LaMarcus Aldridge

Trail Blazers continue to wait on opponent as Spurs force Game 7 vs. Nuggets

Trail Blazers continue to wait on opponent as Spurs force Game 7 vs. Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets were looking to close out their series with the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night. But behind a fourth-quarter flurry, the Spurs forced a Game 7, beating the Nuggets 120-103.

In the win, former Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and five assists. All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan finished with 25 points, including 18 in the second half, on 12-of-16 shooting with seven assists and seven rebounds.

Aldridge is averaging 20.7 points per game in the series.

San Antonio shot 66.7% in the first quarter to start Game 6 with 34-24 lead. The Nuggets have struggled to come out strong all series. Denver won its first and only first quarter in Game 5.

The Spurs were able to hold of the Nuggets on Thursday despite Nikola Jokic scoring a franchise-record 43 points.

Now it all comes down to Game 7 in Denver. The winner on Saturday night will face the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals.

There have been plenty of questions regarding Denver’s lack of playoff experience and Game 7 could prove to be too much for the young squad. Especially considering, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has seen his fair share of win-or-go-home games in the playoffs.

NBC Sports Northwest Trail Blazers Insider Dwight Jaynes will have you covered in Denver for the Nuggets and Spurs Game 7 on Saturday night. Be sure to check back at our website, on social media, and on the MyTeams App on Saturday for articles and videos from the Pepsi Center as we gear up for the Blazers semifinals matchup.

With the Blazers getting set to face either the Nuggets or the Spurs, here’s a quick recap of what went down between Portland and Denver, and Portland and San Antonio during the regular season:

The Nuggets took the season series 3-1 over the Blazers, but all three of Portland’s losses were competitive and close ones. In the first meeting between these two, the Nuggets won by just one point. The other two games, in which Denver won, were both decided by nine points or less. In the final meeting of the season, and the Blazers only win over Denver, the Nuggets rested Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

San Antonio evened its series (2-2) against Portland in the last meeting of the season with a 108-103 win back on March 16th.  The previous three games were high scoring with the winning teams scoring at least 121 points.

Game One of the Trail Blazers conference semifinals versus the winner of Denver-San Antonio will tip-off on Monday.

Stay ahead of your Trail Blazers and get all you need to know this postseason. Get LIVE Trail Blazers coverage, in-depth articles, podcast, videos and more.  All you have to do is download the app,  log-in and the Blazers are at your fingertips. Download Now!

Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Trail Blazers loss to the San Antonio Spurs

Rapid Reaction: 3 Quick Takeaways from the Trail Blazers loss to the San Antonio Spurs

Saturday night marked the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between the Trail Blazers and Spurs this season. Portland was looking to snap the Spurs’ seven-game winning streak.  

It was a close game throughout, but San Antonio prevailed with a 108-103 win. The Blazers finish the road trip, 3-0.
Portland didn’t just lose the game though, the Blazers also lost CJ McCollum to a left leg injury.
Final Box Score: Spurs 108, Trail Blazers 103

Here are some quick thoughts from the Blazers loss in San Antonio:

 

1.The Aldridge and DeRozan show early

Playing in San Antonio is always a difficult place to play. The Spurs entered Saturday’s game with a 27-7 home record and had won nine straight at home before Saturday’s game. A lot of the Spurs home success has to do with their superstars coming alive on the offensive end in front of the home crowd.

At the end of the first quarter, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 of the Spurs’ first 23 points. These are two tough matchups for any team in the NBA.

The Blazers started mixing up their defense on the two Spurs All-Stars with Jusuf Nurkic switching on to Aldridge. By putting a bigger defender on LA that slowed him down and since the Blazers kept Aldridge and DeRozan guessing on defense Portland was able to temper them after their hot start.

The second quarter could’ve been a time for the Blazers to fold, but they didn’t. San Antonio started the second on a 7-0 run, but after being down 11 points in the second quarter, the Blazers worked their way back into the game and went on a 14-1 run.

