The Contrarian: Why Maccabi Haifa was exactly the test the Trail Blazers needed

The Contrarian: Why Maccabi Haifa was exactly the test the Trail Blazers needed

The Trail Blazers made easy work of Israeli team Maccabi Haifa on Thursday, and while social media made jokes about how "tough" they were, I'm here to tell you why Maccabi Haifa was exactly the test the Blazers needed. 

Maccabi Haifa has long been a preseason opponent to teams around the league, but with Thursday's loss they are now 0-20 all-time against the NBA. However, that doesn't mean they aren't worth playing. 

You say they were a pushover. I say they were just what Portland needed. Why play an overmatched opponent? Why play for the easy win in a meaningless game? 

Simple: The eye test

Just by watching how your team performs, or doesn't perform, against an inferior opponent tells a coach a lot about what needs to be worked on before the season starts. 

Anfernee Simons played 30 minutes. Skal Labissiere played 23. Hezonja and Collins each played 20+. This may not happen every night. But with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Hassan Whiteside getting the night off, as well as Pau Gasol and Jusuf Nurkic missing time due to injury, it was what was in the card - The reserves getting the lion's share of the minutes. 

With it, you got good and bad.

The Good:

1) Anfernee Simons is legit: Ok, last season's finale against Sacramento proved this already, but he showed it again tonight. He ran the offense efficiently and was a scoring machine. Maccabi Haifa would put together runs only for Simons to go on a 6-0 run of his own to counter. He may be asked to be less of a point guard off the bench this season and more of a spark plug.  

2) Hezonja starting to back-up the hype: Hezonja wasn't asked to do much on Thursday, but when he was called upon he answered. He had just six points, three rebounds, and two assists, but he spent a lot of his time on the floor vocally coaching players like Skal Labissiere and Gary Trent Jr. Stats wise, it wasn't much, but a game like tonight shows the Blazer may have found a diamond in the rough with Super Mario. 

The Bad: 

1) Zach Collins was good, not great: Ok, I'm being nitpicky here, but the Blazers had to have expected more from Big Z tonight. Sure, he had 16 points and nine rebounds, but against a bunch of fringe college players, it should have been far more. Collins should have tallied a 20-20 game, or something close. Instead, he showed hesitation at the rim and wasn't as overpowering as you would expect. Sure, I'm chalking a lot of this up to playing down to the competition and going through the motions in a gimme game, but that, too, is something preseason is here to knock out of the system. If Zach hopes to win that starting power forward spot, and hold onto it, he needs to show up no matter the opponent. Again, he was good. But we want great on a night like tonight. 

2) Tolliver stuck in the mud: Anthony Tolliver isn't shooting often, but he isn't making often either. Through two games he is just 2-7 from the floor. A career 43% shooter, the Blazers brought in Tolliver to be their marksman off the bench. Like Collins, he should have feasted on Maccabi Haifa. Instead, he struggled to get going. Tolliver could be a big part of the Blazers' success this season, but he has got to find his shot. Otherwise, he might not find the floor. 
And this is why you play Maccabi Haifa. To reinforce things you already knew about your team, and to point out some things you may have missed. Mainly, it's to highlight your weaknesses. If you can't get it going against Maccabi Haifa, don't expect to find your groove against any team in the NBA.

Now, with three preseason games remaining, Coach Stotts and his players have a really good idea of what they might need to focus on to be prepared for the regular season.  Sure, it was a throwaway game. A sure victory. But it didn't lack importance when it comes to getting this team ready for a championship run. 


Listen below for a special Trail Blazers edition of The Bridge Podcast with special guest, Kevin Calabro:

The big-time players the Trail Blazers are probably NOT going after

The big-time players the Trail Blazers are probably NOT going after

Earlier this week, I wrote about what the Trail Blazers might do in the wake of the injury to Rodney Hood and the troubles the team is having winning games without its injured players.

I said I did not expect any moves to be made that were not long-term moves – trades that would help beyond this season.

It’s time to go more in-depth on that topic because there are rumors out there about players who do not fit into that category. Portland will be shopping the expiring contracts of Hassan Whiteside and possibly Kent Bazemore, in order to swing a deal for a major piece – perhaps the last big deal the team will be able to make for a few seasons.

