Shabazz Napier

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

A Rip City Rebirth: The stories behind the Blazers' resurrecting careers

When the playoffs begin Saturday in Portland, the games will mean a little more to three Trail Blazers.

After they were doubted, labeled and discarded early in their careers, something happened when Maurice Harkless, Shabazz Napier and Wade Baldwin arrived in Portland.

Their careers were resurrected. 

“Rejuvenated,’’ star Damian Lillard noted of the three players.

All three were former first round picks who had one foot out of the NBA after their teams gave up on them. Baldwin was waived by Memphis after one season. And in separate trades, Orlando sent Napier and Harkless to Portland for next to nothing. 

All three are expected to play a role in the Blazers’ first round series against New Orleans. Harkless, an energetic starting forward, is hopeful to return from knee surgery sometime next week. Napier, a jitterbug guard, has become one of the team’s top scoring reserves. And Baldwin, a barrel-chested guard, late in the season emerged as a defensive weapon that coach Terry Stotts said could be an option in the playoffs. 

While each player’s Rip City rebirth took different paths, and included much of their own work, each ascension spawned from what have become the defining traits of the Blazers’ franchise: astute scouting, nurturing and hands-on coaching, and an inclusive locker room culture. 

And of course, there is timing.

[WATCH: The Blazerlist - '77 Champions]

“What we have tried to do is get guys when we know they are ready for basketball to be the most important thing in their life,’’ said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations.

Here are their stories, and the background to how Olshey, Stotts and his staff have become one of the NBA’s best player development success stories.

**

When Maurice Harkless flew to Las Vegas in the summer of 2015 he was anxious.

He had just been traded to the Blazers from Orlando, where he was trending toward being a first-round bust, and he was scheduled for a workout in front of the Blazers’ coaches. 

 “I was like … over excited,’’ Harkless remembers. “It was almost nerve-wracking.’’

His emotions were on tilt because he knew he was getting a fresh start. Three seasons into his NBA career, two teams had traded him, and he was coming off a season in Orlando where he sat the bench more than he played. 

“Any time you can get a fresh start, it’s motivating, because it’s like you can create your own destiny at that point,’’ Harkless said.

In the Vegas gym, Harkless was a ball of energy. In fact, he and assistant coach Nate Tibbetts recently chuckled at the memory of how amped he was in the workout.

“I was just bouncing all over the place,’’ Harkless said. “I was … yeah, I was pretty good.’’

To Olshey and the Blazers’ coaches, Harkless’ impressive workout wasn’t a total surprise.

[RELATED: 1st Round Playoffs on NBCS Northwest]

Olshey said he nearly drafted Harkless in 2012 with the 11thoverall pick, but after much deliberation he instead selected center Meyers Leonard. Harkless went to Philadelphia at No. 15, then was later traded to Orlando as part of the massive three-team deal that included Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala.

 “The big takeaway from the first workout was that he had far more potential as a shooter than he had shown,’’ Olshey said. “And he was thrilled to be given a new lease on his basketball life.’’

Harkless has a hard time talking about his time in Orlando, mostly because he doesn’t fully understand what happened. 

“It was a weird situation in Orlando – brand new coach, whole new front office – they were trying to figure things out,’’ Harkless said. “And for some reason in my third season, I couldn’t get on the court, no matter what. We had guys playing, starting games, that aren’t even in the league anymore. Rookies, second-round picks, starting games.’’

In his three seasons in Portland, Harkless has averaged 71 games a season and he has started 120 times. He is widely credited this season with helping turn the Blazers’ season around with his defense and three-point shooting after he recovered from an early season benching. 

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 1]

“The way they run things here, as long as you work hard, eventually your opportunity is going to come,’’ Harkless said.

Harkless’ emergence also underscored one of Olshey’s most consistent traits since becoming the team’s top executive in 2012: scouting. 

“I think the one thing that has to be recognized is Neil has an eye for talent,’’ Stotts said. “There are a lot of players you can take a chance on; you just can’t pick anybody. You have to have an eye for a guy who is worth taking a chance on.’’

And in the summer of 2016, nobody wanted to take a chance on Shabazz Napier. 

Except Olshey.

