A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

A late-season revival: Blazers making playoff push behind play of Jusuf Nurkic

OKLAHOMA CITY – He has become the face of the Trail Blazers’ late-season revival, so perhaps it was fitting that Jusuf Nurkic smiled on his way out of the locker room Tuesday while shrugging off a comment that he had made the season fun again.

“Playoffs,’’ Nurkic said after hitting two crucial inside baskets that broke a tie and led the Blazers to a 126-121 victory at Oklahoma City. “That’s all I care about. Doesn’t matter who scores, I just want playoffs.’’

Once a fading proposition, the playoffs are now as bright as Nurkic’s smile thanks to the big man’s blend of size, skill and savvy which has sparked a three-game winning streak.

Not since training camp, when optimism abounded and goals gushed, have the Trail Blazers felt so good about themselves, and for good reason.

Not only is the team playing its best basketball of the season, it is coming at the most important time, with four weeks left in what figures to be an intense five-team playoff push for the eighth and final spot.

The Blazers (27-35) trail eighth-place Denver by 1.5 games and lead 10th place Dallas by one-half game with 20 games remaining. Twelve of those 20 games will be at the Moda Center and 13 are against teams with losing records.

But more than a weighted home schedule and a favorable slate of opponents, the Blazers are soaring with confidence, which was never more on display than Tuesday in Oklahoma City, where they overcame an early 14-point deficit then held off a furious late-game assault by Russell Westbrook.

“I think it said a lot about where we are in the moment right now,’’ Damian Lillard said.

If there has been a more emphatic and dramatic mid-season addition to the Blazers than Nurkic, it is not coming to mind. His deft passing, burly presence inside and delicate shooting touch is bringing back memories of Arvydas Sabonis.

More important, he has changed the way the Blazers play … in a good way. As evidenced by his two post scores in the final minute with the game on the line, the Blazers have a formidable inside threat perhaps for the first time since the big Lithuanian was lugging around with the No. 11 jersey. 

He has also shored up the defense inside, where Portland was often pushed around and bullied, and nothing exemplifies that more than how Nurkic neutralized Thunder center Steven Adams the past two games after Adams made a habit of embarrassing the Blazers with dunks and rebounds.

“I’ve said it over and over: he’s huge,’’ Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that big, that coordinated, that skilled … him catching it, banging and spinning and jump hook with both hands, that’s something we haven’t had. He was just huge for us.’’

What has made Nurkic’s addition so appealing is it has seemingly come out of nowhere, giving his rise somewhat of an underdog feel that Blazers fans have long latched onto with fervor.

He was a heralded rookie in Denver, but injuries, a logjam of bigs, and some pouting by Nurkic, pushed him out of favor and set the table for the trade to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a first-round pick.

In Portland, Nurkic has described feeling liberated which has translated to a palpable enthusiasm and zeal to his game that has been contagious in the locker room. Sometimes, some of the most powerful forces in the NBA are the feeling of being wanted and the opportunity to play, and Nurkic says those factors are fueling his Rose City renaissance.

“It’s all you need, man. When you play professional in the best league in the world, that’s all you need: Coach who want you; organization and fans who want you here; and the free mind to focus on basketball,’’ Nurkic said. “So, now I enjoy, and you can see on the court. We have a good team here and we are going to be in a good position if we play like this.’’

In seven games with the Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14.9  points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists in 29 minutes. Portland is 4-3 in games he has played.

“Certainly, Nurk has made a difference,’’ Stotts said, while noting how many other players are also playing well. “I think the (All-Star) break did us well … and I think there’s no question he has had an impact. I don’t want to undersell that. He has infused some energy and a different style of play.’’

Stotts was wary to heap all his praise on Nurkic because the Oklahoma City victory was flush with performances up and down the roster that normally would garner headlines by themselves.

Allen Crabbe led the team with 23 points while hitting 7-of-10 shots. He did it while showing a rare eagerness and determination to shoot, which might have been sparked by a recent sitdown with Stotts and CJ McCollum to brainstorm ways to get him better involved.

“When I’m engaged like that, I feel like I can do good things for the team,’’ Crabbe said. “My teammates did a good job finding me, they kept calling plays for me. I just have to stay like that.’’

Meanwhile, Al-Farouq Aminu left his imprint all over Chesapeake Energy Arena with an impressive display of shooting, defense and grit. He hit 5-of-6 shots and had 12 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and a steal. All three of his blocks came in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, with two of them at the rim in what were momentum-changing plays. And when the smoke cleared after every fight for a rebound or loose ball, Aminu seemed to be in the middle of it.

“His presence,’’ Lillard said of Aminu, “is everything. We need guys who want to get in the middle and mix it up, and it just felt like he was in the middle of the action a lot.’’

