The 'Devil on Defense': Wade Baldwin IV makes impact that might reverberate through playoffs

The 'Devil on Defense': Wade Baldwin IV makes impact that might reverberate through playoffs

HOUSTON – Lost amid the Trail Blazers’ thrilling comeback Thursday in Houston was a development that could change the Blazers’ postseason plans: the defensive emergence of guard Wade Baldwin IV.

While much of Thursday’s storyline was focused on the Blazers’ 17-0 run in the final four minutes that tied the game at 94 with 6.1 seconds left, only to see Chris Paul win the game with a driving layin with 0.8 seconds left, Baldwin had left an impression.

With dogged defense that harassed James Harden and Chris Paul into two turnovers each – all of them at or behind halfcourt – Baldwin just might have entered the conversation for playoff minutes.

“What he did tonight was exceptional,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “To be able to pick up (defense) like that is something we haven’t done and it’s something we can use going forward.’’ 

From the bench, injured star Damian Lillard said his mind immediately flashed to visions of the postseason.

“That’s playoff level,’’ Lillard said. “Playoff level, man.’’

It was during a first-quarter timeout that Lillard said he pulled Baldwin aside.

“I told him he can really impact this game, that it could be a coming out party for you,’’ Lillard said.

It was.

Baldwin, a former first round pick who was waived by Memphis after one season, was signed by the Blazers to a two-way contract in October, and after recovering from thumb surgery, he played 17 games in the G-League. In March, he was signed to a full NBA contract.

With long arms, a barrel chest and a 6-foot-4 frame, Baldwin is gifted physically. Mentally, he is fueled by being released by Memphis, one year after they took him 17th overall out of Vanderbilt.

“I’ve always been a defensive player, and given my circumstances – having an organization kind of, you know, throw me away, I just strive to be the hungriest person in the NBA and build my brand back up,’’ Baldwin said. “Defense is my ticket. Every time I go down the court, that’s my calling card. I’m just going to go hard with that.’’

The Blazers all season have been a top 10 defensive team, but many of their better defenders are centers (Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis) or lanky wings (Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner). 

Missing has been a lock-down guard. But Baldwin – in a game last week at Memphis and Thursday in Houston – looks like he could be a notable defender. 

Considering the Blazers’ playoff path could eventually include an encounter with either Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, or Houston’s Harden and Paul, Baldwin’s emergence could be quite the development for Portland. 

“I think he showed that he can come in and impact the game,’’ Lillard said. “Playing against two elite offensive players, two stars in this league and he comes in no fear, picking up full court – making them turn the ball over, frustrating them, impacting the game.

“And it wasn’t like he did it for a short period of time. He did it every minute he was on the floor. That’s something we can add to our team, something that can make us a better team. Now we have a guy on the perimeter who can really defend and lock up. He could really make us a better team.’’

As an added bonus, Baldwin in his two extended chances at playing has been an offensive spark as well. On Thursday, he hit 6-of-10 shots and finished with 14 points and three assists, which comes on the heels of his 15-point performance last week in Memphis. 

“I come in with a chip on my shoulder, and try to be a devil on defense, knowing in the back of my mind that an organization quit on me,’’ Baldwin said. “A first round pick and I’m a converted two way player. I play with a chip on my shoulder every time out there and if my name is called I’m going to bring that intensity every time I play.’’

Baldwin is another find by Blazers’ top executive Neil Olshey, who has shown a penchant for finding players like Maurice Harkless and Shabazz Napier, who are entering a career crossroads after their teams give up on them. 

Baldwin said when Olshey signed him in October, he gave him some advice.

“He told me to be the first one in, the last one out and when your time comes, make the most of it,’’ Baldwin said. 

His response?

“There was nothing to say, except work, and show by actions,’’ Baldwin said.

On Thursday, he did just that.

Pau Gasol's availability is the last Blazers rotation question to be answered

Pau Gasol's availability is the last Blazers rotation question to be answered

There is one lingering question facing the Trail Blazers as the regular season nears: Is Pau Gasol going to be ready by opening night?

