Editor's Note: This story was originally published in November 2016 following a key win for the Blazers vs. Denver. With the race for the 8 seed in full swing and Denver in town to take on the Blazers, we are rerunning Jason's piece as we frame up Tuesday night's matchup.
When the Trail Blazers headed to the locker room at halftime Sunday, the players took one look at coach Terry Stotts and knew they were headed for a tongue lashing.
A lack-luster first half, during which the Denver Nuggets had opened leads as large as 17 before settling for a 57-50 cushion, had closed with Stotts storming off the court.
“I saw Coach walk off the court with his hands up, and I knew walking back there that we were about to get it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “And that’s what happened.’’
Sure enough, in what center Mason Plumlee called “a speech for the ages,” Stotts tore into his team.
He got on them about their defense. Their toughness. And mostly, he questioned their effort.
“I can’t use the words,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “But basically he was like, we are out there playing like a bunch of nice guys and that’s not going to get it done at this level.’’
It wasn’t just a raised voice or a fist pounding a chalkboard. According to Evan Turner, Stotts became really red and so animated the cowlick on his head was “flying up.”
“He was turnt up, man,’’ center Ed Davis said. “He just let us have it. It woke us up, obviously.’’
When the Blazers took the court for the second half, there was little question Stotts’ words resonated with his roster The Blazers played one of their more inspired quarters of the season, outscoring Denver 36-15 in what would be the pivotal stretch of the Blazers’ 112-105 victory.
A halftime rant is a rare tactic used by the mild-mannered Blazers coach, who favors positive reinforcement over fire-and-brimstone speeches. So when he decided on Sunday to get aggressive, become angry and get pointed, the players say it meant more.
“He’s not a rah-rah type of guy who just yells for no reason,’’ Harkless said. “That’s what makes it that much more impactful when he does, because you know he is obviously really upset and tired of it.’’
Truth is, the team was tired of it as well. Denver was playing the second game of a back-to-back and had a depleted roster because of injuries. But it was Blazers who were getting beat to loose balls, getting dominated on the offensive glass.
It has been that kind of start to the season for the Blazers, who play well in spurts, but then sleepwalk through long stretches.
“A lot of times it has looked like we’ve been going through the motions, like teams could get whatever we want – we can’t have that,’’ Harkless said. “We are not going to be good like that – and that was his message: We are not going to do anything this year playing defense the way we have been. Something has to change.’’
Just as Lillard said he could tell Stotts was going to rip them at halftime, Davis said he could sense the same thing, only he wasn’t sure which coach would do the venting.
Turns out it was the boss.
“When we came in at half, I knew something was coming down,’’ Davis said. “And when Coach gets upset, you know it’s something serious because there’s a lot of stuff he lets go during practice, in the locker room, everything. He’s just such a cool coach, so when he does get into those moods, you want to go to war for him, and that’s what we did.’’
Turner said there were times earlier this season when he braced for Stotts to erupt, but the explosion never came. So when he did on Sunday, the point hit home.
Stotts in his postgame address with the media only said he talked about defense at halftime, but he added that he liked the way the team responded after halftime.
Afterward, in his office, when he knew some of his players had referred to his halftime tactic, he still didn’t want to talk about it.
“No comment,’’ Stotts said.
By then, there was nothing else to say. The Blazers (7-4) have won five of six and are tied with Utah for first place in the Northwest Division, even though they are far from playing at the top of their game.
The NBA is a long season, filled with lulls and slumps, and sometimes a little something out of the ordinary is needed to kickstart a team. On Sunday, that spark came from one of the more mellow characters on the team.
“Man, Coach gave us a great speech, a speech for the ages,’’ Plumlee said. “He’s so calm and collected, and does that so few times that when he does, it has an impact. And tonight, I thought guys really fed off it.’’