How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

How the Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard

NBA Twitter was on fire Friday morning when news broke that Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants out of San Antonio. There isn’t a team in the NBA that wouldn't want to add Leonard to their roster, but trades are always easier said than done. That being said, let’s see how the Portland Trail Blazers can trade for Kawhi Leonard:

Two things to keep in mind before we lay this out: The Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule.

  • The Seven Year Rule states that teams can trade future first-round draft picks up to seven years in advance. Since it is still technically the 2017-2018 season, the Blazers can trade their first-round picks from now through 2024.
  • The Stepien Rule states that teams cannot trade future first-round picks in consecutive years. For example, if the Blazers trade the 2018 first-round pick right now, they cannot trade their 2019 first-round pick.

Now that these two rules are out of the way, let's break down how the Blazers can land Leonard.

Option 1 – Evan Turner + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • This option is unlikely, but we suggest it because it is the simplest trade financially. Turner makes $17.1 million, while Leonard makes $18.9 million. This works within the NBA’s 125% rule for taxpaying teams. Since the return on talent to San Antonio isn’t high, Portland would likely have to throw in every pick they can – following the Seven Year Rule and the Stepien Rule, Portland tosses in multiple first-round picks to San Antonio. 
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Evan Turner and the Blazers first-round picks in multiple years (maximum four 1st rounders).

Option 2 – Any two-player package of Meyers Leonard/Maurice Harkless/ Al-Farouq Aminu + Picks in exchange for Kawhi Leonard.

  • Financially, any pairing of those three Blazers would work to get Kawhi Leonard. However, for what the Spurs would need talent wise the best package would be Aminu and Harkless. Sending away Kawhi would leave a void at small forward that both Harkless and Aminu could fill. But still, like the Turner trade, the Spurs would need more to sweeten the pot. This is where the picks come into play. This deal may be able to get done by adding two future first-round picks, but if you want to leave zero doubt you might have to add more.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard
  • Spurs get Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and multiple first-round picks

Option 3 – CJ McCollum + 2019 1st Rounder for Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White (As suggested by ESPN)

  • For the Spurs to realistically part with Leonard they are going to need a substantial amount of talent in return. Enter CJ McCollum. McCollum is the most talented player the Blazers have outside of Damian Lillard and could be an attractive piece for any team on the trade market. However, it is a tough trade to work out financially with the current cap holds and impending free agents each team has. So, in this scenario, the Spurs send Derrick White to make the financials work. The Spurs get a a ball-dominant guard in McCollum to run the offense. The Spurs core could be McCollum, Danny Green (if he picks up his player-option), LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol. That's really not bad considering they are losing Kawhi Leonard. Portland may still have to add picks in this trade, but would probably try to keep the No.24 pick to draft a guard.
  • Blazers get Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White
  • Spurs get CJ McCollum and the Blazers 2019 first round draft pick.

Isn't summer fun?

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

Game 3 disrespect has become snapshot of Blazers-Pelicans series

NEW ORLEANS –If there is a snapshot that captures this first round series, it was taken in the third quarter of Game 3, and later framed for all to see around the NBA.

Anthony Davis soaring in, untouched, and grabbing a rebound with his left hand and flushing it for a dunk. Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic was literally floored, knocked to his hands and out of the way by Davis’ athletic and physical play.

In the aftermath of the play – which gave New Orleans a 79-60 lead – Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday stood at Nurkic’s feet and pointed in wide-eyed dismay at him. For a long time. Too long. 

It was everything this series had become: a laugher, an embarrassment for the Trail Blazers. And it underscored why it had become so lopsided: the Pelicans beating Portland to another ball, a Pelicans’ star shining while the Blazers remained frustrated. And overall, another example of New Orleans being more aggressive, more physical and more … everything.

“Outplayed us in every way,’’ Lillard would say after the Game 3 blowout. “Every way, man.’’

But what about that show of disrespect by Holiday? The pointing. The posing. The mockery of it all?

Fittingly, the Blazers were apparently oblivious to Holiday’s actions, even though they had a front row seat for it, and even though it was splashed across the internet Thursday night.

 “Huh?’’ Nurkic said when asked about it Friday. “I didn’t see it.’’

Damian Lillard?

“Did he? I didn’t see it,’’ Lillard said. “When things going well for you, you do stuff like that. That’s I guess kind of something you do when you are feeling really confident, you are feeling yourself a little bit. It’s not like we’ve done anything about it .’’

CJ McCollum was shown a clip of the play. He shrugged his shoulders and chose not to comment. 

And if the Blazers’ coach took offense to it, or thought anything of it, he didn’t say Friday as Terry Stotts was strangely made unavailable to the media even though he was 10 feet away from the camera and microphones, talking to Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations. 

