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

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

The image that sticks is Raymond Felton, hopelessly twisted, flailing as Damian Lillard steps back into cresting three-pointer that beats the third quarter buzzer as the Moda Center erupts.

If not that, it’s the 30-footer Lillard unleashed mid-way through the third period that led to an immediate timeout and prompted the Blazers point guard to flap his wrists high-above his head, a signal that he later explained meant “let it fly.”

But before the flapping, and before walking into a 30-foot, there was a subtler moment that truly explains this series and should define Game 2. It came on the defensive end and was accompanied by an uncommon show of emotion. 

Lillard and the Blazers seized a 2-0 lead in their first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. The three-pointers will dominate the highlight reels, but Portland earned this win with defense, and Lillard’s effort on that end of the floor was at the center of it.

“You know, I really don’t have a choice but to embrace it,” Lillard said. “That team is going to go as far as (Russell Westbrook) and Paul George. We could try to score points and do all that stuff, but if we don’t defend them and they come out there believing and they come after us, we don’t have much of a chance. So our minds are made up that we’re going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line so that’s probably why it looks different than it might look any other time.”

The Blazers have been solid on defense as a group. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have tracked George all over the floor and Rodney Hood and Evan Turner have had their own impressive moments on the defensive end. But Lillard’s individual defense has been key to Portland’s two wins to open the series even as the team has collectively swarmed and harassed the two Thunder stars. 

It’s clear Lillard is relishing the challenge of defending Westbrook, as part of a rivalry that has grown sharper teeth this season.

“I mean the proof is in the pudding,” Evan Turner said of Lillard. ”I think he doesn’t really get enough credit for the type of defender he is.”

Westbrook finished Game 2 with 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting, he dished 11 assists but also coughed up six turnovers. Lillard was up for the challenge all night, hounding him on the perimeter and funneling Westbrook towards waiting teammates when he attacked. 

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard would have spent most of a night like Game 2 shading Terrance Ferguson, a lesser offensive player that would have allowed the Blazers hide their star player on defense. But Lillard has slowly evolved on the defensive end, growing from liability to the player that emerged Tuesday evening when he grabbed three steals, blocked two shots and embraced the challenge of guarding an All-Star.

Lillard said that his defensive growth is a natural part of playing seven seasons in the league. But it was also fueled by the criticism Lillard often heard early in his career. So Lillard made a commitment to becoming a better defender, spending hours poring over film and working with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, a dedication that took particular root in the summer of 2017 and has only grown since.

“I’ve always had the effort. I’ve always cared about it and now I’m a few years deeper into the league and I recognize stuff faster,” Lillard said. “I know what’s coming. I know what guys like to do. I’m not watching film to see highlights of myself. I’m watching film to (see) how can I take advantage of the other team? How can I give myself a chance to play better against the other team? And a lot of that is defensively, going over stuff with Coach Vanterpool. And then going out there and taking the challenge, not backing down. I think the last few seasons I’ve been much better defensively. It hasn’t been just one game or nothing like that. I’ve been taking the challenge and I’ve been much smarter about it.”

The Blazers blew the game open in the third quarter, pushing a halftime tie to a 16 point advantage heading into the fourth. In that stretch you could see how much the defensive stops meant to Lillard. 

Midway through the third quarter when Westbrook attacked the paint, Lillard slapped the ball out of his hands cleanly as he tried to rise up near the foul line. The ball was only loose for an instant and Westbrook quickly gathered himself and rose up for a left wing three-pointer.

When he it clanged off the rim, Lillard flexed and emphatically clapped following the hard earned defensive stop. Then he calmly dribbled across mid-court and rose up from 30-feet, drilling the shot over Westbrook. 

The image that sticks is the wrist flapping that followed. But rewind a few frames and you see the defining moment of the game, an improving defender embracing the toughest challenge on the biggest stage. 

Like Lillard said, with the season on the line everything looks different. 

Report: Blazers fully guarantee Carmelo Anthony's contract

Report: Blazers fully guarantee Carmelo Anthony's contract

The best story in basketball isn't ending anytime soon. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, the Blazers have made the decision to fully guarantee Carmelo Anthony's contract for the remainder of the season. 

The Blazers originally signed Anthony to a non-guaranteed deal back on November 19th. The non-guaranteed status of the deal meant the team could cut him before January 7th without having to pay him for the remainder of the season. But the Blazers decided to skip the suspense and amend the contract, locking Anthony in. 

