Nicolas Batum

Lillard leads the way as Trail Blazers return the favor on Charlotte with a blowout

Lillard leads the way as Trail Blazers return the favor on Charlotte with a blowout

If the Trail Blazers are going to turn their season around, it is going to have to come in little steps.

Perhaps the first step was taken Tuesday when Portland beat Charlotte 115-98 to record its first winning month since going 2-1 in October.

Behind a hot start from Damian Lillard and a boost off the bench from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers won for the fourth time in five games and put the finishing touches on an 8-7 record in January.

Coach Terry Stotts, however, when asked if he puts any stock in a winning month replied: "Nope.''

Lillard had 27 points and Crabbe 21 points as the Blazers (22-28) kept pace with Denver (22-25) in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Blazers moved within a game of the Nuggets (who were trailing at the Lakers), but are playing arguably their best basketball of the season, which has been spurred by the insertion of Evan Turner and Noah Vonleh into the starting lineup. The Blazers are 4-2 with the new lineup and have won three of the first four games in this five-game homestand.

Charlotte (23-26) lost its fifth consecutive game despite a solid game from former Blazers wing Nicolas Batum (18 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and 22 points from Kemba Walker. Portland avenged a 107-85 loss in Charlotte on Jan. 18 and won its ninth consecutive home game over the Hornets.

Portland broke away from a 56-50 halftime lead after Charlotte played dreadfully coming out of halftime. The Hornets began the half making only three of 15 shots, and coupled with three turnovers, found themselves trailing by 15 midway through the third. All told, the Hornets were outscored 30-18 in the third and trailed 86-68 heading into the fourth.

"I liked the way we played,'' Stotts said. "I thought in the first half we should have had a larger lead than we did.''

The Blazers had their halftime lead after Lillard had a big first quarter (14 points) and Crabbe a prolific second quarter (14 of his 16). Portland had leads as large as 14, but frittered it away with some shaky passing that opened the door for Charlotte to get hot behind Kemba Walker.

Portland started 0-for-8 and 1-for-11, but remarkably still had a 6-4 lead after Lillard and McCollum hit three’s and Charlotte kept taking shots early in the shot clock.

Mason Plumlee had seven points and 11 rebounds and had snapped his string of five straight double-doubles. Al-Farouq Aminu added 10 rebounds and Vonleh also added 10 rebounds.  

Next up: Dallas at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Friday (KGW/ESPN)

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Trail Blazers' spiral continues as Charlotte breezes to easy win

Trail Blazers' spiral continues as Charlotte breezes to easy win

CHARLOTTE -- A team video session the day before that turned into somewhat of a team meeting had little effect in turning around the Trail Blazers on Wednesday, as the Charlotte Hornets ended their five-game losing streak by coasting past the Blazers 107-85 at the Spectrum Center. 

Eventually, the Trail Blazers will have to become a team that does its talking on the court, but as of Wednesday they remain a team that gets along, talks among themselves and say the right things publicly, only to go on the court and play like a disjointed and unmotivated group. 

The Blazers (18-26) fell a season-low eight games below .500 and if the season ended today they would be out of the Western Conference playoffs after beginning the seaosn with a goal of making it to the conference finals. 

Charlotte (21-21) didn't play particularly well, but they started the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run to extend their lead to 88-72 and they never looked back. 

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists and CJ McCollum had 18 points, but both shot 7-of-18 from the field, which set the tone for a night when Portland would shoot 35.1 percent from the field. 

Longtime Blazers wing Nicolas Batum, who was traded to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh in 2015, finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Kemba Walker added 23 points and center Roy Hibbert came off the bench and added 16 points and six rebounds.  

Unlike their previous two games, the Blazers weren't buried early. They had fallen behind 18-1 to Orlando and 10-0 to Washington, and were behind 7-2 in Charlotte before McCollum ignited an 11-0 run with a three-pointer and a driving layin. The Blazers eventually settled for a 26-23 lead after the first quarter, thanks to some shaky play from the Hornets, who had four turnovers and made just 8-of-22 shots (36.4 percent).

