Damian Lillard's game-management skills on full display in Clippers win

Damian Lillard's game-management skills on full display in Clippers win

Of all the elite skills Damian Lillard possesses – his scoring, his leadership, his work ethic – one of the most underrated might be his ability to manage a game.

His floor leadership was on display Friday when Lillard had 17 points and 11 assists, spearheading a night when the Blazers tied their season high with 30 assists during an important 105-96 win over the LA Clippers.

His performance came on the heels of Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, when Lillard didn’t play and the Blazers were held to 15 assists while generating only six shots for center Jusuf Nurkic.

“I thought Damian was terrific with his passing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after the Clippers’ win. “He found Nurk … someone asked me about getting Nurk more shots before the game, and I think Dame is responsible for getting Nurk some shots.’’

It has become one of the more underrated aspects of Lillard’s game – the way he manages a game from his point guard position. Last season, Stotts continually made note of how smart and measured Lillard had become in running the team, and this season, the sixth-year point guard has become even better.

His mastery of game management, and its value, was never more evident than the juxtaposition between the Memphis and Clippers games.

 “It’s taken time for me to get to that point,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard noted that as a rookie he joined a team with established veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, all of whom commanded a certain level of offensive attention.

“I had to kind of manage where, and who hasn’t touched it … what’s going on here … when do I be aggressive?’’ Lillard said. “So I was a rookie trying to figure that out.’’

As the years progressed, so too did Lillard’s understanding of the game, his teammates, and where his own game best fit into that.

That experience and knowledge was glaringly absent from the Memphis game, when Lillard flew home to be present for the birth of his son. The Blazers never got Nurkic on track inside and had several disorganized plays down the stretch of the disappointing loss.

After that game, Shabazz Napier, who started in place of Lillard, took ownership. He said he noticed during the game that Nurkic needed more touches, and lamented afterward that he wasn’t able to make it happen. Meanwhile, CJ McCollum, who also ran some point guard, stared blankly when asked if Nurkic should have been more involved.

Lillard watched the Memphis game from Portland, and said he didn’t think the lack of touches from Nurkic was why the team lost. But he did think the team could have been more focused in how they attacked late in the game.

“I have had more time than anybody else in here to just learn and keep track of everything,’’ Lillard said. “How many team fouls do they have? What play have they called the most? What play is working for us? How many timeouts do they have, do we have?

“There are so many things to keep track of that allows you to control a game, to manipulate a game that I’ve had a lot of experience in,’’ said Lillard, who is averaging 6.6 assists this season, the second highest average of his career.

Nurkic, for one, notices. One game after getting six shots without Lillard in the lineup, Nurkic on Friday had a team-high 17 shots against the Clippers.

“We understand each other, the game we have,’’ Nurkic said. “Every possession we already know where we are going to be and how we going to play. When we look at each other, we already know what we are going to do … He just reads the game. It makes it easier for us. ‘’

Lessons from Jusuf Nurkic's youth paying off for Trail Blazers

Lessons from Jusuf Nurkic's youth paying off for Trail Blazers

Back when Jusuf Nurkic was a teenager, and first introduced to basketball, he learned an important lesson.

Defense, Nurkic was taught by coach Jasmin Repesa, is just as important as offense.

“My first steps, back overseas before I came to NBA, I always learned to play basketball right,’’ Nurkic said. “Jasmin Repesa gave me the basics: Protect the rim, play both ends.’’

That early schooling has been the foundation of what has become perhaps the most game-changing aspect of the Blazers over the past year: Improved defense.

The Blazers’ surge into the third seed in the Western Conference has been rooted in defense, and perhaps nobody has been more stellar defensively this season than Nurkic.

With agile feet, a big 7-foot frame and strong instincts, Nurkic has turned the Blazers from one of the softest interior defenses to one of the staunchest since he arrived in a February 2017 trade from Denver.

This season he ranks 13th in the NBA in blocks at 1.4 per game, which included a 1.8 average during March, when the Blazers went 12-3 and vaulted into third place. In his last seven games, Nurkic is averaging 3.0 blocks a game, including three in Friday’s 115-106 win over the Clippers.

“Like I said when I came (from Denver): it was all about what this team needed –improved defense,’’ Nurkic said. “I think, since Terry (Stotts) came here, they never had an issue on offense, so when I see the (defense)  is breaking down, I try to be there for whoever is guarding perimeter guys.’’

