Plenty of heroes in a game that was critical for Blazers to win

Plenty of heroes in a game that was critical for Blazers to win

There were plenty of Trail Blazer heroes to go around Monday night in Memphis as Portland pulled out a 100-92 win over the Grizzlies. Here is my list:

  • Damian Lillard -- Come on, playing the second half on a badly sprained ankle? There are not a lot of players who would have -- or could have -- done that. And he came up big down the stretch. I just hope no further damage was done by playing on it.
  • Noah Vonleh -- The man played under 31 minutes and totaled 11 points and a whopping 18 rebounds. He played with confidence and toughness against a physical team. He's getting better with opportunity. And that's often what happens in the NBA. You need a chance and Vonleh has made the most of his chance this time.
  • Shabazz Napier -- His 16 points off the bench were critical, as was his cool playmaking under pressure. He's carving out a niche for himself on a team that already has two outstanding point guards. I really like the way he competes.
  • Meyers Leonard -- He was 4-for-4 from the field to spark a big second-quarter surge for the Trail Blazers. Against undersized defenders he did a lot of work inside and didn't even attempt a three-point field goal. He's playing well enough that I'd assume we're going to see a lot more of him.
  • CJ McCollum -- A total of 24 points and eight rebounds and a very big jump shot to all but seal the game. If he's not the very best shooter in the league he's right there near the top.

There are still four games left on this road trip with tougher games ahead, including perhaps the toughest Wednesday night at Philadelphia. But there is no question that a loss Monday would have been a brutal way to start the trip. Memphis without Mike Conley at point guard, coming in with a four-game losing streak, is a team you must beat.

Mission accomplished.

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

My first thought Friday night after watching the Trail Blazers' latest debacle, that 86-82 loss at Sacramento, was that Portland had lost a game it should have won. But I must correct that appraisal ever so slightly. The Blazers lost to a team they should have beaten -- but they certainly deserved to lose the game.

In fact, it's difficult to figure out how they kept it so close. Check it out:

  • The Blazers shot 37 percent against a team not known for its defense.
  • The Blazers allowed one of the worst rebounding teams in the league to get a 44-44 draw on the boards.
  • The Blazers got only 12 points out of their starting front court.
  • The Blazers made only 7 of their 25 three-point shots.
  • The Blazers got only 22 points off their bench.
  • The Blazers turned the ball over 18 times.
  • The Blazers got only four points to go with four turnovers from Jusuf Nurkic.
  • The Blazers had ZERO (0) fastbreak points. Again.
  • The Blazers got only 28 points in the paint and made just 14 of their 38 shots in that area.

Just how in the world could you expect Portland to beat even one of the worst teams in the league with stuff like that going on?

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

And I haven't even mentioned that wacky lineup Coach Terry Stotts put on the floor in the second quarter that featured no starters along with Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard. I have no problem with either of those guys playing, by the way -- but just not together and not without a couple of starters out there helping them get their shots. Leonard and Layman came into the game having played a total of just 17 minutes apiece for the ENTIRE SEASON. Not that I think either of those players can't help this team -- they can at least make shots, as can Pat Connaughton, a career .404 shooter from three-point range who isn't getting enough looks right now.

Within a week, the local squad has lost to Brooklyn and Sacramento. But at least they got those losses the old-fashioned way -- they deserved them.

So here we are, headed into a Saturday night rematch with the Kings. Portland should win, of course. But the Blazers better make sure they deserve to win.

FLASHBACK- Meyers Leonard's surprise reunion with Marine brother

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FLASHBACK- Meyers Leonard's surprise reunion with Marine brother

If you have somehow never seen this clip, grab some tissues and hit play. 

From the YouTube description by John Castelli:

Here is a piece that I cut for the finale of The Journey: Big Ten Basketball 2012 about Meyers Leonard. It was produced/directed/shot by Matt Engel. Having a close relationship his entire life with big brother Bailey, Meyers was shocked when his brother, who was currently on duty as a U.S. Marine, flew to Illinois to surpise Meyers and watch him play for the first time in years.

Trail Blazers' center Meyers Leonard out 4-6 weeks with ankle injury

Trail Blazers' center Meyers Leonard out 4-6 weeks with ankle injury

Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard will miss four-to-six weeks after a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed a right lateral ankle sprain.

