Nurkic -- too busy for conversations -- buries Jazz in second half

Nurkic -- too busy for conversations -- buries Jazz in second half

SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers played one of their best games of the season Monday night in Vivint Smart Home Arena. And maybe that was because they played one of their best second halves of the season.

From top to bottom – the 109-104 decision over the Utah Jazz was a team win.

But check out some of these second-half contributions:

  • Jusuf Nurkic was 2-8 from the field in the first half with two rebounds. He finished the game 8-17 with nine rebounds, seven assists and six blocked shots.
  • Jake Layman played only 7:20 in the first half and scored two points. He finished with 12 points and two very big three-point field goals and played 18 minutes in the second half, including every second of the final quarter.
  • Meyers Leonard had only two first-half points but went 2-2 from three-point distance in the second half and finished with eight points.
  • The Jazz shot 45.5 percent in the first half, but just 34 percent after halftime.
  • Portland shot 44.4 percent in the first half, making just 1-of-5 from three-point range. However in the second half, the Trail Blazers shot 55.6 percent overall and made 7-of-13 from distance.

A lot of the second-half success had to be attributed to simply growing accustomed to playing against Utah’s shot-blocking demon Rudy Gobert, who is tough to handle at both ends.

On offense, the Jazz do a great job of putting Gobert’s defender in a cat-and-mouse game of either picking up a guard at the rim – allowing for a lob to Gobert or an offensive put-back – or allowing the guard to get a layup while staying with Gobert.

But Nurkic turned it around at halftime, particularly in a hot third quarter.

“I’m capable of doing that,” Nurkic said of his second-half performance. “I have really grown up since I came to Portland. I’ve learned no matter how bad things are in the first quarter or second quarter, there’s always a new quarter.

“I can make smarter decisions. I think Dame helped me out a lot.”

Nurkic got into a little tiff with Jae Crowder in the third quarter and it seemed to perk him up.

“I don’t know,” he said. “People walk into me and I’m not going to back up. He doesn’t want to fight. He just wants a conversation, I guess.”

Lately a lot of people seem to want a conversation with Nurkic, including Sacramento’s Iman Shumpert.

“I’m just a busy man, I don’t have time for it,” Nurkic said with a smile.

Coach Terry Stotts liked what he got from his big center.

“Well, the second half Nurkic was huge at both ends,” Stotts said. “He had a presence in the paint. He’s blocking shots, and obviously pick-and-rolls, finishing around the basket.”

Leonard had no hesitation to his shooting Monday and that’s been slowly vanishing from his game.

“Yeah, that’s important,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been working on a lot with the coaches in practice. Honestly, that’s another progression for me.”

There were plenty of heroes in this one. Damian Lillard had 26 points, eight assists and eight rebounds. Evan Turner played the entire fourth quarter and chalked up 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

The Blazers have no time to celebrate this one. They hopped on their charter after the game and headed for Oklahoma City, where they meet the Thunder Tuesday night.

 

Scoop Journal: Gobert is always a factor, Twitch is taking over

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Scoop Journal: Gobert is always a factor, Twitch is taking over

Welcome to The Scoop Journal, where every week I empty my notebook of wide ranging Trail Blazer thoughts, observations, and randomness. I hope you enjoy this light-hearted weekly blog...


January 20th, 2019

Dear Scoop Journal,

As the Trail Blazers get set to head out on a three-game in four nights road trip, I thought it was a good time to write down all of my random Trail Blazers thoughts from this past week and a look ahead to what’s about to go down on this trip.

*This week was busy! We were given a crazy Jake Layman highlight reel, a Moe Harkless return, and a situation with Iman Shumpert waiting outside of the Blazers locker room.

*It’s been fun talking with the Blazers and coaching staff this week about how happy they are to see Layman playing so well. I really don’t think too many other teams in the league have this type of string bond with each other, and it goes back to how the team chemistry of this Blazers team has been a big key to their success.

*When thinking about the Jazz, I couldn’t say it better than what Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said after Blazers’ practice on Sunday, “Gobert is always a factor, their defense is top notch.” 

