Nuggets looking to stop the Blazers' pick-and-roll action in Game 2

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Nuggets looking to stop the Blazers' pick-and-roll action in Game 2

DENVER – As the Nuggets prepare for Game 2 against the Trail Blazers, there is one key adjustment they’re planning on making.

After Denver’s morning shootaround Wednesday, both backup center Mason Plumlee and starting power forward Paul Millsap discussed the change the Nuggets plan to make.

“Our pick-and-roll defense. They ran a lot of pick-and-rolls, and then we put Dame on the free throw line a lot in the second half. There’s room for improvement that’s for sure,” Plumlee said.

Millsap added, “Being up on their pick-and-rolls, that’s the main thing, just trying to stop them, their pick-and-roll action, they just do so much of it, trying to make it to our spots.”

Of course, the Nuggets weren’t about to give away their gameplan though.

“I can’t tell you the plan, but I can say we gotta do better on it, but that’s about it,” Millsap joked.

As for what the Nuggets expect to see from the Blazers and their adjustments, Denver feels most of the focus will be on how they defend big man Nikola Jokic.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they double Joker a little more,” Plumlee said.

Jokic finished with 37 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in Game 1 on Monday night.

All season long, Jokic has lead this young Denver team; a team that won its seven-game-series with the Spurs and then took Game 1 at home against the Blazers, 121-113.

Heading into Game 2, the Nuggets’ confidence is pretty high or as Plumlee said, their confidence is “steady.”

“I would just say steady…. Obviously, we started this series better than the last one, but if we don’t win tonight it doesn’t mean anything. So, we’re just even kill and ready for a good game,” Plumlee said.    

Millsap feels this team is confident in their series against the Blazers because of how Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has prepared them.

“We go through every play in shoot-around, every play in the playbook. So, he’s definitely big on preparation… Being prepared is one of those things that if you know that you’re fully prepared and you go through every thing you can accept whatever happens,” Millsap said.

“That’s why I’m confident in our group – we are well prepared from all angles. We touch every base, so we leave no stone unturned,” Millsap added.

It sounds like it’s the battle of confidence and adjustments heading into Game 2 of this best-of-seven-game-series.

Meyers Leonard not only ready, he's ready to play hard

Meyers Leonard not only ready, he's ready to play hard

Denver – On the morning of Game 1 of the Trail Blazers’ second-round playoff series vs. Denver, Meyers Leonard was asked how much he expected to play tonight against the Nuggets and their star center, Nikola Jokic.

After all, starting Portland center Enes Kanter was still listed as “questionable” for the game.

“I have no idea,” Leonard said. “They’ve got quite a few bigs. You know Jokic is a very talented player, so maybe we’ll try to throw a lot of different bodies at him – who knows?

“They’ve got Mase (Mason Plumlee) coming off the bench. A high-energy guy who I’m familiar with. We’ll see. I really don’t know.

“I’m just going to be ready and be ready to play hard.”

Leonard always plays hard and he’s had a very solid season while still getting inconsistent minutes. He shot 54.5 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range and 84.3 percent from the foul line. Better than that, in his 14 career playoff games heading into this postseason, he had shot 59.4 percent from the floor and 58.8 percent from three.

There is an assumption that at some point of the game Leonard will be tasked with defending Jokic. What’s the book on how to do that?

“It’s impossible to take everything away from him,” Leonard said. “First of all, because he’s very, very skilled, but second of all, because they play kind of an open style. Sometimes he brings the ball up, sometimes he’s trailing the play, facilitating – from the top of the key or from the block, so he’s all over the floor doing different things within their offense.

“Taking away his left shoulder on the block is important, pressuring him, not allowing him to see the floor as best you can and just try to make things uncomfortable for him.

“He’s coming off a seven-game series so as much as possible, push the pace, play very aggressively within ourselves.

“The biggest thing, we’ve just got to keep being ourselves. Obviously, we had a really, really good first-round series. We played hard, we played aggressive, we played together and I think if we continue to do that, we’ll be just fine.”

And it’s always a question with Leonard – how much does he expect to play?

