Mike Richman

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

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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. 

With trash talk and shot making, CJ McCollum sets the tone for a hard fought series

With trash talk and shot making, CJ McCollum sets the tone for a hard fought series

The full arsenal was on display early.

The shifty crossover into a soft floater, the hesitation into a pull three-pointer, and the smack talk.

Before Enes Kanter saved the game on the offensive glass, and before Damian Lillard rained down crucial three-pointers in the closing minutes, the Trail Blazers kept the Oklahoma City Thunder at arm’s length thanks to CJ McCollum.

And while his steady shot making carried the Blazers early, he made sure to get in some verbal jabs, too.

Early in the second quarter, Terrance Ferguson got into McCollum’s face at the free throw line and the two exchanged mini-shoves and nearly face-to-face words. But even after double technicals were issued, McCollum had more to say.

Thunder guard Dennis Schroder absorbed the brunt of the verbal onslaught. First, when McCollum beat him into the lane for a floater and then on the next possession when McCollum aced a step-back three-pointer.

A minute later, when McCollum got inside for a layup he was still giving any Thunder player that would listen a running commentary as he ran down the floor.

“Whatever it takes to get our team going,” said McCollum, who scored 20 of his 24 points in the first three quarters.

“It’s the playoffs, four games away from elimination. So for me, like I said before, we’re wearing white jerseys. I’m with the white team. That’s just how I am. I’m with the white team. So I ain’t got nothing to do with the other team. If you look at me crazy. If you say something to me, I’m going to say something back. But it’s all basketball, it’s all fun. I think that was just competed. It was clean basketball, we competed, we had fun.”

Few have had a closer look at McCollum the trash talker than his older brother, Errick, who says his younger brother has learned to pick his spots when to run his mouth and when to let his game do the talking.

“He doesn’t really talk a lot,” Errick says. “He’s more settled and reserved when he plays. But if you say one thing to him, challenge him or say anything slick to him he’s ready. Locked and loaded and won’t hold back. He feeds off that, it usually helps him take his game to another level.”

When he was younger, CJ didn’t always have the same tact, particularly as 5-foot-2 high school freshman playing on the varsity team. Back then, the younger McCollum ‘talked the most’ and wasn’t afraid to make big claims.

“Everyone always doubted him because he was so small and they would say the only reason he is on varsity or gets attention is because he was my younger brother,” Errick said. “And his response was always the same: ‘‘I’ll be a Division I player and I’ll play the the NBA. And one day you’re going to be begging the guy who you said ‘is not good enough and too small’ for a ticket to watch me play.”’

There were shades of the scrawny GlenOak High School freshman on the court Sunday afternoon. Not in stature, but certainly in demeanor. The ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ attitude that McCollum trotted out to the podium was readily apparent during his talkative second quarter performance.

It was an early sample of the heated exchanges most expected from this first round series. McCollum was just the unlikely poster child for that attitude in Game 1. There likely will be more bad blood and more high-tension jawing as the series continues.

Sunday’s game wasn’t decided by trash talking, or a second quarter scoring burst. But McCollum’s demeanor is representative of the Blazers’ larger attitude. After getting ushered out of the playoffs quickly in the past two postseasons, Portland isn’t going to go lightly. And like McCollum, they’ll pick their moments to let their opponent know about it.

The Blazers snapped their 10-game playoff losing streak on Sunday. There was perhaps some reason to crow postgame about a cathartic victory, but by the time McCollum made his way to the podium he might have already used up his most vicious barbs.

“It’s good to get a win at home. Our goal isn’t to win one game but we want to take advantage of this home-court advantage,” he said. “I think we played well, a lot of things that we can improve upon. I think last year was a good experience for us, we learned a lot of things from it. Now we know what it takes to win here at home and we’re up for the challenge.”

Trail Blazers postseason fate remains tied to its role players

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Trail Blazers postseason fate remains tied to its role players

CJ McCollum stood in front of the gathered media and delivered a handful of cliche answers to ward off  the predictable lot of questions that always pop in the anticipatory void between regular season and postseason.

The Trail Blazers had just secured the third seed a first round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder a few minutes earlier on Wednesday night and McCollum was explaining how his team would be focused and ready. He touched on the ramped up intensity and the necessity to compete at the absolute highest level.

“Playoff basketball is completely different than the regular season, as we’ve seen,” McCollum said. 

