How Mario Hezonja's point-guard skills have translated to feeling free in Portland

How Mario Hezonja's point-guard skills have translated to feeling free in Portland

The first half action of the Trail Blazers first action of the season was fast action.

Say that three times fast.  

A key piece in the Blazers getting out and running against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night was in thanks to Portland’s second unit, and more specifically to point-forward Mario Hezonja.

Hezonja along with Anthony Tolliver, Kent Bazemore, and Skal Labissiere, all kicked into another gear late in the first quarter.

“The first half with that group, when [Hezonja] was in there he really pushed the ball, good tempo, good pace,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “I think we lost a little bit of our pace in the second half. He’s good in the open court, pushing the tempo.”

Portland ended up dropping its first exhibition game, 105-94, but Blazers fans got a good glimpse of the speed and playmaking of Hezonja.

For the Trail Blazers floor general Damian Lillard, he compared Hezonja to former Blazer Evan Turner, but with a different flare.  

“He’s a playmaker. Just having the luxury of having somebody else that’s a really good playmaker, the same role as ET, but more up-tempo. He’s up-tempo, he’s downhill, and just a lot of times where the weak side falls asleep and they loosen up and the defense is wearing down he’s zipping those passes through the defense and he’s see that. So, I think that’s going to be really good for me and CJ [McCollum],” Lillard said.   

Simons, Bazemore, and Hezonja were all interchangeable to run point.

McCollum was not surprised in the least with Hezonja’s performance. 

“I think Mario was great. He’s been pushing the ball in transition all of September. He showed great vision, good size, finishing around the basket. We’ve seen. It’s more about you guys getting a chance to see him and really understanding what he can bring to this team,” McCollum said.

When he was asked about why Hezonja like to push the pace, he cracked a smile and said, “It comes from my heart.”

Hezonja, added, “If you have it why not use it,” on his ability to push the pace. 

Hezonja grew up playing point guard... until he started sprouting up and eventually moved from guard to forward.

He is just four years removed from holding down point guard duties when he played in Croatia and in Barcelona. 

The 24-year-old credits Coach Stotts and the Blazers coaching staff in being be able to play free.

“The first time they told me was if you do a mistake, just keep doing what you do,” Hezonja said.

“They just basically gave me the keys to the car,” Hezonja added. 

In 20 minutes of action, Hezonja finished with 12 points, six rebounds, and two assists, while also getting the crowd behind him.

Hezonja noted the team chemistry was instant, despite the Blazers bringing in seven new players.

“We had a lot of success in the first half executing…  The chemistry was awesome from day one,” Hezonja said.

Blazer fans might not all be chemistry majors, but one thing is certain for the Blazers: One part Hezonja with four parts of player speed around him equals good Blazer Basketball. 

CJ McCollum making other players look like fools is all you need

CJ McCollum making other players look like fools is all you need

It's April Fools' Day! 

Maybe you've gotten duped. Maybe you pulled off a prank of your own. Maybe you abstained from participating because of the current global pandemic. 

At NBCSNW, rather than try and fool you, we thought we'd show you a compilation of other guys made to look like fools. 

And no one is better at doing that than CJ McCollum crossing up defenders and putting them on skates. 

We got our first real taste of it when CJ made Dirk Nowitski look like a fool. 

But, to pick a favorite is like picking a favorite child. They're all equally wonderful. 

Enjoy the video above. 

Who you got? Here are the Players Only NBA 2K Tournament odds

Who you got? Here are the Players Only NBA 2K Tournament odds

Get ready to watch some of your favorite NBA stars in action!

With the NBA hiatus going on three weeks now, fans will get a chance to watch virtual basketball with NBA players competing against each other while playing the video game, NBA 2K.

The tournament will feature 16 of the NBA's best 2K players with Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, DeMarcus Cousins, and Andre Drummond some of the featured names.

Trail Blazers starting center Hassan Whiteside will represent Portland in the first-ever 2K Players Only Tournament. 

And you can bet there are already odds out there with the tournament tipping off Friday.

Tuesday evening, SportsBetting.ag set odds for the 16-team tournament.

Devin Booker is the favorite, while Kevin Durant is right behind him, according to SportsBetting.ag. Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks announced Wednesday, that Durant has been cleared of coronavirus after testing positive a couple of weeks ago. 