So, quite obviously, that means acquiring players with more than this season left on their contracts. In other words, unless they get stuck without a better deal, they would probably not be looking to trade an expiring contract for another expiring contract.

If you look at their search in that context, you can eliminate several talented players who have been mentioned as possibilities by the national media.

Among those players whose contracts expire this season:

Danilo Gallinari

Gordon Hayward

Paul Millsap

Bogdan Bogdanovic

DeMar DeRozen

Otto Porter Jr.

Anthony Davis

Andre Drummond

Understand, too, that it appears Davis and Drummond are expected to stay with their current teams and most of the other players on that list would probably not commit to re-signing with Portland without first testing the market this summer. Porter is a player the Trail Blazers have coveted, but without a commitment to re-sign here that they could trust, it would be a gamble.

Trading the expiring contract of Whiteside is perhaps the team’s last best chance of landing a big-time starter for what this team expects to be a championship core. Would you do it for a player you cannot count on to be back next season? Especially with what’s going on this year. What was supposed to be a run at the Finals is looking more and more like a pipedream. But with the expected return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins next season and beyond, the hope of a big run is still alive.

That’s why the players with major seasons (and major money) left on their deals are the most likely targets. The most-often mentioned are Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Love has been mentioned frequently, but is a question mark. There was a report that Portland is his favored destination, but I have not been able to substantiate that and, in fact, have been told by people close to him that the report is not necessarily true. And the other concern with Love – who is obviously a terrific player with championship pedigree – are his injuries. Over his last three seasons, he has played 60, 59, and 22 games. At an average salary of $30.1 million over the next three seasons, his availability is a concern.

Griffin, also a spectacular player, has the same problem. Over the last six seasons, he’s played in an average of only 38 games per season.

Aldridge, more durable than the others, carries some concern at 34 years old, that his career would be nearing a decline – and he also has only one season left on his contract.

One other thing should be mentioned, too. There is a very good chance that Whiteside’s contract alone might not be enough to land any of these players. Some sweetening might be required to make a trade for players who have been all-stars.

Would the Trail Blazers include a first-round pick in a deal? Yes, I think they would. But would they be willing to throw in Collins? Anfernee Simons?

I don’t know. I do believe that over the next couple of seasons, any of the three players just mentioned would be better for them than the young ones. But after that, not so sure. If they include one of their promising young players, that would mean they are going all-in for the next couple of seasons in a search for a championship. And perhaps paying a price for it in the seasons after that.

Stotts 'trying different things' with new lineup wrinkles

Stotts 'trying different things' with new lineup wrinkles

The Trail Blazers rolled over the hapless New York Knicks on Tuesday at the Moda Center, ending a two-game losing skid by pummeling one of the league’s bottom feeders. The blowout win was much needed for the struggling Blazers, but more importantly the game allowed Stotts to reach deep into his bag of tricks.

He tested new lineup pairings, went deep into his bench well before the game got out of hand and even mixed in a little zone defense. 

“The way things are going, we are trying different things, different lineups,” Stotts said. “[I] talked to my assistants earlier today about what can we look at. We are trying to find different things.”

Anfernee Simons was the first sub of the game, as Stotts turned to the three-guard lineup featuring Simons, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum at the first possible opportunity. Simons has been one of the first players off the bench all season, but lately he’s been replacing McCollum, not joining him on the wing next to Lillard.

“Me, CJ and Ant -- our minutes together have been positive for the team. So why not?,” Lillard said. “I think (Stotts) was just rolling it out there and seeing how it would go.”

The tinkering may have started with the first substitution, but it was the theme of the entire night. Stotts went deeper into his bench than he typically stretches, playing 10 guys in the first half and getting Gary Trent Jr., who hadn’t played since Nov. 23, an extended shift in the second quarter. 

The Blazers mixed in some zone on a couple defensive possessions before halftime, and Stotts also rolled out a super-big lineup with Hassan Whiteside and Skal Labissiere sharing the court for the first time this season. The very early returns on that two-center look were positive as the Blazers outscored the Knicks by 11 points in the six minutes Whiteside and Labissiere shared the court.