Aminu, who has missed 20 games because of calf, back and knee issues, has always been an unsung hero of the team because of his defense, but now with armed with a torrid shooting spell over the past two weeks, he is right behind Nurkic as the face of this late-season surge.

Also of note Tuesday was the play of Noah Vonleh, who Stotts said might have played his finest game of the season (11 points, 5 rebounds), and Meyers Leonard, whose defense and shooting helped spark the Blazers’ game-changing rally in the second quarter.

Leonard’s 12-point night, which included the Blazers being a plus-24 when he was on the court, came as he played with a heavy heart after his beloved dog, Bella, was diagnosed with kidney failure the night before. Bella, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, famously crashed coach Stotts’ postseason media address last season and is a fixture in Leonard’s life.

“It’s been tough on me. Luckily for me, this gave me a chance to escape from the real world,’’ Leonard said. “But it’s been a rough go at it for the last couple of days for me.’’

The same can’t be said for the Blazers, who are riding as high as they have since October, when they had visions of winning the Northwest Division and advancing to the conference finals.

It might be a late run, but as they say, better late than never.

“This could be a springboard for us, a confidence game,’’ Lillard said. “That’s a tough team to play against and we came here and got it done.’’

Up next: Philadelphia at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (CSN)

Kawhi wanted to go to LA and got Toronto -- call it Spurs' Revenge

Kawhi wanted to go to LA and got Toronto -- call it Spurs' Revenge

I have a few thoughts on that crazy all-star-for-all-star trade that essentially sent DeMar DeRozan from Toronto to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. I find some aspects of the deal fascinating.

First of all, don’t cross Gregg Popovich or the San Antonio Spurs. Not only did the Spurs land DeRozan, a very good player,  Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick for Leonard, they absolutely managed to send Leonard to the polar opposite of where he wanted to go.

You want to go to LA, young man? Here’s Toronto, enjoy yourself. Toronto is a beautiful city but between the frigid weather and the taxes -- good luck. And leave your bathing suit at home. You can't get much further from the beaches of southern California than Toronto. The Spurs' revenge cut deep.

I heard a lot of people around the league talking about trading for Leonard – with just one season left on his contract – including a lot of Trail Blazer fans. Sorry, but that’s a terrible gamble.

Just because Paul George – apparently a victim of basketball’s version of Stockholm syndrome -- decided to stay in Oklahoma City, doesn’t mean any other one-year rental would make the same decision. George's decision to stay in Oklahoma was bewildering and I have to believe that someday he’ll be sorry.

And to think other players will follow suit and stay put just because George did is silly. You can talk about rolling the dice and gambling on the big move all you want, that's a very big longshot to go all-in on. And if the gamble doesn't pay off, the penalty is way too high.

The risk/reward on this one just doesn't pencil out for the Raptors. If you think it's time to trade DeRozan, that's fine -- but a one-year rental may not be the best idea.

 

 

Wade Baldwin may have an uphill battle for playing time this season with Trail Blazers

Wade Baldwin may have an uphill battle for playing time this season with Trail Blazers

OK, so now that we know Wade Baldwin is going to be on the roster of the Portland Trail Blazers this season, where does he fit?

Will he play? Will he be in the rotation? What will his role be?

For right now, I’m not sure those questions can be answered. Training camp and the exhibition season will certainly go a long way toward solving those issues.

But at this point, I’d say Baldwin might be in a tough spot.

The Trail Blazer backcourt is going to be as crowded as Interstate-5 North at rush hour, with some veteran players in line ahead of Baldwin.

If you’re thinking about him as the prime candidate to back up Damian Lillard at the point, you might be disappointed. Don’t forget that the Trail Blazers signed free agent Seth Curry and he’s come into his own as an NBA player. He's no longer just somebody's little brother.

While Curry has never been known as a distributor, he can certainly shoot the ball – perhaps Baldwin’s weakest area.

For his career, Curry has shot 47.3 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from three-point range. And yes, we’re talking about SETH Curry, not his brother STEPH.

Now I’m pretty sure Baldwin would have an edge over Curry at the defensive end of the court and may be a better playmaker. He's also the team's biggest and most physical point guard and is capable of playing at a very fast pace.  And one more thing in his favor -- he is a player Portland got for nothing who is quickly rebuilding his value as a one-time first-round pick. At some point, he could be a valuable trade piece.

That said, in today’s NBA, the game is becoming all about firepower –- and mostly long-range firepower. Curry can provide that to a team that needs an injection of accurate three-point shooting.

It’s also reasonable to expect rookie Anfernee Simons to get some playing time at one of the guard spots. Yes, he’s young but he’s a special player who needs to play if he’s not optioned to a G-League team.