The Blazers felt the sting of playoff agony last year when they were emphatically swept out of the postseason as the No. 3 seed. The Blazers insisted that the sweep and the 10 straight playoffs losses weren’t motivation throughout the regular season. But those facts were an undercurrent of every successful moment and winning streak, the “yeah, buts” that lingered over regular season triumphs.

“I’m sure it had an impact on us. I’m sure that having to hear about getting swept and consecutive losses and all those things certainly shaped our mentality,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts admitted on Wednesday night. “Like we’ve said at the beginning of the season, we have to own it but we can’t dwell on it, and I think we did.”

The Blazers can’t escape their painful past with an opening round win over Oklahoma City. They can only hope to forge a new narrative, one that is equal parts redemption and catharsis. And despite its predictability, McCollum’s assessment was accurate, playoff basketball is indeed different. The level and specificity of scouting increases dramatically, stars are on the court more and the game slows down a little bit such that there is a massive premium placed on halfcourt execution.

However different the game might feel compared to regular season games, the playoff formula for beating the Blazers won’t change. Even two days before Game 1 tips off, if you squint hard enough, you can already see the double teams swarming Damian Lillard; a chaotic scramble of Jerami Grant and Russell Westbrook forcing the ball to move to any of the other Blazers.

That has to be the main concern heading into the series against the Thunder. Can Portland contend with Oklahoma City’s length on defense and when the ball moves are the Blazers not named Lillard ready to deliver. Without Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers lost their best release valve for when Lillard -- and McCollum -- face aggressive defensive attention. Without their skilled starting center facilitating in the middle of the floor, the Blazers will need others to fill the void and punish a defense daring them to do just that.

They will need the Aminu who had 23 points against Denver last Sunday, the Moe Harkless who had 26 in Los Angeles last Tuesday. They’ll also need the Rodney Hood who put up 15 of his 21 points in dominant first quarter in Minnesota and the Seth Curry who has quietly and steadily averaged 15 points per game over his final 11 regular season games.

“In the playoffs you end up having to make adjustments and do things out of the ordinary,” Lillard said. “So, I think it’ll be by committee.”

As much as this series will be defined by stars, in particular the compelling matchup of Lillard and Westbrook. However different playoff basketball might be, the Blazers postseason fate likely rests where it always has: in the hands of role players. If the Blazers are going to conquer their postseason demons, it will come from their depth and their balance probably more than brightness of their stars.

“It’s going to be a tough, tough series,” Lillard said. “I think we got to go out and be aggressive going into it. Have the mentality to be the aggressor. Go in there with the attitude that we’re getting it done.”

After improbable win, Trail Blazers unlikely journey continues into the playoffs

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After improbable win, Trail Blazers unlikely journey continues into the playoffs

This was an unlikely ending.

Not just because the Trail Blazers used just six players, and five of them logged at least 41 minutes. And not just because they trailed by 28 points before charging back in the final quarter.

Not even because a 19-year-old rookie went off for 37 points, nine assists and six rebounds or a little used center racked up 29 points and 15 boards against his former team. Not even because just 24 hours earlier a much-maligned small forward scored the Blazers’ final 12 points and capped the night with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

This was an unlikely ending because of where just as much as how the Blazers finished the season.

Afternee Simons’ 37 points and  Moe Harkless’ buzzer-beater in Los Angeles are just the latest chapters in a regular season story full of unlikely moments. These last two games and countless other moments over the past six months made this finale anything but certain.

The Blazers wrapped up their regular season Wednesday night with an improbable win, snatching the No. 3 seed in the playoffs in a fitting coda to a regular season that was far from expected.

“Being a top three team in the West is an accomplishment,” Damian Lillard said. “It shows that our work has paid off. Especially after last season being able to bounce back and do it again. To me, that’s proving it up. That’s showing that certain amount of girt and desire to get back to this point. We should be proud of ourselves but obviously in our mind this is just the beginning.”

But before looking forward to the potentially harsh realities of the postseason, it’s worth looking back. If 53 wins and a top three seed for this team sounds improbable on the surface, the details make it clear just how implausible Wednesday’s night finish truly was.

Portland hasn’t lost three consecutive games since the first week of December, stubbornly sticking in the middle of the Western Conference with an uncommon steadiness that previous versions of this roster could rarely muster. 

