point guard on the Moda Center floor on Sunday. The Blazers probably can’t survive more nights when that’s the case.

Damian Lillard was good, but he wasn’t the superhuman force that throttled Oklahoma City in the opening round of the playoffs. Perhaps Lillard set the standard unreasonably high because his 28 points and seven assists in Game 4 felt like an off night.

When a reporter asked Murray and Jokic how the Nuggets had managed to slow Lillard down, Murray gave a long, thoughtful response about Torrey Craig, Gary Harris and Malik Beasley making things tough for the Blazers All-Star. 

Jokic waited out the response but was too stunned at the line of questioning to let it pass.

“Brother, he scored 30 points,” the Nuggets center said, genuinely confused at how we got to a point where a night like that is considered a struggle.

The truth is the Nuggets coaching staff saw Lillard dismantle Oklahoma City and devised a game plan to take away some of his most lethal attacks. Denver is picking up Lillard much higher on the court and either sending a full fledged trap or letting the big man linger out high to curtail Lillard’s drives coming off screens.

“I can definitely see that they’re trying to be a little more aggressive,” Lillard said. “And I have more bodies around me.”

After averaging 33.1 points and shooting 48.1 percent from three-point range in the first round against the Thunder, Lillard is averaging 27.3 points and shooting 25.7 percent from deep against Denver. 

Lillard has had his moments -- like his 39-point performance in Game 1 and his crucial buckets to force a fourth overtime in Game 3. However, Lillard’s been more campfire than towering inferno, cooling off slightly after setting the Thunder ablaze.

The opening of Game 4 looked like Lillard’s breakout. He methodically picked his spots, hitting three of his first four shots and finishing the first quarter with 10 points. He closed the game with 15 points in the final frame, nearly engineering a comeback in the fourth. As Jokic was stunned to learn Sunday night, even Lillard’s rough nights can end up looking pretty good.

But Lillard also missed a crucial free throw with 20.3 seconds left that would have cut the deficit to one, and that came after going 1-for-10 from the floor during middle two quarters. For brief windows, he was off his game. 

Lillard's night was far from the only reason the Blazers lost. But fair or not, stars are judged more harshly in the biggest moments. In a four-point playoff loss, a bad shooting stretch and a couple late miscues were enough to make the difference.

After the game, Lillard was predictably unflappable, noting that while the Nuggets defense was giving him more attention they hadn’t taken away his aggression as a creator and facilitator. And it’s true that a couple more bounces in the Blazers favor and this story isn’t about Lillard’s comparative second round struggles.

Jokic’s shocked response paints the picture as well as anything. “Brother, he scored 30 points.”

Lillard actually had 28. He probably needed 33. This time of the year the margin for error is smaller, the difference is in the details.

Trail Blazers show their character in epic, four-overtime win

Trail Blazers show their character in epic, four-overtime win

When it was finally over some three and a half hours after it started, and the Trail Blazers had survived the marathon there were a mix of emotions as the team huddled at the center of the pinwheel at mid-court.

A pulsing whirlwind of elation and exhaustion swept over the group that had just wrapped a four overtime thriller to take a 2-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets.

“It was just relief,” Al-Farouq Aminu said. “At the end of the day no matter how long it took we completed the task at hand. So it was just a relief. There were so many moments where it looked like the game might’ve slipped away or we missed on opportunities. And for us to just continue to battle and get that ... it was just a great feeling.”

This night was just the latest affirmation that this team, this season and this playoff run is truly special. Not just because Moe Harkless shrugged off the ‘questionable’ tag to log 45 minutes on a bum right ankle, and not because Enes Kanter is playing with essentially one arm after re-aggravating an already separated left shoulder. Not because CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard scored every single point for the Blazers in the first three overtimes periods, doing what stars do in crucial moments. And not because Rodney Hood came off the bench to deliver the game-clincher, after telling his teammates he would do just that.

It’s affirmation is because of all those things happened in one night for one team. Rip City is a metropolis built on heartbreak and cynicism, but nights like Friday at the Moda Center threaten to convert even the most ardent non-believers.

What this game exposed was what makes this group of Blazers special. Kanter spent his postgame media session groaning through excruciating shoulder pain, explaining that he thinks he further separated his already injured left shoulder at some point in the first overtime. He had to tuck his arm into his jersey in order to run down the floor. He then played three more overtimes with an arm he could barely feel.

In the locker room, his left shoulder was wrapped in what has become a customary ace bandage, and he also had another smaller wrap on his right elbow, a new injury earned from diving out of bounds to track down a long rebound.

“Sometimes you got to make some sacrifices to get a win,” said Kanter, who logged 56 grueling minutes. “I’ll get painkillers for next game. I hope I can play. But I’ll be fine.”