As for Whiteside, he comes in sixth on the odds-on favorite list, but he is the No. 3 seed in the tournament with a 2K rating of 87.

NBA 2K Players Tournament SportsBetting.Ag Odds

Devin Booker        +350  

Kevin Durant        +400    
Deandre Ayton     +600    
Trae Young            +800    
Donovan Mitchell  +900    

Hassan Whiteside  +1000    
Rui Hachimura        +1200    
Andre Drummond   +1600    
Pat Beverley             +1600    

Demarcus Cousins    +1800    
Zach Lavine                +1800    
Harrison Barnes         +2000    
Michael Porter Jr.        +2000    
Montrezl Harrell         +2000    
Derrick Jones Jr.         +2200    
Domantas Sabonis    +2250    

Not only can bets be placed on players, there will also be a handful of prop bets, including which conference will have more players advance to Round 2 and whether or not any games will go to overtime.
You can check out the updated odds right here.

The tournament will air on ESPN this weekend. 

Damian Lillard worries the season may not restart

Damian Lillard worries the season may not restart

Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard is making sure to keep up-to-date with all the reports and rumors on what could potentially happen if and when the league returns. 

He's not going out of his way; however, to stay informed on every little possibility. He has, though, spoken with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about possible scenarios.  

“I’m not like seeking out information, like calling people and all that stuff, but, I mean, I spoke to Adam. I spoke to at least four or five people from the league that have reached out to me like – ‘what do you think about this?’ Kind of, just having conversations,” Lilllard said.

It was back on Mar. 18 when Adam Silver laid out three possible scenarios in which the NBA returns.

I’d say I’m looking at three different things here:

One is -- Of course, when can we restart and operate as we’ve known -- 19,000 fans in buildings, that’s one set of criteria.

Then option two is – Should we consider starting without fans and what would that mean? Because presumably if you had a group of players and staff around them and you could test them and you could follow some protocol, doctors, health officials may say it’s safe to play…
And then, the third option that we are looking at now, and I would say all suggestions are welcome, is that… Are there conditions in which a group of players could compete and maybe it’s for a giant fundraiser or just for the good of the people?” – NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols earlier this month

The Trail Blazers veteran made it clear that he has shared his stance on not wanting the resuming of this season to push back and effect next season’s start date.  

He also feels a lot of players on the same page as him and wouldn’t want next season to start later than usual.

“I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer.”

Lillard smiled as he said, “I don’t hold back saying what I think or how I feel. I’m just like, ‘man, what’s going on? Just tell me… You can just tell me the truth.’ But obviously, they’ve got to follow what they’ve got to follow.”

Even though Lillard is optimistic that the 2019-20 season will resume, he knows it’s out of the league’s hands at a certain point.

“Yeah, I am,” Lillard said when asked if he was worried about the season not resuming. “I think, I’m definitely a little bit worried that, that’s a possibility, but I’m encouraged because I know that the league is doing everything in their power to make sure that it does.”

Wednesday, April 1st will be the three-week mark since the NBA has been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many out there that believe NBA games will be played once again in June as Silver has even said that mid-June is likely the earliest that play would restart.

Lillard reminds us all though, the league won’t put the players and staff’s health in danger.

I know that if we don’t come back that it’ll be for the right reasons. It will be for the sake of all of our health and that’s what’s first, but I think that at some point we will be back and if not, I think there will be a great reason for that. -- Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard

For now the NBA and Adam Silver will continue to navigate through these uncertain times just like the rest of us.

And we’ll look forward to the NBA holding a players only NBA 2k Tournament this weekend.  

Virtual basketball is better than no basketball, right? 

Jusuf Nurkic knows the Trail Blazers can be a problem... when healthy

Jusuf Nurkic knows the Trail Blazers can be a problem... when healthy

Injuries -- they are part of the game.

In Portland, Trail Blazers fans know that all too well.

The expectations were high for the 2019-20 season in Rip City.

The Trail Blazers were set to lean on their star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while also bringing in a major shot blocker in Hassan Whiteside to anchor the team down low until Jusuf Nurkic was ready to return.

While, it was also assumed that Anfernee Simons would lead the charge offensively off the bench.

And, both Zach Collins and Rodney Hood were bumped up from role players to starters.

Then with what seemed like in the snap-of-a-finger, both Collins and Hood were out with injuries.

Now we are wondering if the 2019-20 season will be canceled.  