This top three finish started with seeds planted in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston when the Blazers came out of the All-Star break straight into a daunting seven-game road trip, and emerged from the other side with a 5-2 record and plenty of well-earned confidence.

The road to Wednesday’s unlikely result was bumpy, but the Blazers managed to navigate the obstacles that met them along the way. They incorporated new players on the fly after adding Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter, and then responded to injuries with victories. Portland went 8-2 without CJ McCollum in the lineup after the All-Star break and has won seven of nine since Jusuf Nurkic’s gruesome leg injury on March 25.

The grit and desire Lillard referenced in the locker room on Wednesday evening has been a hallmark of this team throughout the season. There have been plenty of events that could have turned this season upside down. Instead the Blazers have cleared nearly every obstacle in front of them, occasionally in the most unlikely ways.

This team wasn’t supposed to beat the Kings on Wednesday night. Not after being down big, not with the comically and intentionally short bench and not with Simons and Skal Labissiere (29 points, 15 rebounds) leading the charge. But they did in a game that transitioned from sham to improbably entertaining in an instant.

Portland probably won’t be a popular pick to win its first round playoff series either, which begins on Sunday at the Moda Center against Oklahoma City. But if this season, and it’s wild final week and even wilder final game, taught us anything it’s that unlikely outcomes should be expected.

With playoff positioning up for grabs, Trail Blazers find themselves scoreboard-watching

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With playoff positioning up for grabs, Trail Blazers find themselves scoreboard-watching

The most telling scene inside the Moda Center on Sunday night happened away from the court and well after the game ended.

Damian Lillard had exited his postgame shower and walked right through the locker room wearing a pair of slides and a towel around his waist. His postgame wardrobe could wait for a few minutes.

A handful of Trail Blazers staffers had gathered in a lounge area directly adjacent to the locker room and were watching the final minutes of Jazz-Lakers on the wall of televisions in front of them.

The Blazers had wrapped up their win over the Denver Nuggets about 20 minutes earlier, so the attention of a handful of Blazers employees and a few assistant coaches turned to the final moments of another important Western Conference game.

When Lillard joined the crowd, the Lakers were clinging to a slim lead and the Blazers point guard wanted to make sure he correctly understood the playoff tiebreaker implications that would come from a Jazz loss.

If the Blazers win their final two games, they are guaranteed to finish no worse than the fourth seed and will open up the playoffs at home. But a Jazz loss helped Portland’s chances of earning home court advantage which is why Lillard and company were glued to the TV screens.

“We’re just trying to lock down home court,” Lillard said later. “That’s a game that plays a major factor in it so obviously we’re going to be tuned into it.”

As the Lakers pulled away in the final minute, Lillard had walked back to his locker to get dressed and chat with Moe Harkless about what a Los Angeles win meant for their team. If Utah loses either of its final two games and Portland wins either of its final two games, the Blazers get home court advantage.

This is what April looks like for Western Conference playoff teams, literal scoreboard watching and some triple-checking of the standings.

Terry Stotts made it clear on Sunday night that the Blazers value home court advantage more than rest. They won’t chance falling to fifth in the standings just to get their starters a night off in the final two games.

“Our priority is to get home court,” Stotts said before the Lakers had wrapped up their upset win and the towel-clad Lillard scene played out near the locker room. “And if circumstances change where we’re able to rest guys … But for right now we need to win two games to have home court and so that’s the plan going forward.”

Circumstances may very well change between now and Wednesday when the Blazers play their regular season finale against the Sacramento Kings at the Moda Center. There will be plenty more scoreboard watching on Tuesday evening as the Blazers take on the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Jazz host the Nuggets and the Houston Rockets visit the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A Houston loss opens the door for Portland to snatch the third seed, and a Nuggets win would set the stage for the Blazers to lock up home court before Wednesday’s game. So on Tuesday night there could be a similar scene at Staples Center with Blazers players, coaches and staffers huddled around televisions in the visiting locker room hoping to get some clarity on what their playoff futures might hold.

It’s the time of year when getting in front of the TV takes precedence over getting dressed.

 

From FIBA to pizza: NBA coaches are always looking for playbook inspiration

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From FIBA to pizza: NBA coaches are always looking for playbook inspiration

While watching the 2010 FIBA World Championships, Terry Stotts saw something he liked. The then Dallas assistant was struck by the zone offense the Greek team ran and decided he would introduce it to the Mavericks in training camp that fall.