Anthony has played eight games for the Blazers, averaging 16.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. 

The Blazers were struggling prior to Anthony's arrival, but have gone 4-4 in the eight games he has played, including 4-1 in their last five games. 

The Blazers currently sit at 9-13, just one game back of eighth place in the Western Conference. 

Fans on social media were thrilled with the news:

Zach Collins happy to not be wearing a sling anymore, his 'timeline is progressing'

Zach Collins happy to not be wearing a sling anymore, his 'timeline is progressing'

Thursday marks exactly one month since Trail Blazers center Zach Collins underwent successful surgery to repair his left labrum.

On Wednesday night, as Collins made his way through the bowels of Moda Center before the Blazers and Kings tipped off, there was something different about him.

For the first time in public, Collins was not wearing a sling around his left shoulder.

After the game, the 7-footer gave an update on how his shoulder is feeling and how his rehabilitation is coming along.

It’s a lot more convenient, and way more comfortable not walking around with a sling all the time. I’m very happy.

--Trail Blazers big man Zach Collins

“The timeline is moving along and it’s progressing,” Collins added.

The shoulder injury occurred when Collins dislocated his left shoulder late in the third quarter during Portland's game at Dallas back on October 27th.

Through the first three games of the season, Collins averaged 9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists as the Blazers starting power forward.

Collins says he has been able to get a lot better sleep now that the pain has subsided.  

“Two or three days out of surgery, sleeping was hard, that’s just because it was so painful. Honestly, the sling didn’t bother me that much sleeping with it after that when the pain stopped."

Collins described how the front of his shoulder had been in the most pain immediately following surgery. But now, it's rare for him to feel any physical discomfort.

I’m never really in any pain unless I’m doing rehab. Even then, if it’s painful we’re not pushing it too hard yet. I’m not really in any pain anymore.

Collins also explained what he's been doing during his physical therapy:

“Range of motion, a little bit of resistance work… Like if they’re pushing on my arm this way, I’ve got to push the other way. Little things like that, and then just working on my legs and my right arm.”

The current timetable is that Collins will be re-evaluated in March. 

But with one month down, and three to go, Collins is going to continue to focus on rehab.  He's also going to continue to improve his wardrobe.  The big man admitted he had to purchase more suits in order to follow the NBA's formal dress code when sitting on the Blazers' bench during home games. 

Terry Stotts to be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this March

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Terry Stotts to be inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame this March

This week, the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame announced its 2020 men’s induction class, which includes Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. 

The class will be honored on March 25th. 

Stotts was an All-Star and all-State selection as a senior at Bloomington North High School in Bloomington, Indiana in 1976.  He averaged 24.4 points and 13.6 rebounds per game leading the Cougars to their first Regional Championship in school history. 

Stotts was also the first Bloomington North player to be named an Indiana All-Star. 

“It’s quite an honor,” Stotts said before the Blazers and Kings game on Wednesday night. 

This is the 59th men’s induction class.

Check out the entire list of inductees here

Crunch time defense could save the Blazers

Crunch time defense could save the Blazers

The whiteboard at the far end of the home locker room bares the truth at the end of each Trail Blazers game. In the home locker room at the Moda Center, scrawled across the dry erase board is  the team’s defensive rating and the number of stops they came away with in each quarter and each half.

Usually a member of the PR staff will slide the cover over the board, hiding the gory details as the press wades into the locker room. The Blazers aren’t a good defensive team, and the numbers on the white board often spell that out in neatly separated, excruciating detail.

But on Wednesday night, the black dry erase marker offered some good news before it was obscured from view. It just took a little while to find the friendly numbers because for most of the night against the Sacramento Kings, the Blazers defense was a sieve, ceding points at every turn. 

When the Blazers got into the locker room at halftime the number on the board was 128. The home team had given up 66 points in the first half and allowed the Kings to shoot 50 percent. The board showed the truth: 128 points per 100 possessions, marked down on the whiteboard. If the numbers up on the board didn’t get the point across, the words from the coaching staff helped drive it home.

“Coaches came in here at halftime and kinda lit us up about our defense in the first half,” said Blazers wing Kent Bazemore.

