Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. Part 1 looks at the rise of CJ McCollum and the obstacles he encountered on his journey to stardom.

A couple of weeks ago, CJ McCollum was given a book by teammate Festus Ezeli that has resonated with the Trail Blazers’ growing star.

The book – “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday – uses stories from notable figures such as John D Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart and Theodore Roosevelt to frame obstacles as opportunities.

As McCollum entered the All-Star break, he had read about 100 pages of the book, and one section in particular spoke to him. It was the part that talked about astronauts, and in how before learning how to fly, they first learned the skill of not panicking.

“It’s a mindset thing,’’ McCollum said. “They have to learn how to be calm and cool under pressure before they begin learning how to fly.’’

The mental state is referred to as “apatheia,” a calm of equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.

McCollum loves the concept, for he feels like it captures his own approach to basketball. McCollum after games often talks stoically, and usually about statistics and techniques rather than feelings or emotions. He prefers that approach, he says, because emotions are unstable and statistics are facts, and therefore reliable.

“I was like, ‘Wow! I’m just reading this at 25, and this is how I’ve been my whole life,’’’ McCollum said.

He says this as he prepares to head to New Orleans not only as the Trail Blazers lone representative at the All-Star Game (3-point contest), but also as a growing figure within Portland and the Blazers franchise.

But to McCollum, the story is not his astronaut-like ascension toward stardom on a league-wide level, but rather the path that got him here, and the perspective gained during that journey.

And really, the journey’s destination was never calibrated toward stardom, but rather happiness.

“Finding that inner happiness, that’s the key,’’ McCollum said. “And I think I’ve finally found that.’’

That happiness has allowed him to slowly open up more, and it’s why he says he is more easily tempted to be more demonstrative during games, whether that be shimmying his shoulders after he caps off a nice move with a basket, or waving his arms in the air to encourage the crowd to make noise during an opponent’s free throw.

And his happiness is why McCollum says he has been more active in the Portland community. In November, he unveiled a Dream Center at the Boys & Girls Club that promotes learning for youths, and earlier this week he held his second annual CJ’s Press Pass program for young aspiring high school journalists.

 “He’s coming into his own,’’ teammate Damian Lillard said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know the feeling. It’s like a feeling of certainty, a more sure feeling of things. I think that’s just where you get to, and it’s a good spot to be in. And he’s definitely there right now.’’

This is the path McCollum took to get there, and these are the obstacles he encountered along the way.

Understanding his place

His first lesson came in his rookie season, when he found himself summoned to the office of Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, who felt McCollum needed some advice.

“It was about understanding your place,’’ McCollum said of Olshey’s talk.

McCollum, it had been reported to Olshey, had been ruffling the feathers of some veterans with what some referred to as an “Ivy League attitude,” creating unease within the Blazers front office that their rookie could become an outcast in the locker room.

The tipping point came during a practice, when McCollum’s supreme confidence sent ripples throughout the team.

“I still remember it,’’ Damian Lillard said of the practice. “He was actually on my team.’’

As the Blazers scrimmaged, McCollum became isolated on then-Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge.

“He did a move that kind of rocked L.A. a little bit,’’ Lillard recalled. “And CJ rose up and took the jumper.’’

As the ball was in the air, Aldridge yelled “That’s off!”

It wasn’t.

The ball swished.

“And when CJ made it, he was like ‘Shut up!.’’’ Lillard said, wide-eyed at the recollection. “That was his response: ‘Shut up.’’’

Aldridge, a prideful and sensitive veteran, was not pleased.

“You could tell it kind of bugged L.A. a bit,’’ Lillard said. “Not so much that CJ scored, but that he had that much confidence.’’

It wasn’t just his confidence, though, that was rankling the veterans. McCollum was refusing to embrace the rookie hazing that is a time-honored tradition in the NBA. Typically, rookies have to carry veteran’s laundry, run errands, and sometimes even wear silly outfits.

But McCollum eschewed the tradition.

“Sometimes, I would just be like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that,’’’ McCollum said. “I mean, think about it … think about it: You are asleep and somebody comes knocking at your hotel room door, they have a key made and come into your room at 2 a.m. and pour water on you? Come on, man.’’

McCollum would later learn that the pranking teammate – Wesley Matthews – and other veterans who would call at odd hours wanting chicken wings or other errands, were just trying to bond.

