Jusuf Nurkic

After qualifying offer, Blazers will make Nurkic first free-agent priority

After qualifying offer, Blazers will make Nurkic first free-agent priority

The Trail Blazers have confirmed they extended a qualifying offer, as expected, to center Jusuf Nurkic Wednesday, making him a restricted free agent. It is believed he will be the team's first priority when free agency opens July 1.

The qualifying offer is $4.75 million for one season, the Trail Blazers would be able to match any offers Nurkic gets from other teams in order to keep him on the roster and he also has the option of signing the qualifying offer. In his first full season with the team he averaged 14.3 points, 9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 79 games.

The team has until Saturday to decide on other possible restricted-free agents-to-be Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier. Ed Davis is going to be an unrestricted free agent.

 

'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.

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.’’

Damian Lillard's game-management skills on full display in Clippers win

Damian Lillard's game-management skills on full display in Clippers win

Of all the elite skills Damian Lillard possesses – his scoring, his leadership, his work ethic – one of the most underrated might be his ability to manage a game.

His floor leadership was on display Friday when Lillard had 17 points and 11 assists, spearheading a night when the Blazers tied their season high with 30 assists during an important 105-96 win over the LA Clippers.

His performance came on the heels of Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, when Lillard didn’t play and the Blazers were held to 15 assists while generating only six shots for center Jusuf Nurkic.

“I thought Damian was terrific with his passing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after the Clippers’ win. “He found Nurk … someone asked me about getting Nurk more shots before the game, and I think Dame is responsible for getting Nurk some shots.’’

It has become one of the more underrated aspects of Lillard’s game – the way he manages a game from his point guard position. Last season, Stotts continually made note of how smart and measured Lillard had become in running the team, and this season, the sixth-year point guard has become even better.

His mastery of game management, and its value, was never more evident than the juxtaposition between the Memphis and Clippers games.

 “It’s taken time for me to get to that point,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard noted that as a rookie he joined a team with established veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, all of whom commanded a certain level of offensive attention.

“I had to kind of manage where, and who hasn’t touched it … what’s going on here … when do I be aggressive?’’ Lillard said. “So I was a rookie trying to figure that out.’’

As the years progressed, so too did Lillard’s understanding of the game, his teammates, and where his own game best fit into that.

That experience and knowledge was glaringly absent from the Memphis game, when Lillard flew home to be present for the birth of his son. The Blazers never got Nurkic on track inside and had several disorganized plays down the stretch of the disappointing loss.

After that game, Shabazz Napier, who started in place of Lillard, took ownership. He said he noticed during the game that Nurkic needed more touches, and lamented afterward that he wasn’t able to make it happen. Meanwhile, CJ McCollum, who also ran some point guard, stared blankly when asked if Nurkic should have been more involved.

Lillard watched the Memphis game from Portland, and said he didn’t think the lack of touches from Nurkic was why the team lost. But he did think the team could have been more focused in how they attacked late in the game.

“I have had more time than anybody else in here to just learn and keep track of everything,’’ Lillard said. “How many team fouls do they have? What play have they called the most? What play is working for us? How many timeouts do they have, do we have?

“There are so many things to keep track of that allows you to control a game, to manipulate a game that I’ve had a lot of experience in,’’ said Lillard, who is averaging 6.6 assists this season, the second highest average of his career.

Nurkic, for one, notices. One game after getting six shots without Lillard in the lineup, Nurkic on Friday had a team-high 17 shots against the Clippers.

“We understand each other, the game we have,’’ Nurkic said. “Every possession we already know where we are going to be and how we going to play. When we look at each other, we already know what we are going to do … He just reads the game. It makes it easier for us. ‘’

Lessons from Jusuf Nurkic's youth paying off for Trail Blazers

Lessons from Jusuf Nurkic's youth paying off for Trail Blazers

Back when Jusuf Nurkic was a teenager, and first introduced to basketball, he learned an important lesson.

Defense, Nurkic was taught by coach Jasmin Repesa, is just as important as offense.

“My first steps, back overseas before I came to NBA, I always learned to play basketball right,’’ Nurkic said. “Jasmin Repesa gave me the basics: Protect the rim, play both ends.’’

That early schooling has been the foundation of what has become perhaps the most game-changing aspect of the Blazers over the past year: Improved defense.

The Blazers’ surge into the third seed in the Western Conference has been rooted in defense, and perhaps nobody has been more stellar defensively this season than Nurkic.