The halftime message didn’t exactly stick immediately, and the postgame white board would bare the ugly truth of the third quarter, a 124 defensive rating and 31 more points from the Kings. The Blazers were scoring with ease, but the Kings were hanging around because Portland couldn’t string together stops. 

In a game like tonight where we didn’t defend great for the first three quarters or so, it was a constant topic in our huddles. Like, ‘We’ve got to get stops. The offense is doing well, but we’re not getting enough stops.” When the game was on the line, I thought we stepped up and did what we had to do. -- Damian Lillard

The Blazers pulled away in the fourth quarter on the strength of a couple big baskets from Lillard and a defense that finally started to get stops consistently. Of course the white board had the goods, the final numbers offering some good news: an 84 defensive rating in the fourth quarter and 15 stops.

We just had to find a way to win, and with the way everything has been going it’s good to kinda buck up and get a good win tonight. -- Kent Bazemore

This was not a defensive masterpiece by any means, but it’s the direction the Blazers (9-13) have to start moving if they’re going to climb in the standings. Portland is 21st in the league in defensive rating on the season, allowing 111 points per 100 possessions. But the Blazers have been even worse in the final frame, ranking 28th in the league with a 116.2 defensive rating in the fourth quarter. 

It’s unrealistic to think this team is going to grow into a defensive juggernaut. It’s probably not even fair to think they can jump into the top ten in the league. But creeping towards a league average defense is within the realm of possibility, and that journey starts with being serviceable at crunch time. The Blazers have the parts to be a very good offensive group, their defense particularly at crunch time will likely dictate their ultimate ceiling. The win over the Kings was something of a blueprint, showing that there are games when this team can buckle down and get stops when they truly need them.

The path to respectability will continue Friday against the league leading Los Angeles Lakers visiting the Moda Center. And regardless of the outcome the whiteboard in the back of the locker room will display the truth.

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win against the Kings

Morning After: Everything you may have missed from the Blazers win against the Kings

CJ McCollum and Hassan Whiteside set a few career records against the Kings, but not in the categories you would expect. 

McCollum was the defensive force in the paint, tallying a career-best four blocks, while Whitside had a career-high seven assists to help keep the offense running. 

Four of the Blazers starters scored 20 or more points, led by 33 points from CJ McCollum. For McCollum, it was the 10th straight game scoring 20 or more points, another career-best.

Damian Lillard had a 24 point, 10 assist double-double, while Whiteside joined him in double-double land with 22 points and 16 rebounds. As for Carmelo Anthony, he dropped an easy 20 on the Kings. 

A night after a tough loss, the Blazers bounced back in a big way. 

Final score in this one: Blazers 127 - Kings 116

QUOTABLES:

Damian Lillard on Hassan Whiteside's passing : 

I thought it was pretty good. He had a few backdoors. He was catching it in the pocket under control, finding the weak side and that led to some quality shots. He could have had ten if he didn’t get too anxious on some of them and some of them got tipped, but he passed the ball really well tonight

Coach Stotts on Bazemore having his best game:

Arguably one of his better games of the season, defensively he was locked in, it was good to see him making shots, he’s been a good three-point shooter, and I thought he kind of played within himself and took the shots that were there

Damian Lillard on CJ McCollum's blocks:

Early in the game, I just kept seeing him getting his hands on guys’ shots. I think part of it was them just not expecting him to contest them so strong. But he was active. He came out with a lot of energy on the defensive end and on the offensive end

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Trail Blazers share the wealth in win over Kings, looking to continue balanced scoring

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Trail Blazers share the wealth in win over Kings, looking to continue balanced scoring

The Trail Blazers earned their third consecutive win at Moda Center on Wednesday night, and their 12th straight home victory over the Kings as the Blazers made sure to not let one slip away.

Portland wasn’t able to put Sacramento away until the final minutes of the fourth quarter on Wednesday. The Blazers attributed that to their poor defense, but felt they had one of their better offensive nights.

After finishing with his fourth double-double of the season with 24 points and 10 assists, Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard emphasized how important it was to bounce back after Tuesday’s loss to the Clippers.

“It was a big deal,” Lillard said. “When you go on the road, a road-home back-to-back, it’s tough. You’ve got to play against a really good team like the Clippers, get on a plane, get up to play the next day against a really good team, a young team that’s really competing right now. So I was proud of the way we responded. You don’t want to let one loss or the game the night before affect the next night and I thought we handled it well.”