There might be something to playing a team that is also on the second leg of a back-to-back. You have to figure the Blazers mindset going into Saturday’s game was -- who can fight through fatigue better?

The Spurs just barely won that battle.

 

2. Blazers go through the Bosnian Beast

The Trail Blazers went away from their typical three-point shooting after struggling from long distance. Through the first two quarters, the Blazers were 3-for-13 from deep after starting the game 0-for-8.  

But what was working for them? -- Pick and rolls with Jusuf Nurkic.

At the break, Nurkic had a team high 12 points and eight rebounds. Even with Nurkic matching up with Aldridge defensively, he was still able to stay out of foul trouble early. Nurkic had just one foul at the end of the first half.
 

3. With McCollum out, Lillard and Hood takeover… But it wasn’t enough

CJ McCollum left the game in the third quarter.

At the 7:08 mark of the third quarter, Jakob Poeltl blocked McCollum 's driving lay-in, but McCollum’s legs then got tangled up with Poeltl’s and McCollum fell awkwardly to the ground.

McCollum was helped to the locker room and did not return.

As Blazer fans wrote on twitter, Damian Lillard was playing for McCollum after Lillard went on a scoring tear to end the third. Both Lillard and Rodney Hood kept the Blazers in the game. But San Antonio squeaked out the win with their team defense and hot three-point shooting.

NEXT UP: The Trail Blazers start a four-game homestand on Monday night when the Indiana Pacers make a stop in Portland. You can catch the game at 7:00pm on NBC Sports Northwest. Our pregame coverage tips off at 6:00pm.

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Outsiders Blog: Would you welcome the L-Train back to Portland?

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USA Today

Outsiders Blog: Would you welcome the L-Train back to Portland?

It seems like it was yesterday and at the same time, it feels like it was forever ago that LaMarcus Aldridge called Rip City home. Aldridge, once the face of the franchise, left in 2015 to play with the San Antonio Spurs in his home state of Texas. 

At the time, Aldridge leaving felt like a bitter betrayal. He said he wanted to be the greatest Blazers player of all-time and then bolted in free agency. Fans felt played. Teammates seemed to be caught off guard. Reports started to surface that there may have been a rift between him and Damian Lillard. The whole situation just felt dirty.

But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Now, some four years later, it appears Aldridge and Lillard have mended fences and according to The Athletic, Aldridge is open to returning to Portland. 

"I keep telling him (Damian Lillard) I’m going to come back and finish there," Aldridge said in a recent interview. "That’s something him and I have talked about — playing together again.”

So, the question is, would you welcome The L-Train back to Portland?

The Outsiders share their thoughts:

Chris Burkhardt: Don't let hurt feeling from 2015 cloud your judgment. This is a no-brainer. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. LaMarcus Aldridge is still a high-level player. He was an All-Star this season and can still change the game. As much as I enjoy Al-Farouq Aminu, I would take Aldridge over him 10 out to 10 times without thinking twice. A team with Lillard, CJ McCollum Aldridge, and Jusuf Nurkic as its core is pretty dang good if you ask me. I'm not thinking about this for the story or the reunion, I'm just thinking about basketball. If one of the best power forwards in the game wants to play for you, you welcome him on board.
Will it happen? Probably not. But I won't be upset if it does.

Alex Haigh: This is how I feel, and I think I've come a long way since 2015 when he ruined my life... I am so over that, that I think I'm ok with him coming back. As long as it benefits the team and as long as they aren't a dirty player, bring 'em in.

Jake McGrady: Under the right circumstances. If it's in free agency, he'll be 35-years old when his contract ends in San Antonio in 2021, at that point if we're able to get him on some sort of cheaper veterans deal... even if he were a backup he's still better than most of the power forwards in the NBA. To answer the question, yes. 

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Trail Blazers trying different combinations but unlock win over San Antonio Spurs

Trail Blazers trying different combinations but unlock win over San Antonio Spurs

It was a game that saw the Trail Blazers testing as many different combinations as a rookie safecracker trying to bust into a bank vault.

In the end, the Blazers found a combination that worked and it opened up a 127-118 Portland win over the Spurs.