With agile feet, a big 7-foot frame and strong instincts, Nurkic has turned the Blazers from one of the softest interior defenses to one of the staunchest since he arrived in a February 2017 trade from Denver.

This season he ranks 13th in the NBA in blocks at 1.4 per game, which included a 1.8 average during March, when the Blazers went 12-3 and vaulted into third place. In his last seven games, Nurkic is averaging 3.0 blocks a game, including three in Friday’s 115-106 win over the Clippers.

“Like I said when I came (from Denver): it was all about what this team needed –improved defense,’’ Nurkic said. “I think, since Terry (Stotts) came here, they never had an issue on offense, so when I see the (defense)  is breaking down, I try to be there for whoever is guarding perimeter guys.’’

There have been times when Nurkic has drifted defensively this season, and there have been times when he flat out forgets a defensive assignment. But it’s no mistake that Portland has gone from one of the worst at protecting the rim to the best since Nurkic arrived.

“He’s definitely been a huge part of why we’ve been good on the defensive end lately,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Nurkic said Repesa, his coach when he was a teenager in the Croatian League, taught him that defense for big men is often about timing, and knowing when to leave your feet.

“It’s timing and decisions, that’ s the key,’’ Nurkic said. “Sometimes you need to be smart in what you are doing.’’

Stotts says he likes what he’s been seeing from his big man.

“He’s been really conscious of being a presence in the paint … he’s going after shots,’’ Stotts said. “It just seems like it’s kind of clicking for him as far as understanding where he is, where his man is, where the ball is.’’

But more than anything with Nurkic, it’s a desire to play defense. During Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, when he took only six shots, he said he didn’t care about being forgotten offensively. To Nurkic, his main job is to provide defense.

“To be honest, I’m going to go out there and try to do my job. So basically, I was focused on trying to help on defense,’’ Nurkic said. “If I happen to not have shots, I’m not going to complain. I understand that without Dame we played lineups that didn’t play a lot of minutes together. I can’t control that stuff (offensively), and complaining about it isn’t going to do anything.’’

Instead, Nurkic has quietly turned what was trending toward a frustrating season and formed it into a standout season, with averages of 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds in 26 minutes a game.

In March, those numbers spiked -- 15.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 57.6 percent from the field – and it was suggested that he is looking like the Nurkic that took Portland by storm last season.

“Nah,’’ Nurkic said. “To be honest, I feel the same way the whole year.’’

He said his early-season struggles – when he battled foul trouble and a rash of missed shots inside – are all part of his learning curve.

“I’ve never been in position to play this many games, to be a starter, and have to bring it every night,’’ Nurkic said. “To play this many minutes, and to have to figure out things throughout the year … I’m still a young guy. I’m 23. But I’ve had Coach and Damian to help me figure it out, and if we can win while I’m still doing that … it doesn’t get any better than that.’’

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.

How good are these Blazers? Maybe better than we thought

How good are these Blazers? Maybe better than we thought

During this entertaining span of 13 wins in 15 games, the thought has popped into my head many times: How good is this team?

And at this point, I must admit that it seems to be a lot better than I thought.

How could this happen without adding a player at the trade deadline? How would it be possible? What happened?

All I can think of is what I always come back to with the Portland Trail Blazers. Their coaching staff is very good at developing players.

During the last 15 games, it's very appropriate to say that the usual starting front line -- Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless -- has played the best basketball of its career.

Over the last 15 games, Jusuf Nurkic has averaged 15.1 points per game, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots. His career averages are 10.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 48.1 percent shooting. Harkless has played in 11 of those 15, is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 60 percent from the field, including 58 percent from three-point range. His career numbers are 7.3 points, 47.4 percent shooting and 33.3 percent from distance. Aminu is averaging 2.2 points and 2.1 rebounds per game more than is career numbers.

Of course, Damian Lillard has been other-worldly through much of those 15 games and CJ McCollum has been solid, too. But the improvement of the players up front -- particularly with their shooting -- is a direct product of the hard work of those players and their coaches.

There are no shortcuts to better shooting. You get a ball and go shoot. Thousands of times. Yes, you can tinker with your form a little, but sweat equity is the surest way to get better. And there is no doubt that hard work has led to individual improvement, which has led to team improvement.

You can talk all you want about injuries to players on other teams when the Blazers have played them, but all teams benefit from that during a season. The bottom line is that this has been an eight-team race for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and Portland has responded to that challenge and taken almost total command of that spot to this point.