Harkless’ night didn’t end with as quite a dramatic scene. Instead he answered questions at the podium while his as eyes kept drawing back to the box score on the table in front of him.

“65 minutes. That’s crazy,” Harkless said, catching the workload for Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. “A lot of guys played a lot of minutes tonight. Man ...”

When he showed up at the arena, Harkless’ official injury designation was still ‘questionable’ with a right ankle sprain. He always knew he was going to play and told the Blazers coaches and training staff that he didn’t want to be on a minutes restriction. The ankle injury that he suffered Wednesday night that kept him out of the final 29 minutes of Game 2 wasn’t going to stop him from pouring himself into Game 3.

“It’s the playoffs,” he said. “I’d go out there with one ankle if I had to. So it was just -- as long as I was able to run up and down the court I was going to play.”

The nights from Harkless and Kanter epitomize this group. This team lost its star center to a gruesome leg injury in late March, and barely had a lull, surging forward when things could have easily tumbled in the other direction. When Jokic bullied them in Game 1 to give Denver an early series lead they responded by gutting out two gritty wins, the latest in historically epic fashion. Instead of looking for excuses the Blazers have looked at each other to find their collective strength.

“I mean, it doesn’t surprise me,” Lillard said. “We all depend on each other. We lean on each other. Those guys [Kanter and Harkless] know how important they are to our team, so the fact that they’re out there playing through injuries, I think it just shows how tough they are for one, and it also shows how bad they want it, how much they’re invested into our team, how much they care. They’re willing to go out there not 100 percent, banged up, and still fight with the team. They know how much we need them.”

Friday night’s win was revealing not for its new discoveries, but for its confirmation. All those things you think about this team: The toughness, the perseverance, the unshakeable will. They were all there. This was less stunning than it was affirming. Of course they came out on top in a game like that. This is a determined group on a remarkable run, and they keep finding a way. Adversity can break teams. It has forged this one.

“It showed a lot about us,” Aminu said. “To be in the condition and to be able to do that that’s tough. And guys just kept on making plays, kept on stepping up and kept on doing what we had to do, and we pulled it out. It was beautiful.”

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard delivers redemption from 37 feet out

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard delivers redemption from 37 feet out

The whiteboard inside the Trail Blazers locker room read “10:30.” Wednesday was an optional day at the team’s practice facility, a chance for players to come in and get treatment from the medical staff if they need it, but there isn’t anything formal scheduled.

It would be understandable if the place was a ghost town.

On the strength of Damian Lillard’s historic, 37-foot series ender, the Blazers earned a day off and a trip to the second round of the playoffs.

Lillard’s shot, a side-stepping laser from just right of the pinwheel logo at midcourt, is the stuff of legends, a storybook capper that might be too cliche even for fiction. And yet there Lillard was etching his own chapter in his ever-expanding book of Rip City folklore with a comically deep three-pointer and a wave goodbye to the Oklahoma City bench.

As the ball crashed through the net and the Moda Center erupted, it was natural to compare this to another great Lillard moment: The series-clinching “0.9” shot in 2014 that ushered the Houston Rockets out of the playoffs.

But this was less about one-upping a historic moment with another and more about catharsis and exorcising the demons from a playoff defeat just earlier. After a brutal early exit from the playoffs last season, Lillard’s 50-point masterpiece on Tuesday was an emphatic rejection that his team might suffer a similar fate.

That’s why the Blazers could take a moment to reflect on what Lillard’s shot meant in the moment. 

“Last year at this time we were going home,” Al-Farouq Aminu said. “This year we’re getting ready for another opponent. So, I can appreciate the mess out of this.”

“Anytime you’re able to advance in the playoffs and keep going it’s a big moment,” Evan Turner added. “Especially when it comes down to -- in a sense -- getting a monkey off our back because everybody talked about the past like it was a big deal.”

The Blazers spent much of this season saying they had moved on from the last year’s playoff sweep, choosing to look ahead when pressed instead of revisiting a painful week last April when they were dominated by New Orleans.

The Blazers don’t know their second round opponent yet. They’ll have to wait until at least Thursday night to find out whether the series might start at home against San Antonio or on the road in Denver. Moe Harkless said he planned to sleep in a little on Wednesday morning and indulge in a day off earned in the most dramatic way possible. Terry Stotts said he would go for a walk and maybe have a glass of wine on Wednesday evening.

They can thank Lillard’s heroics for their leisure time. He’s been saying for months that the Blazers recent playoff struggles would help his grow.

He delivered redemption from nearly 40-feet out, and after a year of waiting it was natural to circle back to those feelings of failure from a season ago.