If healthy, the 39-year-old center is going to play. But he hasn’t been fully cleared yet and his availability for the regular season is still an unknown, leaving the backup center spot the last real question mark as the Blazers edge toward opening night.

After two real preseason games, the rest of the playing rotation is starting to come into focus.

The big decisions for this team were probably made well before the exhibition games, mostly in July as Neil Olshey and the front office reconfigured the roster.

The starting group is almost certainly set with Zach Collins and Rodney Hood manning the forward spots alongside guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and center Hassan Whiteside. 

Anfernee Simons and Kent Bazemore have been locks for major playing time since June and Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver also figure to be a regular part of the opening night rotation, as Terry Stotts has said he’ll likely start the year going 10-deep into his bench. 

With uncertainty over the final big man spot lingering, Stotts has tested out a few different groupings to see what combinations work should Gasol still be sidelined when the games start to count. On Saturday, Stotts started Anthony Tolliver at power forward, giving the starting lineup another shooter while sacrificing some of the rim protection Collins provides.

“I wanted to see Anthony out there with Dame and CJ and Hassan as a spacing four-man,” Stotts said after the Blazers lost to the Phoenix Suns. “He’s a good team-defender. He talks out there. I thought I wanted to see him what that group because of his ability to space the floor with those other guys.”

Stotts has also made a point to test out the Collins-Skal Labissiere pairing, a duo that could anchor the bench frontline if Gasol isn’t healthy. Labissiere didn’t play in summer league because of a shoulder injury, but he’s been cleared for full contact since the end of July and has been working out daily at the Blazers practice facility since he arrived in Portland on August 31. 

Gasol, who had surgery on his left foot in March, has gone through a light on-court shooting routine before each of the past two games, but that’s as much basketball work as the future Hall of Famer has done in the public eye. His health has pushed Labissiere from bench insurance to possible rotation regular.

“I think the big man (rotation) is going to be fluid until Pau comes back,” Stotts said Saturday night.  “Skal … playing Anthony, playing Mario at (power forward). I think it’s going to depend on how the game is going and matchups. But Skal’s had a really good camp and I think he’s earned at least a chance to earn some more minutes.”

For his part, Labissiere admits he’s still learning the system, and just trying to do the little things to earn the coaching staff’s trust.

“I’ve just tried to find ways to help the team out,” Labissiere said. “It doesn’t have to be scoring. Just setting good screens for Dame and CJ. Just talking and communicating. I feel like that’s what’s going to get me on the court to be honest.”

The Labissiere/Gasol question is the last playing time issue to be addressed. Most of the rest of the rotation is clear and got even sharper during the loss to the Suns: McCollum is going to get more minutes running the second unit as a de facto backup point guard alongside Simons. The Blazers are going to go small at times with Hezonja playing power forward and initiating the offense. 

With a likely dress rehearsal coming Tuesday at Utah, the picture will get even clearer next week even if the biggest question remains unanswered.

The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers loss to Phoenix

The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers loss to Phoenix

The Blazers played their final home game of the 2019 preseason on Saturday when they hosted the Phoenix Suns. Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Ricky Rubio all sat out this one for the Suns, but that didn't stop them from dropping bombs from downtown. Phoenix made 24 three-pointers and had the Blazers defense looking lost all night. Good thing it was preseason so the Blazers could get this performance out of the way. Final score: Phoenix 134 - Portland 118. 