*Rudy Gobert has always been a beast to deal with down low. This season against the Blazers, he is averaging 4.5 blocks and 0.5 steals per game.

* Coach Stotts also had this to say regarding how Utah is doing as of late: “They’re playing really good basketball… Their schedule’s coming back to them. They had one of the most difficult schedules in the first 40 games… They’re really good at home.”

*The Blazers are definitely focused on the first two meetings against the Jazz: “They’ve beaten us fairly handily both games, so we need to get more road wins; every game in the conference is important. The fact that they’ve beaten us twice, we need to get a win against them. I think there’s a lot of motivation,” Stotts said.

*Coach Stotts also discussed how it is so tough winning on the road and sustaining home team’s runs. Stotts mentioned how he watched the Christmas Day game against the Jazz (A 117-96 Jazz win) and the most glaring aspect that stood out to him was that Utah shot very well from three-point range. I expect the Blazers’ perimeter defense to be a focus on Monday night in Salt Lake City.

*After practice on Sunday, Meyers Leonard also had a lot to say about what the Jazz have been able to do well against the Blazers: “They played well both games. We didn’t play that well. We talked over a few things, of course, today in practice with a few of their actions… You’ve got Gobert rolling to the rim, guys that can space the floor, so they’re a very talented team and obviously they’ve had our number two times now,” Leonard said.  

Leonard also added:

“Gobert effects shots in the paint. He’s able to finish above the rim, just really impacts the game in a lot of ways… On the defensive end, even if he doesn’t block the shot, our guards know he’s there.”

*I’ve been learning a lot more about Twitch.

*Before talking to Meyers about Twitch, I knew that it was a live streaming gaming video platform, but that was pretty much all I knew about it.

*Now I know, Meyers Leonard enjoyed his off day on Saturday,  gaming on Twittch and interacting with fans.

*Leonard told me after Sunday’s practice: “Basketball is the most important right now, obviously. Like I mentioned on the stream, helping the team win games and stay in the rotation, and continue to play well, but I enjoy gaming and Esports, itself, is like, really a huge trend right now and certainly worldwide… Basically, Twitch is taking over the world.”

*Meyers is all about Fortnite. He also dropped some names of the top players of Fortnite.  

*The best part about Twitch for the Trail Blazers big man is that he gets to interact with Blazers fans, while still being able to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes.  

*Leonard is not messing around, either. His stream setup is pretty sweet. He has three different monitors, so you know he’s not going to miss any action of the game or any live stream questions.     

*These Twitch numbers have being growing, too, since the summer…

*Meyers wasn’t kidding when he said it was taking over the world.

*OH AND… I should’ve known this -- Coach Stotts says he only keeps up with Twitch to check in on Blazer5 Gaming. You know he’s gotta support the Trail Blazers Esports team in the NBA 2k League.

*Now, I need to go follow Meyers on Twitch, @MeyersLeonard11, and, hopefully, pick up some Fortnite tips.

Jake Layman may make it a tough call for Terry Stotts when Maurice Harkless returns

Jake Layman may make it a tough call for Terry Stotts when Maurice Harkless returns

It was an ugly night in Sacramento for the Trail Blazers.

When Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combine to go just 13-41 from the field (fueled by McCollum’s 2-14) the Trail Blazers are not going to have much of a chance to win.

And then there’s Jusuf Nurkic – who filled up the stat sheet with a spectacular 5x5 game the last time he visited Sacramento – who had only six points in 28 minutes.

And it was also a rather lackluster Portland effort on defense that just didn’t provide enough stops to construct a platform for a comeback.

Then, of course, there was that little problem of the Blazers trailing after the third quarter, which they did. And the Blazers are now 0-19 when trailing after three.

All those things lead to a loss in spite of another solid effort in the starting lineup from Jake Layman, who scored 13 points in just 22 minutes – hitting six of his nine shots from the floor.

“I’m not happy with the way I’ve been shooting the ball from three,” he said.  “But attacking the basket, I feel good. I feel like I’m making good moves out there.

“I try to know the scouting report and know about the guy I’m going to be playing against.”