So in Olshey’s office, that one day after the scrimmage scene with Aldridge, a message was delivered.

“Understand where you are at and where you want to get to,’’ McCollum recalled. “And just blend in.’’

It was his first lesson about paying dues, and understanding the hierarchy of leadership.

Soon, he was dutifully taking the laundry bags of Aldridge, Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. He would sometimes make trips to get Wright soft soap or playing cards, and for Aldridge he would have to get Starbucks – on command -- for which he said Aldridge was always paid him handsomely.  He even made a trip or two to fetch wings.

“I got really good at my duties after a while,’’ McCollum said, noting he had to be the team’s “rookie” for two seasons because the team was void a pick in 2014. “Eventually, you figure out it’s about trust. If you show you can be trusted to do these things, they can trust you on the court.’’

Finding balance

Three years later, McCollum has nudged alongside Lillard as the face of the franchise, not only for his entertaining play but also for his impact in the community.

His lethal crossover move has figuratively broken the ankles of players like Victor Oladipo, and sent Draymond Green guarding air in a different area code. And his pullback crossover once sent Dirk Nowitzki through the spin cycle.

But his most important move, McCollum says, was finding balance in his life that allows him to work on what he calls his “legacy” – helping kids.

In November, he partnered with the Boys & Girls club and opened the CJ McCollum Dream Center, an innovative learning room that includes computers, art and more than 200 culturally relevant books. He also has plans to open two more Dream Centers.

And last week, he held his second Press Pass event, where local high school students attended the Blazers game against Atlanta and learned the ins-and-outs of the journalism profession. McCollum majored in journalism at Lehigh University.

“I want to leave a lasting legacy as a guy who did more than just played basketball,’’ McCollum said.

Before he could start working on that legacy, however, McCollum said he learned he needed to find balance in his life.

For much of his early career, basketball was all consuming.

His first two seasons, he stewed as he rarely played. There were injuries --- a broken foot his rookie season that caused him to miss 38 games and a broken right finger his second season that sidelined him for a month --  and a roster that included veterans Matthews and later, Arron Afflalo.

“It’s hard. The injuries and stuff are mentally draining, it wears on you,’’ McCollum said.

He was watching players from his draft class he felt he was better than, getting opportunities and succeeding. Even when he came home to get away from the frustration of sitting the bench, he was reminded of his status.

“I would play 2K (video game) and I was sorry. I couldn’t make a lay-in. Couldn’t dribble,’’ McCollum said.

The hardest time might have been at the 2015 trading deadline, when the Blazers traded for Afflalo, pushing McCollum from second string to third string.

“Think about this: You show up to the arena, and you know you aren’t going to play, and your girl is in town to see you … you know how hard that is?’’ McCollum said. “You are at the highest level, and you are not playing. That’s a hard thing to live with.’’

Looking back, he realizes his approach was unhealthy.

“I was bad early in my career, because even in my relationships everything was basketball,’’ McCollum said. “I didn’t want to go out to dinner the night before a game because we had a game, stuff like that.’’

Now, he has taken an interest in Oregon red wines. He plans vacations with his girlfriend. He hosts a radio show, continues plans for more Dream Centers and finds himself in interviews with the cast of “Portlandia.”

“There was a time when it was 100 percent basketball, and that’s not healthy,’’ McCollum said. “Even Kobe and Steph have an outlet – be it golf or business ventures or something creative. Your mind needs that break.’’

He calls it the developing of his “sense of self.”

“I think as you get older, you just become comfortable in realizing there’s a lot of other stuff that is important besides basketball,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously, it’s still important to me, and I love the game, but there’s more to life than basketball.’’

The struggle for inner-happiness

McCollum doesn’t need to finish the book Ezeli gave him to understand he will be presented with more obstacles throughout his career.

Next season, he will play with the pressures of his $106 million contract, and with growing weight of becoming a franchise pillar.

“The money … I say it doesn’t change the person, it changes the people around you,’’ McCollum said. “With how I was raised, it’s not going to change me. I drive a Chevy. Look … go out there to the parking lot and look, I drive a Chevy Tahoe. I mean, I could buy a lot of cars, and I will buy a car at some point, and I do have a Mercedes I bought as a rookie, but I like my Chevy. I wear Ugg boots sometimes. This is not a competition to see who can buy the nicest house, or most things.’’

