Denver Nuggets

Blazers drop fourth in a row, cling to hopes of home court

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USA Today

Blazers drop fourth in a row, cling to hopes of home court

Things out west are no clearer now than they were at the start of the night. The Blazers could have clinched home court and eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs with a victory. Instead the Blazers now need a win in the final game of the season to guarantee home court, and the Nuggets need a win in their final game to guarantee the eight seed.

Portland led after three quarters, but their offense ground to a halt in the fourth. The Nuggets held Portland to just 13 points in the quarter to eke out the 88-82 victory.

Damian Lillard led the way with 25 points, and Nurkic had a monstrous 20 points and 19 rebounds. However, the Blazers shot just 33% on the night, including going 7 for 33 from deep.

The Blazers now look to Wednesday’s matchup against the Utah Jazz. Win, and the Blazers have home court.

Final Score: Denver 88 – Blazers 82

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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.’’

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis targets early return from sprained ankle

Trail Blazers' Ed Davis targets early return from sprained ankle

Trail Blazers center Ed Davis says he will be back from injury sooner than later.

Davis on Sunday told NBC Sports Northwest he expects to return from his sprained right ankle either Saturday at San Antonio or Monday in Denver.

Davis rolled the ankle in the third quarter of Friday’s game against the Clippers and left the arena in a walking boot after x-rays showed no break and an MRI confirmed a sprain.

On Saturday, the team said he would be evaluated in seven-to-14 days.

Davis before Sunday’s game against Memphis was no longer wearing the boot and was walking without a limp. There was swelling on the outside of the ankle, but Davis said he was confident his return would be closer to the seven days than the 14 days.

If he returns against San Antonio, it would be seven days after the team announced the timeline.

Davis is having one of the best seasons of his career as he has emerged as the NBA’s top reserve center. He is averaging 5.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in 19 minutes a game. He has led the Blazers in rebounding 23 times this season and has recorded six double-doubles. If he returns in San Antonio, Davis will have missed only three games because of the injury.

In the first game without Davis, coach Terry Stotts used Meyers Leonard and rookie Caleb Swanigan at backup center. Leonard had six points, five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes and Swanigan had four points, four rebounds and two assists in nine minutes.

 

Blazers clinch playoff berth

Blazers clinch playoff berth

The Blazers clinched a playoff berth on Sunday night, and they didn’t even have to lift a finger.

Portland needed to beat the Grizzlies, or have a loss by either the Nuggets or the Timberwolves to clinch a spot. They got the help the needed when Minnesota was blown out by the Utah Jazz, 121-97.

There is still plenty of work for the Blazers despite the good news. Portland sits just 2.5 games ahead of the fourth seed San Antonio Spurs, and just four games ahead of seventh seed Minnesota.

With the playoffs locked in, all that is left for Portland to do is lock down home court advantage. The Blazers have five games left on the schedule after tonight: A four game road trip that sees them take on Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Denver before wrapping up the season at home on April 11 against the Utah Jazz. 

 

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Blazers' Jusuf Nurkic receives timely lesson before return to Denver

Jusuf Nurkic says he is “super excited” to make his first appearance in Denver as a Trail Blazer on Monday, so perhaps it was good timing Saturday that he received a stern message from his mentor, team captain Damian Lillard.

The message: Be smart. Don’t take the bait.

In the Blazers’ past two games, Nurkic has received a late-game technical after initiating confrontations with an opponent. On Saturday, Lillard quickly got in front of Nurkic and pushed him away from a dustup with Dallas center Sal Mejri.

As the referees reviewed the play, which would result in a Nurkic technical, Lillard sternly talked to Nurkic.

“You just have to be smart enough and sharp enough not to take the bait,’’ Lillard said. “If it happens two games in a row, it’s like, come on now. We don’t have to be tough with nobody; be smart.’’

The previous game, with the Blazers up eight over Indiana, Nurkic was given a technical with 2:02 left for talking trash after blocking Victor Oladipo, who was also given a technical by retaliating with a push to Nurkic’s chest.

On Saturday, the Blazers were up 10 over Dallas with 4:36 left when Nurkic and Mejri became entangled under the basket, which was punctuated by Nurkic pushing Mejri.

Lillard and Nurkic have formed a tight bond since Denver traded the 7-footer to Portland last February. Nurkic has said Lillard is the best thing that has happened to him in his life, and he nodded Saturday as Lillard scolded him.