“To go into the playoffs last year and have that type of experience, in my mind, I didn’t feel bad for myself,” Lillard said when asked to reflect on Tuesday night. “I was like ’I’m going to accept responsibility that we didn’t play well.’ It was embarrassing but when you go through stuff like that and you stay together and you keep working, you keep believing in what we do (and) our purpose, what we come into training camp saying to each other, what our coaches are saying, the unity that we have. We stay true to that and keep believingin what we’ve built up here, it’s going to be something waiting for us.”

“You don’t just go through stuff when you’ve got a group of good guys that work hard and do things the right way, in my mind, I was just like something down the road is going to work out for us if we just stay with it and keep our minds right. I think this is the beginning of that.”

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

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USA Today Images

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

The image that sticks is Raymond Felton, hopelessly twisted, flailing as Damian Lillard steps back into cresting three-pointer that beats the third quarter buzzer as the Moda Center erupts.

If not that, it’s the 30-footer Lillard unleashed mid-way through the third period that led to an immediate timeout and prompted the Blazers point guard to flap his wrists high-above his head, a signal that he later explained meant “let it fly.”

But before the flapping, and before walking into a 30-foot, there was a subtler moment that truly explains this series and should define Game 2. It came on the defensive end and was accompanied by an uncommon show of emotion. 

Lillard and the Blazers seized a 2-0 lead in their first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. The three-pointers will dominate the highlight reels, but Portland earned this win with defense, and Lillard’s effort on that end of the floor was at the center of it.

“You know, I really don’t have a choice but to embrace it,” Lillard said. “That team is going to go as far as (Russell Westbrook) and Paul George. We could try to score points and do all that stuff, but if we don’t defend them and they come out there believing and they come after us, we don’t have much of a chance. So our minds are made up that we’re going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line so that’s probably why it looks different than it might look any other time.”

The Blazers have been solid on defense as a group. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have tracked George all over the floor and Rodney Hood and Evan Turner have had their own impressive moments on the defensive end. But Lillard’s individual defense has been key to Portland’s two wins to open the series even as the team has collectively swarmed and harassed the two Thunder stars. 

It’s clear Lillard is relishing the challenge of defending Westbrook, as part of a rivalry that has grown sharper teeth this season.

“I mean the proof is in the pudding,” Evan Turner said of Lillard. ”I think he doesn’t really get enough credit for the type of defender he is.”

Westbrook finished Game 2 with 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting, he dished 11 assists but also coughed up six turnovers. Lillard was up for the challenge all night, hounding him on the perimeter and funneling Westbrook towards waiting teammates when he attacked. 

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard would have spent most of a night like Game 2 shading Terrance Ferguson, a lesser offensive player that would have allowed the Blazers hide their star player on defense. But Lillard has slowly evolved on the defensive end, growing from liability to the player that emerged Tuesday evening when he grabbed three steals, blocked two shots and embraced the challenge of guarding an All-Star.

Lillard said that his defensive growth is a natural part of playing seven seasons in the league. But it was also fueled by the criticism Lillard often heard early in his career. So Lillard made a commitment to becoming a better defender, spending hours poring over film and working with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, a dedication that took particular root in the summer of 2017 and has only grown since.

“I’ve always had the effort. I’ve always cared about it and now I’m a few years deeper into the league and I recognize stuff faster,” Lillard said. “I know what’s coming. I know what guys like to do. I’m not watching film to see highlights of myself. I’m watching film to (see) how can I take advantage of the other team? How can I give myself a chance to play better against the other team? And a lot of that is defensively, going over stuff with Coach Vanterpool. And then going out there and taking the challenge, not backing down. I think the last few seasons I’ve been much better defensively. It hasn’t been just one game or nothing like that. I’ve been taking the challenge and I’ve been much smarter about it.”

The Blazers blew the game open in the third quarter, pushing a halftime tie to a 16 point advantage heading into the fourth. In that stretch you could see how much the defensive stops meant to Lillard. 

Midway through the third quarter when Westbrook attacked the paint, Lillard slapped the ball out of his hands cleanly as he tried to rise up near the foul line. The ball was only loose for an instant and Westbrook quickly gathered himself and rose up for a left wing three-pointer.

When he it clanged off the rim, Lillard flexed and emphatically clapped following the hard earned defensive stop. Then he calmly dribbled across mid-court and rose up from 30-feet, drilling the shot over Westbrook. 

The image that sticks is the wrist flapping that followed. But rewind a few frames and you see the defining moment of the game, an improving defender embracing the toughest challenge on the biggest stage. 

Like Lillard said, with the season on the line everything looks different.