He is confident the trials that await him will become triumphs, because as he has matured, he is developing a greater sense of self, a self that still includes shades of that cocksure rookie telling Aldridge to shut up.

“I think at first, (his assuredness) rubbed people the wrong way,’’ McCollum said. “As a young guy, you don’t know any better. I was just out there hooping like I was at the park with my friends. But as I got older, I think L.A. and the rest of the guys started to understand my personality, and they started to like the fact that I’m not going to change who I am – I will adapt to fit in and make sure I don’t disrespect people -- but I’m going to be CJ.’’

The only difference now is this CJ is more balanced, and more securely rooted in who and for what he represents.

“I think it’s a constant struggle to find inner-happiness, because no matter how much money you have, you still need to be content with who you are,’’ McCollum said. “Like J. Cole says: ‘Love yourself.’ You have to find what you truly care about.’’

So he will continue to perfect his game, and continue to create avenues for kids to succeed, all with the hope of turning obstacles into a legacy.

“We have to remember: this is a game. That’s why I try to have fun, why I smile, why I dance … this is a game,’’ McCollum said. “It’s a game that ends. One day, it ends. When it does, I want people to know, I want my kids to know, that I did more than just play basketball.’’

Coming Saturday: Part 2 -- Can the Blazers be championship contenders with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as a starting backcourt?

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Indiana Pacers: How and Where to Watch

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Indiana Pacers: How and Where to Watch

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your Blazers and stream the games easily on your device.


GAME DETAILS

Where to Watch: NBC Sports Northwest

Where to Watch on the go: Stream the game live on the new MyTeams App

Tip-Off Time: 7:30 p.m. 

Point spread: Portland -3.5

NBCS NW Coverage: Blazers Outsiders Pregame Show (7:00 p.m.), Blazers Outsiders Postgame Show (immediately after the game). 

Radio: 620AM Rip City Radio

 

INJURY UPDATES

The Blazers have listed CJ McCollum (left knee) is out for Monday's game vs. Indiana.

[RELATED] Report: McCollum has left knee popliteus strain

For the Pacers, Alize Johnson (G League), Victor Oladipo (right knee), Davon Reed*(G League) and Edmond Sumner (G League) are out.

 

QUICK LINKS

Dwight Jaynes: Trail Blazers fall, but so does CJ McCollum and what happens if it's a serious injury?

Jamie Hudson: CJ McCollum knows his knee is "not normal" right now

VIDEO: HIGHLIGHT: Blazers lose more than a game in San Antonio

VIDEO: CJ McCollum talks after the game about his injury
 

Download the brand new MyTeams app today - This is the app for everything Blazers: games, highlights, articles, podcasts and more from your NBC Sports Northwest Blazers team.

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Report: McCollum has left knee popliteus strain

Report: McCollum has left knee popliteus strain

Portland guard CJ McCollum has a popliteus strain in his left knee, according to Adrian Wojnarowski. He will be re-examined in a week.

Rip City has been holding their breath since McCollum left the game with 7:08 in the third quarter of Saturday night's loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

On the play McCollum was injured, CJ drove to the basket and landed awkwardly, exhibiting immediate pain. The Trail Blazers' starting shooting guard stayed on the ground in pain for a couple of minutes until he was helped off the court and taken to the locker room.

X-Rays were negative, Terry Stotts announced after the game. McCollum flew back to Portland with the team and had an MRI Sunday where the popliteus strain was revealed.

The popliteus tendon is a small muscle which is located at the back of your knee. It is important in unlocking the knee from a fully straightened position and is important for stability around the knee and controlling the shearing forces around the knee. (PhysioWorks)

Recommended treatment includes:

  • Rest
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Trigger point therapy and soft tissue release
  • Electrotherapy
  • Exercise rehabilitation

The time frame of your recovery will depend on a variety of factors such as age, previous activity level, treatment compliance and the degree/length of your injury.

All be told, the news could have been much worse. 

“Anytime a guy goes down, you’re worried," Stotts said postgame.

"You’re concerned about his health as a person," Damian Lillard said postgame. "Beyond the game, you never want to see that happen and then he’s so big for our team that you just get concerned for that, too.”

The Trail Blazers will certainly miss McCollum and his production while he's sidelined, but they are better set-up than they have been in the past. 

Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Jake Layman are capable of fill-in minutes at that spot.