There have been times when Nurkic has drifted defensively this season, and there have been times when he flat out forgets a defensive assignment. But it’s no mistake that Portland has gone from one of the worst at protecting the rim to the best since Nurkic arrived.

“He’s definitely been a huge part of why we’ve been good on the defensive end lately,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Nurkic said Repesa, his coach when he was a teenager in the Croatian League, taught him that defense for big men is often about timing, and knowing when to leave your feet.

“It’s timing and decisions, that’ s the key,’’ Nurkic said. “Sometimes you need to be smart in what you are doing.’’

Stotts says he likes what he’s been seeing from his big man.

“He’s been really conscious of being a presence in the paint … he’s going after shots,’’ Stotts said. “It just seems like it’s kind of clicking for him as far as understanding where he is, where his man is, where the ball is.’’

But more than anything with Nurkic, it’s a desire to play defense. During Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, when he took only six shots, he said he didn’t care about being forgotten offensively. To Nurkic, his main job is to provide defense.

“To be honest, I’m going to go out there and try to do my job. So basically, I was focused on trying to help on defense,’’ Nurkic said. “If I happen to not have shots, I’m not going to complain. I understand that without Dame we played lineups that didn’t play a lot of minutes together. I can’t control that stuff (offensively), and complaining about it isn’t going to do anything.’’

Instead, Nurkic has quietly turned what was trending toward a frustrating season and formed it into a standout season, with averages of 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in 26 minutes a game.

In March, those numbers spiked -- 15.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 57.6 percent from the field – and it was suggested that he is looking like the Nurkic that took Portland by storm last season.

“Nah,’’ Nurkic said. “To be honest, I feel the same way the whole year.’’

He said his early-season struggles – when he battled foul trouble and a rash of missed shots inside – are all part of his learning curve.

“I’ve never been in position to play this many games, to be a starter, and have to bring it every night,’’ Nurkic said. “To play this many minutes, and to have to figure out things throughout the year … I’m still a young guy. I’m 23. But I’ve had Coach and Damian to help me figure it out, and if we can win while I’m still doing that … it doesn’t get any better than that.’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ZACH!?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It did, in a big way. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind of like his Friday night.

Wade Baldwin balled out against former team

Wade Baldwin balled out against former team

Wade Baldwin balled out. 

With Damian Lillard back in Portland for the birth of his son and Maurice Harkless out with an injury, the Portland Trail Blazers gave guard Wade Baldwin, the 21-year-old former first-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt, 21 minutes in last night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Baldwin made the most of his time finishing with 15 points on 5-of-6 from the field, grabbed four rebounds, and two assists against his former team.

Portland coach Terry Stotts on Baldwin, "I was very happy for Wade. For him to come in and have the game he had against his old team, that was special. I wish we could have gotten a win for him."

What will his minutes look like when Lillard and Harkless return is in question.

"I'm going to approach it professionally," said Baldwin. "I'm playing under guys ahead of me. I gotta do what I need to do on this team to try to help them win." 

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

Memorable Trail Blazers season has notable night in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS –In a season that is becoming as memorable as it has been notable, the Trail Blazers outdid even themselves on Tuesday.

It was a night of suspense and drama both on and off the court, and by the time the Trail Blazers left New Orleans they had two fewer players, one more victory, and a mood that was somewhere between emboldened confidence and tenuous optimism.

On the court, the Blazers won their seventh straight road game behind another remarkable fourth-quarter outburst from Damian Lillard and some gritty perseverance that is becoming a hallmark for this team.

Off the court, the team was hit with both expected and unexpected news after it entered the locker room following the 107-103 victory over the Pelicans.

First, coach Terry Stotts delivered some unexpected news: starter Maurice Harkless needed surgery on his left knee. Although it is believed to be a minor procedure – an arthroscopy to remove a loose body -- the team won’t know how long Harkless will be sidelined until after Wednesday’s surgery.

Shortly after, the players learned that Lillard had received word from Portland that his girlfriend was nearing birth of their son, ending a more than week-long waiting game. As players dressed, Lillard packed a carry on bag and said goodbyes.

It created one of the more unique departures of the season: a chartered jet with the Blazers aboard leaving for Memphis and a private jet carrying Lillard and Harkless pointed toward Portland.

Both takeoffs mirror the trajectory of what has become one of the NBA’s hottest teams. Portland (46-28) has won 17 of 20 and has all but secured the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference. With eight games left, the Blazers hold a 2.5 game lead over Oklahoma City and 3.5 game lead over San Antonio and New Orleans.