Add in the projected off-guards on this squad – Nik Stauskas and Gary Trent Jr. – and you can see that Coach Terry Stotts has some decisions to make.

He has a crowd of interesting players at off-guard and could make a little more room for them on the court by using CJ McCollum as a backup point guard frequently.

Baldwin is going to be in the same position he’s been in for most of his career:

How much he plays will be up to him. And he’s probably going to have to play pretty well to earn a regular spot in the rotation.

 

 

Social media reacts to the 2018 Summer League Champs

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USA Today Img.

Social media reacts to the 2018 Summer League Champs

To say the Blazers are excited for this championship is an understatement. Hoist the trophy high, veterans excited for their rookies, and much more on social media reacting to this championship!

 

The rookies went to Twitter following the win, excited to bring the trophy home to Portland:

 

Even the rookies alma mater's chimed in:

 

So... about the championship parade... 

 

LINKS:

Read: Give credit to the Summer League Coaches

Read: Wade Baldwin feels good about his chances

Watch: Why winning Summer League matters

Credit Blazer coaching staff with a great job this summer

Credit Blazer coaching staff with a great job this summer

Moving forward, I'm not sure we can draw any conclusions about how much value -- if any -- Portland's summer-league championship will bring to the franchise moving forward. But I can say one thing for sure: it's a great tribute to the Portland coaching staff.

For the second summer in a row, the Trail Blazers assembled a roster of players who came together at both ends of the court. This year's championship team dominated every team it played and offensive execution and defensive aggression were a big part of that. And that is coaching. Head coach Jim Moran does a great job with his teams but the credit doesn't stop there. The entire Trail Blazer coaching staff -- Nate Tibbetts, David Vanterpool, Dale Osbourne and John McCullough -- contributes to the summer-league effort and these guys get only three or four days to organize and coach their squad before its first game.

And somehow, they create a solid team in a very short amount of time that plays the game hard and plays it right.

And it must also be pointed out that Neil Olshey has provided his young players a great chance to learn and improve by surrounding them in summer league with unselfish journeymen veterans who know how to play. This season it was K.J. McDaniels, Archie Goodwin and John Jenkins -- solid vets playing to land a job in the NBA or overseas -- combining with experienced Portland players Jake Layman and Wade Baldwin IV to give the youngsters a chance to succeed.

Time to say a few things about individual players who suited up for Portland's summer unit:

  • Anfernee Simons -- Way better than I expected him to be. Not intimidated and very obviously talented.
  • Gary Trent Jr. -- A pro shooter. He knows where he wants to get his shots and how to get them.
  • Wade Baldwin IV -- A legit NBA player who continues to improve. He's defending people well enough to get them mentally off their game. Man, does he need help at the foul line, though.
  • Jake Layman -- If he can bring that offensive confidence and jump shot into training camp, he's going to get rotation minutes this season.
  • Caleb Swanigan -- I'm never sure of what to expect from him. He has NBA rebounding and passing skills but struggles when playing against size.
  • Zach Collins -- He's coming along fast as a defender but would love to see him be able to consistently make shots.

In summary, you can make whatever summer-league victory parade and championship-ring jokes you want, but winning is fun no matter where you do it. And very often a lot or work behind the scenes goes into the effort.

 

 

Wade Baldwin feels good about his chances

Wade Baldwin feels good about his chances

Updated Thursday, July 19th - With the deadline now passed, Baldwin's contract is now fully guaranteed. The original story appears below.

LAS VEGAS - Wade Baldwin, who earned 2nd Team All-Summer League honors, said his goal was to go ‘full throttle’ and show during Summer League that he deserves to be on this Trail Blazers roster.

The deadline for the Blazers to make a decision on Baldwin’s guaranteed contract is July 18th at 11:59pm, when the clock strikes midnight, his contract becomes guaranteed.

While sporting his Championship shirt proudly, Baldwin told the media he feels good about his chances.

“I think I put myself in the best position possible in terms of accomplishments that I’ve made. In terms of being a winner, coming in here undefeated,” Baldwin said.

One person who will have some say in that is head coach Terry Stotts.
Over the last few years, the final day of Las Vegas Summer League for the Trail Blazers meant Stotts would offer up his thoughts and talk with the media members that were still around, and yes even after the team wins a Summer League Championship.

“I was really pleased with how we played, not how well we played. Obviously, it was a good week, but more importantly, we’re going to have six guys from this team that are going to be on our team and it was how they came together, how they played, they shared the ball. It was different guys, different nights, it was very encouraging,” Stotts said.