Here is everything you may have missed: 

Quotables:

Our defense wasn’t very good. We let them shoot a lot of threes and they made a lot, you’ve got to give them credit. They shot the hell out of the ball. But we obviously, we should have turned up the defense. We talked about it at halftime and we just didn’t come out and play as hard as we should have, so it’s mostly on us.” - Zach Collins on the team defense

“What I just said was the easy thing to say – it’s just the preseason. But it’s a lot of things that you look at that game and you take away from it saying we need to do better. Too many missed communications. We allowed too many comfortable catch and shoot threes. A lot of that came from miscommunication, turning the ball over, they’re not playing a half-court set defense, they’re pushing it against the break so our defense is off-balance, guys trailing the play – a lot of situations like that." Damian Lillard on the team's performance

“I wanted to see Anthony out there with Dame and CJ and Hassan as a spacing four-man. He’s a good team defender. He talks out there. I thought I wanted to see him with that group because of his ability to space the floor with those other guys.” - Coach Stotts on the decision to start Anthony Tolliver 

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Highlights: Suns make it rain vs. Blazers

Love it or Hate it? The NBA Challenge Flag

What's going on with the Blazers' defense? Is it just preseason basketball?

Trail Blazers aren't ready for primetime yet, but it's only preseason

Skal trying to crack the Trail Blazers' rotation

How cohesive do the Trail Blazers feel right now?

How cohesive do the Trail Blazers feel right now?

Let’s do a quick walk through of what has changed from last season to this season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland has added seven new players if you include Jaylen Hoard, who is on a two-way contract.

Of those seven new faces, two players are currently or have been dealing with an injury.

Are these excuses to why the Blazers haven’t looked like a real cohesive team in the preseason?

No.

The Blazers are not making it an excuse.

The players are simply thankful they still have 11 days remaining in the preseason to work out the kinks and become more of unit working as one.

Kent Bazemore has been living in Portland for less than two months, but he already believes that the team understands what needs to get done to be successful this season.

It’ll take some time. But I think as far as everything being in line like our aspirations for the season, you know big picture, I think we’re all on the same page and it just takes time. It’s a new situation for a lot of guys. We’re plugging in some pretty big pieces, a totally different look from last year, so it’s just going to take some time and guys getting used to each other, the timing with everything, and learning the offense.

[RELATED]: Trail Blazers aren't ready for primetime yet, but it's only preseason

Being cohesive is a “work in progress” according to CJ McCollum:

A lot of it we’ve got to tighten up, guys have been banged up. Obviously, Rodney [Hood] didn’t play tonight. [Hassan] Whiteside being out of practice, so we’ve got to get together and get some good practices in these next 11 days, and get ready for the opener.

It’s not as if the new guys are not getting acclimated.

They feel cohesive in practice.

“In training camp practices you’re going to do everything right,” Damian Lillard said after Saturday’s loss. “You’re going to have guys that are going to be in the perfect potions because it’s being taught in practice over and over again – ‘get to the nail, get to the elbow,’ and then when you get to the game in the NBA it’s hard to have that carryover because now there’s a crowd, you’re playing against somebody, else. You know, you want to see what you can get away with and I think we just fell victim to that.”

Carryover, as well as getting everyone healthy and in rhythm, will indubitably be a key in becoming more of a cohesive team.

[RELATED]: What's going on with the Blazers' defense? Is it just preseason basketball?

Lillard believes Saturday’s loss will be a big lesson for this team.

“It’s good that it happened and it doesn’t count against us, so we can see what happens when we don’t come out and do what we’ve been doing the entire time… It’s good to see how it went down tonight and then look at it, and watch film, and take what we need to take from it, and move forward -- just make sure that we don’t let this continue,“ Lillard said.

The Blazers will have a chance to not let this continue next week when they play Utah and Denver back to back. 

Love it or Hate it? The NBA Challenge Flag

Love it or Hate it? The NBA Challenge Flag

The challenge flag in the NFL has become about as American as apple pie. An important part of any Sunday football viewing party.  This season, the NBA has decided to join the replay review club.

According to the new rule, each team is allowed one challenge per game, can challenge a personal foul at any time, can challenge out-of-bounds and goaltending during the first 46 minutes and first three minutes of overtime, and cannot challenge non-calls.

Confused yet? Ok, let's take a deeper dive. 

Coach Stotts has used the challenge twice this preseason. He used one in the first preseason game against Denver, and lost. On Saturday against the Suns he challenged a foul against Damian Lillard, and won. The call was overturned, and possession was given to the Blazers. Despite winning the challenge, the Blazers lost a timeout... Still confused? So was Coach Stotts:

There's some confusion on the administration of it.  We won the challenge and were still charged the timeout. I don't know. I'm going to ask for some clarification on that.