Portland can clinch a playoff spot as early as Wednesday with a win over Memphis (20-54) and a loss by the Clippers at Phoenix.  

All in all, it was a whirlwind of a night, with yet another tense and suspenseful game in which the Blazers didn’t blink almost taking a back seat to the unease of Harkless’ surgery and the elation of Lillard’s impending fatherhood.

The fun started when the team bus rolled into the Smoothie King Center.

“It just so happened that when I hopped off the bus, Coach said ‘You might not know this, but Mo ain’t playing tonight,’’’ Evan Turner said. “And I was like … I would have taken a nap if I knew that.’’

**

Turner and the rest of the Blazers looked like they were sleeping when the game started.

Both CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu missed their first six shots. The team missed nine of its first 10 three-pointers. But even though New Orleans would hold several nine-point leads, it could never distance itself.

It has become one of the more encouraging traits of this Blazers team – the team’s success is not predicated on shots falling.

Behind some solid interior play by Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks) and dirty-work duty from Aminu (seven offensive rebounds, three steals, one block) the Blazers were able to hang around, even when Anthony Davis (36 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks) helped push the lead to as many as 11.

“I was really proud of the way we just kept competing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said.

Stotts said his message throughout the game was consistent: Even though the shots aren’t falling, keep playing.

It was a message that took extra meaning at the end of the third quarter. It was then that he and Lillard crossed paths and found they were thinking the same thing:

This game called for Lillard Time.

**

It is unusual, but not rare, that Lillard starts the fourth quarter. Because he plays so many minutes during the game, Stotts tends to rest Lillard for the first three to four minutes of the fourth to have him fresh for crunch time.

But on Tuesday, with the Blazers trailing 75-71, both he and Lillard agreed this was one of those games where the team couldn’t afford to have him sit.

“I was like, man, we have to roll. I don’t want to come out,’’ Lillard said. “I didn’t want the game to change, them to go on a roll. I didn’t want anything to be out of my control and me not be able to have an impact on whatever happens.’’

Stotts said between the third and fourth quarters Lillard asked to stay in the game, but Stotts said he had already made the decision that Lillard would remain in.

“I thought he had a good bounce all game ,’’ Stotts said. “An I made the decision early that I wasn’t going to take him out. Don’t know if he got tired or not, but I thought having him on the floor was really important.’’

Truth be told, Lillard said he was gassed. But he had the sense the game was there for the taking.

“Sometimes when I (ask), he will be like, Dame I gotta get you out,’’ Lillard said. “But he trusted me. We’ve developed a relationship that when I do it – I don’t just say it all the time – I say it when I really feel a way … so we’ve really grown into a trust with that.’’

Immediately, Lillard made an impact.

“Bang, bang, bang,’’ Lillard recalled.

He scored seven quick points to open the fourth and the Blazers suddenly had the lead. It would be the start of a 20-point quarter and the finishing touches on a 41-point game.

“We needed every bit of them,’’ Stotts said.

**

Tonight in Memphis, without Lillard and Harkless, the Blazers will need every bit of their roster, even though the Grizzlies have the NBA’s second worst record. Earlier this week, Memphis won in Minnesota.

“I think a bunch of us are going to have to step up,’’ Turner said. “It means more minutes for Pat (Connaughton) , more minutes for myself … and bench wise even Jake (Layman). … We’ll figure it out.’’

It has been a defining trait of this team. Some how, some way, they figure out a way.

“The biggest thing is we are being battled tested right now, sometimes with backs against the wall you respond in the right way,’’ Turner said. “And that’s huge coming into the playoffs and the last stretch.’’

The team knows Lillard will only miss the Memphis game, and will be back for Friday’s home game against the Clippers. As for Harkless? The players were optimistic their defensive ace and game-changing forward could return soon.

Lillard said his first reaction was to ask the severity of Harkless’ injury.

“Once they told me it would be something light, something quick, I was like ,cool,’’ Lillard said. “We have some time. The next guy has to step up. The fact that it wasn’t serious, I wasn’t too bothered by it.’’

So now the Blazers enter the final stretch, emboldened by their latest road wins over Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They have proven they are a playoff team, and they have proven they can win on the road, and they have proven they can beat elite teams.

What’s left to prove?