There’s still a chance play could resume this season once the COVID-19 pandemic gets under control around the country.

But, what about next season?

What could the 2020-21 NBA season look like for the Portland Trail Blazers?   

Nurkic knows the answer…  

I do believe one thing: If [we’re] healthy, we can be a problem. – Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic told NBCSNW's Dwight Jaynes

And it’s not just about the talent on the court, because Nurkic is playing alongside Lillard for goodness sake, but it’s also about this team believing it can achieve more than people expect.

“I think last year when was believing we can win [it] all and that’s why the team went so long… [to] the Western Conference Finals,” Nurkic said.

With Portland playing in the WCF for the first time in 19 years during the 2018-19 season, and then going through so much adversity this past season while still have a fighting chance to land the eighth and final spot in the West, this team really can’t be counted out until they are mathematical out. 

Does this team expect to make the playoffs this year if given the opportunity? 

“I think a 100 percent, I don’t see anybody that would disagree with that,” Nurkic on if the Trail Blazers are a playoff team if the season resumes. “We’ve never been healthy… Start of the season, we’ve never been complete and it’s hard to judge, but I think most of the teams if they’re missing like three or four players from the starting lineup they would have a really hard time, but we were still finding away.”

There’s still a question mark on whether or not Whiteside will be back next season, but if he is, he believes he and Nurk could be a real force.  

Of course, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts would have to figure out the balancing act of minutes played between the two.  

But, could the Blazers go with the Twin Towers and play both centers together?

Whiteside thinks so.

I think it’ll be good. Melo posts up 80% of the time, so it’s not going to be a spacing issue or anything. I think we’ll be a force out there. Even when we’re in a game, I think we can play minutes together and then we can rotate in and out.  -- Trail Blazers big man Hassan Whiteside on playing alongside Jusuf Nurkic

This season with the Blazers, Whiteside was averaging 16.3 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks in 61 games played. He is also shooting an efficient 61.8 percent from the field.

Prior to the injury, Nurk averaged 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds last season, both of which were career-highs.

Now throw in Collins, who didn’t get a chance to show his progress from year two to year three since he didn’t even play in three complete games before suffering the left shoulder injury, and teams better look out.  

This season the Blazers were hurting on the defensive end to say the least. Having Collins back in the fold with his toughness, sneaky athleticism for a 7-footer and the mentality of never backing down, is just what the doctor ordered for Portland.

Collins has said he will be healthy enough to play if the NBA resumes this summer.

So, before we start looking ahead to next season (but, how can you not?), let’s keep in mind this year isn’t over until NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says it is, or there is a Champion crowned.

For now, we should all have similar mindsets to the Bosnian Beast:

“I just don’t want to think about next season yet,” Nurk said with a smile.

Yes, this season could still very well play out and it would be played out with a healthy Nurk and Collins.

That’s another positive to keep in mind. 

HBO's 'The Scheme' is entertaining but doesn't answer the big questions

HBO's 'The Scheme' is entertaining but doesn't answer the big questions

It was September of 2917 and a news conference in New York led me and a lot of others to believe that the lid was about to be blown off college basketball and perhaps even the NCAA itself:

“All of those charged today contributed to a pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball,” Bill Sweeney, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said at the Sept. 2017 news conference announcing the arrests of (Christian) Dawkins and nine others. “Today’s arrests should serve as a warning to others … We have your playbook.”

Well, that playbook stayed on the FBI’s shelf, it seems. And a documentary called “The Scheme,” which made its debut Tuesday night on HBO, didn’t answer the questions I’ve been looking to answer for all these months:

-- Why did the FBI choose to target college basketball and spend a boatload of taxpayer money on an investigation, apparently just to find out what most of us already knew -- that the sport is full of cheating.

-- And why didn’t any of the high-profile coaches ever get charged with a crime, or even be brought to court to testify? In the end, Dawkins, a former runner for agent Andy Miller, took the hardest fall.

The documentary runs two hours, which felt maybe 30 minutes too long, but was interesting.

Of particular interest was the recording of a phone call, said to be involving Dawkins and Arizona Coach Sean Miller, in which the coach asks Dawkins what it will take to get then-high school star Nassir Little to Arizona. And Miller doesn’t seem at all worried that the University of Miami is also bidding for the current Trail Blazer forward at the same time.