Charlotte took a 54-46 hafltime lead and quickly pushed it to 10 and played the majority of the half ahead by double figures. 

Next up: Blazers at Philadelphia, 4 p.m. Friday (CSN).

 

Damian Lillard: The Mind that Moves the Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard: The Mind that Moves the Trail Blazers

The night before the Trail Blazers would hold their first practice of the season, the team held a dinner at The Foundry on the shores of Lake Oswego, when a player asked to have the floor.

Not surprisingly, the player was Damian Lillard.

And not surprisingly, the team captain delivered a message that lasted well after the fish and chicken dishes were digested.

This was not a team with players who needed motivation, and it was not a team that encouraged rah-rah speeches. But when Lillard stood, the room came to attention.

“When you have respect from grown men, let alone millionaires, that’s a lot. You know what I mean?’’ Ed Davis said. “And he has that respect. So when he talks, everybody listens.’’

What they heard from Lillard set the tone for the upcoming season.

The Blazers’ minds, Lillard told his teammates, had to change.

No longer should the Blazers be the cute story of culture and chemistry. No longer should close losses to top teams be acceptable. And the 44 wins that was good enough for the fifth playoff seed last season? The West won’t be that easy this season.

“What we did last season was really hard,’’ Lillard reminded. “But the fact is, that’s just not good enough no more.’’

This team, he said, should expect to win every game. This team should expect to be better than last season. But it would be even harder than it was last year.

It was a calculated message, one that he felt needed to be delivered before the first practice in order to firmly establish there would be no easing into the season, no figuring things out on the run.

Truth is, his message was spoken partially out of fear. Ever since May when the team flew back to Portland after Golden State eliminated the Blazers in the second round, he harbored uneasy feelings. A part of him didn’t like the exhale of accomplishment the team felt after a 44-win season. He worried whether there were “too many pats on the back” being doled out after the series loss to the Warriors.

So on the first official day of the season, Lillard challenged his teammates. Everything we do, Lillard told them, has to be taken to the next level. Practices. Film sessions. Workouts.

Expectations had changed, he reminded, and simply matching last season would not be good enough.

“It starts in our mind,’’ Lillard said. “However far we want to go, it has to be in your mind first.’’

It wasn’t quite the “Us versus Everybody” fire-and-brimstone speech he delivered in the Los Angeles locker room that spurred their underdog season a year ago, but to his teammates in the audience, it cut a sharp edge to the season’s start.

“I think the things he has said internally, and the way he has played (in preseason) has really set the tone for our mentality and how we are approaching this season,’’ Mason Plumlee said. “Last year was ‘Let’s get better day-by-day’ – and that’s still part of us and what we are going to do – but now we are out to win every game. There is not a team we can’t beat. That’s how we are going to approach the season.’’

By the time the team left that night, the players’ minds didn’t so much change as much as they came into focus.

“He got us back into that mindset that we have to be ready to play, and teams are going to be coming after us,’’ CJ McCollum said. “And, that nothing is going to be easy.’’

If the night showed anything, it was that for all the strengths of the Blazers roster – depth, versatility, chemistry – their greatest asset still might be Lillard and his leadership.

He has a way with these men that is easy yet powerful, for he doesn’t just stir the fire in their belly, he moves their minds. They think not of themselves, but of the team. They think not of expectations, but what is beyond. And they think not what could happen, but what will happen.

On the surface, it may seem natural that a team’s best player is its most forceful leader. But behind the scenes, Lillard’s ascension was years in the making.

Before Lillard could be the mind that moved the Blazers, his own mind had to be trained to become a leader.

And the first step was getting him to speak.

**

Before Lillard’s first practice with the Blazers in the fall of 2012, assistant coach David Vanterpool watched the rookie play pickup games.

He noticed a startling trait from the No. 6 overall pick: he never opened his mouth.