Layman’s activity level on the court is distinctly above that of Maurice Harkless, the player he replaced in the starting lineup.

And when Harkless returns from his knee injury it will create an interesting dilemma for Coach Terry Stotts. Simply put: Who starts?

Layman got some offensive help from Meyers Leonard, who scored 11 points in 19 minutes off the bench –- hitting three of his four three-point shots.

But when the Blazers needed threes late in the game, they never went to their best three-point shooters. Seth Curry (48.6 percent from three) and Leonard (43.0) were not on the floor in the waning minutes.

The Blazers had their worst moments in a turnover-prone second quarter, which led to a 10-point halftime deficit. And as we know by now, if Portland doesn’t catch up in the third quarter, well, there’s probably not much use in playing the fourth period.

The numbers don't lie as Trail Blazers dismantle Charlotte Hornets

The numbers don't lie as Trail Blazers dismantle Charlotte Hornets

The Trail Blazers exploited the Charlotte Hornets early and often on Friday night. 

It was one of the most complete games that Portland has played all season. The Blazers themselves would not say it was THE most complete game of the season though, as Portland dismantled Charlotte with a final score of 127-96. 

“I liked the demeanor of our team the entire game at both ends of the floor. I thought we were really locked in, played the right way,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said postgame.

CJ McCollum led all scorers with 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting, including 5-of-11 from three. As a team, the Blazers shot 55.9% from the floor and that was with the bench playing all but two minutes of the fourth quarter. 

GET THAT OUTTA HERE!
After Damian Lillard blocked Kemba Walker at the 10:31 mark in the third quarter, that put the total blocks for the game at 11, which is a season-high for the Blazers. 

That block also marked Lillard’s third one of the game, which tied his career-high for most in a game.

Then just a little over three minutes later, Lillard blocked Walker again to notch a new career-high of four.

Lillard realizes it is all about knowing your opponent’s tendencies in order to gain an anticipation advantage to get the swat. 

“Before the game, we were talking about finishing the homestand strong and just understanding how Kemba makes them go… I knew it was going to be a defensive challenge. So I just tried to come out and set the tone and I knew he liked to raise up off those pick and rolls, pull up for threes, get the big off balance and raise up for pull-up jumpers, so I just kept fighting over the top and I was trying to get a good contest, but I could tell he didn’t see me on a few of them, so I just went a head and blocked him,” Lillard said.

The Blazers big men were also getting in on the block party. 

Meyers Leonard matched a career-high in blocks with three. The last time Leonard had three blocks in a game was during his rookie season at Detroit on November 11th of 2012. 

While Jusuf Nurkic was chasing a triple-double in the second half (in points, rebounds, and assists), he also chipped in on the block party.

“Nurk did a great job of protecting the rim. Dame had some great chase down blocks from behind... And we just defensively tried to locked in and be engaged,” McCollum said after the win. 

Nurkic finished with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, to go along with 11 rebounds, eight assists (matching a career-high), and six blocks (also, matched a career-high).

Nurkic joked with a big smile about Lillard having so many blocks, “Dame got four, man. He started chasing me, man. I was like I can’t have the same amount of blocks that he have.”

“I just try to affect the game in many ways,” Nurkic added. 

Portland had 10 blocks at the half, which had tied their previous season high. With the total of 16 blocks on the night, Portland was just one shy of tying a franchise record of 17 that came against New Orleans back in 1979. 

TURNOVERS? WHAT TURNOVERS?
Portland never trailed against the Hornets on Friday and the Blazers biggest lead was 35 points. 

But perhaps the most impressive number all night was the lowest number --

JUST ONE.

The Blazers turned the ball over just one time in the first half and that was in the final seconds of the second quarter. 

Clearly that is how you take care of the ball, but what does McCollum chalk it up to? 

Sometimes you have to have luck on your side. 

“I think a little bit of luck, good ball movement, guys just taking shots when they’re there and not overthinking,” McCollum said.

Lillard credited the team as a whole in the first half. 