CJ has since posted to social media after his diagnosis:

We'll continue to update this article as more information becomes available. 

Trail Blazers fall, but so does CJ McCollum and what happens if it's a serious injury?

Trail Blazers fall, but so does CJ McCollum and what happens if it's a serious injury?

SAN ANTONIO – Quite obviously, the Trail Blazers took a tough loss to the Spurs Saturday night. It was a game that was up for grabs in the fourth quarter but San Antonio hit big shots down the stretch and Portland did not.

It turned into a 108-103 loss to a team right on the Trail Blazers’ tail in the Western Conference.

But it may not have been the biggest loss of the night for Portland.

Guard CJ McCollum suffered a leg injury with 7:08 left in the third quarter and had to be helped to the locker room. He said afterward that X-rays were negative but that he was to get an MRI Sunday.

The loss of McCollum at this point of the season would be a big blow to the Trail Blazers. The team’s second-leading scorer and backup point guard to Damian Lillard is really not replaceable by anyone on the roster.

That said, this team may be better prepared to play without him that any other previous season.

Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Jake Layman are capable of fill-in minutes at that spot. None of them are CJ, but they can give quality minutes in a two-guard-by-committee situation.

“I think we definitely have guys who can come in and make up for the scoring by committee,” Lillard said, “But that means they won’t be in the role that they’re usually in. Either way you slice it, you’re going to be losing something. We’re going to have to lean on each other a little bit more.”

Portland fell behind by 11 early in the second quarter but rallied to halftime and third-quarter leads. Things were holding up OK until the 3:39 mark of the final quarter when Layman was called for a foul on Davis Bertans, who was shooting a three.

The Blazers had big problems with the call and after Bertans nailed all three foul shots, the game was never the same.

“I thought that really changed the momentum of the game,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “We just couldn’t get over it after that.”

Make no mistake, the Trail Blazers’ frustration level is increasing when it comes to officiating. The Spurs shot 30 free throws Saturday night while the Blazers got just 14. 

“The game has gotten more physical coming down the stretch toward the playoffs,” Lillard said. “You know how it is – sometimes as a competitor you see one play get called against you and then it doesn’t get called for you, it’s like it gives you that feeling that ‘I’m being cheated.’

“Even though you know their job is tough, as a competitor that’s what you think.  One time they called an ‘and-1’ when Jake caught an elbow in his face.

“(The referee) said ‘I didn’t see it.’ I told him, 'I was right behind you and I saw it.'

“They’ve got a tough job. The game is so fast it’s easy to miss a play. Sometimes we think we see something as a player and then you look at the replay and you were wrong.”

Still, had the Blazers been able to make shots – particularly from deep – they would have won the game. They made only 7 of 28 from three-point range and almost made up for it with their defense and rebounding.

Now, though, they will sit around Sunday waiting for the results of McCollum’s MRI.

And that will be the most important result to come out of this game against the Spurs.

CJ McCollum knows his knee is "not normal" right now

CJ McCollum knows his knee is "not normal" right now

The Portland Trail Blazers concluded a three-game road trip on Saturday night with a scary incident in San Antonio.  

Portland didn’t just lose to the Spurs on 108-103; the Blazers also lost CJ McCollum to what the Blazers are calling a left leg injury.

McCollum left the game with 7:08 in the third quarter after getting blocked by Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl and falling to ground awkwardly. 


The Trail Blazers starting shooting guard stayed on the ground in pain for a couple of minutes, holding his left knee, as the Blazer took a full timeout and the entire team stood around him. McCollum was helped off the court to the locker room and, as expected, did not return to the game.
After the final horn sounded, both the Blazers and Spurs showed their concern for McCollum.

“I feel bad for CJ McCollum – I hope he is okay. He is a great player and a great kid,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told the media.   

As for Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, he was trying not to jump to any conclusions.

“X-Rays are negative. He’s gonna get an MRI. It’s a leg injury and we’ll see how it is,” Stotts told reporters after the game.

“Anytime a guy goes down, you’re worried. We’ll see what the tests show,” Stotts added.

McCollum did fly back with the team on Saturday night. He will undergo an MRI back in Portland on Sunday.

Stotts was able to talk with McCollum immediately after the game for a brief moment and Stotts let the media know, “obviously, he’s upset, disappointed, but, we’ll see what the tests show.”