According to a team spokesman, there wasn’t enough time for Stotts to talk, because the team had to practice, which ignored the fact that the team was more than 15 minutes late in arriving.

In all, Game 3 magnified what in this series has been a strange display by a team that prides itself on culture, hard work and accountability.

At least Lillard on Friday showed some spunk and fight as Saturday’s Game 4 neared. When asked about making adjustments, he said he wanted to see the Blazers adjust their physicality.

“They were up into us a lot. A lot more aggressive than we were and we didn’t dish it back out,’’ Lillard said. “I think in the playoffs and a situation like this, when a team is coming for you like that, you have to maybe go out of your way to do it back. Even if that means some foul trouble or some altercations happen out there or whatever, but when a team comes from you like the way they did after last game, maybe we just need to make it a point of emphasis to go back and get back at them.’’

The Blazers have tried talking about adjustments to counter the Pelicans’ traps and gameplan against the backcourt, but their plans are both not working and not being executed fully. 

“It’s easy to draw up and say this is what we want to do after you watch film,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you get out there and they are playing so disruptive … they’ve got their minds set on what they are going to do – it’s hard to execute it.’’

Defensively, the Blazers are in the spin cycle. Three different Pelicans have scored 30 or more points in the first three games – Anthony Davis (35 in Game 1), Holiday (33 in Game 2) and Nikola Mirotic (30 in Game 3) – all while Rajon Rondo has played the defense like a yo-yo.

So maybe there was nothing for Stotts to say, and no change in the game plan needed. 

“Coaches can only do so much,’’ McCollum said. “They are not guarding Mirotic, they are not guarding Jrue holiday, or Rondo, or any of these guys. So it’s on us. We just need to play better.’’

If they don’t, Game 4 will bring a sweep and more finger pointing in their faces.

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, there isn't much the Trail Blazers can do to turn things around

Down and almost out, the Trail Blazers seem just as bewildered as you and me about the way their first-round series with New Orleans has turned out.

Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And there are no easy answers. Portland, a team so reluctant to use double-teaming as a defensive tactic, is just about completely befuddled by the Pelicans' double teams. A roster that rattled off a long winning streak during the second half of the regular season, is now incapable of getting the job done. The coach, once being talked about as a longshot candidate for Coach of the Year, is seemingly  not making necessary adjustments. The team's best player, being talked about as a possible first-team all-NBA selection, has been virtually shut down for three games.

What in the heck is going on here?

Well, I will address the problems as best I can and as directly as I can. They are many and sometimes contradictory:

  • If players are being double-teamed to the point Lillard is, other players obviously have to emerge to hit open shots. That's simple math -- two people guarding one person means another person should be open. But to take advantage of that, the ball must move quickly to the open man and the open man must be able to make an open shot.
  • Very often, the Trail Blazers invite the double teams with their high pick-and-roll. It makes it easy to simply blitz the screen and get the ball out of Lillard's or CJ McCollum's hands. Often, those players themselves call for that double team by calling for the high pick. New Orleans is obviously one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league, so... why not run something else? Why keep going back to something that isn't working?
  • The safety valve against double-teams in Portland's attack is almost always the big man coming to the foul line for a pass. He can then turn and face the basket, knowing he's going to be facing a three-on-two situation. The problem for the Blazers has been that it's been Nurkic in that position and he isn't a threat to make a shot from where he receives the ball. Consequently, his defender -- usually Anthony Davis -- is still free to roam the basket area. Perhaps someone else could play that spot who can make an open 20-foot shot?
  • And speaking of making open shots, the Trail Blazers have needed front-court shooting for two or three seasons now. You can tell me how well Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting all you want, but he isn't reliable or consistent and opponents still leave him open because they don't think he can convert. He's not a floor stretcher. The Blazers need long-distance shooting that will help open the court for Lillard and McCollum. This is not a new problem.
  • On the defensive end, the Trail Blazers continue to attempt to use Aminu to defend bigger players and it hasn't gone well. Against the Pelicans, it creates a terrible matchup for Jusuf Nurkic, who then must chase Nikola Mirotic around on the perimeter. While Aminu may do a marginally better job on Davis than Nurkic, the latter cannot come close to defending Mirotic, so it forces Nurkic to the bench in favor of a better defender. This is a defensive tactic by Portland that forces its third-best player, Nurkic, to the bench. And oh well, it may not matter because the Blazers aren't making good use of him on offense, anyway. If they don't get him out of that high pick-and-roll into one closer to the basket, he's not nearly as effective. He needs to catch close enough to the rim that he doesn't need to put the ball on the floor.
  • I believe there's also been a Portland effort problem in this series. For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers have been outhustled. This happened at times during the regular season but I don't understand it. Especially in the postseason.
  • The ball has to consistently move around the floor more often. When the Blazers are playing well, they move the ball and move bodies. Too often this season, things generate into the guards going one-on-one and in the playoffs, that's a hard way to win. When I talk to people around the NBA about this team, that's a criticism I hear often -- the guards are too dominant. But considering the shot-making ability of the forwards, can you blame them?
  • This thing has gone way off the tracks in the playoffs and I've outlined several things that are responsible. But the other thing that's gone unmentioned is that the Pels just might be this much better than the Trail Blazers.
  • What can be done at this point to change things for the better? The easy answer is nothing. But I'd at least like to see more effort in Game 4.