Here is the clarification. According to the NBA "If neither team has taken a timeout prior to 6:59 of the first or third period, it shall be mandatory for the Official Scorer to take it at the first dead ball and charge it to the home team."

The challenged played happened at the 5:58 mark of the third quarter, meaning regardless of the challenge there was to be a dead ball and the Blazers were to be charged a timeout. If Portland had lost the challenge they would have lost the timeout, if they had won, they would have lost timeout. Basically, Stotts called a challenge one minute and two seconds too late to save a timeout but still would have lost one at the next stoppage due to the NBA's mandatory timeout rules.  None of this makes sense, really. 

Talking to NBC Sports Bay Area, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he wasn't a fan of the new rule:

"I don't like the rule... If it's your timeout coming up, or if there's a mandatory coming up that's yours, or if you're on the bad end of a run and you see something that's questionable, you might as well take the timeout and review it. That way there's no harm done if you don't get the call."

The moral of the story is, just use the dang thing during the mandatory timeout. You literally have nothing to lose. 

The jury is still out on the NBA's complicated challenge rule. Love it or hate it, it's part of the game in 2019.

Below is an educational video released by the NBA with more info on the new challenge rule:

What's going on with the Blazers' defense? Is it just preseason basketball?

What's going on with the Blazers' defense? Is it just preseason basketball?

It’s preseason.

That’s one thing to always keep in mind after watching a star-less Phoenix Suns team take it to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Saturday marked the Blazers third exhibition game of the 2019-20 season and it wasn’t a pretty one against the Suns, particularly on the defensive end, and even more specifically, on the perimeter.

In Phoenix’s 134-118 win over Portland, the Suns shot lights out from three. 

Phoenix went 24-of-45 from deep. They did that without Devin Booker on the floor. So, what do the Blazers chalk it up to?

For CJ McCollum, who got it going from three himself, he attributes the Suns knocking down so many deep balls to a number of things. 

“We’ve got a lot we’ve got to improve on, tighten up, but they’re NBA players. They made some tough shots, some of them were wide open, some of them were more contested, but we’ll be better as the season gets closer,” McCollum said.

 

“Obviously they shot the ball really well and some of that is on us,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said postgame. “I don’t think we ever necessarily made them feel uncomfortable with their shot and they got their confidence going. I don’t think we started the game really locked in and that set the tone. Hats off to Phoenix, they shot the ball really well…Like I told the team, it’s a good lesson because on any night teams can get it going and they got it going tonight.”

[RELATED]: Trail Blazers aren't ready for primetime yet, but it's only preseason

Two Trail Blazers who are notably defensive first guys and always take pride in what they can accomplish on that side of the ball, wanted to make sure they gave credit to their opponents.

“They just shot the crap out of it tonight. That’s the beauty of this league. Regardless of who is playing there’s a lot of talented people and lot of guys got a lot of opportunity and they took advantage of it,” Kent Bazemore said.

Yet Zach Collins was not ready to give them too much credit.

“Our defense wasn’t very good,” Zach Collins added. “We let them shoot a lot of threes and they made a lot, you’ve got to give them credit. They shot the hell out of the ball. But we obviously, we should have turned up the defense. We talked about it at halftime and we just didn’t come out and play as hard as we should have, so it’s mostly on us.”

But what about chalking this game up to it just being the preseason?

Damian Lillard believes that would be the easy way out.  

“What I just said was the easy thing to say – it’s just the preseason,” Lillard said. “But it’s a lot of things that you look at that game and you take away from it saying we need to do better. Too many missed communications. We allowed too many comfortable catch and shoot threes. A lot of that came from miscommunication, turning the ball over, they’re not playing a half court set defense, they’re pushing it against the break so our defense is off-balance, guys trailing the play – a lot of situations like that.”