“It’s always, just be ready to play, for me,” he said. “Expect to? I don’t know. But I’ll be ready.”

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Lin to Trail Blazers for a 1st-round pick? Now THAT'S (L)insanity!

Lin to Trail Blazers for a 1st-round pick? Now THAT'S (L)insanity!

Well, somebody else has picked up that goofy trade rumor that showed up yesterday.

You’ve probably heard it by now – that deal that has Portland sending a first-round pick to Atlanta for Jeremy Lin.

Yeah, sure. That's real.

The Trail Blazers, whose third guard – Seth Curry – is leading the NBA in three-point shooting right now, are going to trade for who? Jeremy Lin? Yeah, that makes sense. Add a player, who may not be good enough to be a rotation player here, who is earning $11.48 million this season?

Yeah, Neil Olshey – who somehow convinced Denver to trade him Jusuf Nurkic AND a first-round pick for Mason Plumlee -- has suffered some sort of mysterious brain injury that would suddenly cause him to want to add Jeremy Lin and that salary for a first-round pick? Really? A first-round pick? For a guard this team doesn't even need?

It seems more likely to me, just a guess here, that Atlanta Hawks General Manager Travis Shlenk is trying to raise Lin's trade value by making it seem multiple teams are interested in him.

Honestly, it would be embarrassing to even ask Olshey about such a deal. It’s not true. And shame on you if you even considered that it was.

 

Some thoughts on Z-Bo as a King, the Clippers' investments and Mason Plumlee's logo

Some thoughts on Z-Bo as a King, the Clippers' investments and Mason Plumlee's logo

A lot going on in the NBA since the draft, with trades and free agency. Some thoughts about what we've seen lately:

  • Zach Randolph signed a two-year, $24 million deal to join Sacramento. All over the internet I've read people hailing this as a great move for the Kings, bringing that "veteran presence" to the Kings' young squad. Well, maybe. The Memphis Z-Bo was, by all accounts, a community contributor and a team leader -- a beloved player in that town. But we've seen the other side of him in Portland and when you talk about a player on the downside of his career signing with a team for the money, rather than for a chance at a championship, I'm not sure if you can depend on Randolph to be a leader or an example of how an NBA player should handle himself. But who knows? I do know they don't want the Portland Z-Bo in Sacramento.
  • When you win, you can often retain your players at a lower cost, quite obviously. I've never been able to convince many people that a big part of playing in the NBA is the day-to-day culture and atmosphere on a team. Yes, championships are the thing -- but it's just as important to be able to get through the marathon 82-game season with a minimal amount of drama and sadness. The Warriors have a great culture where players are unselfish and play hard. And they win almost every game they play. If you think that's not important, try to picture yourself on a team that loses more games than it wins and features selfish players who don't want to share the ball. I wouldn't want to spend time in a situation like that. Golden State got Shaun Livingston back at $8 million a year, Andre Iguodala at $16 million a season and Kevin Durant at two years for a total of $53 million -- about $9 million a year under what he could have gotten with a max deal. Durant declined a player option and become a free agent to allow the Warriors to retain Iguodala and Livingston.
  • Blake Griffin got $173 million over five years to stay with the Clippers. I've always liked Griffin and wondered what he'd be like away from the Clips, but I don't think I'd ever give him that kind of money. He's missed 79 games over the last three seasons and I've always felt that when players start to break down, they can go downhill in a hurry.
  • Paul Millsap got a three-year, $90 million deal with the Nuggets. Millsap is a steady player who grinds every night. But should a guy who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game over 11 seasons in the league make 30 million bucks a year?
  • Maybe so, if Danilo Gallinari is going to get $65 million over three seasons from the Clippers. He's a very good shooter when he plays -- but this is another guy who spends a lot of time on the bench in street clothes. He's averaged about 50 games a season over his last seven years in the league.
  • Mason Plumlee has still not signed a contract but the Nuggets have reportedly extended him a qualifying offer of $4.9 million. This is a good guy, good teammate and I hope he finds a team that appreciates his unique skillset. And to while away the time until he signs a deal, Plumlee has been active on his website at masonplumlee.com -- where you can buy your Mason Plumlee logo T-shirt.