After late-night texts, Lillard and McCollum feel better about Game 1

After late-night texts, Lillard and McCollum feel better about Game 1

Around the time CJ McCollum was being served a late-night dinner at Portland City Grill after Saturday’s Game 1 loss, he received a text message from backcourt mate Damian Lillard.

Lillard was at his Lake Oswego home, feeling irritated about the Trail Blazers’ 97-95 loss to New Orleans, during which neither he nor McCollum played well.

The text messages zipped back and forth. They talked strategy. They talked about mindset. And they talked about communication.

“It was a little bit of everything,’’ McCollum said.

The two stars have grown to become close friends, a relationship that started when McCollum was a senior at Lehigh and Lillard a rookie with the Blazers. Their bond has grown to where they train, travel and talk frank with each other.

“It’s a level of accountability,’’ Lillard said. “I can say to him, ‘Man, you have to be more aggressive in the first half …’ That’s what it is like between us.’’

After Game 1, McCollum estimates their phones buzzed back-and-forth six to 10 times.

“We were both thinking the same thing,’’ McCollum said. 

Neither wanted to divulge specifics of their communication, but the gist was what every Blazers fan was muttering after the duo went a combined 13-for-41 in Game 1:

“We both have to produce,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard said the conversation never turned negative. They didn’t complain about New Orleans’ traps. They didn’t belabor their shot selection. And they didn’t question the game plan.

The messages were about themselves, and how two stars who had bad games can turn it around in time for Tuesday’s Game 2.

By the end of the messages, both were centered and had returned to their comfort zone: Lillard with a new challenge, and McCollum at peace amid a storm.

**

One of Lillard’s greatest strengths is his mental makeup. If he isn’t motivating himself with real or perceived slights – from his college recruitment to All-Star snubs – he is flipping negative situations into a positive light.

By the time he had finished texting McCollum and processed Game 1, he had embraced a new challenge: Flipping the script on the Game 1 loss.

The new storyline?

“Why not some adversity?’’ Lillard said. “Why not?’’

Since he has been in Portland, not much has been easy. There have been injuries at key moments in the season. Free agent defections. And wild swings in play. 

Shoot, even this season has been one filled with ups and downs, even recently with a four-game losing streak in the week leading up to the playoffs.

A Game 1 loss? It fits these Blazers.

“I literally convinced myself: this makes it better,’’ Lillard said. “Sometimes, you have to go through something. If you really are built for it and it’s really what you want, there’s nothing wrong with adversity.’’

When he left the arena, he says he was “kind of irritated,” in part because of his 6-for-23 shooting night, and in part because the Blazers let a memorable moment slip.

For once, it seemed things were lined up to be special: The Blazers had secured home court advantage for the first time in his six seasons, and the city and arena were buzzing entering Saturday’s game.

“We had this really good season, came in with home court and the three seed, and it was like, this should be sweet,’’ Lillard said.

But after making his first shot, he missed his next eight. Meanwhile, McCollum missed his first six shots. Then late in the game, after the Blazers fought back from 19 down, both he and McCollum came up short – McCollum with a bad pass with 44 seconds left and the Blazers trailing by one, and Lillard with an awkward airball in the lane with 15.3 seconds left and the Blazers still trailing by one. 

It wasn’t the first time the duo had struggled at the same time, but it was the most emphatic.

But after he and McCollum texted, he had a new mindset, and a new focus. 

“Just like they came here and won, we can go there and win,’’ Lillard said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with adversity … nothing wrong with it. It just came early.’’

**

Just like McCollum can remember his Saturday order at Portland City Grill – 7.5 ounce steak topped with Dungeness crab and béarnaise sauce, with a baked potato on the side – he can recall with great detail his other big-stage failures.

One game after scoring 30 points to lead 15th-seeded Lehigh to an upset of second-seeded Duke in the NCAA Tournament, McCollum stumbled the next round against Xavier. He went 5-for-22, and Lehigh lost a 15-point first half lead in a 70-58 loss.