Nearly a decade later, that same zone offense Stotts had lifted from the Greek team made an appearance at the Moda Center on Wednesday night. The Memphis Grizzlies opened the game in a matchup zone defense and stuck with it for the majority of the night. An offensive set copied from an international tournament more than nine years prior was a catalyst for the Trail Blazers blowout victory.

Stotts says he draws inspiration for offensive and defensive wrinkles whenever he watches basketball games in the offseason, and isn’t alone in his willingness to adopt plays he sees in other places. Coaches across the NBA are taking sets they see on film and implementing with their own teams.

“Very common practice,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think we all take from each other that’s just understood. People run good stuff. They run interesting stuff and then you sorta steal something, adapt it to your own personnel and it just makes its way around the league.”

Some of the borrowing across the NBA is subtle. A certain action or part of a play becomes a popular trend that nearly every team installs in some form. But other times coaches take a play in its entirety and incorporate it into their playbook.

When former Blazers wing Allen Crabbe joined the Brooklyn Nets in 2017, coach Kenny Atkinson took a play Crabbe was familiar with from Stotts’ playbook. Atkinson and the Nets even call the set “Portland.”

“We couldn’t stop it when they ran it so I said why don’t we run it,” Atkinson explained. “I always want to give the guy credit. I could’ve called (the play) Stotts. Terry might have liked that. He got a kick out of that the first time he saw it. Listen there’s no secrets in this league. We steal all the time. We steal from each other. If something’s good, we’re gonna use it, especially for one of our players.”

Brooklyn’s “Portland” set is a staple of the Blazers offense, but it’s not a Stotts original. He stole it from the Argentinian national team when he saw them run a swirl of perimeter flair screens during the 2002 World Championships.

Inspiration for new plays or defensive adjustments doesn’t always come from watching professionals. Fresh ideas can come from just about anywhere.

“When I was coaching in college, I had ordered a pizza after the game one night and the delivery guy was … generous enough to offer me a lob play on the Dominoes box,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “It was a good play. Keyon Dooling had left for the NBA so we didn’t really have a lob threat, but I appreciated the help. I didn’t save it. I should’ve saved it.”

The pizza guy isn’t a common source basketball ingenuity despite the apparently strong understanding of Xs and Os held by some Missouri-based delivery drivers. Often the trends in the NBA that quickly spread around the league are set by the elite teams. If it works in the playoffs or helps get teams into The Finals, other franchises are sure to experiment with something similar tailored to their own rosters.

“It’s a copycat league. Whatever happens in the last round (of the playoffs) everybody ends up doing it the next year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We were a beneficiary of that when we were winning championships. All of a sudden everybody was trying to play lineups similar to ours and playing a system similar to ours. Then San Antonio trumped that when they beat us and everybody was coming up with Spurs basketball the next year. Nobody can mimic the Golden State Warriors, but they’ve changed the league, for sure. So people are trying. That’s the ultimate sign of respect, right … is imitation.”

Stotts hasn’t adopted too many new sets over the past five seasons with the Blazers. But as the team prepares for the playoffs, they’ll introduce new tweaks to get Rodney Hood to spot where he can attack and let Enes Kanter get space to post up. The inspiration for those subtle changes come from a variety of sources, and you can bet if the Blazers coaching staff sees something on film that they think will give them an edge in the playoffs they won’t hesitate to steal it.

“Everybody takes something from somebody,” Stotts says. “And then puts their own little spin on it.”

Game opening plays have become a quiet competition for the Trail Blazers

Game opening plays have become a quiet competition for the Trail Blazers

Just over 30 seconds into the game, the Dallas Mavericks had already earned a subtle win against the Portland Trail Blazers, and Rick Carlisle glanced at Terry Stotts to make sure he knew it.

The two coaches caught eyes and smiled at each other. It was 2-0 Dallas and the ‘Scout Game’ had officially been won by the Mavericks.

This season Stotts started a new tradition with the Blazers, letting whichever assistant coach build’s the scouting report for that night’s opponent draw up the first play of the game. When Stotts told Carlisle about giving assistants the first play of the night, Carlisle immediately adopted it for his Mavericks staff. So when the Mavericks stopped the Blazers on the first possession of the game and scored on the other end, Carlisle could celebrate with a knowing grin aimed toward the home team’s bench.