A lot of the Blazers success on the offensive end was thanks to their ball movement.

I thought we moved the ball well, we got quality shots. I thought offensively, it was a complete game. It was a really good game for us.

In Wednesday’s win, the Blazers finished with 28 assists. In Tuesday’s loss they finished 20 assists. But it didn’t even feel like a 20-assist game vs. the Clippers after watching the Trail Blazers’ stagnant offense.  

The man who led the Blazers on offense in the win over the Kings, CJ McCollum, believes the ball movement is coming along while the team continues to incorporate Caremelo Anthony and familiarize Melo into the playbook a little more.

I think we are continuing to figure out spacing, that’s the biggest thing – spacing, ball movement, what sets we can run… We’re just trying to build that’s the biggest thing and play good basketball. – CJ McCollum postgame

McCollum, who tied his career-high with 10 straight 20+ scoring nights, led all scorers on Wednesday with 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting. Five Blazer players scored in double-figures.

Lillard discussed what a night like that with balanced scoring means to this Blazers team:

“It’s really important. When we can get that type of performance of one, two, three, four guys, you’re going to have a chance.”

“It’s something we want to continue," Lillard added. "When it’s a lot of attention on the ball like it was tonight, especially they just kept sending two guys to the ball – we get it out and once we do that, they’re up against it. We’ve got numbers basically outside of the trap so when we can make the right plays and take advantage of it, get quality shots, I think it can be a night like tonight.”

Now with the Trail Blazers playing nine of their next 12 games at home this month, Blazers Coach Terry Stotts knows the favorable home schedule can't be overlooked.

“We can’t take it for granted, there aren’t any easy ones. It is nice to be home, we did have a lot of road games, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. It is certainly better than the alternative.”

Bizarro world?: Hassan Whiteside with 7 assists, CJ McCollum with 4 blocks

Bizarro world?: Hassan Whiteside with 7 assists, CJ McCollum with 4 blocks

It was a trip into bizarro world Wednesday night for the Portland Trail Blazers. You know – everything is backwards.

CJ McCollum had a career-high four blocked shots, Hassan Whiteside had a career-high seven assists and the normally slow-paced Trail Blazers had a season-high 28 fast-break points.

What’s next, Terry Stotts doing an hour of standup at Helium Comedy Club?

The Blazers pulled away from the Sacramento Kings in the fourth quarter in Moda Center and ran to a 127-116 win. Portland shot 56 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three-point range and got 20-plus points from four starters. Whiteside finished three assists shy of a triple double after getting 22 points and 16 rebounds.

And he had a couple of nifty backdoor passes that led to baskets off double-teams on the Portland guards.

“I love that backdoor pass, I should have gone to Princeton,” he said with a smile. “I don’t mind passing. I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better at making decisions. I’m new to this system and new to these guys and I’m going to keep working.

“I was impressed with (CJ’s) shotblocking. I was going to ask him for some tips.”

McCollum was hitting bulls-eyes all night. He was 14-22 from the floor, including 5-10 from long range, for 33 points. Damian Lillard chipped in with 24 points and 10 assists and knocked down a couple of big threes late in the game.

“What was more bizarre, his seven assists or my blocked shots?” McCollum asked. “I told him if would have wanted to get 10 assists he could have gotten 10 assists. Credit to him, he’s making the right plays and he’s learning.

“I’ll be at the rim every now and then, being a rim protector and helping people’s fantasy teams.”

The Trail Blazers, with Carmelo Anthony installed at power forward, are showing signs of becoming a very good offensive team.

“We’re just trying to build,” McCollum said. “We’re a top five or top 10 offensive team historically, but with him, we’re top five. We just have to figure out how to use all of our pieces. I think that’s the biggest thing. And then get that cohesiveness."

The defensive side of things is still a work in progress. And it’s going to take some progress.

The Kings, playing shorthanded, shot 46.3 percent overall.

“Obviously, to start the game, the first three quarters, (the Kings) played comfortable,” Lillard said. “We just didn’t do a good job in that stretch of the game and I think it showed because it was obvious toward the end of the game when we stepped it up and tightened it up at the end, we got separation because of it. The fourth quarter, we stepped it up and that was when we won the game.”

The Blazers will play host to the Los Angeles Lakers Friday night in Moda Center.

 

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