“I was this close to going to the Sweet 16 and we lose,’’ McCollum said. “It builds better character.’’

With the Blazers, he has also had some trying moments in the playoffs. In 2015, against Memphis, he went 1-for-8 in his first playoff start in Game 1. Game 2 wasn’t much better: 3-for-13.

The next season, against the Clippers, he went 3-for-11 and scored nine points in Game 1. In Game 2, he went 6-for-17 and had 16 points. 

“You are going to have poor performances; you are going to miss shots,’’ McCollum said. “It’s about how you bounce back. Average players have one good game. Great players have one bad game.’’

After those slow playoff starts against Memphis and the Clippers, McCollum came back with vengeance. He had 26, 18 and 33 points against Memphis. And 27, 19, 27 and 20 against the Clippers. 

It’s why unlike Lillard, who was irritated and proactive in beginning a text string, McCollum was at ease Saturday, dining with a view 30 floors above Portland.

“I can be like this (his hand horizontal) because my life has been like this (his hand rolling like a roller coaster),’’ McCollum said. “I stay calm in the midst of chaos. I’ve seen it all. I’ve been through a lot. So this doesn’t faze me. I do what I can do, prepare, and I live with the result.’’

Lillard, and the rest of the Blazers, have grown accustomed to McCollum’s cool and steady mental approach. And all of them are not worried about a slump (17.0 points, 36.7 percent field goal and 27.6 percent 3-pointers) that has stretched past two weeks now.

“Put it like this: I never worry about CJ,’’ Lillard said. “I just know he is really confident and believes. And you just have to let it happen.’’

McCollum says his slump won’t take away his aggressiveness, relaying an adage his agent passed along during the season.

“When the lion is hunting and doesn’t find his sheep, he doesn’t turn into a vegan … it continues to hunt and figures it out,’’ McCollum said.

**

The hunt resumes Tuesday in Game 2 at the Moda Center, and both Lillard and McCollum say they are confident they are better equipped to attack the pack of New Orleans defenders -- Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore and Ian Clark chief among them – who applied the Game 1 clamps.

“When you want something so badly – like, we want to be great, we want to win  – you can’t do it by yourself. You need help,’’ McCollum said. “You need other players who are elite and work hard and take pressure off you, and that’s why we lean on each other.’’

When the Blazers reported to practice Sunday, Lillard studied the makeup of the team, and liked what he saw.

“When you lose a Game 1 and everyone is tight – that means the loss is lingering. Today it wasn’t lingering,’’ Lillard said. “It was more like, we are upset we didn’t handle our business. We watched film and people said what they had to say about certain situations – but that was it. We know we have to play with urgency, but also have to be free.’’

For Lillard and McCollum, part of letting go of Game 1 included a Saturday night text session.

“We communicate too much to lose a Game 1 and not saying anything to each other,’’ Lillard said.

Added McCollum: “We are always on the same page, even when we don’t verbalize it. We understand each other, and at this point, we know what needs to be done.’’

The stars, they know, need to play like stars. 

“I’m not a worrier; I’m going to keep shooting,’’ Lillard said. “I know I’m going to get it done.’’

It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

On a night when the only thing in Moda Center representing Portland that was NBA playoff quality was Storm Large's rendition of the National Anthem, a few things should be pointed out about the Trail Blazers' 97-95 playoff-opening loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night:

  • I heard a lot of fans complaining loudly about two things after the game: The presence of Pat Connaughton and Meyers Leonard on the floor over the final 12.4 seconds of the game. Let me deal with those issues separately.
  • Connaughton's plus-7 tied with Ed Davis for the best plus-minus in a Portland uniform during the game. He played well and was part of a couple of his team's comeback efforts. Yes, he got a shot blocked late but the real problem with that play was his team was down by 3 and it was just too late to be inbounding to him for a two-point shot. The Trail Blazers are built around making threes and at that point of the game it's too late to play the quick-two-and-foul-game. It was either a faulty play or a poor decision by the inbounder to make that pass.
  • Leonard is a great screen-setter and a solid three-point shooter. The question in his case was this: If he's worthy of being on the court in the waning seconds of the team's first playoff game with the team down by three, why wasn't he on the court in similar situations during the regular season? I believe he should have been. And I believe to throw a guy on the court in a situation like that who has played minimal minutes all season and tell him, in a sense, "Go win us a playoff game for us," is absurd. And unfair.
  • The atmosphere in the arena was terrific. The Portland game-ops staff did a terrific job with the gimmicks and the place was wild. Too bad the patrons went home unhappy.
  • Nobody seemed to be talking about two fateful possessions prior to those last fwe seconds. With 44 seconds left and Portland bum-rushing the Pels to the finish with all the momentum the Moda Madhouse could provide, CJ McCollum turned the ball over in the lane with his team trailing by just a point. And then Damian Lillard, with the same score, misfired on an ill-advised "shot" wth 15.3 seconds to play. Lillard appeared to be trying to draw a foul from Jrue Holiday on that shot and it might have been better for him to find a real shot with his feet under him and squared up to the basket. A made basket on either of those attempts by Portland's two marquee players would have thrown the burden of pressure back on New Orleans after blowing a double-digit lead.
  • Lillard and McCollum were 1-15 from the field in the first half, which shocked me. I expected more from them. But at the same time, for the Trail Blazers to get an overall 13-41 shooting night from them and still lose by just a bucket could bode well.
  • But if I hear "We just couldn't make shots" or "We got the shots we wanted and just didn't make them," one more time I'm going to laugh. It's been the familiar refrain over this team's offensive struggles ever since the 14-game winning streak ended. And really, when that happens repeatedly you better examine those shots or the people shooting them. The law of averages won't work for you if the wrong people are taking the shots or the shots aren't good ones.
  • Losing the first game of a playoff series doesn't mean a team will lose a series. There are a lot of games left to be played. The Trail Blazers surely must have more to give than what we saw Saturday night. It was a terrific atmosphere, though -- a night when the fans brought it and their team didn't.