**

Napier’s once proud resume as a two-time NCAA champion at Connecticut, which garnered him much ballyhooed praise from LeBron James, had been tarnished two years into his NBA career.

His rookie season in Miami, he admits he was headstrong and difficult.

“In Miami, I was very stubborn. Very stubborn,’’ Napier said. “I guess they felt I was entitled to something, but I never felt entitled. I just never felt I got an opportunity. I was being told different things, and I became moody, and they didn’t appreciate it. And looking back, I couldn’t agree with them more.’’

After one season, the Heat traded him to Orlando, where he played sparingly. Then, after acquiring D.J. Augustin, it became clear to Napier he had no future in Orlando.

The former first round pick was traded to Portland for $75,000.

[RELATED: Top Storylines of the Season, Part 2]

When he arrived in Portland, he found a coaching staff different from his previous two stops. They listened to him, and they didn’t judge his past. 

“The staff here understands different stories. It’s not about just one guy. They understand Dame’s story, Pat’s story, Shabazz’s story … and they all want to not comfort, but support and push you,’’ Napier said. 

One of the tenets of Stotts’ coaching philosophy is giving everyone a chance, which requires an open mind.

“I don’t like having preconceived notions of guys coming in,’’ Stotts said. “There are situations that are created and everybody has a history – but you don’t know the whole story. So when I get a player, I don’t even want to call a previous coach … because now you are getting a bias. Whatever it is with a player – their personality, their character – it’s going to come through sooner or later. So why not start out with a clean slate?’’

What they found with Napier was a strong work ethic, a tenacious playing style, and a player who had learned from his past mistakes. 

This season, he emerged as a game-changing reserve whose offense played an instrumental role in keeping the team afloat during a trying early season. 

And to think, two seasons ago, he was worth $75,000 to an NBA team.

“This league is all about having an opportunity,’’ Napier said. “Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.’’

And as Wade Baldwin found out, sometimes it’s how you handle that opportunity.

**

When Memphis raised eyebrows across the league in October by releasing Baldwin, one year after they selected him 17thoverall, Olshey decided to take a chance, with one stipulation: Baldwin would have to prove himself in the G-League.

“There’s a reason why we didn’t just bring Wade right to Portland,’’ Olshey said. “We made him go to the G-League for two months. It was to humble him. And it was an important lesson.’’

In the weeks before he was released by Memphis, coach David Fizdale said Baldwin needed to “be a better teammate” and veteran Mike Conley said Baldwin was “too cocky” as a rookie.

“My attitude might have been misconstrued,’’ Baldwin said.  “That’s all I can really say.’’

Still, the reports were enough to give Olshey pause.

“I wouldn’t have traded for him,’’ Olshey said. “I wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick because I don’t know if that humbles him to the point where he is broken down and you can build him back up.’’

Olshey said the first step in Baldwin’s reclamation was “showing him love.’’

He needed thumb surgery, and the Blazers flew him to New York for the procedure, then guided and monitored him through six weeks of recovery.

After a 17-game stint in the G-League, when he averaged 18.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals for the Texas Legends, it was time to call him up to Portland.

On his first day, a Jan. 31 game with Chicago, Baldwin said he knew things would be different with the Blazers.

Veteran Evan Turner was one of the first to approach him.

“He invited me over after the game,’’ Baldwin said.

They sat on Turner’s couch and watched television, and shot the breeze. 

The next day, the team flew to Toronto, and when the team landed, Baldwin was asked out to dinner by the team’s two stars, Lillard and CJ McCollum.

And when they returned to Portland, Lillard again invited Baldwin to dinner, this time at Lillard’s home.

“That’s coming from starters, you know, seasoned vets. And I’m coming in as a two-way player from the G-League,’’ Baldwin said with a chuckle. “That’s not really supposed to happen. But it did.’’

Turner, for one, was keyed on the attitude of the second-year player. He figured attitude problems led to his release in Memphis.

“I was actually waiting to see it, to tell you the truth,’’ Turner said of Baldwin’s attitude. “I mean, it had to be something if they cut their lottery pick. But I was a guy who got the bad rap too, so I had sympathy. I know how it can be: The right (jerk) made the wrong decision and said it loud enough.’’