 In the locker room, McCollum gave his own description of what happened on the play:

“I went up for a lay-up, a left-handed lay-up, and the big fella blocked it, I landed on my foot, kinda trapped my foot on the ground. I felt my knee kind of twist, some pain,” McCollum told reporters in the locker room postgame.

Besides the X-rays being negative and McCollum not hearing any type of popping sound when he went down, he admitted he does not have much more information than that.

One thing is certain in McCollum’s mind, though…

He did not break his foot again.

“I’ve broken my foot, so I know what that feels like, so it’s not my foot. It’s definitely around my knee, but I don’t know the extent of it, I don’t know if it’s lateral… I just know that it’s not normal,” McCollum said.

McCollum was still in pain and had some “discomfort in certain areas” in his left knee after getting the X-rays done and after the game concluded. He told reporters “it hurts,” and added:

“You never want to get hurt, not ever, especially at this point in the season.”

As you would expect, McCollum’s running mate, Damian Lillard, had a somber tone when talking about McCollum’s injury after the game.

“Once I saw him stay down, I knew that he was really hurt, that was my biggest concern- just seeing him stay down, because usually he would get up and try to play or get up and try to walk it off, but he was down, so… Hopefully he’ll be alright,” Lillard said. 

Lillard also told reporters, “I think first, you’re concerned about his health as a person, you know, beyond the game, you never want to see that happen and then he’s so big for our team that you just get concerned for that, too.”

Now as all of Rip City holds its breath, it’s time for the waiting game.

“We’ll see how the injury is and we’ll adjust after that. You know, I don’t want to make any assumptions until we know how CJ is,” Stotts said.

“Nothing, I can do about it, but rehab and see what they say,” McCollum added.

Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Trail Blazers loss to the San Antonio Spurs

Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Trail Blazers loss to the San Antonio Spurs

Saturday night marked the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between the Trail Blazers and Spurs this season. Portland was looking to snap the Spurs’ seven-game winning streak.  

It was a close game throughout, but San Antonio prevailed with a 108-103 win. The Blazers finish the road trip, 3-0.
Portland didn’t just lose the game though, the Blazers also lost CJ McCollum to a left leg injury.
Final Box Score: Spurs 108, Trail Blazers 103

Here are some quick thoughts from the Blazers loss in San Antonio:

 

1.The Aldridge and DeRozan show early

Playing in San Antonio is always a difficult place to play. The Spurs entered Saturday’s game with a 27-7 home record and had won nine straight at home before Saturday’s game. A lot of the Spurs home success has to do with their superstars coming alive on the offensive end in front of the home crowd.

At the end of the first quarter, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 of the Spurs’ first 23 points. These are two tough matchups for any team in the NBA.

The Blazers started mixing up their defense on the two Spurs All-Stars with Jusuf Nurkic switching on to Aldridge. By putting a bigger defender on LA that slowed him down and since the Blazers kept Aldridge and DeRozan guessing on defense Portland was able to temper them after their hot start.

The second quarter could’ve been a time for the Blazers to fold, but they didn’t. San Antonio started the second on a 7-0 run, but after being down 11 points in the second quarter, the Blazers worked their way back into the game and went on a 14-1 run.

There might be something to playing a team that is also on the second leg of a back-to-back. You have to figure the Blazers mindset going into Saturday’s game was -- who can fight through fatigue better?

The Spurs just barely won that battle.

 

2. Blazers go through the Bosnian Beast

The Trail Blazers went away from their typical three-point shooting after struggling from long distance. Through the first two quarters, the Blazers were 3-for-13 from deep after starting the game 0-for-8.  

But what was working for them? -- Pick and rolls with Jusuf Nurkic.

At the break, Nurkic had a team high 12 points and eight rebounds. Even with Nurkic matching up with Aldridge defensively, he was still able to stay out of foul trouble early. Nurkic had just one foul at the end of the first half.
 

3. With McCollum out, Lillard and Hood takeover… But it wasn’t enough

CJ McCollum left the game in the third quarter.

At the 7:08 mark of the third quarter, Jakob Poeltl blocked McCollum 's driving lay-in, but McCollum’s legs then got tangled up with Poeltl’s and McCollum fell awkwardly to the ground.

McCollum was helped to the locker room and did not return.