“That we can sustain it,’’ Lillard said. “The last two (wins) we’ve shown that we weren’t just feeling ourselves in a winning streak. We’ve been able to create and sustain these habits and this style of play. I think it shows our growth, and that we are a different team.’’

Tough Love: How Blazers' coach Terry Stotts is reaching Jusuf Nurkic

Tough Love: How Blazers' coach Terry Stotts is reaching Jusuf Nurkic

Throughout this Trail Blazers season, an important development has been unfolding on the sidelines: the coaching of Jusuf Nurkic by Terry Stotts.

In probably one of his more dogged and pointed undertakings in his six seasons as coach of the Blazers, Stotts this season has been relentless in his pursuit of excellence from the 23-year-old center.

“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in practice. In huddles. He will get after him,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Stotts acknowledged that this season, and in particular the past two months, he has taken great effort to reach Nurkic.

“I think I’ve probably given him more attention than other guys,’’ Stotts said.

Sometimes it has been through film study. Sometimes it has been with a sharp reminder. And a few times, it has been a reduction in Nurkic’s minutes.

In all, Nurkic doesn’t dispute that Stotts has been hard on him.

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“He should,’’ Nurkic said. “I’m 23 years old. I’m still growing up. In basketball, it’s my fourth year, and almost like my second in the NBA. It’s a learning process for me.’’

Lillard, who does his own share of mentoring Nurkic, has watched Stotts deal with Nurkic with a curious eye. He says what Stotts has done with Nurkic underscores the most “underrated” facet of Stotts’ coaching – the ability to get the most out of a player.

“With Nurk, (Stotts) might raise his voice a bit, but it’s never like embarrassing him, or saying ‘That was soft!’" Lillard said. “It’s more, ‘Nurk! You are better than that!’ … or ‘Stop doing that! We need you to go up strong!’  And it’s stuff Nurk needs to hear at times.’’

For how dominating Nurkic can be – such as Monday, when he had 27 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in the Blazers’ win over Miami – he can also be frustrating.

Throughout the season, he has forgotten plays. Missed a bevy of close-range shots. And drifted mentally.

Nurkic said in his past – his first two seasons in Denver – those types of transgressions were met with benchings and the silent treatment.

With Stotts, they have been met with stern lectures that are centered around teaching.

“I never have a coaching experience like his personality,’’ Nurkic said. “I’ve never had a coach who has trusted me that much … I had a coach before (Denver’s Mike Malone) who never talked to me or play me; now I have a coach who talk to me about every play, and in the film room with me, to work on the stuff I need. He shows me how I can be better. That’s what it is all about.’’

It is at the core of Stotts’ coaching philosophy: teaching through positive reinforcement and challenging in a positive, rather than negative, manner.

“I don’t like to over-coach players,’’ Stotts said. “I think they get a lot of information from different people – other players, agents, their families – so I try to be to-the-point and helpful.’’

But make no mistake, Lillard says, Stotts challenges Nurkic. Stotts this season has probably been as forceful and pointed as he has been with a player in Portland, outside of Meyers Leonard. Lillard smiles when thinking about Stotts’ tactics with Nurkic, because he knows the perception is that Stotts is always Mr. Nice Guy.

“It’s underrated about Coach Stotts, because he is such a nice dude,’’ Lillard said. “Like, he’s not always screaming and being angry – you see him smiling and being happy all the time. But I think it’s underrated that he is willing to get it out of you.’’

Stotts, however, points out that it all starts with the player. A coach can push and prod all he wants, but ultimately it is up to the player.

“And I give Nurk credit,’’ Stotts said. “He has put in a lot of work with our assistants and in having a serious approach to improving. It always starts with the player.’’

But with Nurkic, there appears to be a key to unlocking his talents, as evidenced by his rocky time in Denver. Lillard says he thinks there is a certain way to handle the 7-footer and Stotts has found it with coaching that blends a nurturing style with moments of cracking the whip.

“I think we’ve all learned that Nurk will respond (to criticism); he doesn’t get in his feelings and all that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “So Coach, he understands that Nurk has the ability to float sometimes, and if you get on him, he will give you something. Coach is good about things like that – not being constantly on a guy’s back, but if something needs to be said, he will definitely say it.’’

Probably the most concrete coaching moment came around the All-Star Break, when the staff restructured his shooting workouts, which had devolved into a series of nonchalant and finesse shots. Nurkic says there is a new rule: He can only practice shots he will take in the game.