“We were pretty sharp this morning at shootaround. We pretty much said it to each other, for the first part of this game… We were communicating what was coming to each other, so I think we were just in a much better position to make those plays,” Lillard said.      

“We were just sharp. We made it hard for them. We defended well. And then on the offensive end we played well on that end too. We just played a really good game overall as a group,” Lillard added. 

The Blazers finished the game with nine turnovers and a season-high in assists with 31. 

Portland’s season-low in turnovers for a game this season is six, which they had against the Clippers on November 8th.

“For our offense, when we take care of the ball that makes a difference… First half to go almost the entire half without a turnover led to a lot of good transition and I think that’s important for us,” Stotts said.

“Good transition” as Coach Stotts put it, mean yet another season-high for the Blazers – this time it’s a season-high in fast break points with 26.

RIP CITY ON THE RISE
All of those impressive numbers adds up to one thing...

Portland now sits in the fourth spot in the Western Conference standings at 26-17 overall.

The rising Trail Blazers will get a real test as they travel to Denver to take on the Nuggets on Sunday, the #1 team in the Western Conference.

Rip City turns into Lob City on those passes to Meyers Leonard

Rip City turns into Lob City on those passes to Meyers Leonard

Meyers Leonard remembers the first time he dunked. “Eighth grade,” he said. But the amazing thing about it was that he wasn’t overly tall for that age.

“Six feet. Six-one – no more than that,” he said. “I’ve always been able to elevate, man. I was more athletic and I was taller than everyone so it’s all I did.

“I worked on free throws and I’ve always had pretty decent touch. But all I did was dunk. Even in college, I shot some mid-range shots but I think I only shot two threes in two years at Illinois.

“I like playing above the rim. It’s something I can do. It’s changed in my NBA career because of my ability to pick and pop.”

Leonard dunked three times Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls and a couple of them bordered on spectacular. He does have the ability to get off the floor better than most seven-footers and his teammates have tested that ability with some stratospheric lob passes to him, particularly this season.

And nothing seems to bring the fans out of their seats like a dunk off a well-executed lob pass.

“There’s a chemistry about lobs,” Leonard said, mentioning Evan Turner as a teammate with whom he has a particular connection on the lobs. “ET is generally pretty good at finding the right angle and the right speed.

“My first points in the NBA were on a lob. Dame drove the lane and passed it to me, I think,” he said. “It wasn’t that great of a dunk but it was off a lob.”

His most memorable lob?

“I would say it wasn’t that great of a dunk, but probably the time Nico (Nic Batum) threw it off the glass to me,” he said. “It was so random. I thought he was going to do it but then in my mind, it was like, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to do this in a game.’ But he did it.”

The Trail Blazers don’t necessarily call plays that intentionally lead to lobs. Mostly, they come from players reading the defense and finding the defender overplaying them, leading to a backdoor cut to the basket. Or pick and rolls when a big player gets a step or two ahead of his defender on his roll to the basket.

And that requires the passer and receiver to be on the same page for that split second when both players read and recognize the situation.

“We don’t set up a lot of them,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said. “A lot of it is just reads. Usually it’s those guys setting it up with an eye, a point – a connection.”

Stotts was asked to name the best lob passer he’s seen in the league.

“Jason Kidd – I would put him way up there,” Stotts said. “The thing about good lob passes is that you need somebody to throw it to. Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were very good. Chris Paul with the two guys in LA, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.”

Andre Miller was terrific during his tenure with the Trail Blazers, seemingly able to loft the pass from anywhere on the court.

Leonard has been getting more lobs recently, the result certainly having to do with his more consistent playing time with Turner, who likes making the pass.

“The passer and the receiver kind of get a chemistry together,” Stotts said. “The more they do it, they kind of look for it more and more.”

As for Leonard?

“For me personally, if a lob is there, go ahead and throw it,” he said. “I think I’ll finish it.”

Blazers Outsiders: Grading the Blazers at the halfway point

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USA Today

Blazers Outsiders: Grading the Blazers at the halfway point

We've reached the halfway point of the season and Blazers Outsider Chris Burkhardt has taken the time to hand out his midseason report cards for the Trail Blazers. 