Blazers' CJ McCollum leans on preparation, mindset during late-season slump

Blazers' CJ McCollum leans on preparation, mindset during late-season slump

DENVER – At the most important time of the Trail Blazers’ season, CJ McCollum is struggling. 

His shooting, in particular his three-pointers, is drastically off. He has had rashes of turnovers in key games. And in recent pressure-packed games, he has been notably absent. 

To all of this, McCollum shrugs.

“I mean, you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season but you can’t get caught up in the poor performances or the great performances,’’ McCollum said. “It comes with the territory. All you can do is just give it your best, prepare, watch film, and figure out ways to attack.’’ 

He is almost robotic in his response, void of emotion, and it is by design. 

He lives by a state of mind called “apatheia,” a concept he adopted after reading a book he now often carries with him: “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. Apatheia is described as “the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.’’

Emotion, he has found, has no place in his game. Being upset that he went 4-for-15 and scored 8 points in the Blazers’ winning-streak-ending loss to Houston will not help. Pouting over his 3-for-19 and seven points in a key game at New Orleans will change nothing. And obsessing over his current 4-for-24 slump from three-point range might make it worse.

“Failing doesn’t scare me,’’ McCollum said. “Failing is part of succeeding, so I don’t get caught up in emotions and all that stuff.’’

This emotionless approach, which focuses more on preparation than results, can be traced to his youth, in Canton, Ohio. 

As a sixth grader, McCollum stood at the free throw line in overtime with a chance to win the game. 

He missed both free throws.

He cried – “oh, absolutely, I cried” -- and he remained distraught for days.

“It affected me. For a long time,’’ McCollum said.

It bothered him to lose, but more deeply, it tortured him that he was prepared for the moment, yet still failed. As a sixth grader, McCollum would make sure he would make 200 free throws a day. 

“When I missed those game-winning free throws, that’s what changed my perception of everything,’’ he said from the Trail Blazers’ shootaround Monday in Denver.

In the coming months, through talks with his brother and parents, he would learn that basketball could be a cruel game. Sometimes, they implored, success was not always commensurate with the work put in. 

Also, McCollum would soon come to subscribe to the notion that emotion had no place in the game. 

Those days from his youth have formed what he is today for the Trail Blazers – a steely, emotionless shooting guard who spends more time worrying about  preparation and analytics than his results.

“You have to live with the result when you put the work in,’’ McCollum says. 

Most would think that work McCollum speaks of involves shooting. And lots of it. And they would be correct. 

But that is only a sliver of the preparation McCollum puts in.

**

McCollum says he is hesitant to reveal his process, because it is his job to be prepared. But when he goes into the detail, it becomes more understandable why he speaks and reacts robotically more than emotionally. 

He charts every shot he takes and if he misses, he notes whether it was long or short, or wide left or right.  He also charts whether he shot with the seams of the ball or against the seams. 

“I have on film my last 100 makes and misses,’’ McCollum said. “I can tell you why I missed, who was guarding me, and where I’ve taken every shot this season.’’

In the Blazers’ recent loss in Houston, when he went 7-for-25 from the field, including 2-for-9 from three-point range, it was almost as if he was back on the line in Canton as a sixth grader. 

In re-telling the overtime free throw story, McCollum briefly sidetracked to that Houston game. 

