Trail Blazers' star Damian Lillard: 'I love where I am'

Trail Blazers' star Damian Lillard: 'I love where I am'

LAS VEGAS – Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard on Sunday quashed any notion that he is disgruntled in Portland, saying “I love where I am” in a brief meeting with reporters at the Las Vegas Summer League.

“I’m straight up. I’m straight up with coach, I’m straight up with Neil, straight up with you all,’’ Lillard told a media gathering. “I’m not unhappy. I love where I live. I love the organization. I love our coaching staff. I love where I am.’’

Lillard sent some cryptic tweets after the Blazers parted ways with good friend and valued teammate Ed Davis, which led to some national speculation that Lillard wanted out of Portland. Shortly after, rumors surfaced that Lillard was being pursued by the Lakers. 

Lillard chuckled at how things spiraled into a story. He said his tweet with a peace sign and watch – which some interpreted as two-timed – was merely a way for him to say he was going to sleep. 

As for how free agency and the draft has turned out? Lillard says he has been encouraged by rookies Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., and come to grips with the Blazers’ financial and geographical disadvantages.

“Like I said last year, it’s the urgency of wanting to make those steps in the right direction so we can compete,’’ Lillard said. “We got people out here going all out to try and make it happen, and I want us to do the same thing. And I feel like we are trying to do that.’’

The Blazers, who finished third in the West last season, but also three games from missing the playoffs, lost Davis, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton. They have gained 19-year-old rookies in Simons and Trent and guards Seth Curry, who didn’t play last year because of injury, and Nik Stauskas, who played in 41 games last season.

“Obviously, I loved Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He was one of my best friends in the league; one of favorite teammates I’ve played with. We lose him – that’s a loss for our team. Bazz played big minutes for us, Pat played big minutes for us – so we lose three rotation players that gave us a lot and contributed to our season last year. But I guess now we look forward to who can come in and replace those minutes and give us that type of quality.’’

The Blazers will have to do that against what is a fortified Western Conference, which now features LeBron James in Los Angeles, the champion Warriors, and last year’s top seed Houston, as well as three teams Lillard said got better – Denver, Utah and Minnesota.

“As far as where we fit in there – you all know how I operate – I’m going to get us in (the playoffs) and that’s how it’s going to go,’’ Lillard said.

Damian Lillard earns All-NBA First Team honors

Damian Lillard earns All-NBA First Team honors

The All-NBA teams were announced on Thursday morning, and a certain Trail Blazers' star took center stage.

Damian Lillard's name was right next to LeBron James, Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Kevin Durant on the All-NBA First Team.

Lillard joins Clyde Drexler (1991-92) and Bill Walton (1977-78) as the only Trail Blazers to earn All-NBA First Team honors.

This season, Lillard averaged 26.9 ppg, 6.6 apg, and 3.6 rpg, was named Western Conference Player of the Week three times, was named an NBA All-Star team for the third time of this career, and helped guide Portland to the number three seed in the Western Conference.

This is the third time Lillard has made an All-NBA team, and the first time he has earned All-NBA First Team honors. He previously was named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2014, and All-NBA Second Team in 2016. Lillard was also on the All-Rookie First Team in 2013.

According to the Trail Blazers press release:

Lillard is the third player in NBA history to record 1,500 points and 400 assists in each of his first six seasons, joining LeBron James and Oscar Robertson, and is one of eight players in league history with 10,000 points and 2,500 assists in their first six seasons (James/Jordan/Archibald/Maravich/Bing/Robertson). Lillard became the second player in NBA history to make 100 three-pointers in each of his first six seasons, and on Feb. 2, he became the fastest of the seven Trail Blazers to reach the 10,000-point milestone.

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

'Shocked' Trail Blazers get swept, now face crossroads

NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers over the years have experienced the pain of playoff loss, but it’s been a while since a series left a mark like this one to New Orleans. 

“I think this one probably hurts a little more because we had such a great season, and we came in with really, really high expectations,’’ Damian Lillard said. 

 Unable to stop Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and unable to solve the defensive schemes of New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, the Blazers were swept Saturday after a 131-123 loss at Smoothie King Center. 

“They were the better team for four games,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “They outplayed us, they outhustled us, they were more physical.’’

The 13-game winning streak, the Northwest Division title, the three seed and hosting a first-round playoff series were all erased with the ease of a Holiday layin and the force of a Davis follow dunk.

“I felt like coming into this playoffs, there was no way you were going to tell me we weren’t going to have a Game 5. You know?’’ Blazers big man Ed Davis said. “I mean, you can tell me, somebody was going to beat us in six or seven, but no way swept.’’

Davis surveyed the quiet locker room, with players cutting tape off their ankles for the final time.