41 down, 41 to go. The Blazers have officially reached the halfway point of the season, and it hasn't been without its ups and downs. The Blazers started strong out of the gate, at one point holding the best record in the Western Conference. But then they hit an early season bump in the road and fell toward the bottom. Despite the rough patch the Blazers have still managed to put together one of their best first halves in recent memory. Portland currently sits at 24-17, which is two games ahead of last season's 22-19 record, and is the team's best record through 41 games since they went 30-11 in the 2014-15 season.

The Western Conference is so stacked right now, that even though the Blazers are off to their best start in four seasons they are still just the seventh best team in the west - 3.5 games behind the first place Denver Nuggets (26-12).

With all that being said, it's time we sit down and grade the Trail Blazers at the halfway point:

DAMIAN LILLARD:
Grade: A+
Damian Lillard is doing Damian Lillard things. He's averaging 26.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game. In fact, he is one of just five players in the league averaging 26 ppg, 4 rpg, and 6 apg: The other four being James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Those are all MVP candidates, and Lillard deserves to be in that conversation this season. 

CJ MCCOLLUM:
Grade: B
CJ McCollum has struggled to find his shot this season, shooting a career-worst 32.9% from three-point range. Despite his struggles from deep he has still managed to shoot 45.4% from the floor and score 20.8 points per game. He has also managed to come up clutch when the team needs him. I'll take an off shooting night if he redeems himself with buckets in crunch time. The plus side is there is still time for McCollum to find the shot and get back to his normal self.

MAURICE HARKLESS:
Grade: D
Moe Harkless has struggled all season long, but it's really no fault of his own. Harkless has tried to will himself to play but his body just is not cooperating. He has missed 15 games this year, and had to leave Portland's last game after his left knee soreness returned. He is also averaging just 5.9 points per game, his worst average since his last season in Orlando. When healthy Harkless is an integral part of the lineup. Staying healthy is the struggle. 

AL-FAROUQ AMINU:
Grade: B+
Aminu is quietly having a very strong season, nearly averaging a double-double. While his three-point percentage isn't great at 35.6%, his overall field goal percentage of 42.7% is actually the best he has shot the ball in his time in Portland. He is also averaging a career-high 8.2 rebounds per game, and his defense continues to be the best on the team.

JUSUF NURKIC:
Grade: A
The Bosnian Beast is currently in the midst of the best stretch of his career. He has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games which is something he has never done before. He is averaging 15.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, and shooting 50.8% from the floor - All career-highs. Add in the 1.1 steals, 1.3 blocks, and 2.9 assists and Nurkic is just filling up the box score. Earlier this season he became the first player in recorded history to have a 5x5 with 20 or more points and rebounds: 24 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 5 blocks. Now that's a stat line. 

EVAN TURNER: 
Grade: B-
Evan Turner has been the man behind the wheel of the second unit and has been very solid doing so. While his 7.8 points per game is his lowest average since his rookie season in 2010-11, his 46.7% shooting is the best of his career. He rebounds and assists per game are also the highest they have been while in Portland, and he has easily been the Blazers second best defender all season. While he hasn't been bad, it would be nice to see him score the ball more. 

SETH CURRY:
Grade: B
Curry started the season slowly but has shaken off the rust and come into his own as of late. He is shooting a career-best 48.5% from three-point range, which leads the entire NBA (among qualifying players). If he continues to come around there is no reason he shouldn't see all his averages continue to rise and become the bench unit's go-to scorer.

NIK STAUSKAS:
Grade: C-
Stauskas started the season with a bang, scoring a career-high 24 points in the season opener and scoring in double-digits in five of the first eight games. However, he has scored double-digits in just two of the last 33 and has fallen out of the rotation.

JAKE LAYMAN:
Grade: B
Jake Layman has been the ultimate team player this season. He started the season as the starting small forward but was relegated to the end of the bench once Maurice Harkless returned. He then registered DNPs and garbage minutes. Through it all he never complained once, continued to work hard, and has since passed Stauskas on the depth chart. Lillard said last game the Layman is "instant offense," and he has proven so as of late.

