Without CJ McCollum, Blazers still find themselves in the right position

Without CJ McCollum, Blazers still find themselves in the right position

CJ McCollum walked gingerly back into the weight room on Monday night, his left knee cradled in a soft brace and his forehead slightly sweaty from the cardio work on the stationary bike he had just completed before meeting with the media.

About four hours later, Damian Lillard spoke to a similar crowd of television cameras and reporters, his answers landing somewhere between relief and cautious optimism.

That’s what Day 2 of the McCollum’s rehabilitation journey looked like inside the Moda Center. The Blazers announced on Sunday that McCollum had sustained a popliteus strain in his left knee on and that he would be out at least a week before the team’s medical staff will re-evaluate him.

There isn’t a certain timeline for McCollum’s return. He is almost certainly going to miss more than a week, and Lillard has already mentally prepared for a month without McCollum in a uniform.

“Mentally, I don’t want him to have to rush it and when he does come back I want him to be himself and be healthy. So in my mind we going to finish the regular season without him,” Lillard said. “Maybe the last couple games (of the regular season). In my mind that’s how I should think of it. Just knowing that we got to have a great effort for these last 12 games, planning on not having him out there. We’d rather have him healthy and strong in the playoffs than have him come back early and not be himself and maybe aggravate it a little in a way we don’t need him to.”

If any team understands what it’s like to maintain playoff position without a key piece, it might be the team the Blazers beat on Monday night. The Indiana Pacers, who lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending quadriceps injury on Jan. 23, have refused to give up their hold of court advantage long after many teams would have let go of the rope.

“We played without Victor earlier in the season for 11 games and we knew he was coming back,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “This last injury we had the feeling he may not be coming back and when we found out that he wasn’t, it was definitely a shot because he really changes what you do out on the floor. He kinda helped us establish a style of play on both ends of the floor. So without him it took us a few games to get comfortable and make those adjustments and really focus on who we have as opposed to who we don’t have.”

That’s what the Blazers will have to turn to over the final 12 games of the regular season. They’ll replace McCollum’s scoring by committee with an uptick in minutes and responsibilities for Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Jake Layman. And Lillard will naturally do more, admitting he will be a little more “hands on” during the stretch run.

When Oladipo went down in January the Pacers dropped four straight, but have gone 13-7 since, falling just one spot from third to fourth in the East without their best player in the lineup. The Blazers can’t afford a learning curve as long or a steep as Indiana’s, but the blueprint the Pacers have mapped out over the past eight weeks remains a valuable one.

That’s why Lillard is preaching patience to his friend and teammate while McCollum is spending his days working out in the pool, shifting his diet to speed up recovery and plowing into rehab with the precision of his mid-range pull-ups.

“I told him I already know he’s going to try to get in a million hours of rehab and do all this stuff,” Lillard said.

“But I told him he should do that. You should be on top of it and stay involved like you always do but just don’t rush back to get to the game. We’re in a great position. We need guys to step up. It’s only going to be better for our team in the long run. So i’ve told him ‘Take your time, don’t rush, get healthy and come back right.”

In preseason action, the Blazers are showing us who they're going to be this year

In preseason action, the Blazers are showing us who they're going to be this year

After a few Portland Trail Blazers preseason games, their offense looks much the same. The bones of what Terry Stotts puts onto the court in his Flow system still underpin their success; High post screeners set picks for guards arcing around the 3-point line; Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum penetrate deep off the pick-and-roll; shooters float to the edges. It's all there, but so too have changes come now that several former high-volume players have been painted out of the picture.

Most notable has been the change at the wing position. Rodney Hood looks a bit more comfortable now that he's signed a new contract and he knows he's going to stay with the Blazers. In the preseason action we've seen already, Hood has done quite a bit of dribbling, an interesting addition given how many minutes we expect him to play with both Lillard and McCollum.

Before every season there's always talk about this being the year Portland's star guards start moving off-ball in the manner of the Golden State Warriors. But inevitably, as the season wears on and as games become more important, the ball ends up in the hands of either of the Blazers’ $100 million dollar men. The idea that Hood could change that dynamic is intriguing at this juncture, and a level of dynamism that perhaps we hadn't considered.