It was obvious from the phone conversation that whatever money was to be paid to deliver Little was going to be paid to his AAU coaches in Orlando. Little ended up going to North Carolina. Little and his father signed sworn affidavits that they were never approached with offers of money from Miami.

Miller has totally denied any involvement and retains his job at Arizona.

That, by the way, is one of the stinkiest things about the way a lot of business is done in college basketball. The AAU coaches, the “advisors” and hustlers get paid for influencing recruits, but often the players don’t see that money or even know about the deal. They just get exploited.

For many years I heard the tale of a high-profile recruit from Portland landing at an out-of-state university and that the college did not recruit him through his high-school coach. It was done with the AAU coach, who pushed the player to that university and then showed up the next several summers as a "guest instructor" at the college's basketball camp -- at an exorbitant amount of money.

The documentary is an entertaining watch, but leaves behind those big questions. Why didn’t coaches get dragged into court to explain their “playbook?” And with all the serious crime going on in the world, why did this waste of taxpayers’ money happen in the first place?

REPORT: NBA is considering withholding pay from players if regular season games cancelled

REPORT: NBA is considering withholding pay from players if regular season games cancelled

The NBA and other professional sports leagues have been considering various scenarios as to what could play out over the next few months as we all work together to see how quickly we can flatten the curve of COVID-19.

The NBA has also been looking at different financial considerations during this uncertain time.

Last week, reports surfaced that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and roughly 100 of the NBA's top-earning league executives took a 20 percent pay cut in base salary last week and will continue to take a reduction in pay through the coronavirus pandemic.

In the latest report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, details emerge on how the league and the National Basketball Players Association are discussing scenarios that could include withholding up to 25 percent of players' remaining salaries in a league escrow.  

That would only happen if the regular-season games were eventually canceled, according to Wojnarowski.

The collective bargaining agreement states that players lose approximately 1 percent of salary per canceled game, based on a force majeure provision, which covers pandemics. Once there is a cancellation of games, the provision is automatically put in place.

The force majeure would also be put into use for next season as well, protecting against a huge drop in the salary cap and luxury tax.

The league is reportedly not going to making any announcements anytime soon on whether or not games will be canceled.

Damian Lillard is trying to 'keep that edge' during NBA hiatus

Damian Lillard is trying to 'keep that edge' during NBA hiatus

There really was no way to fully prepare for such sheltering place protocols ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

This unprecedented time in the world still feels very surreal at times.

For the Trail Blazers leader Damian Lillard, he is working on keeping sharp and focused during the NBA suspension.

I’ve been running in the morning. I’ve been getting lifts in. I’ve been doing as much core as you can possibly do. I’ve been in the steam room. Talking to other guys around the league, talking to my teammates… Talking to my coaches, just trying to stay connected. Trying to stay connected to that environment and to people who share that space with me, and I think that’s the best way to at least keep that edge because it’s kind of starting to feel like postseason, like the season is over. So, we’ll see.  -- Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard

Lillard has not been tested for COVID-19, but says he is following public health officials protocols and self-isolating, along with the NBA’s guidelines during this time and is not exhibiting any symptoms.

“I haven’t been able to get into the training facility," Lillard said. "At the moment, they don’t want us in the practice facility. They don’t want us training with any of our coaches or anything like that. They also don’t want us training at a third-party gym or with a third-party trainer, so it’s basically like if you don’t have a gym at home, you can’t train. So fortunately for me, I have a gym at home, so I’ve been able to kind of continue and get work done."

The only players allowed to enter the Trail Blazers practice facility at the moment are the players who are still rehabbing from injuries, including Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood.

Lillard has thought about the players around the league who aren’t able to continue to train and workout in a home gym.

“People who don’t have that and at some point are going to be expected to come back as a professional athlete and perform on call, that makes it tough,” Lillard added.

“When we do come back, everybody is gonna have a little bit of rust to shake off.”

But, don’t think for a second that Lillard hasn’t been keeping busy when he’s not training in his home gym.

The eight-year vet, has been taking this time to connect with people and share memorable moments with his son, Dame Jr.

“We watching Mickey Mouse together and then we playing, and I’m teaching him stuff. I get to be more hands on with him and it’s constant. I really appreciate it,” Lillard said.

“I appreciate the stillness… Being home all day and I’m not missing anything,” Lillard added.

As the Trail Blazers point guard reflects, while enjoying the time at home with his family, he his optimistic that the season will restart and is in favor of some type of play-in tournament for the playoffs.  