In the first quarter, it appeared that former Trail Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge was going to single-handedly carve up Portland. Aldridge hit five of eight shots and scored 13 points in a period that ended with San Antonio holding a 34-31 lead.

But then the Trail Blazers got a little rougher. Meyers Leonard, who was accustomed to battling Aldridge in practice years ago, came in for Portland and got a little bit rougher, a little more physical with Aldridge.

Jusuf Nurkic picked up on it and followed suit. Aldridge would make just 2 of his last 11 shots and score only four more points the rest of the night.

“LaMarcus is a monster down there,” Leonard said afterward. “But I felt we were kind of trying to feel out the game – gauge whether we were going to double off the baseline, guard him individually, things like that.

“My job was just to come in and try to disrupt the game. Be physical. In the second half, ‘Nurk’ did a great job on him. Nurk had a really good second half and LaMarcus plays a lot of minutes. LaMarcus looked to be a little worn down in the second half and that's when shots end up being a little short.

“I try to always come in and be physical and disrupt his rhythm a little bit. On the first post up he bobbled it – maybe he traveled and maybe he didn’t, I don’t know. I just try to make it difficult for him and in the second half, ‘Nurk' was very, very good.”

Nurkic knew he had a battle on his hands with Aldridge.

“We are big guys,” he said. “He’s playing his game and I tried to make it hard for him.”

The Trail Blazers built a 21-point lead with 7:45 to play in the third quarter but the Spurs sprung Rudy Gay loose at the three-point line and they had it tied at 88 with two minutes left in the quarter. But Portland dug in and got the advantage back up to 17 about halfway through the final quarter.

CJ McCollum had 30 points and Damian Lillard 24 for the Blazers. Nurkic totaled 22. Newcomer Rodney Hood made his debut with 14 points, hitting six of his seven shots.

“We started off the game going back and forth,” Lillard said. “Both teams scoring and then kind of got on top of that, had a good second quarter, started the third well, too, and then they had a run.

“A lot of mistakes – losing guys, letting them get open shots, they just had a really good stretch. That happens. It’s a game of runs. They had their run but I was proud of how we handled that.

“We pulled out a good win.”

McCollum agreed.

“We never panicked,” he said. “We know they’re a good team – well coached, and they’re going to execute and play hard.”

Portland Coach Terry Stotts admitted that with the addition of Hood, his job of putting together a rotation and in-game substitutions has gotten more difficult.

“Honestly,” he said, “it’s going to be a challenge for everybody. It’s going to be a challenge for me, it’s going to be a challenge for the team. I mean, there are going to be nights whether it’s Mo or Chief or Zach or Meyers or Jake or Evan or – you go down the list.

“We kind of had a rhythm to what we were doing and that rhythm has been broken and everybody is just going to have to be patient, figure it out and one night it’s going to be one thing and maybe the next night it won’t. That’s just the way it’s going to be until it changes.

Portland finished with a crew of Jake Layman, Hood, Nurkic, McCollum and Lillard -- and Stotts liked it.

"They were really good tonight," he said. "Jake was all over the place. For Jake, he goes one for five from three, but he certainly had a big impact on the game. That lineup gives us a lot of spacing, a lot of mobility and the question will always be, can we defend, matchup-wise. Can we defend the positions?

"It's going to take patience on everybody's part where different lineups may finish games."

Despite offensive spark, Trail Blazers' defense gets worse in loss to San Antonio Spurs

Despite offensive spark, Trail Blazers' defense gets worse in loss to San Antonio Spurs

Just when you thought the Trail Blazers’ defense couldn’t get any worse, it did.

The San Antonio Spurs made 60.2 percent of their shots, including a ridiculous 73.3 percent from three-point range, in a drubbing of Portland, the Blazers’ sixth loss in their last nine games.

Never mind the fact that the Trail Blazers got positive offensive performances from their starting forwards, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. Or that Damian Lillard scored 37 points with 10 assists and just one turnover. Or that Portland shot 52.3 percent from the field.