“I think it’s good,” Whiteside said. “Skal reminds me a lot of Zach (Collins). I think we could do it more. I’m glad coach had that confidence to go out there. I think it could work.”

The Knicks are 4-20, and they lost their 10th straight game on Tuesday night in Portland. Part of the Stotts’ willingness to experiment is simply because New York’s roster is a mess. But the other side is a real need for the Blazers to find some combinations that work. There probably won’t be many more nights where the Balzers zone up on defense. And the Whiteside-Labissiere pairing, while effective against the non-shooting, non-dribbling Knicks frontcourt could be a tough combination to trot out on most other nights. 
But this was more about process than results. The willingness to mix things up is more significant than whether the experiments proved fruitful or could be repeated. At 10-15 Blazers need solutions, and on Tuesday the coaching staff showed it’s ready to search for remedies in new places.

“I mean we’ve struggled to start the season so right now why be afraid to try different things if what we’ve been doing this whole time has been giving us issues anyway?” Lillard said. “You gotta be willing to step outside your comfort zone and do things. But as long as coach is doing that with faith that it has a chance, and when he puts us in those positions we do it with confidence, and like we believe in what we’re doing, I feel like it’s going to have a chance to work. So that’s all that counts.”

Trail Blazers players, coaches visit local hospitals, cuteness ensues

Trail Blazers players, coaches visit local hospitals, cuteness ensues

It’s time to spread some holiday cheer.

On Monday, a day before taking on the New York Knicks at the Moda Center, the Portland Trail Blazers visited Shriners Hospital and Doernbecher Children's Hospital. The team signed autographs and spent time with kids giving them memories they’ll treasure forever.

Here’s a thread of all the most precious moments.

CJ McCollum loved the video of Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver as much as the rest of us.

The Trail Blazers' season continues Tuesday night against the New York Knicks at 7:00pm in the Moda Center. The game will be available live on NBC Sports Northwest.

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win over the Knicks

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win over the Knicks

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. For the Blazers, the team representing the Big Apple was just what the doctor ordered. 

In desperate need of a win, Portland welcomed the NBA's worst team - The New York Knicks. 

Damian Lillard made sure to set the ton early, scoring 17 points in the first quarter alone. He ended the night with 31 points on nine made field goals; eight of which were from beyond the arc. 

Hassan Whiteside had himself another solid game as well, registering a double-double with 17 points, 15 rebounds, while adding five blocks. 

The Blazers led by as many as 32 in this one, and from start to finish, it was never in doubt. It was the get right game the team needed before heading to Denver. 

Final score in this one: Blazers 115 - Knicks 87. 


Damian Lillard on coach trying new schemes:

I mean, why not? With Skal and Whiteside out there, Skal moves pretty well and they had non-shooting bigs tonight and I think it worked because of those two reasons. But we’ve struggled to rebound the ball, so having two of those guys out there, if it can work, why not? Me, CJ and Ant, our minutes this year together have been positive for the team, so why not? He was just rolling it out there and seeing how it would go.

Coach Stotts on playing Skal Labissiere and Hassan Whiteside together:

Neither one of them had any fouls at the time so foul trouble wasn’t an issue. New York had a big lineup with a lot of offensive rebounders with (Julius) Randle at the four along with (Mitchell) Robinson. I thought the game went with that opportunity to look at.

Carmelo Anthony on how bad they needed this win:

We just needed a win. It didn’t matter how we was gonna get it, or what happened, we just needed a win and this one was a good one especially with a two-game road trip coming up. Hopefully this spirit leads us in the right direction.



Instant Analysis: Damian Lillard cashes in as Blazers take it to Knicks

HIGHLIGHT: Blowout win over Knicks just what doctor ordered for Blazers 

Blazers fan completes nearly impossible challenge, wins $5000

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

A sight for sore eyes: Nurkic hits the court 

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team 

Good thing Hassan Whiteside has a weight room at his house

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

Good dude CJ McCollum awards local family with Trail Blazers tickets, amazing night

The love Rip City has for the Trail Blazers is real. 

When a player comes to Portland, Blazers fans become invested. Players become part of the family. Whether it be one year or for what looks to be a player’s full career. Rip City takes special interest in all aspects of the players’ life. 