And now… We wait for the decision on the season.

But more than anything, Lillard wants “for everybody” to be murmuring this statement once 2019-20 postseason play begins, and the Blazers have made it to the playoffs for the seventh straight year:

“How did they still end up here? Like how? How did that happen?”

Here’s to hoping we all get that chance to hear from those perplexed NBA fans.  

Damian Lillard suggests NCAA Tournament format if NBA play resumes

Damian Lillard suggests NCAA Tournament format if NBA play resumes

With so much up in the air right now, Trail Blazers All-Star point guard is all for experimenting if the NBA is able to resume its 2019-20 season.

Even an NCAA single-elimination tournament?? 

Maybe.

This past December, reports surfaced that “play-in tournaments” to decide the final two playoff teams in both the Western and Eastern Conference was an idea that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was tossing around.

Earlier in the season, the NBA sent out a proposal to teams for a possible 78-game regular season, along with an in-season tournament for all teams, plus, a possible play-in tournament and more.

And that was well before anyone knew the league would be on a hiatus due to a global pandemic.

The Trail Blazers held a video press conference Tuesday afternoon, where Lillard explored the idea of a play-in tournament.

When the season does come back, I feel like it’s only right that teams get a chance to make a playoff push, like ourselves, give us a chance to get in. Or, some type of tournament style where it’s fair… It’s obviously gonna be a different situation than it has ever been, so maybe they should do something that has never been done. Or something that is going to make this year very unique like it already has been. – Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard

Lillard also mentioned he hasn’t heard anything about when or if the NBA is going to restart, but he added, “It’s kind of starting to feel like postseason, like the season is over. So, we’ll see.”

[RELATED]: Damian Lillard would not be a fan of starting NBA seasons later than usual

The proposed ‘play-in tournament’ from the NBA back in December called for the regular season to end on a Saturday, exactly one week before the start of the playoffs; as opposed to ending it on Wednesday which has been the case for years.

The top six teams in each conference would be secured to make the playoffs, while teams in the seventh through 10th spots would play against each other like so:  

The No. 7 and No. 8 teams would play and then that winner would clinch the No. 7 playoff seed. The teams holding the ninth and 10th-place spots would also play. The winner of that game would play the loser of the No. 7 and No. 8 game to determine the No. 8 playoff seed.

From there, the first two rounds of the playoffs would be played as usual.

Lillard is all for some type of play-in tournament for this season, because, as we all know, he wants to make sure his team has a shot at making the playoffs.

But, he is also not opposed to experimenting even more than just a play-in tourney.

 “They should do something like the NCAA tournament with every team. Single-game elimination, all the way up until maybe the Conference Finals or something like that, and then it's a three-game series, just so we don’t got to start the season off track next year,” Lillard said.

The five-time All-Star truly believes the time to really experiment is now.

“They could get creative. If there was any time for them to get super creative and people will be tuned in and excited about it with everything that’s going on, I think this is the time.” 

Damian Lillard would not be a fan of starting NBA seasons later than usual

Damian Lillard would not be a fan of starting NBA seasons later than usual

There are many ideas about when, or even if, this NBA season will finish and then, when the next season would start.

There has been talk of this season resuming sometime around June and playoffs pushing into August, which could theoretically mean a late start to next season.

It’s even rumored that Commissioner Adam Silver has always wanted to push the season’s start to Christmas Day, thus avoiding direct competition with the majority of the football season. That would mean the upcoming 2020-21 season could be used as a test for such a plan.

But don’t count the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard among those who would like to start next season late. In a video conference with media Tuesday, Lillard said that he is against moving the season and believes most other NBA players would be, too.

“I don’t think so,” Lillard said. “I just don’t see it. I mean, the season starts when it starts now, then February all-star weekend, getting toward the end of the season in April and then getting into the playoffs. You get that early June Finals and then you get to go off into your summer.”

And a lot of players want their extended time off to be in the summer, not the fall and winter.

 “You get to enjoy real-time summer,” Lillard said. “Our break is into the summer and then you get to come back as summer is leaving. I think that’s been perfect.”

Silver would likely need the players association to go along with a major change like this one -- something the players might do in an emergency situation like this year just to get this season completed … but as for a permanent change?

“It’s been perfect for us,” Lillard said. “So, for that to change and for things to be pushed back, I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that.”