None of that matters when you give up the kind of red-hot shooting that produces 131 points.

“I thought LaMarcus (Aldridge) played like an all-NBA player and (DeMar) DeRozan played like an all-NBA player,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. “Those two guys are great offensive players and they got untracked tonight. They have two all-NBA players and the rest of their players make threes.

“They shot a lot of twos, they made a lot of twos. We gave up some easy ones when we doubled LaMarcus in the second half.

“The doubles in the first half were good, they adjusted in the second half. I thought we competed. We gave up too many transition shots, and we didn’t communicate on the backside on double teams as well as we could have.

“I thought DeRozan and LaMarcus worked for their points.”

Maybe so, but they combined for 65 points and drew enough attention to leave teammates wide open for many easy shots. And the normally pedestrian Spurs had 17 fast-break points.

Portland clawed back to lead by seven in the third quarter but couldn’t get enough stops to make it stick and trailed by seven heading into the fourth quarter.

The Blazers opened the game looking like a team that wanted to force turnovers – slapping at ball-handlers and diving for loose balls. That was fine, but when it came to contesting shooters, there wasn’t a lot of improvement.

This is a team that allowed 106.3 points over its first 13 games but is now allowing 118.9 over its last 10.

Harkless hit both his three-point shots, scored eight points, had seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks in his best game of the season.

Aminu had his second straight 20-point game (the first time in his career he has put together such games back-to-back) on seven of nine shooting, with nine rebounds.

“It’s been a struggle,” Aminu said of his team’s defensive problems. “Teams have been able to score at a high efficiency rate pretty easily in the last couple of games.

“I like the way we started the game. We had a couple of steals, guys getting on the floor – we even showed that at halftime. We just have to make sure we sustain that.

“I think sometimes we just get happy and just start thinking you don’t have to work hard for it. We just have to learn how to do it for four quarters in order to win games. In the beginning of the year, it was just coming easy. We have to understand that this is the NBA and things are just not going to come easy.”

If they don't know that by now, I'm not sure if they will ever learn it.

 

Damian Lillard moves into 3rd on Blazers All-Time Scoring list

Damian Lillard moves into 3rd on Blazers All-Time Scoring list

For the past two seasons, Trail Blazers fans have been witnessing All-Star Damian Lillard climb up the franchise all-time scoring list. On Friday night at Golden State, Lillard needed just 13 points to pass Terry Porter for third on the Blazers all-time scoring list. Lillard completed the feat at the 4:04 mark in the third quarter after hitting a three-pointer to give him 13 points and the number three spot on the list.    

Trail Blazers All-Time Scoring List:

1. Clyde Drexler 18,040

2. LaMarcus Aldridge 12,562

3. Damian Lillard 11,318

4. Clifford Robinson 10,405

5. Jerome Kersey 10,067

6. Jim Paxson 10,003

If you do some quick math based on Lillard's career scoring average (23.2), it will be around another 53-54 games until he passes Aldridge for #2. Fifty-three games from today is home vs. Detroit on March 23rd. So we can expect Lillard to make that jump in mid to late March. 

Looking at that number one spot, Lillard will need somewhere around another 289 games at his current average to pass Clyde. With 63 games remaining this season, it would take an additional 2.75 seasons with the Blazers at his current pace to surpass Drexler for first. 

With LA out of the way for now, Spurs next up for Blazers presenting an entirely different challenge...

With LA out of the way for now, Spurs next up for Blazers presenting an entirely different challenge...

TUALATIN --  There was a lot of attention surrounding the Trail Blazers’ home opener Thursday night, You know ... the Lakers, LeBron, winning streaks, national television, etc.

But Saturday night’s game in Moda Center against the San Antonio Spurs shapes up to be a much more challenging evening for the home team.

San Antonio’s new-look Spurs visit Portland with the last vestiges of their “Big Three” absent and a new all-star in the fold.