“I mean, we are all shocked right now that we got swept by a team that we really felt like we were better than,’’ Davis said. 

Perhaps most shocking was the inability of the Blazers to free Lillard from the layered Pelicans defense that used two and sometimes three players to trap him.

After having his best overall season in his six-year NBA career, Lillard had his worst playoff series, being held to 18.5 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and amassing 16 turnovers to his 19 assists.

“You have to give them credit for how well they executed offensively and they came in with a great defensive game plan, threw something at us we haven’t seen, and it worked out for them,’’ Lillard said. “We just didn’t play great. We didn’t have our best series.’’

The loss brings the Blazers to a crossroads: Continue full speed ahead with the NBA’s youngest roster to make the playoffs? Or break up a core that has lost 10 consecutive playoff games?

“Ultimately, you are defined by the postseason,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s a little early to say what direction we are going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is Neil (Olshey) is really good. We’ve been to the playoffs five straight years and he continues to change and build the roster. I’m pretty confident with that.’’

Lillard, who in January met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, said Saturday that he believes the franchise is doing all it can. 

“I feel like to this point, we have,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve done what we can, but obviously there is room for improvement, especially when you come up short in the playoffs and get swept. Obviously there are a lot of things that can be done better on our part as an organization and as players. 

“But for me, the same thing remains: I’ll go back to work and do my part,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody has a job to do and I’ve got to focus on what my job is.’’

Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a standout series with averages of 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, said he hopes the team is allowed to grow together.

“The core of the team is still really young and these are some of the lumps we will have to take in order to get better and continue to grow,’’ Aminu said.

The Blazers have four free agents – starting center Jusuf Nurkic; Davis, the NBA’s top reserve center; reserve Pat Connaughton; and reserve Shabazz Napier. 

Davis, for one, says he wants to return. 

“Like I’ve been saying since Day One: I hope I’m back here,’’ Davis said. “I hope July 1 at midnight we have something done and it’s over with. That’s what I’m hoping and banking on.’’

For now, the Blazers will lick their wounds and try to forget the dominance of Anthony Davis (33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.9 blocks), the two-way play of Holiday (27.8 points) and the masterful game-management of Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists) and look ahead to the future of Zach Collins and what should be the prime years of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s careers. 

“I think we should be proud of what we did in the regular season,’’ Harkless said. “And then just learn from what happened in this postseason.’’

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.

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

Trail Blazers notebook: Stotts eyes lineup change, lauds Collins' play

NEW ORLEANS -- Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he is considering lineup changes as his team heads into Thursday’s Game 3 in New Orleans in an 0-2 hole. 

One of the lineup changes might be forced upon him: Evan Turner, who started at small forward the past 11 games, is questionable with a bruised big toe suffered in Game 2. 

“Evan is always positive and he said he will be ready to go,’’ Stotts said Wednesday in New Orleans. “We will see how it goes tomorrow. He was in no position to play last night (after suffering the injury).’’

Maurice Harkless is a likely candidate to move into the starting small forward position after making his series debut in Game 2. In his first game since he had surgery March 28 to clean out his left knee, Harkless played 27 minutes, hitting all five of his shots and finishing with 10 points, five rebounds and a block. Stotts said the 27 minutes exceeded what he and the health-and-performance team had outlined.

FREE-THROW DROUGHT

Damian Lillard isn’t the only one not getting to the free throw line – the Blazers as a team have been kept off the line.

Lillard, who finished seventh in the NBA in free throw attempts (538), which included a 7.4 average per game, has attempted only four free throws in two games. And the Blazers, who averaged nearly 21 free throws a game in the series has attempted only 22 total in the first two games.

“That’s a touchy one,’’ Stotts said when asked about the dip in free throws. “They haven’t been calling a lot of fouls.’’

With Lillard, he said there isn’t an adjustment to be made to get him to the line more. 

“It’s a little frustrating at times because the ball is in his hands and he is getting pressured and getting to the basket,’’ Stotts said. “I don’t know that you can do anything else to get more calls.’’

FAMILIAR ROLE

Stotts said if there is one good thing about the Blazers standing in this series it’s that they are back in a familiar spot: the underdog.

“We are good in an underdog role,’’ Stotts said. “This team has been resilient, this team has been written off, and it has bounced back.’’

AREA OF CONCERN

When the Blazers met Wednesday in New Orleans for a film session, one area was a point of contention: hustle.

Several times throughout the series, and in particular at the end of Game 2, the Blazers were beaten to loose balls or to rebounds. Stotts says he noticed it and was concerned enough to address it in front of the team.

“It was brought up to the team,’’ Stotts said. “Those are possessions that determine winning and losing.’’

Lillard noted the Pelicans’ will after Game 2. 