Nobody would expect the leader of this Blazers team to give the excuse of 'it’s just the preseason.'

Thus, Lillard and the Blazers now have 11 days to tighten things up before it all really begins.

Trail Blazers aren't ready for primetime yet, but it's only preseason

Trail Blazers aren't ready for primetime yet, but it's only preseason

After being buried under a barrage of three-point field goals by the Phoenix Suns Saturday night, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard – as they usually do – summed up the Trail Blazer situation very aptly,

“We’ve got 11 days, so it’s a good thing we don’t play tomorrow,” McCollum said. “We’ve got a lot we need to improve on and work on but that’s what the preseason is for -- Tighten up, figure out how you can better for the regular season. I don’t think there are any finished products out there right now so championships aren’t won right now, but we’ve got to tighten up and get ready for the regular season."

Is he more worried about his team’s offense or its defense?

“Neither,” he said firmly. “We’ll be OK.”

And after watching the Suns hit 24 of their 45 three-point field goals on the way to a 134-118 win with stars Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio sitting the game out, Lillard had a similar handle on the situation.

“Room for growth,” he said. “The easy thing to say is ‘It’s the preseason,’ which it is. They made a lot of shots but we had a lot of areas we need to clean up. We had a lot of miscommunications. To start the game we allowed them to get their confidence early. Sometimes that happens but I think it was a little too comfortable for them. Once they got it going, it stayed that way for the rest of the game.

“That’s why you have the preseason – get the rust off and work through it. We’ve got two more. There are a lot of things we should have done better. When a team makes that many threes you’ve got to start running them off the line.”

The prevailing opinion out of the locker room was that the game was a good thing – a wakeup call of sorts.

“It’s good that it happened and it doesn’t count against us,” Lillard said. “We can see what happens when we don’t come out and do what we’ve been doing the entire time (in camp). We don’t have the luxury of going out there and just trying to outscore teams. It’s good to see how it went down tonight. Take what we can from it and move forward.”

And as Lillard walked away from his interview, he couldn’t resist an additional comment.

“But ... it is only preseason,” he said with a smile.

The Suns are going to be another one of those teams buying into shooting threes by the dozens. They took them every chance they got and nailed more than half of them. Portland shot 53.2 percent from the field but couldn’t get on top in this game because of 22 turnovers and being outscored by 39 points from the three-point line.

It was not a good night at either end of the court for Portland. Was it an indication of where this team is at this point of the preseason?

“Maybe,” said Coach Terry Stotts. “I don’t know. Look, Dame and CJ played a lot of minutes for the first three quarters and we didn’t have enough to get over the hump, so certainly, it shows that we’re not a finished product by any means.”

But, lucky for Portland, there is still time to finish the product.

Instant Analysis: What to make of the Blazers' defense in preseason action vs. Suns

Instant Analysis: What to make of the Blazers' defense in preseason action vs. Suns

It was a night full of young Suns players getting most of the playing time and plenty of preseason mistakes for both teams as the Trail Blazers hosted Phoenix on Saturday night.

Portland started the game off with two quick turnovers each coming after a miscue in the pick and roll.

Despite the sloppy play, the Blazers and Suns quickly started heating up from downtown and it was CJ McCollum who led the charge on the offensive end for Portland.

FINAL BOX SCORE: Suns 134, Trail Blazers 118

Here are three quick takeaways from the loss from our NBC Sports team at the game:

Mike Richman, Reporter

The Blazers defense was mostly a nightmare. It would be foolish to overreact to a preseason game, but we haven't seen this team play good defense at any point during the exhibition season. They've got 10 days to figure it out before the games start to count. Sunday is an off day, which means Monday's film session will probably be long and full of defensive lowlights.

Jamie Hudson, Reporter

It felt like the Phoenix Suns could not miss from the three-point line from start to finish of this game. So the question is: Was that just preseason basketball or were the Blazers just a step too slow on rotating on the perimeter because they’re still working out the kinks? It’s probably a little bit of both. Plus, the Blazers were without starting wing Rodney Hood who was out with back spasms. One thing is certain – the Blazers will be looking at game film of the Suns’ made three-pointers.