Leonard injured the ankle in a Wednesday practice when he stepped on the foot of rookie Zach Collins.

The 7-foot-1 center had appeared in two games and was averaging 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 8.5 minutes a game.

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. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

Breakfast with the Blazers: Meyers Leonard takes step forward with breakout performance

PHOENIX – Meyers Leonard knows it was only one game, and he knows it was only preseason, so he wasn’t ready Wednesday to proclaim his arrival back into Trail Blazers’ relevance.

But after his encouraging 17-point, 8-rebound effort in the Blazers’ 113-104 win over at Phoenix, the embattled Blazers’ big man could confidently say he took another step in his development.

“I knew coming into the year it was going to take some time, that there would be ups and downs,’’ Leonard said. “It’s day-by-day … but tonight felt good.’’

Leonard hit his first five three-pointers and was an aggressive rebounder in compiling his most complete preseason performance to date. Through five preseason games, the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 8 points and 6 rebounds in 15.5 minutes, during which he has made 8-of-12 three pointers.

Leonard’s performance Wednesday tickled his teammates, who know what a lightening rod Leonard has become with the fan base, who feel as a sixth-year pro has not lived up to expectations as a former lottery pick and recipient of a $41 million contract. The players have long said that Leonard has shown the talent in practices, but for whatever reason hasn’t been able to transfer it to the games consistently.

“It’s exciting; you have to be happy for him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s doing what everybody knows he can do. For him, it’s just a confidence thing, and having a game like tonight, it just builds that confidence. We need that from him going into the season.’’

When the season opens for real on Oct. 18 at Phoenix, Leonard doesn’t figure to be in coach Terry Stotts’ rotation judging from his preseason playing time. Jusuf Nurkic will start at center and Ed Davis appears to have locked down the backup role. Also, rookie Caleb Swanigan appears to have played his way into the rotation, and rookie Zach Collins is improving with each week.

That leaves the question of  where that leaves Leonard?

“I don’t know. I don’t have a clear answer for you,’’ Leonard said. “I am really trying to take it day-by-day. I knew coming in that it would be an uphill battle, and I’m OK with that. I have to play well in order to gain that trust. And I think tonight was definitely a step in the right direction.’’

Leonard this summer moved to Los Angeles and worked out with renowned basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who tweaked his shot, worked on his mobility and added to his offensive repertoire. Teammates say Leonard in training camp has looked as good as he has since he arrived in Portland as the No. 11 overall pick in the 2012 draft.

On Wednesday, people outside of the Blazers’ practice gym got to see the improvement.

“He’s played like that in camp this entire time,’’ Damian Lillard said. “In September, he was making shots and pushing Nurk on the defensive end. It seemed like he was making every shot in camp. But it’s really good to see him get out there in action and him not hesitating … that’s what you want to see from him.’’

His shot isn’t the only thing that has improved. He has been a much more aggressive and confident rebounder – he grabbed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes on Sunday against the Clippers – and he is fouling less and moving his feet more on defense.

“I was really glad to see him hit some shots,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after Wednesday’s game. “I’m always the first to say that your game isn’t determined by whether you make or miss shots, but he had a good rhythm. And he certainly had an impact on the game.’’

The next step, of course, is to do it again. Leonard said he will attack his Thursday workout with the same enthusiasm and same consistency, then look to take another step forward in the preseason finale on Friday against Israeli professional club Maccabi Haifa.

“It’s a long season, and I know I have made big strides,’’ Leonard said. “And I know I can impact the game on both sides of the ball. I’m going to keep doing my best to be ready when my number is called.’’

Today's Blazers' Links:

A look at what got Caleb Swanigan ejected against the Suns.

An inbounds play paid dividends again for the Blazers on Wednesday.

Casey Holdahl with the Trail Blazers writes how three's and defense led Wednesday's win.

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

Exhibition season a time for observations, but not judgments -- yet

For me, as someone covering an NBA team, training camp is the most frustrating part of the season.

I'm supposed to comment on or analyze changes the team is making, update people on new players and, in general, talk about how things are looking for the upcoming season. And I have to tell you, the way things are today, that's very close to impossible to accomplish.