From the rap sessions on the couch, to the dinners on the road and in Portland, Baldwin had become accepted, something he said he never really felt in Memphis.

“The initial feeling I got here … like when I got drafted it was totally different feeling than joining the team here. I was welcomed, invited, and it kind of makes you want to give back,’’ Baldwin said. “What you receive you want to give back. It makes it easy.’’

Baldwin’s comfort became another layer in the Blazers’ storied culture. The players, led by Lillard, are about inclusion, and the coaches are dedicated to development.

“When Wade came here, nobody looked at him like a two-way player,’’ Lillard said. “That first day coaches were pulling him to the side, going over film, and he was being invited to dinners … it’s almost like a family. When players come here, they feel like they are being looked after, and that somebody actually cares about you. And I think you get more out of them when they feel like that.’’

**

As the playoffs start today, perhaps no team is getting more production for so little. Between Harkless, Napier and Baldwin, the Blazers had to give up a grand total of $75,000.

How do they do it?

While Olshey points to the Blazers’ exhaustive scouting, the development skills of the assistant coaches and Stotts’ ability to utilize and maximize that development, another factor is at play.

Maybe more so than any other NBA power structure, the Blazers can relate to the underdog story.

In their own careers, Olshey and the Blazers coaching staff know what it feels like to be a Harkless, Napier or Baldwin. They’ve been doubted, fired, and deemed not good enough for the NBA. 

Olshey admits he has an “underdog mentality” because he went from soap opera actor to player development coach to front office executive. And Stotts notes that every coach on his staff either coached or played in the minor leagues. 

“I think that is very unique,’’ Stotts said. “If you’ve spent time in the minor leagues, there is an appreciation for what you have, what it takes to get there, and what it means to be a guy who has to get better to take root with a team.’’

Added Olshey: “There’s an empathy here. What we have built, and what we take great pride in is we are a team, and we want to be in the gym helping guys get better.’’

It’s one reason why amid the rain clouds and Douglas Firs so many players have found an oasis of opportunity in Portland. Some, like Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Mason Plumlee, JJ Hickson, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland have had career years. And others, like Tim Frazier, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe used the chance to springboard to bigger and better things.

What will be the final verdict of the Blazers’ latest reclamation projects? Neither Harkless, Napier nor Baldwin wanted to say. 

“All I know is I love it here,’’ Napier said. “But I don’t call it resurrection or reclamation, because it’s just starting.’’

Trail Blazers have gone from comfort to concern as season nears finish line

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USA Today

Trail Blazers have gone from comfort to concern as season nears finish line

SAN ANTONIO – It was over the weekend in Texas when Al-Farouq Aminu and Shabazz Napier were talking about the suddenly precarious turn the Trail Blazers season has taken. 

“Me and Chief were talking, and it’s kind of funny … we were saying we are lucky we won 13 in a row the way we’ve been playing,’’ Napier said. “Granted we’ve had some injuries, but we haven’t been playing as well as we should have.’’

That month-long streak that vaulted the Blazers into third place in the Western Conference is starting to seem like a season ago. Since then, Maurice Harkless has had knee surgery. Ed Davis has been at home resting a sprained ankle. And the team is monitoring Damian Lillard’s swollen left ankle as closely as they are the NBA scoreboard.

But after Saturday’s 116-105 loss in San Antonio – the Blazers’ third straight and fourth in six games - if there is any panic among the Trail Blazers the players were doing a good job hiding it.

“We’re good,’’ CJ McCollum said. “If you would have told me we have 48 wins and two games left and chance to finish in third place, I would have told you I would take it.’’

Indeed, the Blazers (48-32) still control their own destiny. They will secure the third seed by either winning both of their remaining games – Monday at Denver and Wednesday at home versus Utah – or with one win and one loss by Utah, who plays at the Lakers, at home against Golden State and at Portland. 

They secure home court advantage in the first round with one win, or one Utah loss. The lowest Portland can finish is fifth, with only Utah and San Antonio able to pass them. 

But what was once a comfort has turned into concern after bad losses in the past two weeks, including one at Memphis and one at Dallas. The defense has slipped – no doubt a reflection of missing defensive stalwarts Harkless and Davis – and McCollum has slumped (16.4 points, 36.6 percent shooting last five games), and coach Terry Stotts has hinted that the sharpness has dulled. 