Yes, Stotts did say six players from this roster.
So, was that just a subconscious slip or is Wade Baldwin a member of this team next season? Baldwin averaged 13.4 points and 7.4 assists (3rd best in Summer League) in 25.4 minutes per game.   “It’s a team decision and I’ve talked with Neil and obviously the decision has to be made soon. It’s not my position to say what’s going to happen,” Stotts said.

[WATCH: The Scoop Postgame Show]
 

Blazer fans have been wondering who could take backup point guard minutes with Shabazz Napier now heading to Brooklyn.

After Baldwin led this Summer League team on both offense and defense, it would make sense for him to stick with Portland.
“The resume is out there. It’s up for whatever team it is or Portland to make a decision on what they want to do with me. I felt like I left it all out there and did the best I could,” Baldwin said with a smile.

One young guy who will be back in a Blazers uniform next season is Zach Collins, who finished Summer League averaging 8.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but it’s not his play that he attributes a lot of the team’s success to this year.

“We have a really good leader in Wade Baldwin at the point guard position and that’s huge coming into Summer League, being able to control the game. Summer League sometimes is really chaotic, he did a really good job of being our floor general,” Collins said.  

For a Blazers team who has lacked defensive intensity at the guard position, Baldwin would be a great asset to have coming off the bench. 

Let the countdown begin for Blazer fans waiting to see if the guy who gave James Harden fits in the regular season last year and now that same guy who led this summer league team to a championship will be back with the Blazers.

We have just hours left of Baldwin Watch 2018.

 

Outsiders demand Summer League Championship T-Shirts!

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NBCS NW

Outsiders demand Summer League Championship T-Shirts!

Joe, Shain and Dan held a special postgame edition of the Outsiders on Tuesday night to celebrate the Summer League Championship!

If you missed the show, check out the link below, join them in a toast and enjoy the look back at the Summer League run.

Blazers Outsiders

BLAZERS WIN THE LAS VEGAS SUMMER LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! It’s time to celebrate with the Outsiders.

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Scoop: Blazer enact revenge on Laker, #BeatLA

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NBCS NW

The Scoop: Blazer enact revenge on Laker, #BeatLA

There may not be a parade for this Championship but the Trail Blazers Summer League Team was very proud of their tournament win on Tuesday night. 

The Scoop was live streaming postgame as fans weighed in what this means, player evaluations, and how any of this might translate to the regular season:

Summer League Scoop Postgame

Your Portland Trail Blazers are the 2018 NBA Summer League Champs!!! The Blazers beat the Lakers, 91-73 #RipCity How you feeling, Scoop Nation!?

Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Trail Blazers waive Georgios Papagiannis

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NBCSNW

Trail Blazers waive Georgios Papagiannis

The Trail Blazers have waived big man Georgios Papagiannis.

He plans to sign with Greece's Panathinaikos, which was first reported by Eurohoops. 

According to Eurohoops, "Panathinaikos has already included Papagiannis in the club’s long-term plans and are ready to add him with a three-year contract."

Papagiannis was first acquired by Panathinaikos when he was 17 years old and spent two seasons with the team before joining the NBA.

The 7'1" big appeared in 6 games during the Las Vegas Summer League where he averaged 1.3 points and 1.5 rebounds in just 7.5 minutes per game. 

Portland acquired Papagiannis this past March after he was waived by the Sacramento Kings, who drafted him in 2016 with the 13th overall pick.

Papagiannis appeared in just one game for the Blazers, playing four minutes of a 96-94 loss to the Houston Rockets 

He averaged 4.1 points and 3.2 rebounds over the course of 39 appearances over two seasons in the NBA.

Trail Blazers Are Summer League Champions!

Trail Blazers Are Summer League Champions!

LAS VEGAS - The Trail Blazers got revenge on the LA Lakers to pull out a victory in the 2018 Las Vegas Summer League Championship Game by a score of 91-73. 

It was a rematch of last year's summer league finale, but this time the Trail Blazers came out on top thanks to a strong defensive performance that held the Lakers to just 14.3% from the 3 point line. 

Players and Coaches had talked all week about how winning NBA Summer League was a goal for this team from the beginning, and tonight they finished what they started. 

Summer League MVP Josh Hart was ejected after his second technical with 4:45 to go in the game, but the Lakers trailed big at that time anyways. 

Portland finished the summer league a perfect 7-0 including both pool play and the tournament. 

BOX SCORE: Portland 91, LA 73

Be sure to follow us on social media for all kinds of postgame videos, a special interview with Head Coach Terry Stotts, and photos from the ceremony!

POSTGAME LINKS:
The Scoop Postgame Show
Trail Blazers Outsiders - Live Stream
Trail Blazers waive Georgios Papagiannis
Why did this summer league team click?