As Blazer fans wrote on twitter, Damian Lillard was playing for McCollum after Lillard went on a scoring tear to end the third. Both Lillard and Rodney Hood kept the Blazers in the game. But San Antonio squeaked out the win with their team defense and hot three-point shooting.

NEXT UP: The Trail Blazers start a four-game homestand on Monday night when the Indiana Pacers make a stop in Portland. You can catch the game at 7:00pm on NBC Sports Northwest. Our pregame coverage tips off at 6:00pm.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your Blazers and stream the games easily on your device.

CJ McCollum leaves game with apparent leg injury

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CJ McCollum leaves game with apparent leg injury

At the 7:08 mark in the third quarter, Jakob Poeltl blocked McCollum 's driving lay-in. McCollum’s legs then got tangled up with Poeltl’s after the block and McCollum fell awkwardly to the ground.

The Trail Blazers starting shooting guard stayed on the ground in pain for a couple of minutes, holding his left knee,  as the Blazer took a full timeout and the entire team stood around McCollum. He was helped off the court to the locker room.

The good news-- McCollum was able to put a little bit of pressure on his left leg as walked to the locker room.

Before leaving the game, McCollum had 10 points and five assists in 23 minutes of play.

The Blazers announced at the end of the third quarter, that McCollum will not return. The Blazers are currently calling it a “left leg injury."

Make sure to check back after the Blazers and Spurs game for an update on McCollum.

UPDATE: According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, McCollum will undergo an MRI on his left knee on Sunday. 

Everything you need from pregame as Trail Blazers prep for San Antonio Spurs

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Everything you need from pregame as Trail Blazers prep for San Antonio Spurs

Portland concludes its three-game road trip tonight with a stop in San Antonio as the Blazers look to cool down the Spurs. San Antonio has won seven in a row including a victory over the Knicks on Friday night.

As for Portland, the Blazers are also coming off a victory last night with a 122-110 road win over the Pelicans.

This is the fourth and final meeting between the Blazers and Spurs this season.

The Blazers are currently 4-5 this season in the second game of back-to-backs.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich addressed the media before tip-off.

Blazers Injury Update: Portland has no injuries to report for tonight’s game at San Antonio. Coach Stotts said that Evan Turner (left knee) would not have any type of minutes restriction.

Stotts also discussed the tight race in the Western Conference saying:

“When you look at the playoff possibilities, I think every series, regardless of the matchups, is going to be an interesting series…  I think anybody could win their series, no matter what the matchups are,” Stotts said.

Hear from Blazers head coach Terry Stotts right here:

The Spurs will be without Ben Moore (G League) and Dejounte Murray (ACL) tonight vs. the Blazers. Coach Pop says everyone else will be available, despite the Spurs also playing in the second night of a back-to-back.

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Here are the 3 most important Blazers heading into the playoffs

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Here are the 3 most important Blazers heading into the playoffs

Last week TNT analyst Charles Barkley did what he does best. Ol’ Chuck said the Portland Trail Blazers were going to make the NBA Finals as representatives of the Western Conference this season, and that seemed like a stretch to just about everyone. Picking a squad that was swept in the playoffs just a year ago felt like a take-ism more than anything.

But there is reason yet to be bullish on the Trail Blazers.

Portland has increased its winning percentage nearly four points since the Feb. 7 trade deadline, going 9-5 heading into Friday night’s game against the Pelicans. That ties them with the Los Angeles Clippers for the second-best record since the deadline out of any playoff team in the Western Conference, just behind the Houston Rockets. 

There's already been some significant evidence that general manager Neil Olshey’s decision to add Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter to this roster has returned dividends. Both players have integrated quicker than expected, and each know their role both within the locker room and in the rotation.

It’s also helped that Maurice Harkless has been on a bit of a tear lately. The Blazers starting forward has continuously battled with his left knee, but starting in late January Harkless came on strong in the way we've expected from him over his tenure in Portland. “Playoff Moe” appears to be a very real thing, and he's rounding into form just in time for the Blazers to try and secure home court advantage in these upcoming playoffs.

But outside of raw performance, it feels like there's been a bit of a shift since the All-Star break in the attitude of this team. In typical fashion, the early part of this season for Portland included big 3-point outbursts building to gigantic leads, quickly followed by a sense of dread that they could blow it all by the mid 4th quarter. This has been going on for four years now, and it didn't seem like it was poised to stop. Instead, it’s now the Blazers who are going crazy in the fourth to rack up wins

Much was made about the insane seven-game roadtrip the Blazers embarked on starting with the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 21, particularly as Portland was five games under .500 on the road before that matchup. The Blazers returned home with a 5-2 record, and but for a game-winner here, an empty tank at the end of the Memphis game there, and a sidestepping of a refereeing fiasco against OKC, Portland could be in the midst of a 12-game win streak. 