“I think these first two games came down to a lot of 50-50 balls,’’ Lillard said. “They were just more grimy than we were, they played a more physical game. They gutted it out more than we did in both games.’’

BLAZERS ON HOLIDAY

An emerging storyline in the series has been the play of Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday. Coming into the series, the talk was of his defense, but the guard has averaged 27 points while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. 

Stotts on Wednesday was asked who has guarded Holiday the best.

“I’d be hard pressed to give an answer to that,’’ Stotts said. “Because I don’t think we have guarded him very well.’’

ROOKIE BRIGHT SPOT

Blazers rookie Zach Collins has been a bight spot in the first two games, in particular his Game 2, when he had 12 points and five rebounds.

For the series, Collins is averaging 10 points and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes a game.

“I’ve been very pleased with Zach,’’ Stotts said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. He’s been aggressive in his post-up mismatches and defensively his length has been helpful around the rim.’’

Stotts said three times late in Game 2 Collins was switched on Holiday and the Pelicans’ guard scored only once. 

“There’s a lot to like,’’ Stotts said. “And it’s a great experience for him, but I’m not playing him to get experience, I’m playing him because he’s been able to put us in position to win.’’

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

Struggling Damian Lillard: 'I gotta find a way to get it done.'

NEW ORLEANS – By the time Damian Lillard had touched down in New Orleans on Wednesday, there had been a day of swirling criticism and questions surrounding his playoff play.

The Trail Blazers’ star paid no mind.

“I’m not concerned with anything being said,’’ Lillard said. “I just gotta find a way to get it done.’’

Perhaps never in Lillard’s six-years in Portland have the Trail Blazers faced a more precarious time. They have not only lost home court advantage in this best-of-seven series, they are in a 0-2 deficit heading to New Orleans. 

Most unsettling for the Blazers is they are in this predicament largely because Lillard, the man who always delivers, quite simply has not in the first two games.   

Not since the 2015 playoffs against Memphis has the NBA world seen Lillard so out of sorts. 

The Trail Blazers’ star has been taken out of the first round series against the Pelicans as a pack of guards -- Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, chief among them – have limited his space to operate with traps and physical play.

In the first two games, both Blazers’ losses on their home court, Lillard is averaging 17.5 points – nearly 10 points below his season average – while shooting 31.7 percent from the field (13-for-41) and 31.3 percent from three-point range 5-for-16). In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, he had seven turnovers.

“I’ve just got to be better,’’ Lillard said after the Game 2 loss. “I think it’s as simple as that.’’

This isn’t the first time Lillard has been stymied at the start of a playoff series. In 2015, against Memphis, Mike Conley and Tony Allen put the clamps on Lillard in the first two games, holding him to a 16.0 scoring average on 27 percent shooting (10-of-37) while limiting him to a total of four assists. 

Lillard did rebound over the next three games against Memphis, albeit amid a 4-games-to-1 series loss, averaging 25.3 points while shooting 49.1 percent from the field. 

Lillard on Wednesday declined to draw parallels to his 2015 playoffs and his situation against the swarming Pelicans, saying he is a different player, on a different team. 

What’s more, Lillard noted, is the Pelicans are not only sending two players at him, sometimes it is three. 

It has presented him with a dilemma: make the right play and pass to open teammates? Or try to absorb the scoring load the team so relies on by shaking the defenders and taking a tough shot?

“I think the right thing to do is trust and make the right play, find the next guy,’’ Lillard said after Game 2. “But it’s finding that balance of being aggressive and making those right plays.’’

Stotts said he installed some new wrinkles to the offense before Game 2 that helped the offense, and he added that as coach, his primary focus is getting the team – not just Lillard – going.

One of Lillard’s primary weapons – getting to the free throw line – has been disarmed against the Pelicans. In two games, Lillard has attempted a total of four free throws. In the regular season, he averaged 7.4 attempts a game, and his 538 free throw attempts ranked seventh in the NBA. 

 “There’s contact,’’ Lillard said Wednesday. “I’m just not getting the calls right now. But I’m surrounded most of the time, so I get it out to the open guy. There just comes a time where I have to be aggressive anyway, and that means I have to take tough shots against a scheme obviously set up to make me do that.’’

Game 3 is Thursday in New Orleans (6 p.m., NBC Sports Northwest), and after the Game 2 loss, Evan Turner said the Stotts urged the team to take on the greatest cliché in sports: One game at a time. 

“That’s legit; exact words: Take it one game at a time,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is to think about one game at a time and not worry about the big picture. Clearly, it’s the first to four wins.’’

The Blazers will try to become the fifth team to lose their first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, joining the 2017 Celtics, who beat the Bulls in six, the 2005 Mavericks who beat the Rockets in seven, the 1994 Rockets who beat the Suns in seven and the 1969 Lakers, who beat the Warriors in six.