“Do what we have to do to win the game,’’ Lillard said. “It just doesn’t make sense. I think if there is a two-point game, or three-point game, and it happens the way it happened tonight – they shot three free throws in row - that could cost you a game. So Its better to get that across and learn that lesson in a game like tonight where we have a cushion and you let people know  … you can’t take the bait.’’

It could be an apt discussion in preparation for Monday’s game at Denver, where Nurkic became disgruntled and outspoken about what became a diminished role. The Blazers and Nuggets have faced each other three times since the trade, but all three meetings have been in Portland, including one last season in which Nurkic wished the Nuggets a “happy summer” after leading the Blazers to a key victory that all but assured them a playoff spot over the Nuggets.

Monday’s matchup also figures to play heavily in the postseason conversation. Portland (25-21) is in sixth in the West, two games ahead of  Denver (23-23), which is one spot out of the playoff hunt.

“That’s a game I look forward to, definitely,’’ Nurkic said Saturday. “Super excited … looking for another win.’’

Nurkic, who is averaging 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds,  smiled and shrugged when asked how he thought he would be received by the Pepsi Center crowd.

“I don’t care,’’ he said. “I had ups and downs there, but I still love it. I have friends and almost a family there. At the end of the day, it’s part of the job. It’s not going to distract me, whatever they do.’’

Lillard, for one, figures to be on high alert. He said after three encounters, Nurkic should be over the emotions of facing his former team. Still, in the grand scheme, Lillard said he hopes Nurkic, and the rest of the Blazers, understand the importance of keeping their heads as the playoffs become more in focus.

“I know all my teammates pretty well,  and I don’t think we have one soft person in here,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t think there is one person in here who has to back down from an altercation if it came down to it. But two games in a row we’ve had situations where we have a lead, we have to secure the game and put the game away, then something like this happens. We have to be smart.’’

There is no holiday cheer in Moda, thanks to the Nuggets

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There is no holiday cheer in Moda, thanks to the Nuggets

The Nuggets came to Portland on Friday night and dismantled the Lillard-less Blazers, 102-85. Lillard was a scratch due to a right hamstring strain he suffered Wednesday against the Spurs, and boy did the Blazers miss him.

Portland struggled to find offense from anyone on Friday, even CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic struggled, combining for just 25 points. On the other side of the court, the Nuggets were unstoppable. Nikola Jokic scored 27, Wilson Chandler scored 21, and Gary Harris scored 17.

The Blazers have no time to dwell, as they play the Lakers Saturday at Staple center.

Final Score: Nuggets 102 – Blazers 95.

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

Lessons in leadership: How Damian Lillard is mentoring Jusuf Nurkic

When the Trail Blazers emerged from the halftime locker room last week during a dreadful performance in Sacramento, all but one of the players headed to the court to warm up.

Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s young and promising center, was the only one to avoid the court, instead plopping himself on the bench, his warm-up hoodie snug over his head.

From the court, team captain Damian Lillard took notice, and walked to Nurkic on the bench. It had been a rough half for the Blazers, and an even tougher outing for Nurkic, who at that point had more turnovers than points.

Leaning in, Lillard tousled Nurkic’s hoodie, then took a seat next to him. What would follow is another layer in what is a powerful and unique relationship between two of the team’s pillars.

“I know what it’s like to be young and counted on,’’ Lillard later explained.

The relationship is powerful in how it has impacted Nurkic.

“Damian Lillard,’’ Nurkic said, “is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.’’

And the relationship is unique in that Lillard’s mentorship is coming from an interesting perspective. When Lillard first joined the Blazers, he said he looked to star LaMarcus Aldridge for guidance and support, but was left to figure it out on his own.

It’s why Lillard describes this undertaking with Nurkic as “different” from any of his other endeavors with teammates. This one is deeply personal.

“It’s going to sound crazy,’’ Lillard said, “but it’s almost what I wish I had with LaMarcus.’’

**

The awkward Lillard-Aldridge dynamic has long been rumored and insinuated, but never openly discussed like Lillard did this week.

Lillard says the two never had a problem, and that Aldridge has already heard everything he says in this article. Lillard’s point in bringing up his experience with Aldridge is that it helped shape his approach in how to mentor Nurkic.

“Me and LaMarcus had a good relationship. We never had a single argument. We really got along,’’ Lillard said. “I’m just saying the stuff I want to go out of my way to do for (Nurkic), is the stuff I wish I got from LaMarcus.’’