The 1-0 Spurs come in off a 112-108 home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night in their first game since 2001 without either Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, two-thirds of the Big Three that brought multiple championships (along with retired Tim Duncan) to the franchise. The Spurs, of course, were also without Kawhi Leonard, traded last summer to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan,

But the Spurs are still the Spurs – a team not to be taken lightly, especially with the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan carrying a heavy load.

“It’s still San Antonio basketball,” said Portland’s CJ McCollum after practice Friday. “They have implemented DeMar seamlessly. It’s typical Spurs basketball. It will be a good game.”

But certainly a different game than the opener, which featured the run-and-gun attack of the Lakers.

“The exact opposite,” said Damian Lillard. “The Spurs execute well in halfcourt, have good ball movement, screen well and they are well coached, so it’s going to be a completely different game.”

Coach Terry Stotts agreed.

“It will be a different-paced game,” he said. “We’re going to try to push it a little but I don’t know if San Antonio will run with us.”

There isn’t a lot to go on yet with the Spurs after just one game. And the developing dynamic between Aldridge and DeRozan will be something to watch.

''He's a great passer,'' Aldridge said of DeRozan. ''He's always looking and probing and I'm too open. I have to get used to being ready and just taking my time. When I figure it out (and) I get my rhythm back, it's going to be way easier out there to score having him.''

Aldridge had 19 rebounds but needed 23 shots to score his 21 points. DeRozan scored 28, including a field goal and two free throws late to seal the game.

''Hey, I've been doing it for some years now,'' the 29-year-old DeRozan said about the late heroics. ''I just feel out the game, always try to be aggressive and at the end moments, I always want to be there. I'm not afraid to make mistakes, but with that I'm not afraid to try to go out there and win the game.''

And that will be part of the challenge Saturday night in Moda in the season’s second game.

LaMarcus Aldridge has high praise for Manu Ginobili

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nbcsnw

LaMarcus Aldridge has high praise for Manu Ginobili

NBA Twitter showed its appreciation for Manu Ginobili after the Spurs legend decided to call it a career, retiring after 16 years in the NBA. Not only did the fans show love, but so did current and former NBA players. One of those players was Ginobili's teammate in San Antonio, former Trail Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge.

Wait, what does "you were even successful in getting me to participate in more team activities than I have in my entire career" mean? Did Aldridge throw a little shade at the Trail Blazers? Probably not. He's obviously just praising Ginobili, but still, one has to wonder...

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.’’

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

Not many people picked the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in their second-round playoff matchup that began last night in San Antonio. But I did. So you would think I'd be feeling pretty good about the Rockets after their 126-99 thrashing of the Spurs Monday night.

And even though San Antonio appeared to be way overmatched in Game 1 of the series, I feel worse about my prediction than you might think. That's because I was in the old Boston Garden on May 27, 1985 for the first game of that season's Finals when the Celtics ran the Los Angeles Lakers out of the gym with a humiliating 148-114 defeat. They called it the Memorial Day Massacre.

I was one of many people after that game to write about how washed up the Lakers -- and 38-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- looked in that game. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 12 points and three rebounds and just didn't look as if he could keep up with Boston's talented front line. I thought the series was over right then and there.

And I was very wrong. The Lakers won four of the next five games and closed out the Celts in Boston in Game 6 -- behind Abdul-Jabbar, who won the MVP award for the series. It was the only time the Celtics ever lost an NBA championship in that arena.

So that whipping Houston put on San Antonio didn't make me feel all that much better about its chances. It was just one game and next one doesn't start with the Rockets holding a 27-point lead.

I'd say the series hinges on the play of LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just four points Monday night. When Aldridge left Portland for the Spurs, I'm sure he was satisfied with the salary he'd be making and the winning tradition of his new team. But I'm wondering now if he understood the sort of responsibility he'd be having to shoulder as the Spurs moved through the playoffs. Tim Duncan isn't going to be walking through that locker room door during this series.

There were times in Portland when I thought Aldridge wanted very much to be a superstar but didn't always respond like one. He had the talent... but did he have the heart?

He better find his way in a hurry for the Spurs because Kawhi Leonard can't be expected to carry that team by himself.