Behind Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers take care of Denver, move into sole possession of 8th

Behind Jusuf Nurkic, Trail Blazers take care of Denver, move into sole possession of 8th

The player who turned around the Trail Blazers season might have just sealed their postseason fate.

Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a trade with Denver 19 games ago, had a career-high 33 points to go along with 16 rebounds, leading the Trail Blazers to a 122-113 win over the Nuggets that put the Blazers in sole possession of  the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with eight games left.

Nurkic leading up to the game downplayed the matchup against his former teammates, but quickly it became apparent this wasn’t an ordinary game for the Bosnian.

Playing with aggression and emotion, Nurkic dunked with abandon, repeatedly urged the crowd to get louder, and cheered his teammates on wildly as the Blazers broke the tie with the Nuggets for eighth.

The sellout Moda Center crowd serenaded Nurkic in the fourth quarter with chants of “JU-SUF NUR-KIC” and he received a standing ovation when he was substituted out of the game with 22 seconds left.

"I was really happy for him,'' Coach Terry Stotts said. "I know how it is any time you face a former team, that carries a little added significance for that player. And this is probably the most important game he has played in the NBA -- playoff implications, all that. So obviously a big game for him, probably biggest in his career. Really happy the way it turned out for him.''

Plumlee, meanwhile, missed all four of his shots and finished with two rebounds and three assists in 16 minutes, his play as anonymous as his entrance in the first quarter, when the Blazers public address announcer failed to mention his name.

As much as Nurkic was the star, and a major subplot to the game, Blazers guard CJ McCollum was just as impactful. He scored 37 points on 15-of-24 shooting and carried the Blazers in the second quarter, when he scored 16 points.

Portland (36-38) won its fourth straight and is now 12-3 in March. In essence, the Blazers have a two-game edge over Denver (35-39) for the final playoff spot because they won the season-series over the Nuggets 3-1. Portland has six of its final eight games at home while Denver played six of its final eight on the road.

Jameer Nelson led Denver with 23 points and Nikola Jokic, the player whose emergence this season pushed Nurkic to the wayside, had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Denver lost its shooting touch in the third quarter, closing the quarter making 4 of its final 16 shots, and the Blazers took advantage, turning a 77-76 lead into a 95-85 advantage heading into the fourth.

Denver was within 109-103 with 5:07 left, but Al-Farouq Aminu (15 points) scored four in a row and Denver never threatened again.

The Blazers led 66-64 at halftime in a fast-paced, hot-shooting game. Portland made its move midway through the second quarter with a 10-0 run that gave them a 56-52 lead. The spurt included a Nurkic dunk, Nurkic post up on Plumlee and three-pointers from McCollum and Lillard.

The first half featured 12 ties and five lead changes, with Denver holding as much as a seven point lead and Portland no lead larger than four.

Nurkic was engaged and electric from the opening tip. He scored the Blazers’ first points off an offensive rebound and had six of the team’s first nine and nine of the first 18. He repeatedly asked the crowd to make more noise, and when he rested on the bench, he was often the first up to cheer his teammates.

Next up: Houston at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT)

Podcast:

Date circled on calendar since his trade, Mason Plumlee returns to Portland

Date circled on calendar since his trade, Mason Plumlee returns to Portland

Back in Portland on Monday evening for the first time since he was traded, Mason Plumlee felt like he was on a whirlwind reunion schedule.

 “Only here 48 hours,’’ Plumlee said over the phone while directing a friend through Portland streets.  “There’s a lot going on.’’

The biggest event, of course, comes Tuesday evening, when Plumlee’s Denver Nuggets face his old team, the Trail Blazers, in a game that will go a long way to determining the Western Conference’s final playoff team.

“Big game. There are plenty of storylines with the trade, the tie breaker, the playoffs,’’ Plumlee said. “There’s only one spot left up for grabs, and in my mind, that’s what tomorrow is all about.’’

The Blazers (35-38) and Denver (35-38) are tied with nine games remaining, and a win by the Blazers would clinch any tie-breaking scenario, essentially creating a two-game lead with eight left.