ZACH COLLINS:
Grade: C
It's not that Collins has been bad, in fact, he has been pretty solid off the bench. The disappointing part for Collins is that he hasn't really made the sophomore jump we wanted and expected. While he is averaging career-highs across the board, his stats are not much better than they were last season. He is averaging just 2.6 points, .9 rebounds, and .1 assist more than he was last season. Better, but not by much. 

MEYERS LEONARD:
Grade: B-
Meyers Leonard needed to step up with the departure of Ed Davis and he has certainly done that. He is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and most importantly he has finally found a level of consistency. He has become a reliable threat from deep, shooting 41.7% on the season, and has helped anchor a strong bench unit. While he continues to be the most polarizing player in Portland, it's nice to see him finally silencing some of his critics. 

GARY TRENT JR, ANFERNEE SIMONS, WADE BALDWIN, CALEB SWANIGAN: Grade: Undecided 
None of these players have played enough this season to give a true grade. The four have combined to play in just 38 games this season, most of the minutes coming in garbage time. Trent and Simons or currently on the active roster, while Swanigan and Baldwin are on assignment in the G-League. 

Scoop Journal: Who else wishes they had hops like Jake Layman?

Scoop Journal: Who else wishes they had hops like Jake Layman?

Welcome to The Scoop Journal, where every week I empty my notebook of wide-ranging Trail Blazers thoughts, observations and randomness. I hope you enjoy this light-hearted weekly blog...

January 8th, 2019

Dear Scoop Journal,

It’s a New Year and the start of the second half of the Trail Blazer season, so that means it’s time for me to write down all of my latest Blazer thoughts!

It has been awhile since I wrote in my journal and I think that shows just how busy and how many games have been played. No rest for the weary with this Portland team.

* With their 24-17 overall record, it is the Blazers best record through 41 games since the 2014-15 season. They were 30-11 that season.

*Hello, Jusuf Nurkic and his dominate play in the last handful of games. I think Damian Lillard summed it up best – “Nurk has been killing. He’s been a beast for awhile now.”  

*Nurkic has scored 20+ points in four straight games and six of his last seven games. (***STATS TO REMEMBER***): In the four games in January so far, Nurkic is averaging 22.8 ppg and 13.5 rpg. The West should watch out if Nurk stays in Beast Mode. 

*With Maurice Harkless dealing with left knee soreness this season, Jake Layman has stepped up in Harkless' absence. As CJ McCollum put it, Layman is the "ultimate professional." Yep, there's no doubt that Layman has been staying ready, which I don't think people realize how difficult that can be after not playing a single minute in seven of the last 13 games.  Harkless will be out for Wednesday's game vs. Chicago, so let's hope for some more Layman time. 

*The athleticism of Jake Layman is unreal to me at times. He's a different caliber than a lot of the other guys on the team. 

*I wonder how many people out there have ever dreamed about being able to jump as high and look as athletic as Layman. Because if I had three wishes, one of them would to have Layman’s hops for just one day! 

*This is something from Damian Lillard that stood out to me… Layman is "instant offense." That’s what Lillard said after the Blazers win over the Knicks on Monday. There's no doubt Layman's teammates believe in him.  

*Yes, his teammates are in full support of him, as Layman has made the most of his minutes, but since McCollum knows what it’s like to go through injury, he feels for Harkless… “It’s frustrating… We’ll rally behind him and stick with him,” McCollum said.  

*Last thing for today-- I've been thinking about how I need to take dancing lessons from Blazers Sideline Report Brooke Olzendam. I need help and Brooke has been crushing it lately on social media and the game broadcast with her moves. 

Hang on tight: Trail Blazers take their chances with aggressive three-ball mindset

Hang on tight: Trail Blazers take their chances with aggressive three-ball mindset

It was a true Rip City vs. Grind City type of night on Wednesday at Moda Center.

Memphis imposed its defensive will on Portland in the first half, but the Trail Blazers were ignited by their three-point shot in the third and it was their 27-19 quarter that helped the Blazers beat the Grizzlies 99-92.