The first play has become a quiet rivalry among the Blazers assistant coaches. When games open with a successful play there will be high-fives and fist pumps up and down the bench. If it flops there’s sometimes exaggerated silence.

“I don’t want to say it’s an inside joke,” Stotts said. “But everybody knows that it’s that guys play, and if it works, everybody celebrates. If It’s a dud, everybody lets him know.”

The first play of the game is installed at morning shootaround. Although it sometimes looks like something out of the Stotts’ playbook, it’s created whole cloth from the mind of whichever assistant coach has been assigned the scouting report for that particular opponent.

When the players walkthrough it at shootaround at the practice facility, it’s the first time they and Stotts have seen the new play. The team will go over it again when they meet in the locker room prior to that night’s game, again with an assistant coach commanding the dry erase board to draw up the actions. Stotts is hands off in those moments, letting his assistants run the show.

Then shortly after tip off the entire team, and particularly the seven-man coaching staff, anxiously wait to see if the new set works.

“They’re always getting on us like, ‘Don’t mess it up’ or ‘Make sure you score,’” Moe Harkless said of the Blazers assistants. “It’s a fun thing we do. It’s pretty cool.”

Inspiration for the opening plays come from a variety sources. Sometimes it’s a play an assistant coach ran with a high school team he coached or an old set the Blazers used to run that’s been lost as personnel changes and the playbook evolves. But considering the playful ribbing that comes from a failed first play, most coaches keep it pretty vanilla.

“It’s always a mix of an action that we already do and then it’s like a new little wrinkle in there,” Damian Lillard said.

Against the Mavericks, the Blazers opened the game with an action they used to run for Chris Kaman, in part because Kaman happened to be in attendance at the Moda Center that night. Blazers video coordinator and player development coach Jon Yim drew up the play -- named "CK" -- for Nurkic, but the Blazers center fumbled the final pass out of bounds.

Blazers assistant Dale Osbourne had the scout against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. He came up with a double-baseline screen to free up a Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll on the left wing. Only the Pistons double teamed Lillard, and he had to pass over to Jake Layman for a rushed three-pointer.

“He probably won’t get more first plays,” Harkless joked. “[The play] wasn’t really for Jake but he’s gotta take the fall.”

Some of the first plays drawn up by assistants can even get absorbed into the Blazers’ regular playbook. A first set the Blazers ran against the Lakers earlier this season is now a somewhat regular play call. And other actions the assistant coaches have experimented with in their plays have been adopted here and there.

There is some logic to how these game-opening plays get drawn up. Sometimes coaches want to get a particular player going early so they’ll draw up a post up for Harkless or an early touch for Nurkic down low. Al-Farouq Aminu quipped that he’s the only starter that doesn’t get first plays drawn up for him.

Stotts had let coaches draw up the first play of the game sporadically over the past few seasons, but this year he’s fully embraced the idea of: ‘Your scout, your play.’ That tradition has made for entertaining moments to open games when Blazers assistants are either wildly excited or playing it cool when their play call goes south in a hurry.

“It’s good just for having a little bit of ownership,” Rodney Hood said. “It’s a little thing between the assistant coaches. If we score on the first play everybody gets all happy for whoever the coach is. I think they keep tabs of it. I think they got an ongoing thing for the season, whoever’s got the besting scoring percentage or whatever. It’s a lot of pressure on the players to score.”

Fans give Dirk Nowitzki fitting send off in final game in Portland

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Fans give Dirk Nowitzki fitting send off in final game in Portland

There wasn’t a postgame jersey swap at midcourt. There was no extended walk off to bask in the cheers. There was just a final one-legged fade away and a quick wave.

The Dirk Nowitzki maybe-but-maaaaybe-not retirement tour made a stop in the Moda Center on Wednesday night and fans, plenty of whom came clad in No. 41 Dallas Mavericks jerseys, got to pay respects to an all-time great.

But unlike year long celebrations courted by future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki’s potential final game in Portland didn’t have the manufactured pomp and circumstance.

“Well he hasn’t said he’s going to retire so I’m not going to be sad tonight,” said Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who spent four years with Nowitzki as a Mavericks assistant and was part of the 2011 Dallas championship team.

When Nowitzki and the Mavs came through Portland in December earlier in the season, Nowitzki, 40, sat out. The Mavericks were on the second night of back-to-back games they gave their aging star the night off. So when Stotts saw the former MVP in the back hallway he playfully taunted Nowitzki about needing rest after a grueling 12-minute outing.