“It’s like when you work on certain things over and over. I work on floaters, pull ups … and in that Houston game, I missed five pull ups at the right elbow. Uncontested,’’ McCollum said. “I work on that stuff all the time, so when (misses) happen, I just shake my head and think that was crazy. Because I know how many reps I get from the elbows. How many step-backs I practice and make, both contested and uncontested.’’

At the end of the game, when he looked at his shooting line, he was stoic.

“I live with the result, man,’’ McCollum said. “I know who I am. I know what I can be out there. I have confidence in myself. I don’t get discouraged over a few poor shooting nights. I don’t get overly excited over a few great shooting nights.’’

For the season, McCollum is averaging 21.5 points while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from three-point range - all below his averages from last season.

"I haven’t shot the ball well, especially from three. Happens sometimes. I’ve gotten good looks,'' he says. "But I don't try to get caught up in it because it's such a long season. But the timing ... I have to live with the results.''

**

It’s not like McCollum has been totally absent over the Blazers’ push into third place in the Western Conference. 

He was brilliant in the Blazers’ win at Oklahoma City, scoring 34 points, including a tough 18-footer - the game-sealing dagger -- with Russell Westbrook’s hand in his face.

It was after that game that Damian Lillard emphatically congratulated McCollum on the court, thumping McCollum’s chest and grabbing his head between his hands while relaying a message. Lillard said it was the most demonstrative he has ever been with McCollum on the court. 

“It was a big game for us, a lot on the line … and he made big time shots – and I was telling him, that’s what good teams and top players do,’’ Lillard said. “The shots that he was making, not everybody can make those shots. And for us to be our best, we both have to be able to get stuff done. That’s what I was telling him: That’s how we have to get stuff done.’’

And when Lillard missed the game at Memphis to be in Portland for the birth of his son, McCollum tried to pick up the slack, scoring 42 points. 

Now, the Blazers need him again. 

Heading into tonight’s game at Denver, Portland (48-32) holds a one-game lead over Utah for third place with two games remaining. If the Blazers win one of their remaining two games, they earn home court advantage in the first round. If they win both games, they are the third seed. Lose both games, and they could drop to fifth and open the playoffs on the road. 

In other words, this is no time for McCollum to disappear. After all, it was McCollum who said after his big performance against the Thunder “that’s why they pay me the big bucks” referring to his four-year, $106 million contract.

**

As the Trail Blazers’ shootaround wrapped up Monday in Denver and the players gathered their belongings, McCollum was just finishing up a rather rigorous shooting routine. 

Breathing hard, he came to the sideline and tried to explain how he can remain so measured and calm amid an intense playoff race … all while slumping.

“Missed shots and poor performance isn’t because of a lack of preparation, I can assure you and the fans that,’’ McCollum said. “As a fan of players, and teams, I understand the frustration. However, it’s like studying for a test and failing. Sometimes, it happens. The best learn from it, improve upon it and press forward.’’

He again points to the Holiday book, “The Obstacle is the Way” as a guiding principle in dealing with problems. It is a discipline, McCollum recites, achieved in three different steps: Perception, which involves your attitude and approach to how you look at problems; Action which involves what you are willing to do to overcome the obstacle and turn it into opportunity; and Will, which is having the inner willpower to overcome. 

When he heads to the Pepsi Center tonight, he says he doesn’t think if he will make or miss shots, but whether he has prepared adequately. 

“It’s a long season, and sometimes  it doesn’t go in,’’ McCollum said. “It’s unfortunate, and you want to help your team every night, but you have to be comfortable with who you are and understanding that sometimes, you aren’t going to play well. It’s not that you didn’t prepare, it’s just that you didn’t play well.’’

He also know through all his data – the shot charts, the shots with the seam and without the seam, the misses to the left and the misses to the right – that everything evens out. For every 3-for-19 shooting night, there is also a 10-for-15.

Will that big shooting night come in Denver? Against Utah? In the playoffs? Or all of the above? McCollum again shrugs.

“I go do my job. And sometimes it looks pretty sometimes it looks (crappy),’’ McCollum said. “I have to be able to accept that and I have to be able to accept criticism that I haven’t played well. I know it. I read the stats. In the game I shoot a shot and I’m like:  dang, I’m supposed to make that.

“But for me, what am I gonna cry about it? Pout about it? What’s that going to do? It’s going to hurt the team,’’ he said. 

So, he will shoot tonight in Denver and live with the results, while a fan base hopes for the sharp-shooting McCollum to return. 

“No one’s expectations of me are higher than my own,’’ McCollum said.

And he has the data to prove it.

Trail Blazers have gone from comfort to concern as season nears finish line

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USA Today

Trail Blazers have gone from comfort to concern as season nears finish line

SAN ANTONIO – It was over the weekend in Texas when Al-Farouq Aminu and Shabazz Napier were talking about the suddenly precarious turn the Trail Blazers season has taken. 