It has been a game on Plumlee’s radar ever since he was traded by the Blazers on Feb. 12 for Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

“As soon as I was traded, I looked at the remaining schedule to see when we were going to Portland,’’ Plumlee said. “And even back then when I was traded, we were the two teams in contention, and I remember saying ‘That’s going to be a big game.’ And sure enough …’’

In Denver, Plumlee has started eight of 18 games and is averaging 9.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 24.3 minutes. In Portland, Plumlee started all 54 games and averaged 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 28 minutes.

“I’ve come off the bench more than I’ve started, and I’m given the ball sometimes to make decisions,’’ Plumlee said. “They like what I did in Portland and are trying to integrate me into what they are doing.’’

He said he is happy in Denver, and has come to the realization that today’s NBA is more about moving parts than stability.

“To me, it has been another step in the journey,’’ Plumlee said. “And it comes with just understanding the league has changed. There’s not going to be a Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant or Nick Collison. Very few players get to spend time in one city. It’s just not how it goes.’’

He said he has casually followed what has happened with the Blazers since he left, which includes an 11-3 record in March, and he said their spurt doesn’t surprise him.

“It’s about the time last year when we turned it around,’’ Plumlee said. “We had a slow start last year too … I don’t know what the reason is, but it doesn’t surprise me.’’

 He said he caught the end of the Blazers’ victory Sunday against the Lakers, because it came after his Nuggets were upset by New Orleans at home, enabling the Blazers to move into the tie.

He then packed for Portland, which will be the first city on a five-game trip for the Nuggets, who end the season with seven of their final nine on the road. When he left Portland in February, he was able to get out of his lease, and put his belongings in storage, so he figures it will be his last time in Portland until next season.

So Monday night was a night for reunions and old faces, but only for a night.

“Tomorrow is big. It’s not just one game, it’s for the head-to-head, so it’s bigger than one game,’’ Plumlee said. “Everybody has an understanding of what’s at stake.’’

Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).

Nurkic brings a new optimism to Trail Blazer future

Nurkic brings a new optimism to Trail Blazer future

On Talkin' Ball Thursday night I called it "Nurkic Fever" -- and I'll admit coming down with a case of it.

Suddenly, as Jason Quick said, the Trail Blazers are fun to watch again. And for me, I can now see a path to building a very good team in Portland -- which is something I'm not sure I saw previously.

Yes, it's a small sample size with Nurkic and I was always impressed with the contributions Mason Plumlee made in Portland. But this was a terrific trade for Portland: Nurkic is a different breed -- a much more well-rounded, true center. A real big man -- a post player, a shot blocker and a man who seems to pass almost as well as Plumlee did.

So instead of moving forward still needing two very big pieces to complete a promising roster around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, it's at least possible to picture Nurkic -- with all the developmental skill that Portland coaching staff has (see Robin Lopez and Plumlee) -- as a viable center of the future.

For me that leaves the Trail Blazers just one player away from being a team that projects as a factor in the Western Conference.

Portland still needs a talented forward -- either big or small. And not just an average player but a potential star. That would leave Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless to man the other forward position. And given the four draft picks the Blazers have coming up in the draft and possible trade chips on the Portland bench, there's a real possibility of landing that forward -- whoever he may be.

And even though the Trail Blazers, if they miss the playoffs, will end up with a very good draft pick in a deep draft, I like the idea of using that pick and at least one of the other first-round choices along with one of those reserves, to land a proven, experienced forward with at least a couple of years left on his contract.

Sure, a promising youngster would be fine, too -- but it would accelerate the development of this group to acquire an experienced veteran with a winning background.

Yes, I've already mentioned the small sample size with Nurkic. But this guy is doing things that no Portland center has done in many seasons. And I constantly remind myself that big players improve later than small ones and it's possible to acquire very good players out of someone else's trash can.

Hassan Whiteside is one of the best centers in the league, a man who is going to make a fortune playing the game, but his path to being one of the best defenders in the NBA was twisting and strange. Whiteside was drafted in 2010 by the Sacramento Kings and played in only 19 games in his first two seasons. The Kings optioned him to Reno of the D League but then waived him. He knocked around the D League for a while, playing for Sioux Falls and Rio Grande before heading for two teams in the Lebanon league and two teams in China. He was actually released from his team in Lebanon and didn't last with his final team in China.