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Aldridge’s reticence never bothered Lillard; the more he was around Aldridge, the more he understood him as an introvert, who was more comfortable leading by example than through encouragement or inspiration.

But at the same time, Lillard couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like in his early NBA years to have guidance and assurance that he was on the right path.

“I wish it was like more of a brotherhood, more of a line of communication, with me as young player and him as an All-Star,’’ Lillard said.

There was always an unmistakable unease around Aldridge and Lillard, mostly created by Aldridge’s jealousy of the attention and adulation showered upon Lillard by the fanbase and the franchise. Lilllard, who is as perceptive as he is personable, admittedly “walked on eggshells” around Aldridge, acutely aware of the elder’s sensitivity, and in hopes to avoid “stepping on his toes.”

“It wasn’t his personality (to reach out),’’ Lillard said. “But as a younger player, I came into the league wishing … and thinking he was going to take me under his wing, like his lil’ bro.”

One of those times was when Lillard was in his third year. It was the playoffs, in Memphis, and the Trail Blazers guard was struggling mightily against Mike Conley and the vaunted Grizzlies defense.

By that time, still young at 25, he had established himself as a two-time All-Star, a playoff hero, and one of the pillars of the franchise. But in this playoff series, the Grizzlies' pressure, as well as his performance, cause some rumblings inside of himself. Either Aldridge didn't sense it, or he figured Lillard had it covered, but there was no emotional support from Aldridge.

“There were times when I needed it, it just didn’t happen,’’ Lillard said. “It didn’t make me no less of a player. I figured it out. But it would have calmed things in my mind in games.’’

Lillard said in his heart, his confidence never wavered. He believed in himself and he knew he always found ways to succeed, and he figured he would again in that series. Still, he admitted he cast a hopeful eye to Aldridge, looking for assurance, advice, encouragement, an invitation to dinner ... anything. But Aldridge never bit.

“I had confidence in myself, but I wanted (Aldridge) to be like, ‘Man, let’s go eat. You are going to be good. You are going to be an All-Star,’’’ Lillard said. “I wanted him to talk to me like that … but (he didn’t).’’

The Blazers lost that Memphis series, and months later, Aldridge left the Blazers to sign a free agent contract with San Antonio. After Aldridge left, Lillard knew it was his time to lead, and he knew his leadership would be much different than Aldridge’s approach.

So when Nurkic arrived in a trade last February, stinging from his treatment in Denver, and thirsting for affirmation, Lillard saw shades of his younger self.

So he gave Nurkic what that young Lillard wanted. He gave him his attention. His knowledge. His support.

“I just know what it might be like to not have that,’’ Lillard said.

**

That night in Sacramento, when Lillard approached Nurkic at halftime and tousled his head while offering encouragement, didn’t end well for the Blazers or Nurkic. The lowly Kings beat Portland 86-82 while Nurkic scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting.

But the night wasn’t over with the halftime pep talk, or the final buzzer. 

“I talked to (Lillard) the whole way back on the plane,’’ Nurkic said. “The whole flight.’’

Nurkic said they talked about the Kings game. His early season struggles. What the team was going through, and what Nurkic needed to do moving forward. He said their talk was a blend of encouragement and criticism.

It has been that way from the start, Lillard both embracing Nurkic while also establishing a firm line of accountability.

In their first meeting as teammates after the February trade, Lillard in the locker room provided Nurkic with his cell phone number and a team-wide directive.

“The first thing I remember him saying is: ‘We don’t make excuses here, man,’’’ Nurkic said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I need that.’’’

Nurkic came to Portland with a somewhat sullied reputation as a pouter and malcontent with bouts of laziness. Nurkic said, if anything, he was usually quick to make excuses.

“It’s a bad habit, and habits are hard to change,’’ Nurkic said. “Probably the hardest thing to change in life is habits. If you have a bad one, it can stick with you. After he told me that, I really focused on that.’’

After Nurkic took Portland by storm last spring, and helped vault the Blazers into a late run into the playoffs, he has experienced an uneven start to this season. Some games he looks like one of the NBA’s elite centers, and others he looks unpolished and undisciplined.

Through the ups and downs, Lillard has been able to study Nurkic and know the right buttons to push.

Nurkic says he texts Lillard often, and earlier in the season after a rocky opening trip, Lillard could sense through those messages that Nurkic was experiencing some doubt. Lillard put him at ease, telling him he would make sure he was more involved in the offense. He also told him to stop over-thinking the game.