“It’s about getting away from the flip shots and staying in control,’’ Stotts said. “Him taking the time to steady himself and get game-like shots. And he has worked hard at it. That work he has put in is starting to pay off now.’’

Since the All-Star Break, Nurkic has seen improvement in every category: his shooting percentage has improved from 48 percent to 55 percent. His scoring from 14.1 to 15.0 and his rebounding from 8.2 to 10.3.

“If we can get that from him,’’ Lillard says, “we are a different team.’’

Nurkic says that point – his importance to the Blazers - has been one of the main themes Stotts has hammered home to him throughout the season.

“Just to point (out) how much I know this team needs me,’’ Nurkic said. “Everybody knows. My teammates they really know how much I can bring. So when I’m at my best, we have a great chance to win.’’

The scary part is Nurkic says he still has room to improve. And Lillard says with the way Stotts is pushing Nurkic’s buttons – by both being demanding but nurturing – that improvement will come.

“Once somebody like him sees they really believe in me, and that Coach is getting on him but it’s ‘You are better than that’  … he feels the love,’’ Lillard said. “He not crazy. He’s one of those guys who if he feels the love and he knows you want the best for him, he’s going to give you everything he’s got.’’

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

After an 0-for-10 shooting night Saturday in Phoenix, Trail Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier had one thought on the flight home: getting back in the gym to work on his shot.

“I was thinking about coming (to the practice gym) when we landed, but we didn’t land until around 1 a.m.,’’ Napier said.

So, after a night’s sleep, Napier came to the gym Sunday morning, even though the Blazers’ had the day off. Truth is, Napier would have been in the gym on Sunday had he gone 10-for-10 in Phoenix, but considering he is now in the worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, having gone 7-for-36 in his last four games, there was an added urgency to get to his shooting routine.

“Have to keep shooting,’’ Napier said.

On Monday, Napier was the last Blazers player to leave the practice courts following the team’s workout. He put in so many extra shots that sweat was dripping from his chin.

“I have to keep shooting, keeping working out and try to erase all the shots I’ve missed,’’ Napier said. “Eventually, it’s going to fall. I mean, I put up a lot of shots every day, so I have a lot of faith in my craft. It’s going to fall.’’

The next chance for Napier to break out of his slump will be Tuesday when the surging Blazers (33-26) – winners of five of the past six – play at home against Sacramento (18-41). The last time Napier played the Kings, he made all five of his shots.

In the meantime, nobody on the Blazers is worried about Napier, who this season is shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.

“I think good shooters work themselves through it,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “You gotta have confidence and know the next shot is going in.’’

Added team captain Damian Lillard: “I don’t worry about him … Bazz is not a mental midget. You see (against Phoenix) he missed a couple and he kept shooting. That tells you all you need to know.’’

While confidence is never a problem for Napier, two things have entered his mind. During his slump – and particularly against Phoenix – several shots have appeared to go in, only to spin off or bounce out of the rim.

“The one that are the worst are the ones that go in the hoop, then come out … it kind of sticks with you,’’ Napier said.

Also, he has detected a couple flaws in his shooting stroke. For one, on some shots he says he can feel the ball is too far back in his palm. He wants the ball to come off his fingers and not be touched or influenced by his palm. Also, he doesn’t feel he is getting the same lift on his shots because both of his big toes are swollen and injured. His right big toe was hurt this season in Philadelphia, and his left big toe swelled up so much after the game in Toronto he had to miss the game in Boston.

“At the end of the day, when you put that thing up, you have to forget about all the excuses and just shoot the ball,’’ Napier said. “And hopefully, you make it.’’

Napier this season has been one of the best stories on the Blazers. After playing bit roles with Miami, Orlando and Portland in his first three seasons, Napier is now a key player on a team in the playoff hunt. He forged his role amid the most unlikely landscapes – playing behind two All-Star caliber guards.

He forced his way into the rotation during a stellar December, when he averaged 13.8 points in 11 games. He then cemented his place while filling in for the injured Lillard, during which he started eight games and averaged 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

For the season, Napier is averaging a career-high 9.1 points and 2.2 assists in a career-high 21.2 minutes a game.

It’s that body of work this season why nobody is worried about the last four games, and Napier admits it is easier to cope with the slump knowing he has a secure spot in the rotation.