“Me and Chief were talking, and it’s kind of funny … we were saying we are lucky we won 13 in a row the way we’ve been playing,’’ Napier said. “Granted we’ve had some injuries, but we haven’t been playing as well as we should have.’’

That month-long streak that vaulted the Blazers into third place in the Western Conference is starting to seem like a season ago. Since then, Maurice Harkless has had knee surgery. Ed Davis has been at home resting a sprained ankle. And the team is monitoring Damian Lillard’s swollen left ankle as closely as they are the NBA scoreboard.

But after Saturday’s 116-105 loss in San Antonio – the Blazers’ third straight and fourth in six games - if there is any panic among the Trail Blazers the players were doing a good job hiding it.

“We’re good,’’ CJ McCollum said. “If you would have told me we have 48 wins and two games left and chance to finish in third place, I would have told you I would take it.’’

Indeed, the Blazers (48-32) still control their own destiny. They will secure the third seed by either winning both of their remaining games – Monday at Denver and Wednesday at home versus Utah – or with one win and one loss by Utah, who plays at the Lakers, at home against Golden State and at Portland. 

They secure home court advantage in the first round with one win, or one Utah loss. The lowest Portland can finish is fifth, with only Utah and San Antonio able to pass them. 

But what was once a comfort has turned into concern after bad losses in the past two weeks, including one at Memphis and one at Dallas. The defense has slipped – no doubt a reflection of missing defensive stalwarts Harkless and Davis – and McCollum has slumped (16.4 points, 36.6 percent shooting last five games), and coach Terry Stotts has hinted that the sharpness has dulled. 

It has created an anxious vibe around the team, not out of panic, but rather an eagerness to prove they are indeed the streaking Blazers and not a flash-in-the-pan that got hot. 

It’s why McCollum said he is confident the Blazers can take care of business Monday in Denver against a Nuggets team that has won five in a row and six in a row at home as it fights for one of the final playoff spots. 

“We know what it takes; we have been here before,’’ McCollum said. “We know the severity of these games and we also understand that we allowed ourselves to have a bit of cushion by winning and beating some teams we are supposed to beat and stealing some games on the road. But now it’s time to turn the page and refocus and finish strong.’’

That was the conclusion Aminu and Napier reached in their Texas conversation – that the remaining schedule is an opportunity for the Blazers.

“The good thing about it is we have two more games,’’ Napier said. “And we can use those games as a way to go into the playoffs with some moxie for us.’’

Win or lose, one of the great Trail Blazer finishes ever

Win or lose, one of the great Trail Blazer finishes ever

I can't remember enjoying a Trail Blazer loss as much as I did the one last night at Houston. By now, you know that Portland's reserves came off the bench with 3:57 to play and went on a 17-0 run to tie the game with six seconds to go.

Yes, they lost on Chris Paul's layup inside the final  second but it was an amazing game, just the same. A few things that must be pointed out about that game:

  • Almost all of the Trail Blazers who played in this game were effective -- other than the starting guards. CJ McCollum and Shabazz Napier combined to go 9-34 from the field. The rest of the team went 30-51.
  • The very end of Portland's bench was spectacular on defense and offense over the final 3:57. I think it spoke to what we saw in a couple of bad Portland losses recently -- late in the season and late in late-season games, reserves often have a lot more energy than starters. I believe the Trail Blazers' recent woes from three-point range have a lot to do with fatigue. Bench players' energy is a difference maker against tired teams. Fresh legs matter.
  • I'm so sick of James Harden getting over on NBA referees. The officials watch video of every call they make and I'm at a loss to figure out why they haven't learned Harden's tricks. He continues to draw foul calls when either barely touched or touched not at all. He flagrantly travels with frequency. It's an ongoing NBA joke that needs to end.
  • Neil Olshey may have made his greatest find ever in Wade Baldwin. Defensive players aren't easy to find these days, particularly in the backcourt and Baldwin's toughness and lack of fear are impressive. I'm also continually surprised by his ability to make shots. I also enjoyed how he got under Harden's skin.
  • The Trail Blazers threw a few random double teams at the Rockets, which I enjoyed immensely.
  • Pat Connaughton getting up off the deck after a brutal fall and contributing was not unexpected. He's one tough guy.
  • I love that Jake Layman made a clutch shot. He works hard to stay ready and just doesn't get many chances.
  • Should McCollum have gotten the last shot of the game after the bench brought the team all the way back? I wasn't surprised by it. It's what coaches normally do and he's usually the team's most reliable shooter. But he wasn't Thursday night.
  • A great effort by some unsung players -- and who doesn't identify with that?