So Vanterpool stopped the game and made a rule: Lillard was not allowed to cross halfcourt until he said 10 words. They could be about an offensive play, or a defensive coverage, or they could be flavors from Wing Stop. It didn’t matter. Vanterpool wanted Lillard to talk.

“I always think back to rookie year … he said ‘You are too quiet to be the point guard,’’’ Lillard said.

At first, Lillard struggled to find enough words to get passage past halfcourt, but soon he was blurting out about providing help defense, and about the need to get back in transition.

It would become the first of many exercises Vanterpool would employ in addressing what became their mantra: Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.

They would practice shooting off the wrong leg. They would play 1-on-1 where Vanterpool had free reign to foul him, and Lillard wasn’t allowed to complain. They would complete grueling workout sessions where quitting wasn’t an option. And they would study film, noting not just Lillard’s  assignments, but also the responsibilities of each teammate.

“He was constantly in my ear, holding me accountable for every little thing,’’ Lillard said. “He has forced me to be a leader and to do uncomfortable things over the course of my career, and now I understand it. I see the value in it.’’

The maniacal workouts were established so he could have room to tell the next guy to work harder. And the film study provided a base in knowing how and when to direct players on the court. Meanwhile, Vanterpool would level harsh criticism to both ground Lillard and harden him.

“I would say something to him about every little thing,’’ Vanterpool said. “And he accepted the criticism. He never wavered.’’

Still, even as Lillard’s game flourished, he remained mostly muted.

**

In 2014, the Blazers locker room was a delicate landscape for a second-year player to navigate.

LaMarcus Aldridge was the designated leader, but he chose to lead with his play more than his mouth or his heart. Wesley Matthews was the heart and soul of the team, a brash, emotional veteran who often reminded that the right to speak was earned rather than given.  And Nicolas Batum was an accomplished player who was content to stay in the shadows.

“I tried to encourage him to say more while (the veterans) were here, but there were sensitivity things going on,’’ Vanterpool said. “It was just tougher for him. But you could see that whole time that he was preparing for what he would say in each situation.’’

Vanterpool knew he had a student on his hands, so he presented Lillard with the classic “The Art of War” in hopes the book would resonate.

Although Lillard said he was able to only read parts of the book, he was drawn to the chapters on leadership and controlling the environment around you.  He found that no matter how much he read, or how much he worked with Vanterpool, leading was difficult and sensitive.

The most difficult part?

“Standing up to people,’’ Lillard said. “For example, Wes would run ahead and Wes would get mad, and I would have to learn how to be in control of that situation. Instead of it being us going back and forth, I had to control and manipulate the situation. Like ‘My bad; I’ve got you … but the next time, maybe you could do this  … ‘ kind of nurse the situation. That was uncomfortable. Wes had been in the league way longer than me, I don’t want to step on people’s toes … but I had to learn to confront those situations.’’

Soon, Lillard would make his breakthrough. Near the end of his second season the Blazers were on their way to winning 54 games, but in March they were caught in a four-game spiral where they couldn’t finish games.

After the fourth straight loss, in San Antonio, the locker room was silent after coach Terry Stotts finished his postgame address until two words came from the stall of Lillard: “Hold on.’’

Before he spoke, Lillard thought about what he was about to do. He thought about Vanterpool’s lessons in being comfortable being uncomfortable. And here he was, thrusting himself into an uncomfortable situation with one question to answer.

“Do I care about guys’ feelings or do I care about what’s good for the team?’’ Lillard remembered thinking. “So I just kind of went out and said what I had to say.’’

The team has kept what Lillard said that night private, but by all accounts it was an impassioned speech about caring and sticking together. It was  a watershed moment for Lillard, and really, the franchise. Lillard felt freed of holding everything in, and the Blazers knew they had a special leader who was beginning to blossom.

“It was big in me being able to come forward as a leader because (the veterans) respected it, it wasn’t like people tried to go at me,’’ Lillard said. “They respected what I said and going forward I felt comfortable saying more and putting myself out there more.’’

A year and a half later, Aldridge left in free agency, beginning a dismantling of the veteran core. The rebuild was built on the foundation that Lillard would lead not only on the court, but off it.