“He reminded me it’s just a game,’’ Nurkic said. "That it's supposed to be fun.''

The next night, Nurkic played freely and was dominant in a win over the Lakers, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. After the game, he credited his resurgence to having fun again, and thanked Lillard and CJ McCollum for helping guide him through his lulls.

It has not been all hugs and pats on the back, though.

When Nurkic was forced to the bench just 1:24 into the game after picking up two fouls at home against Memphis, Lillard spit daggers.

Nurkic chuckled at the memory.

“After I got the two quick fouls, he was (lowers his voice to mimic Lillard) ‘Come on Nurk, man. You have to be smarter than this,’’’ Nurkic said. “He comes at me hard. Which is good.’’

Later, in a home game against Brooklyn, a tiring Nurkic blew a defensive assignment, and Lillard snapped at him.

“He started telling me ‘why this, and well that, and he this …,’’ Lillard remembered. “He started coming with excuses and I told him, ‘I ain’t trying to hear that (expletive). Do what you are supposed to do. We depend on you.’’’

And during Monday’s win at Memphis, Lillard stood in the middle of a third-quarter timeout huddle to demonstratively lecture Nurkic, holding up coach Terry Stotts’ address to the team.

Nurkic says he welcomes that type of feedback because he trusts Lillard and knows he has his – and the team’s – best interests at heart.

“There’s no lying. That’s the best part about him,’’ Nurkic said. “He’s straight and he will tell you. For me, that’s like a dream come true. To have a superstar in the league as a leader, a friend and a teammate – all of those ways – it leads me to be a better person, better teammate and better player.’’

**

The first time Lillard and Nurkic met, it was not friendly.

It was last November, at the Moda Center, when Nurkic was with the Nuggets, and the two had a slight dustup on the court.

The two teams had played the week before in Denver, and after Lillard led a late comeback that included the game-winner, he made a passing judgment on what was then Denver’s foreign tandem of big men, Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.

“These two big dudes in Denver,’’ Lillard remembers thinking, “they might be soft a little bit.’’

But on this night in the Moda Center, Nurkic was fouled by Blazers center Mason Plumlee. As Nurkic went to the free throw line, Lillard went to talk to Plumlee, and his path crossed Nurkic. The Bosnian center nudged Lillard, who squared and pushed Nurkic in the chest.

“He bumped me, and I pushed him, and we said something to each other,’’ Lillard said.

The player he thought was soft left an impression.

 “I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this dude … there’s a little something to him,’’’ Lillard said.

Three months later, Nurkic was walking through the Blazers’ locker room doors for the first time. He locked eyes with Lillard and tapped his wrist, aping Lillard’s signature “Dame Time” move.

“I had read what people said about him, that he had a bad attitude … but when we first got him, he was like a big teddy bear,’’ Lillard said.

Soon, he saw how Nurkic played. It was unselfish and skilled. Then he saw how enthusiastic and positive Nurkic was as a teammate, often the first one off the bench to cheer a teammate.

 “After that first game in Utah, I thought ‘if we can get the most out of this guy, we could be pretty good,’’’ Lillard said.

So he watched him. And counseled him. And he noticed signs that reminded him of how he felt as a 23-year-old player. It sparked memories of the void he felt with Aldridge.

“With Nurk, I know how good he is, how good he could be, I know what he means to the team, so I don’t want to let that opportunity slip,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t want him to feel any less important. I don’t want to be like (sucks teeth) ‘he good enough he will figure it out.’

“I want to help him figure it out and let him know I’m a supporter,’’ Lillard said. “If I want the best for this team, I feel like it’s my job to support him, but also hold him accountable.’’

 Nurkic says he not only sees, and hears, Lillard’s leadership, he feels it.

“I definitely feel it. I definitely feel it. I’ve never had somebody like this, somebody like Dame,’’ Nurkic said. “He is there for me, no matter if I’m good or bad. He is an amazing person, and he will make me better.’’

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

The talk prior to Monday night's Trail Blazer matchup with Denver was whether it would be a revenge game for Jusuf Nurkic. The Portland center, a former Nugget, insisted it was not.

After watching the way the game played out, I'm certain Nurkic took great pleasure in the outcome of the contest and the way he dominated Denver center Nikola Jokic. But what happened Monday night -- the 99-82 Trail Blazer win -- had a lot more to do with Nurkic's knowledge of Jokic from all those practice sessions when they were teammates, than it did with simple revenge.