“It helps when teammates and coaches say ‘Keep shooting,’’’ Napier said. “(Assistants) Jim Moran, Nate Tibbetts, Coach Stotts - every time I get to the huddle they keep saying ‘Keep shooting. The next one is going to fall.’ They believe in my shot as much as I do. And I know it’s my job to knock down the next shot.’’

That’s why he was in the gym early Sunday, and then again late on Monday. He’s a shooter, and shooters shoot, even when they are in a slump.

“That’s why I’m always here,’’ Napier said as sweat dripped off him at the practice facility. “I gotta figure it out.’’

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

Stotts, Blazers' newest dilemma: What to do with resurgent Mo Harkless?

SACRAMENTO – A developing subplot in the Trail Blazers season has been the reemergence of Maurice Harkless over the past week.

In what has largely been a disappointing season for the one-time starting small forward, Harkless has recently flourished while being reinserted into the rotation because of injuries.

Last Sunday, he hit all five three-point attempts in Boston en route to a 19-point, 8-rebound performance. And late in an overtime win against Charlotte on Thursday, he made a key block and a flushed a game-clinching dunk off an offensive rebound. He then scored 15 points Friday at Sacramento, and was a key element in the Blazers putting away the Kings in the fourth quarter.

Coach Terry Stotts, who through the first two months of the season went through a somewhat trying exercise in reaching a nine-man rotation, now has an intriguing decision ahead of him: What to do with Harkless?

“Let’s just talk about tonight,’’ Stotts said Friday when asked about his dilemma.

Harkless started the first 19 games of the season, but drifted into anonymity and eventually onto the bench amid poor shooting and energy-less play. To his credit, he remained ready after his demotion. He was the driving force in a December victory at the Lakers, scoring 22 points, and he was a boost with 19 points in a January home win over San Antonio.

This latest development was spurred first by a toe injury to Shabazz Napier, creating an opening in the Boston game, then a calf injury to Evan Turner, which has pushed Harkless into the starting lineup as Turner missed one game and has been on a minutes restriction the past two games.

Stotts started the season with Harkless in the starting lineup because he liked the defensive versatility he provides while paired with power forward Al-Farouq Aminu. The two long and lanky forwards can switch defensively on pick-and-rolls, and when energized, Harkless has athleticism unique to the Blazers.

Plus, with Harkless in the starting lineup, it allows Turner to assume an offensive role off the bench that is more suited to his strengths. With Turner on the second unit, he can be more of a ball-handler and initiator, and it puts less pressure on him to be a spacer alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

So, what does Stotts do?

On Friday at least, the coach conceded that he will probably extend his rotation from nine to 10, at least for the time being. Most coaches -- particularly late in the season -- like to limit their rotations to nine players in order to give them adequate playing time to establish a rhythm. If Harkless forges a regular spot back in the rotation, it will likely have to come at the expense of Napier, the team's third guard.

 “Moving forward I’m sure (Harkless) will be playing,’’ Stotts said. “Evan with the minutes restriction, you know, kind of makes it a little easier on me. Now, I assume Evan’s minutes will be going up, so they will have to come from somewhere. ‘’

This development almost mirrors how Harkless broke onto the scene in Portland two seasons ago. Lost and out of the rotation in February, he flourished as a spot starter in place of the injured Noah Vonleh and became a key element to the team’s late season push.

Now, Lillard is seeing some of the same things from Harkless.

“We get those sprint backs, those block, the deflections, the finishing in the paint, the offensive rebounds, knocking down 3s … when we get that from Mo we are a completely different team,’’ Lillard said. “I literally get excited when I see him doing those things. That’s why I will be the first guy to tell him: ‘We need you like this all the time. Nobody else on our roster can do what you do, and what you bring to the table.’’’

Harkless on Friday said nothing has changed for him, except the opportunity.

“I think it’s just being back in the rotation,’’ Harkless said. “It’s hard to not know if you are going to play, how much you are going to play, then get thrown out there for six minutes. It’s tough to play like that and be consistent.’’

For the immediate future, at least, it sounds like Stotts will give him another shot. What he does with it might determine the course of the Blazers rotation, and season.

“I will be ready to play, whatever role it is,’’ Harkless said.

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

Terry Stotts lays into Blazers after they nearly blow game vs. Charlotte

After some sharp words from coach Terry Stotts, the Trail Blazers on Thursday received a message: It’s time to get serious about this season.

“I can’t call back exactly what he said,’’ veteran Ed Davis said. “But it had to do with we have big aspirations and we are not playing up to that.’’