The two shared another laugh before tip-off on Wednesday when Stotts found Nowitzki out on the court before his pregame shooting routine and told him that the Blazers were going endlessly hunt him in pick and rolls.

His sense of humor hasn’t faded, but Nowitzki’s game is certainly in a twilight stage. His gait does nothing to hide the miles he’s logged as a 40 year old playing in his 21st season. It certainly looks like it’s his final season, even if he insists he won’t make that decision until the summer. He finished with three points and two rebounds against the Blazers, treating fans to one final one-legged fadeaway while missing his only other two shot attempts in 14 minutes.

Once the game was decided late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday fans inside the Moda Center started a “We Want Dirk” chant, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t oblige. Nowitzki, who two days earlier had passed Wilt Chamberlain to move into sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, stood and acknowledged the Portland crowd, for what seemed like the final time.

The strange thing about playing two decades in the league is that you up competing against a generation of players that looked up to you in your prime when they were pre-teens with hoop dreams. Damian Lillard said he owned Nowitzki jersey as a 5th grader and Zach Collins reiterated that he had always tried to model his game after the Mavericks star. There was shared appreciation from the stands, the players on the court and the coaches on the sidelines. If this wasn’t a “goodbye” it was a “thanks for the memories.”

Nowitzki is far from a villain in the northwest even if he did usher the Blazers out of the playoffs in 2002 and 2011. There were no boos like Kobe Bryant earned in his final game in Portland. There was no “maybe he’s still got it” moment like when Dwyane Wade carried the Heat to a win in Portland  back in February of this year. There’s certainly no hashtag or uniform swap. Nowitzki plays a little bit. He waves to the fans and then he repeats some version of the explanation he’s uttered at arenas across the country.

“My plan was always play year to year my last couple years,” Nowitzki said. “See how the body feels and make the decision after the season.”

So this summer he’ll take some time and decide whether he is ready for season 22 or to move into some other role with the Mavericks front office or a third option away from the game. One thing he hasn’t ruled out is an encore, running the retirement tour back for another 41 nights of admiration on the road.

“No, I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “If I come back, we’ll do it all over again.”

Without CJ McCollum, Blazers still find themselves in the right position

Without CJ McCollum, Blazers still find themselves in the right position

CJ McCollum walked gingerly back into the weight room on Monday night, his left knee cradled in a soft brace and his forehead slightly sweaty from the cardio work on the stationary bike he had just completed before meeting with the media.

About four hours later, Damian Lillard spoke to a similar crowd of television cameras and reporters, his answers landing somewhere between relief and cautious optimism.

That’s what Day 2 of the McCollum’s rehabilitation journey looked like inside the Moda Center. The Blazers announced on Sunday that McCollum had sustained a popliteus strain in his left knee on and that he would be out at least a week before the team’s medical staff will re-evaluate him.

There isn’t a certain timeline for McCollum’s return. He is almost certainly going to miss more than a week, and Lillard has already mentally prepared for a month without McCollum in a uniform.

“Mentally, I don’t want him to have to rush it and when he does come back I want him to be himself and be healthy. So in my mind we going to finish the regular season without him,” Lillard said. “Maybe the last couple games (of the regular season). In my mind that’s how I should think of it. Just knowing that we got to have a great effort for these last 12 games, planning on not having him out there. We’d rather have him healthy and strong in the playoffs than have him come back early and not be himself and maybe aggravate it a little in a way we don’t need him to.”

If any team understands what it’s like to maintain playoff position without a key piece, it might be the team the Blazers beat on Monday night. The Indiana Pacers, who lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending quadriceps injury on Jan. 23, have refused to give up their hold of court advantage long after many teams would have let go of the rope.

“We played without Victor earlier in the season for 11 games and we knew he was coming back,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “This last injury we had the feeling he may not be coming back and when we found out that he wasn’t, it was definitely a shot because he really changes what you do out on the floor. He kinda helped us establish a style of play on both ends of the floor. So without him it took us a few games to get comfortable and make those adjustments and really focus on who we have as opposed to who we don’t have.”

That’s what the Blazers will have to turn to over the final 12 games of the regular season. They’ll replace McCollum’s scoring by committee with an uptick in minutes and responsibilities for Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Jake Layman. And Lillard will naturally do more, admitting he will be a little more “hands on” during the stretch run.