Prior to Tuesday’s game vs. the Knicks, CJ McCollum took a special interest in Rip City’s interests.

CJ got HUNDREDS of responses. 

But, if you’re a CJ McCollum fan, there was really only one right answer to his question. There’s a number of loves in CJ’s life: His fiancé, drinking Pinot and listening to J. Cole. 

A Trail Blazers fan who knows all of those things? Ashlee Yuille. 

Originally from Flint, Michigan, Yuille lives in SE Portland and has been in the area for 20 years. A social worker at the Portland VA Hospital emergency room, Yuille follows the Blazers pretty closely and even listens to CJ McCollum’s “Pull Up Podcast.” Yuille wasn’t just angling for tickets. She shares in CJ’s appreciation for J. Cole's music. Her favorite song of his is “Love Yourz.”

CJ responded to her tweet, and later that evening Yuille, who was sporting a CJ McCollum jersey, and her 13-year-old son, Colton, were off to the game. The 7th grade Colton likes Jusuf Nurkic, and while the Bosnian Beast wasn’t able to suit up tonight, they still had a ton of fun watching the Blazers blow out the Knicks. 

“Really, just being there was so amazing and we were so excited to see Melo for the first time!” Yuille told NBC Sports Northwest via direct message. 

This isn't the first time CJ has performed this generous act. CJ granted a Blazers fan's wish to take his son to a game for his birthday in November. 

This is yet another example of how the love between Rip City and the Trail Blazers remains genuine and real. 

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team

Dame says, no matter what, this season will not splinter his team

The Trail Blazers left no doubt Tuesday night that no matter how bad things were going for them, they weren’t going as poorly as the New York Knicks.

The now 10-15 Blazers outscored the Knicks by at least eight points in each of the first three quarters and led by as many as 32 points while routing 4-20 New York, sending the reeling Knicks to their 10th straight defeat.

Obviously, Portland has not reached its pre-season expectations – injuries have taken care of that – but Damian Lillard says there is no worry about this team splintering or losing its way this season.

“Not us,” he said emphatically. “Because I think that starts at the top. We don’t have a coaching staff that wavers, where they come in here like, ‘We got to stop doing this!’ They are never negative. Some people have a hard time when you’ve struggling or losing and coming in the next day and still having the same positive attitude, while still addressing what the issues are. And our coaching staff, they do a great job of that.

Myself and CJ, we’ve always had that mentality of, ‘It’s not going well, but we’re going to figure it out.’ So, it’s not only no panic, when we see that from our coaching staff and our teammates see it from us, there is a level of confidence that you have throughout a group, when everybody can look to each other know and say 'He still believes, he’s still positive.'

“You keep that energy as a group. Whereas, ‘It’s going bad, but let’s keep going.’ If we finish the season bad, we’re going to have a whole season where we say, we fought through it. We always have our minds in the right place and we’re going to keep fighting through it.”

The Blazer coaching staff showed that it’s willing to tinker with things a bit, showing a 2-3 zone, a three-guard lineup and the team’s only two true bigs – Skal Labissiere and Hassan Whiteside – playing at the same time.

Asked when the last time he was on a team that played a 2-3 zone, Kent Bazemore shook his head and fought for a memory he couldn’t find.

“Um, I can’t really remember. It’s definitely a different wrinkle, especially if you throw it at them right out of a timeout,” said Bazemore, who started at small forward. “You have smart enough players on the floor, it’s actually very effective.

“You’ve got to give us credit tonight, though. We came out… Dame was super-special tonight and had the game we kind of needed from him. We’re still building. Confidence is starting to grow.”

Whiteside had another night of stuffing the stat sheet, getting 17 points, 15 rebounds and five blocked shots in 25:38. Lillard was sensational from the floor, hitting 9 of 15 overall and 8-12 from three -- and he didn't play in the fourth quarter. Portland hit 17 of 41 threes while the Knicks managed just 7-38.

Next up, Thursday night on the road, is Denver.

Listen to this week’s Talkin’ Blazers podcast here:

Fans went wild for Chris. You don't often see someone win big on those timeout games, and it's exciting anytime it happens. 

Congratulations, Chris!!!