A late-season run would be par for the course for the Blazers, but the difference this time is that Portland doesn't seem to be catching teams as they flame out of the playoff picture or as they rest crucial players at the end of road trips. Now it's the Blazers taking it to big name opponents — Golden State, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles — right when those teams need wins the most.

With just 14 games to go left in the regular season, Portland is trying to grab the final spot garnering them home court advantage in the first round. That leads us back to Barkley's comment, and a pondering of where this team could go in the postseason.

Despite all their added depth, Portland still has the same Achilles heel on paper. No doubt teams will try to slow the Blazers down and trap its two star guards come playoff time. And while added depth should help the Blazers solidify their rotation and scoring if they get in a hole, three players will be the key to Portland’s chances at the second round.

The first is Jusuf Nurkic, who has become an offensive instigator with the ball at the high post, allowing the Blazers to operate in a similar fashion to the way they did it with Mason Plumlee some years ago. Nurkic has become a better passer from that area of the floor, and it allows both CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard to act as off-ball shooters early in the shot clock.

Nurkic has also become a much better roll player, both as a screen setter and as a drawer of fouls. He has moved up significantly in that regard with respect to his position, and it shows in his on-court performance. Where before Nurkic might try to clumsily get a foul several feet from the basket, he now picks his chances and has developed a long, striding scoop move that allows him to put the ball in a better position to score points. 

Then there’s Rodney Hood, who has seen a lot of time with the starting unit with Evan Turner out. Hood, Kanter, and Jake Layman were platooned into the starting unit with McCollum and Lillard during Turner's absence in late February. I expect to see Terry Stotts experiment with Hood as the first substitution to keep shooting on the floor and pressure off of his guards.

But the man who can most tip the scales for the Blazers will once again be Harkless. Stotts’ offense puts Harkless — or whoever is playing that position — at a certain advantage on the floor, both in the regular flow as a shooter and as an outlet valve in a trapping situation. Al-Farouq Aminu is having an average 3-point shooting year, but his variance separate from his average is so high as to be unreliable. Team know that, and they’ve used it to their advantage before.

Harkless gathers steam as the season runs along, and his plus/minus impact on the team has trended upward monthly at the end of each season he has been in Portland. The only problem this time around is that he isn't shooting the ball all that well. The small forward is shooting just 22.5 percent from 3-point range combined over the last two months, and there’s a real concern that his efficiency could take a dip if he’s not able to knock down jumpers at a normal clip here soon.

Portland fans are right to be naturally wary of this team. The Blazers have let them down in the playoffs before, and the holes on this roster have been glaring for some time. Olshey has done his best to plug those gaps with some depth, and everything appears to be trending upward for a playoff push. The West is incredibly difficult this season, and Portland will not have an easy time even if they grab that home court spot.

The Blazers are the same team as they ever were. That is, until they can prove that they are something new entirely. The roster has changed, and Portland is confidently surging. We might not have to wait all that long to decide this team has turned the page. 

Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: How and Where to Watch

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USA Today Images

Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: How and Where to Watch

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GAME DETAILS

Where to Watch: NBC Sports Northwest

Where to Watch on the go: Stream the game live on the new MyTeams App

Tip-Off Time: 5:30 p.m. 

Point spread: San Antonio -2

NBCS NW Coverage: Blazers Outsiders Pregame Show (5:00 p.m.), Blazers Outsiders Postgame Show (immediately after the postgame show). 

Radio: 620AM Rip City Radio


INJURY UPDATES

Portland has no injuries to report for tonight’s game at San Antonio.

For the Spurs, Ben Moore (G League) and Dejounte Murray (ACL) are out.


QUICK LINKS

Dwight Jaynes: One more Trail Blazer for Damian Lillard to pass and he's "special"

Jamie Hudson: Blazers backup bigs come up big in the Big Easy... Say that 10 times fast

VIDEO: Teammates, past and present, congratulate Lillard

VIDEO: Zach Collins: Making an impact when called upon


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