We don't get to watch more than a few minutes of each day's practice and what we do watch isn't enough to draw conclusions. Hence, the frustration. That's why the exhibition season is a lot more fun.

And, of course, it begins tonight with a Moda Center game vs. Phoenix that you can watch at NBCS beginning with Rip City Live at 6:30.

What will I be watching tonight?

For me, it's about player development. I never worry about that with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum because we've seen their off-season work ethic and assume they will come into each season better than they were the previous season. But here are a few other players I'll be anxious to see:

  • Jusuf Nurkic -- We already know he's lost weight but what about his game? We've heard he has improved his shooting range but I want to see what we're going to get on the defensive end. How is his rim protection going to be? His rebounding?
  • Zach Collins -- Certainly Caleb Swanigan got all the early rookie attention with his play in the summer league, but lately, there is a buzz about Collins. He's looking comfortable and confident, we hear. I want to see where he is in his development.
  • Caleb Swanigan -- This team is looking for a starter at power forward, could a rookie claim that job? I wouldn't be surprised.
  • Meyers Leonard -- Well, you know -- confidence.
  • Evan Turner -- Where will he fit? He can be a valuable contributor in the right role and I'm interested in what that will be.

Obviously, there are other players of interest but these will be my main focus for the first few games. And let me add, it's real dangerous to make snap judgments at this time of year. To the veterans, these games are just a chance to get loose and work on specific things. Don't go overboard either way on performance.

It's time for observations, not judgments.

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Breakfast with the Blazers: Fan Fest scrimmage observations

Some observations after the Trail Blazers’ Fan Fest scrimmage Sunday at the Moda Center, keeping in mind that is was just a intra-squad workout:

CJ’s ‘target practice’

As crazy as it sounds, it looks like CJ McCollum is primed for an even better season than last, when he averaged 23 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and an NBA-best 91.2 percent from the line.

Some of the shots McCollum made Sunday had Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, shifting in his seat and chuckling at the absurd ease in which McCollum scored over blanket coverage. All night -- be it with his ball handling, court vision or shot making --  it seemed as if McCollum was toying with the competition.

All told, he hit 6-of-9 shots and all three of his three-pointers and finished with 15 points and the MVP trophy.

“Pretty good target practice,’’ McCollum quipped afterward.

This training camp, McCollum seems more at ease. Confidence has never, ever, been a problem for him, but in the past, it seemed like he carried an angry confidence, like he was in a rush to get recognized, or in a hurry to prove people wrong.

This season, that confidence seems more … peaceful, more comfortable.  I think that was on display pregame, when McCollum and Damian Lillard had a midcourt conversation with television broadcasters Kevin Calabro and Lamar Hurd.

In those settings, Lillard is usually the one who owns the stage. But on Sunday, it was McCollum who held court, telling stories about his travels to Africa, and making quips about social media posts.

To me, it looks like a young star coming into his own, as a player and a person. When that synergy happens, look out … and it’s why I think it’s possible McCollum surpasses Lillard as the team’s top scorer this season. 

The surprise

The biggest surprise Sunday was the play of guard Isaiah Briscoe, the rookie from Kentucky who is one of three players trying to win the 15th and final roster spot.

Briscoe scored 14 points and hit 6-of-7 shots while adding six rebounds, five assists and two steals.

After the game, coach Terry Stotts shrugged and said that’s what the staff has been seeing all training camp out of Briscoe. He is in competition with NBA veteran sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and guard Archie Goodwin, a 2013 first round pick – a spot I think many figure will go to Morrow – but after seeing Briscoe on Sunday that might be more of a battle than we think.

Solid Swanigan

Caleb Swanigan had 13 points and four rebounds, and what I liked best was his no-hesitation three-point attempt, which he made.

His ability to be a spacing power forward will only help him get on the floor in what figures to be the most heated position battle of the preseason. Between Swanigan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, and eventually Noah Vonleh when his shoulder heals, coach Stotts will have many options.

I’ve been curious this training camp how Stotts and the players view Swanigan from a spacing standpoint, and all have had basically the same response: He hasn’t shot it well the first week, but they know he can. If he can consistently hit the jumper, that will give him a better chance to be on the floor with Lillard and McCollum.