It was a slugfest in the first and it looked liked Memphis was on its way to a win. The Blazers committed eight turnovers in the quarter and also went 1-of-7 from deep, but yet, Portland was able to overcome the poor three-point shooting.

And, no surprise... Damian Lillard led the three-ball prowess in the third.

As a team, Portland went 6-for-10 from three in the third quarter, while Lillard himself was 4-for-5 from deep. Fifteen of Lillard’s 24 points came in that third quarter.

“First half, I’m just letting the game happen… If I come out and I’m getting open looks, then I’ll be more aggressive in the first half, but most of the time I’m just setting guys up, managing the game, seeing what’s going on and taking what comes to me and then in that third quarter, you know, that’s usually when you can tell what direction the game is going in and if the game is decided in the second half,” Lillard said.

“I usually try to get more aggressive and impose my will more than in the first half,” Lillard added.

It was not just a night where Lillard was hitting from behind-the-arc. The second unit was also splashing in the threes. Meyers Leonard and Seth Curry both hit threes in the third. Eighteen of the Blazers’ 27 points in the third came from long distance.

What everyone learned on Wednesday is this is a Trail Blazers team that can overcome a 14.3% three-point shooting first quarter.

With this team, it is all about having that mentality of ‘shooters gonna shoot’ because they believe in themselves and each other.

“Anytime one of those guys, CJ or Dame throw up three, we all think it’s going in, we’re surprised if it doesn’t… When they get hot there’s not a lot of people in the league that can stop them,” Collins said.

 “The goal in today’s NBA in general, but for our team really, is threes and rim, those are the two most efficient shots in the league, particularly drive and kick for three and then as soon as they start to get closer to our shooters, that’s when Dame, CJ, the rest of the guys, myself can start to finish around the rim… Our mentality is to keep getting them up because we can all shoot the ball really well and when we move the ball and we get good looks we’re gonna take our chances on that,” Leonard said.

Portland finished the game going 11-of-26 from three.  

There are always several variables that go into good shot selection, but setting good screens for each other is a big one.

“When Nurk, Chief, any of our bigs, guards even, set good screens, get guys open looks, especially Dame, when he’s sees one go in, it’s like, ‘better hang on tight.' He did the same thing in LA,” Leonard said.

And then, there’s a shot that looks improbable, but it’s not for Lillard.

With 7:51 to go in the third quarter, Lillard splashed one in even with former NBA All-Defensive Second Team point guard Mike Conley right up in his face. 

With Lillard having another big scoring third quarter and Portland’s second unit bouncing back from a tough scoring night in LA on Monday, Leonard acknowledged that the bench can and should take the momentum created by the starters and continue to ride that when they step on the floor. 

“Obviously when Dame gets it going like that and our starters have a good stretch it makes it that much easier on the bench to come in and continue kind of that flow with the game,” Leonard said.

There’s no doubt that Portland’s flow of the game is strong in the third quarter as of late. In the last two games, the Blazers have outscored their opponents 69-47 with Lillard scoring 37 of those points. With his impressive third quarter tonight, Lillard now moves ahead of James Harden into the No. 1 spot in second half scoring average for the entire league at 15.5 points per second half. 

That third quarter flow has also helped Portland to get its third straight win and its fourth straight home victory.

That’s a nice flow that the Blazers will look to continue. 

Damian Lillard in Beast Mode on milestone night

Damian Lillard in Beast Mode on milestone night

Damian Lillard celebrated a milestone and the Trail Blazer bench won its battle by a mile Wednesday night. And the Blazers used a big second half to  recover from a slow start and defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 99-92.

MILESTONE NIGHT

The Portland guard put an exclamation mark on his 500th NBA game with 24 points, four assists, five rebounds, two steals and a pair of blocked shots. He made five of his eight-three point shots, too.

And this came after a first half in which he was 2-7 from the field, 0-1 from three for just four points.

But in a way, he’s got the physical conditioning and mental toughness that’s a little like another Oaklander in his prime, NFL running back Marshawn Lynch -- who seems to get better the longer the game goes.

