SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers’ impressive 108-92 victory at Utah on Wednesday actually started two nights earlier, high in the sky above the Midwest.
The Blazers were flying to Salt Lake City from Minnesota, fresh off their thrilling 106-101 high-wire act against the Timberwolves, when Moe Harkless felt a tap on his shoulder.
It was team captain Damian Lillard, from directly across the aisle.
In front of each player was their laptop. They were in their own world, watching a replay of the Blazers victory against the Timberwolves when Lillard took notice of a reoccurring scene:
Harkless open, but not receiving the ball.
“I saw how many times on film that he was open, and I missed him, or CJ (McCollum) missed him, or Chief (Al-Farouq Aminu) attacked the rim and missed him,’’ Lillard said.
Harkless didn’t need to look at the film to know about the missed opportunities in Minnesota. He experienced it through a rather non-descript night of five points and four rebounds when he played only 17 minutes and took five shots.
He was on a new team, with an All-Star point guard, and he didn’t feel it was the time or the place to say anything.
“It takes a while,’’ Harkless said. “We’ve been playing together for two months now. He’s a great point guard; I’m not going to tell him he’s not doing something right. We just have to get used to each other.’’
So when Lillard reached over the aisle and tapped Harkless on the shoulder, it was with a curious ear that Harkless turned to listen.
“I told him ‘Keep finding those gaps and keep spacing and I will be sure that I do a better job of finding you and getting you to spots where you can be successful,’’’ Lillard recalled.
Added Harkless: “He tapped me on the shoulder and was like showing what he was looking at and saying this is what we have to do. He’s doing a really good job, (making) a conscious effort to get everybody involved.’’
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that one of the key factors to the Blazers’ win in Utah was Harkless’ most involved and productive night of the season: 15 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks in 29 minutes.
Sure, it helped that Lillard had 35 points, and McCollum hit 10-of-13 shots en route to 27 points, but Harkless’ impact – particularly his seven fourth-quarter points – didn’t go unnoticed by coach Terry Stotts or the players in the locker room.
“I could tell by the way he was moving he was going to be assertive tonight,’’ Lillard said.
Harkless came to Portland after three frustrating seasons in Orlando. A former lottery pick, he fell out of favor and became an afterthought after the team drafted Aaron Gordon. Now, he’s been given new life in Portland, where the Blazers basically throw him out there and tell him to use his athleticism to impact the game.
“That’s the difference between now and the last couple years: I have a lot more freedom here and opportunity to go out and just play,’’ Harkless said. “That’s the kind of game I like to play – free and do whatever I can do.’’
He had experienced leadership and mentorship during his three years in Orlando. Harkless has always spoken highly of Jameer Nelson, who guided him his first two seasons.
But Harkless is finding it helps when his point guard not only notices and appreciates his game, but makes an effort to merge it with the team’s vision.
Sometimes, a tap on the shoulder can go a long way.
“It’s a little different when you see it the next game,’’ Harkless said with a smile. “That change, it’s a little different. But me and Dame talk a lot. He believes in me and trusts me. We just have to continue to build that relationship and just continue playing together and we will get it.’’