“We had been preparing for the time it became his team,’’ Vanterpool said. “And halfway through his second season, I felt it could be his team, even if all those guys stayed because guys just wanted to follow him.

“And as soon as that door opened it was like he knew exactly what to say, he knew how to say it, when to say it,’’ Vanterpool said. “He knew how to pick one guy up while kicking him in the behind and how to pick another guy up at the same time by patting him on the back. He understood all of that.’’

**

Lillard’s leadership this season didn’t end with that dinner on the shores of Lake Oswego last month.

His play has been exceptional, with games of 30 and 27 points in the preseason, and his ability to gauge the mood of the team unmatched.

He approached newcomer Evan Turner after he sensed Turner was pressing and told the veteran to be himself and let the team adjust to him rather than him adjust to the team. And he continues to set the bar for work ethic, always the first to arrive for practice, and always one of the hardest and longest workers after practice.

But more than anything, he is the pulse of the team.

 “I’ve seen him grab individuals when he sees slippage, or sees someone fall into a bad spot, and he’s like ‘Look that’s not the how we do it here, we have to do it this way because this is where we are going,’’’ Vanterpool said. “He grabs anybody going from the wayside and doesn’t let them get too far. He keeps them close to the group so we can keep moving in a forward direction. And everybody has taken to him. Everybody has definitely taken to him.’’

Mason Plumlee and the pursuit of a triple-double: Question of when, not if it happens

Mason Plumlee and the pursuit of a triple-double: Question of when, not if it happens

SALT LAKE CITY – The growing question among the Trail Blazers is not whether center Mason Plumlee will record a triple-double this season, but how many.

“Oh, I can see him getting a lot of them,’’ Damian Lillard said Wednesday after Plumlee had eight points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in 24 minutes in the Blazers’ 88-84 exhibition win at Utah.

Two developments have led teammates to predict the esteemed accomplishment of recording double-figures in three categories.

First, Plumlee has developed a mid-range jump shot, which this preseason has graduated from offseason experiment to a legitimate part of his arsenal.

“It’s for real,’’ coach Terry Stotts said matter-of-factly Wednesday after Plumlee hit two mid-range jumpers against the Jazz.

Second, the Blazers have added new offensive sets this season that will more often feature him in play-making positions. The new role builds off his effective playoffs, when he helped pick apart the Clippers with his athleticism, decision-making and passing.

Lillard says he sees Plumlee’s evolution in the Blazers’ offense having the potential to produce results like Draymond Green recorded last season with Golden State, when he led the league with 13 triple-doubles.

“A lot of our new sets that we’ve put in, where we are moving the ball around, a lot of times we are putting the ball in his hands to make a play,’’ Lillard said. “It’s kind of what Golden State does with Draymond Green. He gets a lot of assists getting the ball in the middle of the defense and making that decision. Mase is really good at it, so I could see him getting a bunch of them this year.’’

Last season, Plumlee rarely flirted with a triple double, in part because he scored in double figures in only 37 of the 82 games. The closest he came was in January  at Washington, when he had 10 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. The seven assists was a career high at the time, later eclipsed by a 10-assist game against the Clippers in the playoffs.

But now, with the added jump shot, and his growing role in the Blazers’ attack, Plumlee admits a triple-double is something of a goal.

“I would love to have triple doubles because that just means you are playing a complete game, getting everyone involved,’’ Plumlee said Wednesday. “A lot of it is guys hitting shots, four of the five assists in first half were guys hitting threes … so it means guys are shooting the ball well.’’

The last Blazers player to record a triple double is Nicolas Batum, who had 14 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists against Orlando in January of 2014, a drought that players believe Plumlee will end this season.

“He will definitely get some triple doubles this year, for sure,’’ CJ McCollum said. “He is good at everything – pass, rebound, obviously scoring -- you can see the jump shot coming along. He has really good basketball IQ, and as the season comes along we are going to put him in positions to where he is going to be utilized heavily and take great advantage of it.’’