In 2014 he got into the Memphis training camp but was released before the end of camp. Back to the D League he went, with Rio Grande and Iowa before Memphis signed him, only to release him the next day. Back to Iowa he went. In November of that season he signed with Miami and was immediately sent back to the D League. But once the Heat called him up in January, he stuck and began posting double-doubles with multiple blocked shots.

Yes, big guys take time. And yes, sometimes they can go from bench guy -- D League guy -- to becoming a mainstay. I'm not saying Nurkic is Whiteside, but I'm saying he's 22 and I'll put my money on Portland's assistant coaches to make him much better. Sometimes players just land in the right place at the right time with the right team and blossom.

And in the meantime, I invite you to sit back and watch him play. He's fun to watch.

But take care -- Nurkic Fever is contagious.

Blazers turn Plumlee into first-round pick and, maybe, a player

Blazers turn Plumlee into first-round pick and, maybe, a player

I must start off by saying it's a shame when a team must trade a player with the popularity, smarts and competitive spirit of Mason Plumlee. He will be missed by his former teammates off and on the court.

But this is the state of sports, particularly the NBA, these days. Salaries dictate rosters. There is a salary cap and a luxury tax on top of that. No team wants to get into the tax, for a variety of reasons. The Trail Blazers were in a position that when Plumlee became a restricted free agent this summer they were very likely not going to be willing or able to match a rich offer to him. They were going to have to let him walk.

Because of that, they were somewhat handicapped in making a deal including him because other teams knew their situation. It looked like one of those bargain-basement sales where a player could be had for a pittance because the trading team had to unload him.

But the Trail Blazers were able to get a first-round draft pick (originally from Memphis) -- their third first-round pick in an upcoming draft people are calling very deep -- and a 22-year-old center who may or may not become a solid player. Jusuf Nurkic is certainly too young to give up on, even though he is going through a troubled season.

Near the end of last season, you could read this about the young center they have called the "Bosnian Beast":

Nurkic could be a cornerstone for the Nuggets franchise for years to come, if he figures things out. He is a dominate (sic) force down low that has scoring ability and a great defensive presence.

And:

There are a lot of questions surrounding Nurkic — like attitude, health and chemistry with teammates — but he unquestionably has the skill to be one of the best big men in the NBA.

But this season, as his playing time has decreased, you could read this kind of stuff:

Nurkic (8 PPG, 5.8 RPG) isn’t the answer. The 22-year-old Bosnian seven-footer might be an Internet cult hero due to his fearsome physical presence, but he hasn’t been a positive difference-maker in his two-plus seasons in Denver. This year, his -10.3 net rating and 98.2 offensive rating were the worst marks among the Nuggets’ rotation players, and he rightfully lost his starting job in mid-December. From the team perspective, Nurkic represents a step backwards from Plumlee offensively given his mediocre scoring efficiency, turnover issues and floor-cramping paint-bound game. And remember, Denver is one of just three teams with a worse defensive rating than Portland this season. While Nurkic has had the chance to be a savior for a poor defense, he hasn’t even played effectively enough to warrant true starter minutes.

Here is the way I look at this, though: Portland is in this for the long term. This wasn't a deal to try to get the Blazers into the playoffs this season. If they get there, great -- but they aren't going to sacrifice their long-term plan in exchange for an eighth seed. They have the time to give Nurkic enough minutes to find out whether he's a boom or a bust. If he proves to be a bust, well, they've still gotten that first-round pick for Plumlee.

When you haven't been able to attract free agents and aren't going to land a top-five draft choice, this is the kind of thing you do -- take a flier on a player with promise and hope he turns out better than expected. If not, you discard him and move on. Plumlee was a great team guy -- one who will be missed. But it would have been hard to envision him as the starting center on a team contending for a championship. So rather than give him a huge contract or let him depart with nothing in return, this was the smart way to handle the situation.