Having a third ball handler was all the Blazers could talk about when discussing Evan Turner a few years back. But Turner couldn't shoot, and it took several seasons just to find where he was most effective, in a bench role as that unit’s point guard. Meanwhile, a lot of analysis up to this point — including my own — has been about the direct shooting impact of Hood and Kent Bazemore. But if Portland can finally have a third ball handler on the floor, it will make it more difficult for opposing defenses to key in on Lillard and McCollum. That frees them up to, finally, act more as off-ball shooters. Even if it's not in set plays, Hood ability to run a pick-and-roll in unstructured half court sets naturally turns Portland's stars into off-ball gunners.

That's been a welcome combination with Bazemore's aggressiveness. As soon as the former Atlanta Hawks wing checked in with five minutes to go in the first game of the preseason, we saw what kind of impact his athleticism can have. Film analysis of Bazemore's game shows he's been one of the best steal men in the NBA, but what might be a great advantage to the Blazers this year is his propensity to dribble up the floor off turnovers and defensive rebounds alike.

Much in the same vein of how Draymond Green beat these Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals last year, Bazemore has the dexterity and size to grab boards himself and change the floor all at pace. This caused serious issues for the Denver Nuggets last week. Portland has played quick in practice this fall, and Bazemore could be an important factor in transition plays not led by McCollum or Lillard.

There's been a lot of positives to point to already, and the negatives haven't been that stark. The largest, glaring hole has been Hassan Whiteside, who's looked a bit lacking in energy to start the preseason. The team will chalk that up to the ankle injury he sustained in early October. Indeed, there were times when Whiteside’s looked like he wasn't willing to battle for position, and didn't hustle for possession on either side of the ball. But until we see a sustained version of Whiteside that looks like this, there's no sense rushing to predict a falling sky.

On the positive side, Whiteside does appear to have adapted to Portland's offense already. His passing hasn't been as crisp as you'd hope, but he knows how to set screens and is active in his second and third action as plays progress. Hitting the right windows in the passing game is all about timing, and Whiteside just hasn't had enough time working with his teammates or playing in Stotts’ offense to make a judgment on his efficacy just yet. If anything, his flubs have been expected, and the reason why the preseason exists is to iron out those wrinkles.

That same perspective can be applied to Portland on the defensive end of the floor, where there have already been some signs of hope. Both Zach Collins and Whiteside are so damn big that it’s made it difficult for teams to grab defensive rebounds even when they’ve positioned themselves well. This could not only lead to additional offensive chances for Portland, but slow opponents down in transition. The longer teams have to battle the two giants for rebounds, the less likely it is they get down on the floor and catch the rest of the Blazers off guard.

Preseason usually isn't one of my favorite times of the year. Fans gets all excited for basketball, but those of us working in media who have done this before are really waiting for Game 1 of 82 (Or perhaps the All-Star break). But this year in Portland is different, largely because much of this roster is different. The Blazers are a team of intrigue, and already in this short preseason have shown us a little bit of who they are going to be. The constituent parts are there, now we just need to see them hone themselves into a playoff contender. 

Here's how the Trail Blazers plan to approach exhibition game vs. Jazz

Here's how the Trail Blazers plan to approach exhibition game vs. Jazz

The Trail Blazers take on the Utah Jazz Wednesday night in Salt Lake City and it could be about as close to a regular-season game as you can get in the exhibition season.

Coach Terry Stotts plans to make it pretty close to a dress rehearsal for his team and it may be the final opportunity to do so. Portland finishes the preseason schedule Thursday night with a game in Denver, but because the Trail Blazers open the regular season against the Nuggets next week in Moda Center, Stotts isn’t expected to use his regulars for extended minutes, if at all.

Damian Lillard was asked what he expected to get out of the game against the Jazz.

“Closer to a real game,” he said. “We’re going to play closer to our normal minutes. Obviously, having to face that altitude, seeing a division opponent and they’ve added a lot of guys, first road trip. It’s going to be a good thing for us.”

Lillard, like so many other veteran players, is finding the preseason more difficult than he did when he was in his early years as an NBA player. It becomes much tougher to find the same intensity usually reserved for a regular-season game.

“I think you should,” he said. “But it’s hard to, when you know it’s not going to count. It gets harder every year. But I think this is as close to a regular-season game as you’re going to get to it.”

Coaches have the same sort of issues. They want to get their team ready for the regular season, yet they know they can’t risk injuries and they don’t want to give away insight into their team for regular-season scouting reports. But there are rotation and substitution questions to answer, too.

And in the case of Stotts, he won’t be too concerned with the team’s record in the non-counting games.

“I look at it as, ‘How are we playing? Are there more positives than negatives?’ Ultimately, I don’t think preseason wins and losses are an indication of your season,” Stotts said.