Chris Burkhardt, Producer

We saw a couple of things Saturday that stood out. First, Coach Stotts experimented with Anthony Tolliver starting at power forward, bringing Collins off the bench. I love the fact the roster allows Stotts to tinker so much. Realistically, this could be something we see in the regular season, especially if Pau Gasol takes a while to heal up.

Back to Tolliver though. I was impressed with how he moved and communicated on both sides of the ball. He fills a lot of holes defense and is always talking to the other four Blazers on the floor. That veteran savvy is why the Blazers brought him in.

The second thing we saw tonight was the Dame-CJ-Ant three-guard lineup. That group has a lot of potential to drop buckets. At the very least, it's fun to watch. On to the next.

Up Next: The Trail Blazers visit the Utah Jazz for a 6pm tip-off on Wednesday.

Be sure to check back throughout the night and tomorrow morning for analysis, articles, and videos from the players!

It's definitely still preseason basketball as Suns decide to rest stars

It's definitely still preseason basketball as Suns decide to rest stars

Tonight’s game is the third of five preseason games for the Portland Trail Blazers as they welcome in the Phoenix Suns.

When: Saturday, Oct. 12, at 5 p.m. PT
TV Channel: NBC Sports Northwest
Live Stream: MyTeams App

Radio: NBC Sports Northwest Rip City Radio 620

[RELATED]: Damian Lillard: 'Time to start tightening up and getting it ready"

During warm-ups Rodney Hood was seen sitting on the baseline as he stretched a little bit. Hood has now been added to the injury report. He is dealing with back spasms and will not play against the Suns.

Kent Bazemore will most likely get the start in place of the injured Hood.

The Initial Injury Reports:

For the Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic (left leg), Pau Gasol (left foot) and Nassir Little (left ankle) are out for Saturday's game.

The Suns will be without David Kramer (left tibia stress reaction). Tyler Johnson (migraine) is probable.

BUT NOW…

Phoenix has decided to sit its stars.

Deandre Ayton (rest), Devin Booker (rest), David Kramer (left tibia stress reaction), and Ricky Rubio (rest) are ALL OUT.

For the Suns, you should expect to see a lot of Kelly Oubre Jr., Aron Baynes, and Frank Kaminsky.

Preseason Game Tonight: How to watch Trail Blazers vs. Suns

Preseason Game Tonight: How to watch Trail Blazers vs. Suns

Three more exhibition games remain for the Portland Trail Blazers this preseason.

Saturday’s meeting between the Trail Blazers (1-1) and Phoenix Suns (1-1) is the only preseason matchup between the two this year. The teams will meet four times during the regular season with the first matchup slated for December 16th at Phoenix.

Saturday's game can be seen on the official network of the Trail Blazers, NBC Sports Northwest with Kevin Calabro, Lamar Hurd and Brooke Olzendam. Jordan Kent along with Dwight Jaynes and Jamie Hudson will also bring you a special halftime show live from Moda Center.

[RELATED]: Damian Lillard: 'Time to start tightening up and getting it ready"

Saturday’s contest concludes the Blazers week of home preseason games. Next week Portland will have back-to-back games versus the Jazz and then the Nuggets.

Injury Reports:

For the Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic (left leg), Pau Gasol (left foot) and Nassir Little (left ankle) are out for Saturday's game.

The Suns will be without David Kramer (left tibia stress reaction). Tyler Johnson (migraine) is probable.

[RELATED]: How do we curb our expectations for Anfernee Simons?

Portland was 3-0 against Phoenix last season, winning both home games and once down in the desert.

Here's how to watch Saturday's preseason game on TV and listen on the radio:

When: Saturday, Oct. 12, at 5 p.m. PT -- pregame coverage begins at 4 p.m.
TV Channel: NBC Sports Northwest
Live Stream: MyTeams App

Radio: NBC Sports Northwest Rip City Radio 620