Now, on a different team with a different coach, we'll see who he is.

 

Mason Plumlee's memorable Sunday involves break-in and a trade to Denver

Mason Plumlee's memorable Sunday involves break-in and a trade to Denver

As fate would have it, Mason Plumlee was at the Trail Blazers practice facility earlier than normal on Sunday.

Players are required to be at the team’s facility by 10:15 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice, but Plumlee on Sunday was there at 9:30 a.m. in order to expedite a pressing order.

Earlier that morning, as he approached his SUV in the parking garage of his Pearl District complex, he noticed someone had broken into his car.

His mind raced. Gone was his checkbook. His wallet.

“I went in early to the facility to start cancelling my checkbook, my credit cards,’’ Plumlee said. “And someone said, ‘Neil wants to meet with you.’’’

When Plumlee arrived at the office of Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, coach Terry Stotts was also in the office.

“They told me I wasn’t going to practice today,’’ Plumlee said.

Plumlee, the Blazers’ starting center who was having a career season, had been traded to Denver for 22-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick.

Because the league office is not open on Sunday, the trade is expected to become official on Monday. Plumlee said he spoke with Denver representatives and he tentatively is planning to fly to Denver on Sunday night.

By the afternoon, the blur of the morning news distracted Plumlee from his task of cancelling his bank accounts. It was difficult reaching banks on a Sunday, and his phone has been ringing off the hook. One of his first conversations was with his brother, Miles, who 10 days ago was traded from Milwaukee to Charlotte.

“I was just talking to my brother. It’s very different getting traded in the season,’’ Plumlee said. “As a player, you always feel like you are in the fight. We were just talking as a team yesterday, that ‘We are in this … we have to get into the playoffs and come through …’’’

It would turn out to be his last team meeting.

“All of the sudden,'' Plumlee said, "the whole conversation changes.''

**

The day before he was traded, the Blazers had long ago finished practice when Plumlee walked into the gym, hoodie over his head and hands in his sweat pants.

He was headed toward the team’s video room to pick up film of the Saturday practice so he could study it at home. After picking up the video, he noticed Stotts and myself talking on a bench at the other side of the gym.

I gave him a peace sign, and after he waved back, he called out to Stotts.

“Have a good day, Coach.’’

Stotts turned to me and said, ‘What a great guy, huh?’’

I told him Plumlee was one of my favorite guys on the roster. He was personable, smiled easily, and was thoughtful in his responses. Plus, he played hard, and throughout this trying season he was never one to focus on the negative. His approach is best summed up by one of his favorite sayings: he would rather focus on a solution rather than dwell on the problem.

On Sunday, Plumlee was curious about the previous day’s scene.

“Let me ask you something,’’ Plumlee said. “Is (the trade) what you and Stotts were talking about yesterday?’’

I told him the truth – it was not part of our conversation -- and told him I didn't know whether Stotts knew something was brewing. 

Recently, Plumlee said he had conversations with his agent, Mark Bartlestein about his future. Plumlee is set to become a free agent this summer after he and the Blazers didn’t come to terms on a contract extension this fall.

Plumlee said his agent had talks with the Blazers, but the Blazers never made an offer before the Oct. 31 deadline, setting him up to be one of the more prized big men on the free agent market this summer. 

“As I talked to my agent (recently), he said he would be surprised if I was moved before trade deadline,’’ Plumlee said.

But there he was Sunday morning, sitting in Olshey’s office with Stotts.

“They really handled the trade in a classy manner,’’ Plumlee said. “They thanked me, and I thanked them. This organization has always been very good to me.’’

**

It was fitting that one of Plumlee’s final scenes in Portland was walking to the video room to get film of that day’s practice.

He was a student of the game and one of the smartest players on the team, which is one of the reasons why Stotts entrusted him to be the team’s primary inbounder, and why Stotts broadened the team’s offense to put the ball in Plumlee’s hands more often.  

Plumlee’s  study of the game was also why he bonded so closely with Lillard, the team’s captain. Lillard earlier this season called Plumlee a “servant” because he always put other’s needs before his own. In particular, he would often pull Lillard aside to suggest a play call to help get a teammate involved, or stop by Lillard’s locker after leaving the showers to talk review an aspect of that night’s game.