When Oladipo went down in January the Pacers dropped four straight, but have gone 13-7 since, falling just one spot from third to fourth in the East without their best player in the lineup. The Blazers can’t afford a learning curve as long or a steep as Indiana’s, but the blueprint the Pacers have mapped out over the past eight weeks remains a valuable one.

That’s why Lillard is preaching patience to his friend and teammate while McCollum is spending his days working out in the pool, shifting his diet to speed up recovery and plowing into rehab with the precision of his mid-range pull-ups.

“I told him I already know he’s going to try to get in a million hours of rehab and do all this stuff,” Lillard said.

“But I told him he should do that. You should be on top of it and stay involved like you always do but just don’t rush back to get to the game. We’re in a great position. We need guys to step up. It’s only going to be better for our team in the long run. So i’ve told him ‘Take your time, don’t rush, get healthy and come back right.”

Trail Blazers and a well rested Damian Lillard headed for tough road swing

Trail Blazers and a well rested Damian Lillard headed for tough road swing

Damian Lillard had great seat for the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns.

After posting 18 points and nine assists through the first three quarters, the Trail Blazers captain got to be a spectator for the final frame as Portland closed out a 127-120 win over one of the NBA’s bottom feeders.

“I love ‘em.,” Lillard said when asked if he enjoys nights where he doesn’t have to play in the fourth. “You get to rest. I mean, who don’t like to get that extra rest in?”

Seeing the Suns on the schedule is a pretty good indicator that Lillard won’t be called on for his full workload. In three wins over Phoenix this season, Lillard did not log a single fourth quarter minute. He has sat out nine fourth quarters this season, eight of those nights came as the Blazers were cruising to easy wins and the ninth came in Milwaukee in a 43-point beat down at the hands of the Bucks.

Getting Lillard a little extra rest hasn’t always translated to success in the following game. Portland is 5-3 in games coming immediately after Lillard sits out a fourth quarter. Lillard and the Blazers should be extra rested for their ninth such game when they face the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night following a day off Sunday and a light practice Monday afternoon.

The meeting with the Clippers (38-29) kicks off a three game road swing, which wraps up with back-to-back games at New Orleans and San Antonio on Friday and Saturday. The Blazers last road trip was their best of the season, as they finished a 13-day trip at 5-2 and were in position to win both games they dropped.

CJ McCollum said the team learned some useful lessons during that trip that will hopefully carry over as they head out on road again.

“I think as the season goes on you figure out how to close out games and what sets you can run and where we’re best at down the stretch,” McCollum said. “As guys continue to get more experience in the league, you to figure it out. I think we’ve gotten to a point to where we know how to do certain things, and we’ve put ourselves in a position to have a chance.”

It isn’t uncommon for McCollum to say he doesn’t know who the Blazers play next during postgame interviews, claiming a singularly focused approach that is either fictional or impressive. But on Saturday, McCollum let on that he’s peaked ahead at the Blazers challenging upcoming trip, noting Tuesday’s meeting with the Clippers would be the beginning of a tough trio of games. And while he is finally looking ahead on the calendar, McCollum said it’s too early to start obsessing over playoff standings.

“We’re just trying to win as many games as possible. That’s the biggest thing,” McCollum said, explaining that he would laser in on seeding and tiebreaker details with about 10 games left in the regular season. “There’s a lot of good teams capable of being (seeds) three four and five. So you’re trying to just control what you can control and win games.”

Whether the Blazers are hyper-focused or extremely well rested, they are entering the final month of the season with a lot still to be decided. Saturday’s extra rest might be the last stress free night they have until the final week of the regular season.
“Every game has importance,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “So I don’t think we’re ever going to have a chance to catch our breath because it’s so tight for the playoffs, three through eight is still pretty tight.”

With two road meetings with Western Conference playoff teams coming this week, the well rested Lillard walked out of Moda Center feeling confident about how his team has played.

“I like the way — like our style play,” said Lillard, who spent much of postgame media session celebrating the Oakland Raiders reported acquisition of wide receiver Antonio Brown not fretting over blowout wins, road trips or playoff seeding.
“We’re really defending hard; playing for each other and with each other,” he continued. “It’s just been such a group effort on both ends of the floor. It just feels like a complete team. It feels like … this type of play is very sustainable. We can be successful like this.”