Nurkic manhandled Jokic. And it seemed as if he knew exactly what he was doing -- just as he did last season in their meeting. And what he was doing was being physical with his former teammate. He made it a rough night, which Jokic didn't seem to like. Jokic went 2-for-9 from the field and scored six points on the same day he was named the Western Conference's player of the week. Jokic finished the game lurking around the three-point line, looking like a man who had lost his way.

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Nurkic's dominance was the story of the night. The Nuggets' best player and a rising star in the NBA was taken completely out of the game. That was enough for not many to notice that Nurkic finished with a whopping seven of his team's 22 turnovers. I have no idea why Portland is suddenly experiencing an uptick in turnovers. It's certainly not because the team is forcing the ball upcourt on fastbreaks -- since the Blazers are at the bottom of the league in that department.

Since Coach Terry Stotts has been here, there's never been much attention paid to fastbreaks, partly, I'm sure, to keep the turnovers down. Bu,t if  you're going to turn the ball over anyway, you may as well try to run a little more. I would think. Those easy baskets off the break can perk a team up and can wake up an offense.

But it wasn't an issue Monday. Nurkic took care of that.

 

 

Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

Crabbe gets cooking, rescuing Blazers in comeback victory over Minnesota

In the span of 48 seconds on Thursday, the Trail Blazers playoff hopes went from bleak to promising, all thanks to Allen Crabbe.

In probably his greatest moment as a pro, Crabbe scored 10 points in a 48-second span turning an 87-82 deficit into a 92-89 lead, pushing the Blazers to a 105-98 win and onto the brink of clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

Crabbe scored 25 points and hit eight three pointers – three of them coming in the decisive 48 second span, including one while being fouled by Tyus Jones that resulted in a free throw.

"I love seeing a shooter get on a roll like that,'' Coach Terry Stotts said.

The win increased Portland’s lead over Denver to 1.5 games with three games remaining. Denver plays at home Friday against New Orleans. Any combination of Portland wins or Denver losses that equals two will earn Portland the final playoff spot.

Damian Lillard added 22 points, nine rbeounds and eight assists and CJ McCollum had 18 points and five assists.

Portland trailed by as many as 15 in the third quarter and 87-80 entering the fourth quarter, but Minnesota missed its first 13 shots of the fourth and 19 of its first 20 shots. When it was all said and done, Minnesota scored 11 fourth quarter points and went 3-for-23 from the field in the fourth. The fourth-quarter meltdown included the abandoning of Karl-Anthony Towns, whose inside play was dominant through the first three quarters. Towns had 22 points and 12 rebounds entering the fourth, but attempted only two shots, one of them a rebound put-back with 16 seconds left.  Towns finished with 24 points and 16 rebounds.

Andrew Wiggins, who finished with 36 points, went 1-for-8 in the fourth, and Ricky Rubio, who started 6-of-7, missed eight of his final nine shots.

"We struggled most of the night, but the fourth qaurter was terrific,'' Stotts said. "There was a lot of great defensive play, and obviously A.C.'s shooting was terrific.''

The Blazers erased a 15-point deficit in the third quarter, making their push after Towns headed to the bench after picking up his fourth foul. After Towns left, Portland went on a 12-2 run to draw even at 72 with 6:05. But that’s when Towns returned and the Blazers and Minnesota regained its footing, taking an 87-80 lead into the fourth.

Minnesota led 61-53 at halftime after leading by as many as 14 in the first quarter and 12 in the second quarter. Wiggins was dominant, particularly with post ups against McCollum, Lillard and Crabbe. Wiggins made 9-of-12 shots in the half and had 21 points.

Crabbe prevented the Timberwolves from running away in the first half, hitting his first three 3-point attempts.

Minnesota jumped to a 12-2 start and eventually took a 34-20 lead after the first quarter. They rode post ups by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins early, then the outside shooting of Rubio late in the quarter. Meanwhile, Portland shot just 32 percent, with Lillard missing his first six shots before scoring on a driving layin with 32 seconds left.

Al-Farouq Aminu, who started for the second straight game in the Blazers’ small-ball lineup without injured center Jusuf Nurkic, had 15 points and seven rebounds and Noah Vonleh added nine points and seven rebounds.

Next up: Utah at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (KGW).

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