Of course, the bread-and-butter for Swanigan is his nose for the ball, and that was on display Sunday. He is not afraid to bang inside and he is one of those guys who is constantly in motion.

“What saw from Caleb is what we’ve seen for the last month: Effective scorer, tough, feels very confident on the block,’’ Stotts said.

Odds & Ends

While Swanigan has earned much of the attention and figures to be more game ready, don’t sleep on fellow rookie Zach Collins. On Sunday, Collins had a nice block on Swanigan at the rim, and word out of practices is that Collins has emerged as the team’s best rim protector … Speaking of defense, Meyers Leonard looked much better at contesting shots on Sunday. People often fixate on his shot, but for the coaches, it’s his defense that has prevented him from playing more. Leonard knows this and perhaps that’s why he was pumping himself up and talking to the crowd after holding his ground during a couple of Jusuf Nurkic’s forays into the lane … Ed Davis was really active and bouncy, which is exactly what the Blazers need from him. Next game, spend a couple possessions where you just focus on Davis and you will notice how many little things he does – keeping a ball alive, tipping a rebound to a teammate, showing help defense to cut off a drive, setting a hard screen. He makes this team better … Looks like it could be another hold-your-breath-and-pray shooting seasons for Al-Farouq Aminu. He went 0-for-4 with one airball and a near airball … Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless were late scratches to the scrimmage, but Stotts said both should be available to play Tuesday in the preseason opener against Phoenix. 

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Breakfast with the Blazers: Sunday is Fan Fest, a free event to see team scrimmage

Sunday is the Trail Blazers’ 13th annual Wells Fargo Fan Fest, which is essentially a chance to see the Trail Blazers scrimmage for free at the Moda Center.

If you have never been to the event, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s free, first-come-first-serve on the seating, and a chance to see the Blazers’ players in a setting that is relaxed and intimate.

“It’s like they came to a practice, and we are just hoopin’ in front of them,’’ Damian Lillard said. “Like a pickup (game) … that’s pretty cool.’’

Doors open at noon and the team will scrimmage around 1 p.m., which will consist of four six-minute quarters played on a running clock except for the game’s final minute.

To receive a free ticket, click here or go to www.nba.com/blazers/fanfest.

It will be Blazers’ fans first look at rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, the first chance to see what a slimmed down Jusuf Nurkic can do on the court, and to see for themselves whether Meyers Leonard has improved.

But more than anything, it’s a chance to interact with the players and see them without the pressure of a game weighing on them.

“It’s good for the people who can’t afford to go to the games,’’ Ed Davis said. “And it’s a good chance to be up close and see us.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said he puts very little stock into what happens during the scrimmage, so don’t expect a player to win or lose a rotation spot because of what happens Sunday, but he also stressed that the event is not a time for horseplay.

“I like that our players are able to interact with the fans during certain parts of it, and from a basketball standpoint, we make it a competitive game,’’ Stotts said. “It’s not a practice, but it’s not like we are just out there screwing around. It’s a competitive game and guys are trying to win. And we use it as an opportunity to work on the things we’ve been working on in camp.’’

Lillard, who has won the Most Valuable Player of the event three times, says he doesn’t plan on winning it this season. He said plans on playing only limited minutes in order to give the rookies and other players a chance to showcase for the fans.

Then again, he said the same thing last season then came out on fire, hitting his first five three-pointers, which prompted him to keep playing. Not so this year, he says.

“This year, I will probably play very, very little,’’ Lillard said. “I’ve been here five years, they’ve seen me play, they know what I’m going to do. They want to see who else is out here, who has improved.’’

In past years, the event has drawn anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 fans. If you aren’t able to attend, you can watch on CSN at 1 p.m.

Either way, it’s an event worth watching.

“As players, we enjoy playing in front of a crowd,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We enjoy being able to provide them with a free experience. I know a lot of fans don’t necessarily have the time, or the money, to go to as many games as they would like to. So to be able to go in and sit courtside at the arena … it’s a good environment. And it’s a first chance to look at the new guys.’’

Today's Blazers Links:

I wrote about teammates praising Meyers Leonard after first week

Dane Carbaugh listed five questions the Blazers must answer this season.

The Oregonian's Joe Freeman has a story on Anthony Morrow and his fight for the 15th spot.