Yes, Lillard can get into Beast Mode on occasion.

He seemed humbled about the 500th game.

“A blessing to have enough help to be out there that many times,” Lillard said. “And also to be able to do it in one uniform. I’m really thankful that from Game One, to Coach Stotts and our entire coaching staff for trusting me and allowing me to accomplish a lot of things I’ve been able to accomplish.

“An honor to be out there in good health for this great organization.”

THE BENCH ARRIVES

The Trail Blazers trailed 15-4 to open the game but closed the lead to 18-17 at the quarter break. The Grizz held a five-point lead at halftime but the Portland bench really kicked into gear in the second half, along with Lillard.

The Blazers’ second unit outscored the Memphis bench 44-14 behind 12 points and eight rebounds from Meyers Leonard, 10 points from Zach Collins, eight apiece from Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas and six from Evan Turner.

“Obviously, the bench played really well tonight,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “It was good to see them play well, play with confidence. They moved the ball well, played with a lot of energy. They were the difference in the game the way they were a few nights ago (vs. Toronto.)”

The second-unit frontcourt of Collins, Leonard and Turner played well enough that it finished the game and kept the starting frontcourt on the bench.

“We played hard and we played together and we’re playing well right now,” Leonard said of his group.

“We’re doing the little things. Offensive rebounds, second-chance points, moving the ball, playing within ourselves and trusting each other.

We’ve done a good job these last few games and we just have to continue to do so.”

How do you beat the NBA's best team? Apparently with the Trail Blazers' bench...

How do you beat the NBA's best team? Apparently with the Trail Blazers' bench...

It was all about the bench Friday night for the Portland Trail Blazers. Totally.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a winning team get all five reserves into the plus category of plus-minus and all five starters on the minus side. But that’s what the Trail Blazers did.

“Their bench was unbelievable,” said Toronto Coach Nick Nurse. “They had 58 points or something like that (actually, it was 58). They just put it on us.

“The Blazers played really fast. They were just flipping the ball around and cutting super hard…. They made the better decisions most of the night. They played with a little more speed than we did tonight.”

The bench played just as it had earlier in the year – a five-man unit playing unselfishly, moving the ball and moving their bodies. But that’s the way that group must play. It doesn't feature a superstar or even a star.

“It’s a matter of playing the right way,” said Seth Curry, who hit five of eight shots, three of five from long distance, had two assists, two steals and no turnovers.

Coach Terry Stotts platooned his two units for most of the game, not by design, he said, but just as it happened circumstantially,

Curry said that helps.

“It does,” he said. “We play a different style than the starting unit. We play at a faster pace. It’s a lot of fun when we have those five guys out there with everybody touching the ball.

“We have Nik, Evan and me who can put the ball on the floor and make plays.

The starters, with two guards who dominate the ball, attempt to get ball and player movement, too, but it’s more difficult with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum having the ball so often.

“Damian and CJ have played that style for a long time and they do it well,” Curry said. “The energy of the second group is a lot different.”

 It was easier to make plays Friday -- the lane was wide open for the second unit because the Raptors chose to stick hard to Meyers Leonard on the perimeter.

“I couldn’t get a look at a three,” Leonard said.

But he got a lot of room for the others to make hard cuts and find openings to the basket.

“That’s what Meyers brings even when he’s not making shots,” Curry said. “He’s a threat out there. That’s the same thing with me and Nik.

“It gets other guys great shots.”

The Blazer bench had 12 assists and only three turnovers. As a team, Portland had a great night with the ball – turning it over just eight times to go with 29 assists.

 “Play faster, move the ball and everybody has the opportunity to make plays,” Curry said of the reserves. “That’s how we played in training camp and how we played to start the season.

“We got back to it tonight and we’ve got to keep it going.”

Of course, it would not be fair to omit the fact that Toronto, the team with the best record in the league, was forced by injuries to play without starters Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry.

But the Blazers, who had lost 10 of their last 15, were happy to take this one any way they could get it.

And especially when the often-maligned bench was very much responsible for it.