And then there’s the psychological aspects to a game like this.

Stotts was asked if he’d chase a win in this game if he found the score tied with a few minutes to go or just let it go.

“Over the years, there have been games where you don’t think it’s going to go that way,” he said. “But at some point, in the third or fourth quarter, both coaches say, ‘Let’s go for it.’ Both teams realize, this is how the games are going to go. I can’t say how the next two are going to go. But I’ve seen games where both teams, all of a sudden, decide, ‘Let’s go for a win.'”

But there’s the other side to that. There have also been games where one coach decides he’s going for it but then the other coach decides he doesn’t want to take a chance of losing a non-counting game and just goes to his bench and gives up on chasing the win. Better not to give a team some sort of psychological advantage by beating you in a game it knew you wanted to win.

“Yeah,” Stotts said, with a laugh. “Oh yeah. That happens. Honestly, that’s kind of a fun part of the preseason -- you can do those things without repercussions.”

Wednesday night we’ll likely know more about the Trail Blazers – and Utah Jazz – than we knew Tuesday. Or maybe we won't.

Trail Blazers rookie Nassir Little still favoring his left ankle

Trail Blazers rookie Nassir Little still favoring his left ankle

With just two exhibition games reaming for the Portland Trail Blazers, their only rookie Nassir Little will not be gaining more preseason experience.

Little has not practiced since spraining his left ankle last Thursday against Maccabi Haifa.

The 19-year-old was working with the training staff after Tuesday’s practice, but it was clear Little’s ankle was not 100 percent.

After practice, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said, “If you were watching him, he’s still favoring his ankle. So, he won’t play in either game.”

[RELATED]: Trail Blazer rookie Nassir Little already "paying it forward" in the Portland community

Little had to leave the game against Maccabi Haifa late in the first quarter after he went up for a layup and was fouled on the attempt. He landed awkwardly and was seen on the court holding his left leg.

There is no timetable on his return.

Coach Stotts also said Tuesday that Wednesday’s game in Utah will be more like a dress rehearsal with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum playing their usual starting minutes.  

Countdown to Tip-Off: Blazers make it 10 in a row in 2010

Countdown to Tip-Off: Blazers make it 10 in a row in 2010

We're counting down the days until the Portland Trail Blazers open up the 2019-2020 NBA season by looking back at each of the victories in the 18-game home-opener win streak. Here is a look at what happened back in 2010 when the Portland Trail Blazers faced the Houston Rockets in the home-opener.

Can’t remember what the NBA was like in 2010? Let’s paint the picture:

  • LeBron James was the reigning MVP, winning in back-to-back years
  • The Los Angeles Lakers were the defending champions
  • Tyreke Evans had just won Rookie of the Year
  • John Wall was the No.1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
  • The Blazers had the No.22 pick and drafted Elliot Williams. They also drafted Armon Johnson (No.34).
  • Kevin Durant was the league's leading scorer
  • The Blazers signed Wesley Matthews prior to the season
  • Brandon Roy made All-NBA Third-Team.
  • 2010-2011 would end up being Roy's last season with the Blazers, as he would have to medically retire.  

 

As for the Blazers home opener...

The Blazers opened up their home schedule and the 2010 season with the Phoenix Suns. It was a close game throughout, until we got to the fourth quarter. Entering the fourth Phoenix held the 81-75 lead, but the Blazrers would outscore them 31-11 in the quarter, thanks in large part to an 18-2 run in the final 5:44 of the game. Portland picked up the 106-92 victory and their tenth home-opening victory in a row. 

Notable stats: 

Phoenix -

Steve Nash – 26 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds.

Jason Richardson– 22 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist

Portland –

Brandon Roy – 24 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds 

Nicolas Batum – 19 points, 11 rebounds

Marcus Camby – 13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists

Wesley Matthews– 13 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists

The Blazers would finish the season 48-34, good for the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. Portland would go on to lose to the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. 

REPORT: Jusuf Nurkic set to sign with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group

REPORT: Jusuf Nurkic set to sign with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group

Injured Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is switching up his representation.

According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Trail Blazers big man is changing agents.

The 25-year-old is set to sign with Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group.

Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million deal as a free agent back in July 2018 to stay in Portland.

[RELATED]: Brooke Olzendam sits down with Jusuf Nurkic this offseason

Nurkic now joins a list of many NBA players that have recently switched to the Klutch Sports Group, including Draymond Green, Montrezl Harrell, and most recently Anthony Davis.

Paul also represents LeBron James and John Wall, among others.

Nurkic was previously represented by Aylton Tesch of Dynasty Sports Management.

[RELATED]: Trail Blazers versatile bigs will be key to success

The 25-year-old had a career-best season with the Blazers before his season-ending leg injury. He averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 72 games with the Blazers.

There is no timeline yet established for Nurk’s return to the court.

At age 39, can Pau Gasol contribute to the Trail Blazers' front court?

At age 39, can Pau Gasol contribute to the Trail Blazers' front court?

Pau Gasol has been on the Portland Trail Blazers’ radar for some time, and now they finally have him. The only problem is that the Spanish veteran is 39 years old, and it's not clear what he's going to bring to Portland on the court.

Gasol had an injury-plagued season last year, but his advanced statistic show that he could still be useful in short bursts off the bench. His assist to usage percentage is still quite good, and he remains a high value over replacement player. With Hassan Whiteside filling in for Jusuf Nurkic, Gasol could allow Portland to run more of its high post passing plays from last season due to his ability to create assists from the 5 spot.

Gasol is a reasonable enough mid-range shooter, and remains a high-percentage guy at the rim. He's also got the ability to step out and hit some 3-pointers, which may not be exactly what Terry Stotts wants from him, but it could allow more passing lanes for his bench teammates.

On defense, Gasol is a reasonable block percentage player. He still shows the ability to get into lanes and slyly bat away attempts, which should be good enough as he goes against opposing backup players this year. I wouldn't expect him to be the kind of block machine that Hassan Whiteside will be, but Gasol plays smart and that's why he might also be able to stop the bleeding if Zach Collins or Whiteside get into foul trouble.

There's a lot of good to Gasol. There's also real injury concerns, and with them, questions about his role for Portland. Watch the full video breakdown above to see what Gasol brings to the table.

How the Trail Blazers are continuing to build team chemistry

How the Trail Blazers are continuing to build team chemistry

It’s something that wasn’t really brought up over the last few seasons, because it didn’t need to be with the continuity in Portland.

But now, with a total of seven new players added to the Trail Blazers roster, team chemistry is a big topic of conversation.

Portland is currently 1-2 in the preseason with its only win coming against Maccabi Haifa.

With that being said, is there concern that the team chemistry is not quite there yet?

No, not at the moment.

The Blazers feel they still have enough time to develop the necessary camaraderie.  

“In general it’s going to be a work in progress,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after Monday’s practice. “Whether it’s Dame [Lillard] and Hassan [Whiteside] in pick and rolls or Zach [Collins] and Hassan as the two bigs or whatever it is – Mario [Hezonja] playing the four, I think there’s just a lot of newness and for all of us that we’re still trying to figure it out,” Stotts said.

[RELATED]: Pau Gasol will not play in the preseason

Developing that loyalty among each other seems to be lacking a little more on defense. That was evident in the Blazers loss to the Suns on Saturday after Phoenix hit 24 three-pointers on the night.

“After a short amount of time it hasn’t been bad,” Stotts said of the Blazers building more team chemistry. “It probably shows itself more at the defensive end than the offensive end.”

“Defensively we’ve still got to learn how to trust each other,” Collins added.

Collins believes building that chemistry on the defensive end is all about trust.

“To get real Xs and Os about it, I think just getting up into the ball on the perimeter as a guard, and trusting that you have help behind you, and not letting them shoot a three,” Collins said. “[We need] more reps and I think that’s why the preseason is going to be great for us.”

[RELATED]: How did Hassan Whiteside do the last time vs. Rudy Gobert? Look it up!

For Collins, who will probably see time at both the four and the five this season, he enjoys playing alongside Whiteside. He also understands what is being asked of him when he is playing the four.  

“I think regardless of who is the five, it’s just me being more effective defensively, guarding shooting bigs and guarding… mobile fours that can take it off the dribble and do other things besides just being at the rim,” Collins said.

“As far as playing with Hassan, if anything, he just makes everybody’s life easier because, like I said, getting up into the ball on the perimeter knowing you have a guy like that at the rim who is going to contest everything it just gives you confidence to put more pressure on the ball,” Collins added.

Whiteside admitted this preseason has been difficult for him because he missed 10 days of training camp after he tweaked his left ankle.

“That kind of messed up my momentum, but everyday is a day we are getting better at it,” Whiteside said of his connection with the Blazers’ guards.

Whiteside did want to mention as he adjusts to his new teammates, he is enjoying being on the floor with veteran Anthony Tolliver, saying AT is ‘big man friendly.’

“I’m still getting to know the other guys too. They’re getting to know me, feeling that chemistry. The guys have been doing a great job of just passing the ball, communicating. Tolliver is an amazing passer. He’s really big man friendly. So, he likes to throw it down to the big men,” Whiteside said with a smile.

It sounds like from the coaching staff down to the players, everyone is glad there is still a week left of the preseason.

Pau Gasol will not play in the preseason

Pau Gasol will not play in the preseason

Trail Blazers big man Pau Gasol has missed the first three-preseason games and he will not play in the remaining two exhibition contests.

Gasol is still recovering from foot surgery that he underwent in early May.

During Trail Blazers Media Day at the end of September, the two-time NBA champion said he was optimistic he would be able to play in the regular-season opener and was hopeful to see some action in a preseason game.

But, Gasol has not participated in a Trail Blazers practice as of yet and Blazers head coach Terry Stotts does not have a timeline to when Gasol will be able to practice.

“There’s no latest. He’s on the mend. He works with our [Health & Performance team] everyday. He’s very diligent about doing what he needs to do, but as far as an update there’s really no update,” Stotts said after Monday’s practice. 

“He is not going to play in the preseason,” Stotts added.

[RELATED]: Trail Blazers ready to learn from legend Pau Gasol

Gasol enters the 2019-20 season at 39-years-old with 18 years of NBA experience under his belt.

The veteran big man signed with the Milwaukee Bucks at the beginning of March last season, but was able to play in just three games prior to undergoing surgery on his left foot.

[REALTED]: How the Trail Blazers landed Pau Gasol

Coach Stotts also informed the media on Monday that when he has an update on Gasol he will announce it, which is similar to how the Blazers will give updates on Jusuf Nurkic’s progress.

“Just like Nurkic, we’ll have an update when there’s an update,” Stotts said.

As for the other injury updates, Rodney Hood saw “no ill affects,” from his back spasms according to Stotts, which had kept Hood out of Saturday’s game against the Phoenix Suns.

Stotts believes rookie Nassir Little is on the mend after tweaking his left ankle in the Maccabi Haifa game last Thursday. 

“[He’s] better… He’s moving around when the team was practicing. He was doing some exercises. It’d be nice if he could get a practice in tomorrow,” Stotts said of Little.

How did Hassan Whiteside do the last time vs. Rudy Gobert? Look it up!

How did Hassan Whiteside do the last time vs. Rudy Gobert? Look it up!

Hassan Whiteside was asked Monday about how he has done against Utah’s 7-1 center, Rudy Gobert, an outstanding defender said to have a massive 7-9 wingspan, as the Trail Blazers travel to Salt Lake City this week for a Wednesday night exhibition game against the Jazz.

“Go check out my last game against him,” Whiteside said. “It was in Miami. Check it out and let me know.”

More on that later. But for right now, Whiteside says he’s finally feeling comfortable after an ankle sprain that caused him to miss 10 days of practice. And looking ahead to the Wednesday game, he’s particularly concerned about one thing:

“Conditioning,” he said, “I missed about 10 days with my ankle sprain. Get back to game shape. Feel like myself. Getting my wind back and building up that spring that gives me the dunks and the blocks. I just want to keep progressing.

“I want to get to moving even faster. I couldn’t move like I wanted to move.”

It helps that the lingering pain is gone.

“Pain free as of about two days ago.,” Whiteside said. “We had a tough practice today. We scrimmaged. A lot of live work. Like a real game. I love it.”

The Blazers don’t call a lot of set plays, but in fact use particular sets that allow players to read and react to the defense. That makes it imperative that players spend more time playing together so they can accurately read situations. And it makes it more difficult for the players who came from very structured systems.

“We’re getting better,” he said. “I’m still learning. A lot more read and react.”

Whiteside is being counted on to be an anchor for the team’s defense and at least a moderate threat to score at the basket so he will be a focal point heading into the regular season.

OK, and about that last time he met Gobert in a game… Whiteside last squared off against Gobert Dec. 2, 2018 and, as you may have guessed by now, Whiteside had a big game. He scored 23 points on 11-17 shooting, hauled in 20 rebounds and blocked three shots. Gobert had 12 points and. 18 rebounds. Miami won the game by two points. When the teams played each other again a few days later, Whiteside did not play.

Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, we get the matchup again.