It has created an anxious vibe around the team, not out of panic, but rather an eagerness to prove they are indeed the streaking Blazers and not a flash-in-the-pan that got hot. 

It’s why McCollum said he is confident the Blazers can take care of business Monday in Denver against a Nuggets team that has won five in a row and six in a row at home as it fights for one of the final playoff spots. 

“We know what it takes; we have been here before,’’ McCollum said. “We know the severity of these games and we also understand that we allowed ourselves to have a bit of cushion by winning and beating some teams we are supposed to beat and stealing some games on the road. But now it’s time to turn the page and refocus and finish strong.’’

That was the conclusion Aminu and Napier reached in their Texas conversation – that the remaining schedule is an opportunity for the Blazers.

“The good thing about it is we have two more games,’’ Napier said. “And we can use those games as a way to go into the playoffs with some moxie for us.’’

The Grizzlies tried, but they just couldn't lose to Portland

The Grizzlies tried, but they just couldn't lose to Portland

I can't help but imagine a meeting in the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies this morning. The brain trust is assembled around a table as interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, shoulders slumped, shuffles into the room.

From the head of the table comes the big question, directed at Bickerstaff, about the 108-103 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last night:

"J.B., I thought we made it clear to you -- we're so very close to having the worst record in the league, we're looking for ping-pong balls in the lottery, not wins in the standings. What the hell happened last night? Nobody would have blamed you a bit for losing to the No. 3 team in the Western Conference."

Bickerstaff squirms in his chair and offers his explanation:

"Look, I did all I could possibly do. Chandler Parsons was having a decent game so I pulled him out about halfway through the fourth quarter. Marc Gasol kills those guys so I didn't play him at all in the fourth. We were using the end of the bench down the stretch of the game and with everything on the line I gave the ball to the guy we signed yesterday to a 10-day contract out of the Chinese Basketball Association.

"What more could I do?"

Indeed, what more could he have done? The Trail Blazers turned the ball over five times in the fourth quarter and made just one of their six three-point shots in the final period. They ignored Jusuf Nurkic most of the night (he was 5-6 from the field and should have had at least twice that many shots) and fell in love with three-point shots they didn't make. Shabazz Napier, starting at the point in place of Damian Lillard, went 2-11 from the field and finished with two assists.

Yes, it was the second of back-to-back road games after two high-intensity battles with teams in the playoff hunt. Yes, Lillard and Maurice Harkless were missing. And yes, stuff like this happens in the NBA. But seriously, this was an all-out debacle.

Without Lillard directing the offense, things were disjointed. Instead of all those high pick-and-rolls for Nurkic, what about moving the play closer to the basket so Nurkic could just catch and convert? With Gasol on the bench who was going to stop him? Why not a few more mid-range shots for CJ McCollum? The guy had 42 points on 25 shots and probably should have had more shots. And free throws were a nightmare -- six misses in the final quarter.

And as far as that player out of China, MarShon Brooks, why not run him off the three-point line? The man had the game of his life, obviously. He was 5-5 from three-point range and scored 21 points. But really, after two or three in a row, you have to crowd him and make him put the ball on the floor. Don't let him have another three!

The Trail Blazers still have the inside track to the third seed in the West, but if they don't get it, Wednesday night's game will be the reason.

They lost to one of the worst teams in the league that wasn't even using its best players to beat them.

Mind over matter: Damian Lillard and the key to his late-game success

Mind over matter: Damian Lillard and the key to his late-game success

LOS ANGELES – By now, we know we are watching something special with Damian Lillard. One of the best stretches ever by a Trail Blazers player is becoming one of the best seasons by a Blazers player, which will likely go a long way in eventually cementing him as one of, if not the greatest clutch performers to ever wear a Blazers’ uniform.

On Monday, Lillard scored 19 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, including 15 straight in a three-minute span, to lead the Blazers to their seventh straight victory,  a come-from-behind 108-103 stunner over the Lakers.

When it comes to late-game performances, Lillard has become so good, so often, that his teammates have said they have moments in games where they are in amazement.