“Every flight you walk by Mason’s seat and he was watching film, guarantee you,’’ Lillard said. “You don’t find people that committed to being a better player and committed to our team.’’

When Lillard encountered Plumlee cleaning out his locker Sunday morning, he told him how he felt.

“I just told him how much I appreciated him as a teammate and let him know he was one of my favorite teammates that I’ve played with – not just in the NBA, but in my life, period,’’ Lillard said. “I will miss him.’’

**

As he prepared to leave Sunday for his new team and his new city, Plumlee couldn’t help but realize he was leaving more than his checkbook and wallet in Portland.

It is here where he blossomed as a player and forged lasting relationships, both personally and professionally.

“There are a lot of guys I learned from on those Portland teams,’’ Plumlee said. “And as I said last year in my exit interviews, Dame is the best player I’ve played with to date. And the staff there was really good. A good group of people. I was happy to say I could be a part of it.’’

He was traded to Portland from Brooklyn on draft night in 2015, and by the time he reported in September, Stotts envisioned great things. He saw an athletic and skilled big man who could not only bring the ball up court, but thread beautiful and heady passes.

He soon became an important cog in the Blazers’ flow offense, hitting backdoor passes to Lillard for layins and becoming an accomplished finisher around the rim, often times with his distinctive style: a back-to-the-rim reverse dunk.

“It was a great time for me as a player to establish myself as a starter in this league,’’ Plumlee said. “My whole thing coming over from Brooklyn was ‘I’m a starter in this league.’ And last year, I will always remember winning the playoff series, and this year … team wise it hasn’t gone as well, but I’ve improved. So the last year and half, I will look at it as a time of growth.’’

He said he hasn’t put much thought into his new team, the Nuggets, who are one game ahead of the Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

“I just know they have a lot of talent, they are young – they are playing really well right now,’’ Plumlee said. “I’m excited to go there. I’m glad Denver is the place I ended up. It’s good to be wanted and the trade that happened show they wanted me.’’

Trail Blazers lose 17-point lead, and game, as Boston gets revenge

Trail Blazers lose 17-point lead, and game, as Boston gets revenge

The Trail Blazers’ chance to move into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot was thwarted Thursday when the short-handed Boston Celtics overcame a 17-point halftime deficit and beat the Blazers 120-111 at the Moda Center.

Isaiah Thomas had 34 points and fill-in starters Marcus Smart (18 points) and Jaylen Brown (14 points, 7 rebounds) carried Boston (34-19) to its eighth win in nine games.

The Blazers (23-31) fell one game behind Denver (23-29) for the final playoff spot in the West despite a season-high 26 points from Al-Farouq Aminu and Damian Lillard’s 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Boston started the second half on a 10-2 run to take a 59-57 lead and complete their comeback from 17 down. The lead see-sawed for much of the third before Brown hit a corner three with 4.2 seconds left to give the Celtics a 77-76 lead heading into the fourth.

The Blazers were within 99-98 with 5:43 left after an Aminu three, but Boston pulled away, thanks in large part to Thomas’ 15 fourth-quarter points.

It was the first game for the Blazers without Evan Turner, who broke his right hand Tuesday in Dallas. Maurice Harkless started in Turner’s spot and finished with four points and four rebounds in 23 minutes.

The Celtics cut into a 17-point deficit to draw within 55-49 at halftime thanks to a streaking finish by Thomas. The Celtics’ point guard, who hasn’t scored below 20 points all season, started 2-of-10 from the field, but heated up by scoring 10 points in the final 2:30. His flurry led a 13-2 run to close the half for Boston.

Portland raced to a 32-22 lead after the first quarter as McCollum made his first three shots and Lillard hit two early three-pointers, which complemented the active inside play of Mason Plumlee, who had seven points and four rebounds in the quarter.

Boston played without starters Avery Bradley (Achilles) and Jae Crowder (family matter), starting Brown, a rookie, and third-year player Smart in their place.

Next up: Atlanta at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Monday (TNT)

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