 

Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth, but say 'there is more work to be done'

Trail Blazers clinch playoff berth, but say 'there is more work to be done'

It was a modest celebration inside the Trail Blazers’ locker room Sunday when they clinched a playoff berth for the fifth consecutive season, the feeling of accomplishment not yet complete.

“There is more work to be done,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Indeed, with five games remaining, the Blazers (48-29) have an enticing bundle of carrots in front of them to keep them engaged. Portland can still earn home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, win the Northwest Division, reach 50 wins, and secure the Western Conference’s third overall seed.

“We still have some more goals to accomplish,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “There’s still a lot to play for.’’

The Blazers on Monday left for a four-game trip that will stop in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Denver. Win two of the games and the Blazers will reach 50 wins for the third time in Stotts’ six seasons, and they will wrap up homecourt advantage in the first round.

“Each game has some type of significance; I’m looking forward to all of them,’’ Lillard said. “If we get the job done on this trip, maybe we get some rest to finish up and get ready for the playoffs.’’

Both Lillard and CJ McCollum said they are in favor of getting some rest before the playoffs start April 14, and that will certainly be a motivating factor as the Blazers make their way through Texas.

At the same time, the Blazers would like to find their three-point shooting stroke. In their last six games they have shot below 32 percent from three-point range, although nobody seems overly concerned for the time being. For the season, the Blazers are shooting 37.1 percent from three.

Lillard and McCollum said the good news is the Blazers are still winning without shooting well, and added that it would be of greater concern if opponents’ defense was the cause of the misses.

“The fact that we are winning without making as many threes as we would like to is a good sign,’’ Lillard said. “And also knowing that when this happens, it comes back around. Hopefully, when we get in the playoffs, it will hit again, and it will be right on time.’’

Added McCollum: “I would like to think we will make them when it counts.’’

In the meantime, the Blazers turn their attention to Texas, and some lofty goals. Yes, there will always be that Easter Sunday locker room celebration, but they envision greater ones ahead.

“We still have things to do,’’ Lillard said. “It will be a better feeling when we can say – we’ve got home court, we won the division, we’re in playoffs again. Then you celebrate for real and give yourself a real pat on the back.’’

The Grizzlies tried, but they just couldn't lose to Portland

The Grizzlies tried, but they just couldn't lose to Portland

I can't help but imagine a meeting in the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies this morning. The brain trust is assembled around a table as interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, shoulders slumped, shuffles into the room.

From the head of the table comes the big question, directed at Bickerstaff, about the 108-103 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last night:

"J.B., I thought we made it clear to you -- we're so very close to having the worst record in the league, we're looking for ping-pong balls in the lottery, not wins in the standings. What the hell happened last night? Nobody would have blamed you a bit for losing to the No. 3 team in the Western Conference."

Bickerstaff squirms in his chair and offers his explanation:

"Look, I did all I could possibly do. Chandler Parsons was having a decent game so I pulled him out about halfway through the fourth quarter. Marc Gasol kills those guys so I didn't play him at all in the fourth. We were using the end of the bench down the stretch of the game and with everything on the line I gave the ball to the guy we signed yesterday to a 10-day contract out of the Chinese Basketball Association.

"What more could I do?"

Indeed, what more could he have done? The Trail Blazers turned the ball over five times in the fourth quarter and made just one of their six three-point shots in the final period. They ignored Jusuf Nurkic most of the night (he was 5-6 from the field and should have had at least twice that many shots) and fell in love with three-point shots they didn't make. Shabazz Napier, starting at the point in place of Damian Lillard, went 2-11 from the field and finished with two assists.

Yes, it was the second of back-to-back road games after two high-intensity battles with teams in the playoff hunt. Yes, Lillard and Maurice Harkless were missing. And yes, stuff like this happens in the NBA. But seriously, this was an all-out debacle.

Without Lillard directing the offense, things were disjointed. Instead of all those high pick-and-rolls for Nurkic, what about moving the play closer to the basket so Nurkic could just catch and convert? With Gasol on the bench who was going to stop him? Why not a few more mid-range shots for CJ McCollum? The guy had 42 points on 25 shots and probably should have had more shots. And free throws were a nightmare -- six misses in the final quarter.

And as far as that player out of China, MarShon Brooks, why not run him off the three-point line? The man had the game of his life, obviously. He was 5-5 from three-point range and scored 21 points. But really, after two or three in a row, you have to crowd him and make him put the ball on the floor. Don't let him have another three!

The Trail Blazers still have the inside track to the third seed in the West, but if they don't get it, Wednesday night's game will be the reason.

They lost to one of the worst teams in the league that wasn't even using its best players to beat them.