“I don’t marvel at a lot of things,’’ said Shabazz Napier, who won back-to-back NCAA titles at UConn. “A lot of things don’t get to me. But today was … today was spectacular. The one he did in Phoenix, I wasn’t so hyped. But today, I was like; Wow. In the game, I was like: Wow.’’

To those in Portland, we know it is not just Lillard’s physical talents that allow him to amass such an impressive collection of late-game heroics.

A large part of his success comes from a special mind.

After Monday’s heroics, Blazers assistant David Vanterpool gave some insight into Lillard’s mindset. Vanterpool has mentored Lillard from Day One in Portland. Nobody on the Blazers’ staff has spent more time with Lillard studying film, or going through workouts, or getting inside the mind of the now 27-year-old.

I asked him what stood out about this performance, or what we don’t see while we are watching it unfold.

Vanterpool thought for a second, then his eyes sparkled. He smiled.

“He knows that’s going to happen,’’ he said. “What he just did, that’s not by mistake. Mentally, he’s already seen it. He’s prepared, he’s put in the work, and that’s why it’s not a surprise to him.

“He already feels it, he already knows it,’’ Vanterpool said. “What he did tonight is more like him finishing a movie he has already seen in his mind.’’

He shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “only the great ones have that.”

Minutes before, in the locker room, Lillard ho-hummed his way through interviews, matter-of-factly recounting what was going through his mind.

“I looked at the clock and there was a lot of time, and I said ‘I’m about to try take this on one, and bring it home,’ ’’ Lillard said.

He brought it home, all right.

Never before has Lillard played better, and never before has he deserved to be included in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. He might not be the best player in the league, but considering what he does and what he means in Portland, there might not be a player who is more valuable to his franchise.

After setting the franchise scoring record for a month with a 31.4 average in February, Lillard has the Blazers in third place in the West, and particularly in the last month, he has flat-out willed the team to victories.

Up ahead are the Knicks on Tuesday, then a two-week gauntlet that features games against Golden State, Cleveland, Boston and Houston.

Right now, the Blazers have to figure that all they have to do is keep it close and get the game to Lillard Time. After that, the movie has already played in his mind.

“Regardless of how the game is going,’’ Lillard said Monday. “I’m always going to feel like when the time comes, I can make it happen.’’

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

Snapshots from the streak: Blazers' success takes root behind scenes

The Trail Blazers are in the midst of another late-season run, but the surge this season has a different look and a different feel.

The Blazers (37-26) have won six in a row and 13 of their past 14 home games to vault into third place in the Western Conference with 19 games remaining, and perhaps more than ever their play has been defined by one thing: they are a team.

Sure, Damian Lillard has been spectacular. And CJ McCollum has hit some big shots. But this spring blossoming has largely been rooted in team defense and the nightly emergence of a role player.

Pick a player – Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis,  Maurice Harkless, Zach Collins, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Pat Connaughton – and they have made a game-changing impact over the past month.

It has created an empowering and confident sense within the locker room that this team is not only hot and dangerous, but for real.

“In the past two years, when we went on great runs, it’s always been CJ has a great stretch, or I have a great stretch,’’ Damian Lillard said. “But now, it’s much more collective – both this season and during this run.’’

On Saturday, Oklahoma City’s game plan was to make someone other than Lillard beat them. They trapped and blitzed him, forcing him to get rid of the ball.  If the Thunder’s dare for someone other than Lillard to step up, it didn’t work out.

Turner hit three three-pointers. Collins had a career-high 12 points, including a critical fourth-quarter three. And Connaughton added some scrappy and timely baskets.

“We are not losing anything because guys are pulling their weight,’’ Lillard said. “Any time you have that kind of production, and that type of focus from guys, it makes an impact. It’s team effort. We are improving. We are becoming a better team.’’

It’s human nature to want a roster to come together immediately. But as the Blazers are showing, it often takes time. Development. And attention to detail.

Here is a collection of snapshots from the past week that show the subtleties and the behind-the-scenes work that has gone into the Blazers becoming a better team.

NURKIC GOES TO WORK ON SHOT

It has long been legend at the Trail Blazers’ practice facility that Lillard is one of, if not the first, player to arrive daily. But in the past couple weeks, the Blazers’ captain has arrived and noticed a player walking off the practice courts: center Jusuf Nurkic.