Two straight playoff losses at home?

Two straight playoff losses at home?

I had no idea...

... that the New Orleans Pelicans' defense could so thoroughly befuddle the Trail Blazer offense.

... that the combo of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo would be the two most effective guards on the floor.

... that the Trail Blazers would lose two home games in the entire series, let alone the FIRST two games.

... that if there is a sweep it would more likely be the Pelicans with the broom rather than the Trail Blazers.

... that Damian Lillard would have so much trouble making shots. Not only from three-point range but from anywhere.

... that the Trail Blazer season has such a big chance to turn into a downer.

... that the No. 3 seed in the West and the division championship would look so much like cheap consolation prizes.

Sorry,  I did not see this coming. Not at all. I still can't believe what I'm watching. I feel bad for the players, the coaches, the front office, all the kind people working behind the scenes for this organization and, most of all, the fans.

It does not appear that this is going to end well.

 

---

Game 2 adjustment for Blazers: Nurkic looking to attack

Game 2 adjustment for Blazers: Nurkic looking to attack

It is yet to be seen whether the Trail Blazers will be able to make shots in Tuesday’s Game 2 against New Orleans, but one offensive factor figures to change: A more assertive Jusuf Nurkic.

“I need to be more aggressive, there is no doubt,’’ the Blazers’ center said. “Last game I wasn’t that aggressive.’’

More directly: the Blazers want Nurkic to dunk … or at least go stronger to the rim more often.

In Game 1, Nurkic finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds on 3-of-7 shooting, and both Damian Lillard and coach Terry Stotts felt the 7-footer could have taken more shots off the pick-and-roll. However, in the days leading up to Game 1, Nurkic was schooled on how often the Pelicans sent a second man to help on the roller, which he said created a mindset to pass to an open man on the three-point line. 

“He was making the pass without realizing who was under the basket,’’ Lillard said. “He has to see that.’’

The most glaring decision to pass rather than attack the rim came in the third quarter, when he rolled to the rim and was met by 6-foot-4 guard Jrue Holiday. Within a foot of the rim, Nurkic passed out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who then passed to Evan Turner in the corner for a wide open three that missed.

As Nurkic came down on defense in front of the Blazers’ bench, Stotts yelled to Nurkic to dunk the ball, motioning his clenched fist like he was pounding a hammer.

“We would love to see him go through that contact and dunk on him,’’ Lillard said of that play. “Make them foul you.’’

How Nurkic performs out of the pick-and-roll will be a key subplot to the best-of-seven series. If he can exploit the Pelicans at the rim, Lillard said it figures to loosen how aggressively they trap. And if the Blazers can start making three-pointers – they made 12-of-39 (30.8 percent) in Game 1 – it will create a dilemma for the Pelicans.

Stotts emphasized that Nurkic didn’t make any bad decisions in Game 1 (he didn’t have a turnover), and noted that on nearly every pick-and-roll the Blazers got an open shot.  In fact, he noted that on the play he yelled at Nurkic, giving him the hammer motion, the Blazers got a wide-open three.

“I have a hard time complaining about an open three in the corner,’’ Stotts said. 

However, they never converted one of those shots as Nurkic was not credited with an assist. 

“He was tying to be unselfish a couple times where he probably could have finished at the basket,’’ Stotts said. “We had talked about how they collapse and he was very aware of that. It’s tough. It happens quickly and they have a good shell. He is going to have to make passes sometimes and he is going to have to finish sometimes.’’ 

After the game, Nurkic said he was satisfied how he played out of the pick-and-roll.

“I feel all decisions I take were good decisions,’’ Nurkic said. “An open shot is what we want. I feel confident in those guys out there waiting for the shot and I can’t ask for better shots. We had wide open shots and we don’t make them. If we make half of them we would be in good shape.’’

Nurkic’s play around the basket has been a topic nearly all season for the Blazers. Early in the season he had trouble finishing at the rim as he often opted for finesse rather than power. After the All-Star break, he worked on power moves and finishing, and it resulted in more efficient play, which included more dunks.

But Game 1, Nurkic seemed to revert to his early-season approach, perhaps because he said the game plan was entrenched in his head. 

“Coach wants me to do something so I try to listen to him,’’ Nurkic said. “When I get in the paint, they want me to make a decision: pass or go to the basket. I feel early in the game I tried to find open shots.’’

Most big men would drool at the thought of rolling to the basket with only a guard between him and the rim. Nurkic on Monday was asked whether he likes to dunk.

“I do. I do,’’ Nurkic said. “But I like to pass, too, so … like I said, it’s a decision I have to make. Sometime good, sometimes bad, and you learn from it.’’

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.’’