After blowing a 17-point lead with seven minutes to go against a subpar Charlotte team, the Blazers were pushed into overtime, where some big plays from Maurice Harkless finally got them over the hump in a 109-103 victory.

Normally a mild-mannered coach who teaches through positive reinforcement, Stotts, players say, laid into his team afterward, and it left a mark.

“He knows we are capable of much more,’’ CJ McCollum said. “We haven’t played our best basketball. We have been pissing away games and not executing. We have to do some things better so we are not in those situations where … we could have lost tonight.’’

Often times this season, the Blazers players have been outwardly positive following wins with subpar play. Not Thursday.

“Unacceptable,’’ Davis said. “We want to be one of those elite teams and elite teams don’t play around at home, especially a game we are supposed to win and had control of the whole game.’’

In his postgame address to the media, the Blazers coach was terse, choosing to release one sentence answers through pursed lips in what probably stands as his most uptight and irritated session during his six seasons. 

Maybe it was because it’s that time of year. Or maybe it was because the Trail Blazers were so spectacularly awful in the fourth quarter. Or maybe Stotts had just had enough of  the up-and-down play.

Whatever the reason, he let the team have it.

Harkless said it was the most angry Stotts has been after a victory, and Meyers Leonard said “he was definitely upset with us” – but both Damian Lillard and Ed Davis said it wasn’t a notable tirade.

“It wasn’t like he was m’fing this, m’fing that – but it was like, ‘This is what it is: we are playing great basketball for three quarters then we (poop) the bed in the fourth and give a team that is not supposed to be in the game a chance to win.’

Lillard said he has seen Stotts more angry, and he noted that the group even laughed at one point.

That humor came via Evan Turner.

According to the players, Stotts at one point realized he was harping after a victory. He caught himself, and said, “I don’t want to be …”

As Stotts started to search for the right word, Turner chirped from his corner stall.

“A Debbie Downer?” Turner asked.

“No,” Stotts said. “I need another one …”

“Negative Nancy?’’ Turner retorted?

As Stotts pondered Nancy, Turner added another one:

“Emotional?”

The last one busted up everyone in the room.

“It definitely helped lighten the mood,’’ Harkless said.

The win ended a three game losing streak and pushed the Blazers’ home winning streak to nine, the longest home run in five seasons. Portland (30-25) is in sixth place in the West, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

As the team boarded a plane later Thursday night for a flight to Sacramento for Friday’s game against the Kings (17-36), it was a group that knows time is running out to back up their own talk that they can be an upper-echelon team.

“We are at a point in the season where we have to start separating ourselves,’’ Davis said. “The games where we need to blow teams out, we need to do that, and tonight was that night.’’

Instead, they got a talking to from their normally laid-back coach.

“He gave us the same message we’ve been preaching all year: we have to be consistent,’’ Harkless said. “When we are consistent we are a pretty good team. But over the course of one game, we can go from really good to average, to good, to average … we just have to maintain.’’

Terry Stotts named NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month

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USA Today

Terry Stotts named NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month

PORTLAND, Ore. (February 1, 2018)Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has been named NBA Western Conference Coach of the Month for January, the league announced today.

Currently in his sixth season at the helm, Stotts led Portland to an 11-5 record in January and an undefeated month at the Moda Center. Winners of four straight and eight straight at home, the Trail Blazers (29-22) are a season-high seven games above .500 and have moved up to sixth in the Western Conference.

Stotts has won the award five times, the most by a Trail Blazers head coach.

On Jan. 26 at Dallas, Stotts became one of four head coaches in Trail Blazers history to win 250 games and one of five head coaches in the NBA to win 250-plus games with their current team.

Among Western Conference teams in January, Portland ranked first in three-point field goal percentage (40.8%), first in free throw percentage (81.2%), third in rebounding (44.8 rpg), third in field goal percentage (48.0%), fourth in winning percentage (.688), fourth in scoring (112.1 ppg) and fifth in turnovers (13.3). The Trail Blazers have scored 100-plus points in 16 consecutive games, a season high.

Stotts previously won the award in November 2013, December 2014, February 2016 and March 2017, joining Rick Adelman (3), Nate McMillan (3), Mike Dunleavy (2), Jack Ramsay and Mike Schuler as Trail Blazers head coaches who have taken home the honor.

Miami’s Erik Spoelstra was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.