This team has improved appreciably during the season and now a new challenge is in front of it -- playing a few weeks without Harkless, who has been a critical component at both ends of the floor. But during this streak, the team is undefeated in the five games Evan Turner has stepped into Harkless's starting spot.

And even though this season still seems a bit of a mystery to me due to some bewildering losses to teams that should have been wins, the Trail Blazers have made big strides during this season with the improvement of their frontcourt.

Yes, they are better than we thought.

When push comes to shove, these Blazers are holding their ground

When push comes to shove, these Blazers are holding their ground

OKLAHOMA CITY – As each game passes, it seems the Trail Blazers are revealing more about the fiber that makes up the fabric of their character.

On Sunday in Oklahoma City, the Blazers did more than just beat the Thunder for the fourth straight time this season, they did so while displaying as much toughness as we’ve ever seen from this group.

It was varying forms of toughness – physical, mental, and spiritual – and together it formed a certain grit that figures to serve this team well as it heads to the playoffs.

Whether it was the Blazers holding their own inside and outrebounding the Thunder, or the poise to withstand losing all of an 18-point lead (seemingly in a blink of an eye),  or the spunk shown by Evan Turner and company when things got a little rough in the third quarter, this looked and felt a little different than previous Blazers teams.

“I always thought we were pretty tough, but now it’s more of a collective toughness,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s not just in spots. Now its like, we know who we are, we know what we have to do, we know we have to trust each other and lean on each other to get things done.’’

Seventy three games into this season, it’s safe to say this team will not be bullied. This team will not wither. And this team will hold its ground when push comes to shove.

“I know these guys pretty well … You know who really boxes in their spare time,’’ CJ McCollum deadpanned.

McCollum, who played both a beautiful and brilliant game against the Thunder, was referring to Turner and Lillard – both boxing aficionados who also train in the ring during the offseason.

It was Turner who was at the epicenter of Sunday’s kerfuffle, which started in the third quarter when Ed Davis threw tumbling Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson off his knees as if he was a piece of luggage.

As the troops convened on the scene to begin the NBA ritual of pushing, followed by retreat, Turner pushed and held his ground, his feet seemingly in concrete, as Russell Westbrook charged.

It was a fitting stance for what this Blazers team has become: Stoic, solid, unwavering.

Lillard, for one, took notice of Turner.

“I wasn’t surprised,’’ Lillard said. “I actually noticed it. As soon as I saw a couple of guys coming his way, I knew he was going to stand his ground.’’

Lillard has a special bond with Turner because of their love of boxing. They not only appreciate the science, they both have implemented it into their training.

“I’ve said it plenty of times – I’m a huge fan of combat sports, and if there’s anybody on the team who is equally as much of a fan, it’s ET,’’ Lillard said. “He is equally a fan and a participant, in the ring, training in forms of combat. I do the same thing. ET is not looking for confrontation, but if it comes his way, he will stand his ground just like that.’’

By no means were the Blazers thumping their chest about the third-quarter fracas as a calling card to the NBA that they’ve arrived as some kind of rough-and-tumble team. Far from it.

Turner, for one, was remorseful, saying he would pay Ferguson’s $1,500 fine for his role in the youngster getting a technical. The only thing to be taken from it, Turner says, is what the Blazers already knew: they have each other’s backs.

“The biggest thing is the mental capacity of it – just not backing down,’’ Turner said. “And that was it.’’

What the third-quarter tussle did was elevate an already intense game that had every bit the feel of a do-or-die playoff game. This game was played on edge, with ferocity, and with significant emotional swings.

Through it all, Portland not only persevered, it almost seemed to thrive. Jusuf Nurkic was neutralizing the mammoth Steven Adams. Maurice Harkless was blocking shots left and right. Al-Farouq Aminu was in the thick of every scrum. And Lillard was chesting up and taking charges.

It wasn’t long ago the Blazers were viewed as mostly a finesse group, a young group, both between the ears and in physical stature.

Now – not because of Sunday, but over the course of the season – they have matured into what is looking like a hardened group.

“It’s collective now, and that makes the look different,’’ Lillard said. “It’s more obvious, and it shows a team toughness.’’

He was talking about both a mental toughness and physical toughness, and it might be the one trait where other teams had an edge in past playoff series against the Blazers.

Now, the Blazers think it just might be an edge.

“It makes us a much better team,’’ Lillard said of the toughness. “To be successful against good teams on the road you need that , but in the playoffs you need to rely on that a lot of times, because that’s when it’s the toughest – people playing for that championship. So I think that’s something that will really be on our side in the playoffs.’’