Trail Blazers facing plenty of questions heading into long road trip

Trail Blazers facing plenty of questions heading into long road trip

The feeling inside the Trail Blazers locker room was some combination of frustration and resigned optimism.

After falling to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night, and losing for the sixth time in seven games to drop to 4-8 on the year, the Blazers were believably frustrated. The optimism was mostly by default.

It’s still November, the marathon NBA season is just beginning and for all of Portland’s clear and obvious issues, players pointed to the 70 games remaining on the schedule as the biggest reason to be hopeful the team can find its footing.

“It’s a long season,” Hood said, uttering a refrain that his teammates would echo. “Nobody’s in the playoffs right now. I don’t care if they’re number one in the league or number one in the west, everybody is fighting and figuring out everything. Nobody has tailed off and took off from everybody else. By next month we could be up there at the top so we just got to continue to stay positive and get better.”

If the Blazers are going to make as dramatic a turn as Hood suggested and end up in the top of standings by December, most of that progress will come on the road. Wednesday’s game against the Raptors was a brief pit stop in Portland before the Blazers head out for an 11-day, six game trip, finally returning to Moda Center the day before Thanksgiving.

Even early in the season, this trip looks daunting because this team has obvious flaws.

The Blazers are still searching for answers at power forward after losing Zach Collins to shoulder surgery until at least mid-March. With a combination of injuries and poor play, Terry Stotts has mixed and matched groups to open games, trotting out his sixth different starting lineup of the season in Game No. 12 on Wednesday.

Stotts turned to Nassir Little against Toronto. The rookie played hard and mostly held his own. It was an encouraging performance even with Little going 3-for-10 from the floor in 23 minutes. Frankly, going with the high-energy rookie at that spot might be the Blazers best option as Anthony Tolliver has been ineffective at best and Mario Hezonja isn’t suited for a big minute role. 

Beyond who starts, the Blazers desperately need to figure out how to finish games. Other than a face plant at Golden State, the Blazers haven’t been rolled over in most of their losses. Instead their consistently dropping games in crunch time, out executed or outworked at winning time. The Blazers have a league-worst 122.8 defensive rating in the fourth quarter, and they are the second worst defensive rebounding team in the final frame.

“Sometimes it’s not just because we can’t get a stop. It’s we can’t get a rebound,” Damian Lillard said. “If you give up two and three opportunities to an NBA team you’re going to get scored on.”

The reasons for frustration inside the locker room are obvious. The injuries, the shifting rotation and repeated late game letdowns are already threatening to derail this season in its early stages. And yet most of the Blazers said they were optimistic or even encouraged.

“You gotta just keep going. You gotta keep fighting," Lillard said. "I think that we should be encouraged by the fact that we’ve lost a lot of games the same way. We’ve been in the mix. We’ve been right there down the stretch and we lose games down the stretch. I think that’s one thing we can’t forget. But like I said before, we can’t fold. We gotta just keep coming, continue to try to correct the mistakes and the things we already know how (to do) to win games."

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: