Bert Kolde

CJ McCollum, team culture carry Trail Blazers to Western Conference finals

CJ McCollum, team culture carry Trail Blazers to Western Conference finals

DENVER – This amazing, incredible Sunday afternoon triumph – Trail Blazer owner Jody Allen called it “gritty” in her passionate speech to the Trail Blazers in their locker room – that vaulted Portland into the Western Conference finals against Golden State was a long time coming.

And it had so much to do with the team’s culture, its pride and its unwillingness to quit. And oh yes, CJ McCollum was other-worldly. And staff, front office, coaches – everyone there in the team’s family – was celebrating hard in the locker room and its vicinity when it ended.

“It speaks to the character of our organization and what we’ve become,” said Damian Lillard, after his team rallied from a 17-point second-quarter deficit to beat the Nuggets 100-96. “Obviously, we had the roster turnover four years ago and everybody was quick to shoot us down, count us out.

“And at that point, we didn’t know for sure what direction we were going to go in. But we definitely leaned on the culture that we wanted to create – doing things the right way, working hard, being about each other, not being about one guy or two guys. I think we really built that up from the jump. And to have that, it takes everybody – not just the players. You’ve got to have the coaches, the training staff, the front office, the security, everybody who is with us there every day. The PR staff – everybody we see every day.

“Everybody is invested in what we created,. I think when we come out on top in game like this, a tough series like this, you see it in everybody’s celebration.

“It’s exciting because we all play a part in it. You don’t just create this type of thing with just the players. It takes everybody to be all in. And that’s what it was tonight.”

Lillard was only 3-17 from the field but had 10 rebounds and eight assists to go with 13 points. McCollum carried the heavy scoring burden with 37 points on 17=29 shooting and he added nine rebounds.

But as Lillard said, even when Rodney Hood was lost for the game with a hyper-extended knee, the team got major contributions from Zach Collins, Enes Kanter, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard.

Leonard, who arrived in Portland the same season as Lillard, was visibly emotional in the locker room.

“Emotional and happy,” he said. “This is surreal, man. This is seven years in the making. I was just talking to Dame. We were horrible our rookie year, then we were a 50-win playoff team two years in a row, then we decided to blow it up. We continued to bring in guys who wanted to work, who were good people, who were true professionals, who understood what we wanted.

“Then we go to the second round, then we get swept by the Warriors, then we get swept by New Orleans. All with the same team – almost the same people. Yet, we came out on the other end of it that much better. And that’s the most amazing thing about this team.

“We’ve added some guys but this has been an incredible run. But we’re not done yet. I’ve said this, I had a quote the other night, people from the outside looking in don’t know about this locker room and what we’ve been through.

“Every single guy is ready to play at any given moment. Every single guy wants the next guy to do well. And this has been a special run and this is a special team. There’s just been a lot of things that have happened – us getting swept, Mr. Allen’s passing, Nurk’s injury, I can go on down the line. There’s just been things that you would have thought would have knocked us out, that we would have thrown in the towel.

“But we haven’t. I would tell you, I’m a big communicator on the bench,. And I’ve never been around a group of guys that believes so much. And I’m a big believer, also.

“Even when we were down 17, I wasn’t worried because this is just a special team and guys that know how to get it done. It’s unbelievable.

“Maybe in the morning I will wake up and understand what happened but you should have seen us – staff, front office, coaches, players, everybody from top to bottom so happy for each other. This is a truly special team and special organization.

“People care and people work together. (Jody Allen) spoke really well. She was passionate, told us how immensely proud she is of us, the way we played with heart and determination and grit, that she’s proud to be a part of it.

“I thought that was pretty special considering everything that’s happened.”

Bert Kolde has been a part of the organization since his friend, Paul Allen, bought the team in 1988. Allen lost his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in October and his sister, Jody, took over at the helm of the team.

“It’s been a legendary playoff run,” Kolde said after leaving the locker room celebration. “A magic carpet ride. And I feel that Paul’s spirit is watching over us. It’s special. It feels really special.”

Portland caught up with the Nuggets at the end of the third quarter and took a brief one-point lead but Denver led by a point heading into the final quarter, when the winners outscored the Nuggets 29-24.

McCollum had a chase-down block of a breakaway layup after Seth Curry went low to force the shot up high and that was a big play in the period.

“He put it right there for me and I just went and got it, ‘Bron-style,’” McCollum said. “Shout-out to my guy Bron (LeBron James). It was a mini-version of LeBron’s block on Iggy a few years ago. It’s something we will remember forever. I might have to get a picture of that one.”

Turner iced the game with two clutch foul shots with eight seconds on the clock.

“Pressure can cut pipes or make diamonds,” Turner said later. “So we never thought we were going to lose or anything like that.”

Ahead are the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, in a series that beings Tuesday in Oakland. But I doubt the Trail Blazers will be intimidated.

“Jody told the team, it’s been a great season – SO FAR,” Kolde said with a smile.

Her late brother couldn’t have said it any better.

Blazers' draft workouts start with a bang with Wake Forest's John Collins

Blazers' draft workouts start with a bang with Wake Forest's John Collins

TUALATIN – One of the bigger names expected to workout for the Trail Blazers kicked off the team’s draft workouts on Wednesday when Wake Forest forward John Collins headlined a group of six prospects.

Collins, a 6-foot-10 big man, said he is intent on showing NBA teams that he is a power forward even though he spent most of his two seasons at Wake Forest playing center.

Collins, who attempted only one three-pointer in his two seasons in college while playing mostly with his back to the basket, said he has an outside game that can extend to the three-point line.

“I am a four,’’ Collins said, later explaining that he played center because it was best for his team. “I think I will be effective at the next level at the four position, and I think teams are starting to see that.’’

Collins is expected to be one of the players the Blazers are targeting for the 15th overall pick, but in many mock drafts he is projected to go sooner than 15. The Blazers also own the 20th and 26th pick in the June 22 draft.

The Blazers were the fourth team Collins has worked out for after Sacramento and Denver and the Lakers flew him in. Sacramento owns the fifth and 10th picks while Denver holds the 13th.

Collins said he is scheduled to workout for about five or six other teams.

On Wednesday, Collins competed against UCLA forward TJ Leaf – who is projected to be a late first-round pick – as a host of Blazers players, coaches and executives watched.

On hand was Blazers’ vice chairman Bert Kolde, owner Paul Allen’s right-hand man, as well as players Damian Lillard, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Ed Davis, Jake Layman, Pat Connaughton and Tim Quarterman.

Coach Terry Stotts and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey directed the workout, but did not speak to the media before leaving for lunch with the prospects.

Collins, who will turn 20 in September, was a breakout player for Wake Forest this season, posting averages of 19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He owned the No. 1 player-efficiency rating (PER) in all of college basketball last season.

Most of his offensive work was done inside, but he insisted that he has been showing teams he has more range.

“I want to show scouts and GMs that I can shoot the three,’’ Collins said. “I definitely think I can shoot the three – the jump shot has always been there. I’m extremely comfortable around the perimeter.’’

Collins has a Northwest background – he lived outside of Tacoma for about eight or nine years while his mother was stationed at McChord Air Force Base – before returning to West Palm Beach, Florida to be closer to family, who hails from the Virgin Islands.

He talked about his love of history and different cultures, the latter an interest that was on display in tattoos over his shoulders, biceps and forearms. His artwork showed influences that varied from Polynesian, to Egyptian to Native American to Asian.

“I like different cultures,’’ he said.

Whether Collins will get a chance to experience the Blazers’ culture will likely depend on whether he is still available when the 15th pick arrives. As he tells it, he had a good showing Wednesday to convince the Blazers’ think tank he is the right pick..

“I definitely think I played well – I’m a perfectionist, so I always get nitpicky about things here and there, but I think I had a great showing today,’’ Collins said.’’

Notes: Leaf, who could be a target at 20 or 26, said he thinks his game translates to the NBA. “With the shorter shot clock and how NBA is and the game is faster, it plays right into my hands,’’ Leaf said. “At UCLA we played really fast and were able to move the ball really quickly. I think that’s how I’m able to play -- stretch the floor, be able to attack bigger defenders and be able to pass -- I think it favors the NBA game now.’’ Leaf said this was his sixth workout for an NBA team.

Also working out were guards Sindarious Thornwell from South Carolina, Paris Bass from Detroit Mercy, Antonio Blakeney from LSU and Josh Hart from Villanova. Thornwell and Hart are projected to be mid-to-late second round picks.