Nurkic, of course, was at the center of one of the biggest early-season storylines: the inability to finish around the basket. It was such an epidemic that the normally reticent coach Terry Stotts started publicly mentioning Nurkic’s poor shooting and finishing.

It’s unclear exactly what caught Nurkic’s attention, but the big man decided it was time to do something about the problem.

“I told the coaches: ‘I’m better than that,’’’ Nurkic said. “And that I’m going to work on it during the (All-Star) break. Thee break gave me time to work and rest mentally.’’

Nurkic said he has been showing up 30 minutes to an hour before practices to execute shooting drills with assistant coach Nate Tibbetts. One of the emphasis’ during the drills is taking only shots that he would take in the game and going to the basket with stronger moves.

During the Blazers’ six-game winning streak, Nurkic has been key. He’s averaging 14.7 points and shooting 51.3 percent from the field, which has included much better efficiency around the basket.

“He’s been spending a lot of time working on that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “The coaches have been challenging him, in our live practices he’s been real physical with (the ball) and I can tell he has been focusing on playing a more physical game, going stronger to rim and he is getting results from it.’’

THE COMING OF COLLINS

After the Blazers beat Minnesota on Thursday, the locker room was full of smiles and playful banter. But rookie Zach Collins, his lips tight and his eyes pierced, was in no mood to celebrate. He bee-lined for the door, one of the first to leave.

He had been entrusted with fourth-quarter minutes in a crucial game, but on back-to-back possessions, with the score tied, Minnesota’s Gorgui Dieng secured offensive rebounds.

“I was really frustrated with that,’’ Collins said later. “There were a couple of times I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.’’

So the next game, against Oklahoma City, Collins didn’t disappoint.

Playing all but the final 27 seconds of the fourth quarter, Collins was one of the catalysts in one of the Blazers’ most important wins of the season. He hit all three of his shots in the fourth and had two blocks down the stretch. All told, he finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes and was the epicenter of a huge media gathering afterward.

“Any time I have a bad game, this will be the one to watch,’’ he quipped, noting he is notoriously hard on himself.

Around the locker room, the rookie has earned a healthy dose of respect. The veterans love his toughness, and everybody sees that he cares, both through his work ethic and intensity.

“He has a bright future ahead, and I’m not saying that just because he’s my teammate,’’ Davis said. “I really think he is going to be a good player. I mean, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have won this game (against OKC). ‘’

Nearly every player talks about Collins’ makeup, from his intensity, to how he isn’t intimidated.

“He’s just not going to back down. That’s all you can ask for in a player,’’ Davis said. “Especially a young guy from a small school. Guys in this league, they are grown men, and they are going to try you, test you, and he’s standing up to everybody. I can’t do nothing but respect him.’’

Harkless sees Collins’ mental roller coaster more than anyone. He dresses next to Collins at home games and often sees the 20-year-old wear his frustration.

“Me and him have similar attitudes,’’ Harkless said. “I know talking too much doesn’t help, so I just hit him with little things here and there and then I just let him have his space. For me, that works for me rather than someone trying to over talk.’’

Like Davis, Harkless loves the fire and toughness in Collins.

“He doesn’t back down to anybody. Ever,’’ Harkless said. “And the passion he plays with (chuckles) I remember one time he went up for verticality and came down, mouth all bloody. He licked his lips and kept playing. Stuff like that. Little things like that show you the traits of a tough player, a tough person.’’

It’s that mindset, along with a solid work ethic, that has allowed Collins to go from a project coming out of Summer League to a player who is entrusted with crunch time minutes in the middle of a playoff push.

“He has continued to improve throughout the season, and I think this was a culmination of a lot of work,’’ Stotts said.

NAPIER’S LATE-GAME EMERGENCE

During the comeback victory over Minnesota, when Portland trailed by 10 with one minute left in the third quarter, much was made about Lillard’s 13 fourth-quarter points.

But in the comeback, it was a Shabazz Napier three-pointer that tied the score in the fourth, and a Napier fast-break pull-up jumper that gave the Blazers the lead, continuing a season-long trend of clutch play by the backup point guard.

It prompted Ed Davis to note that one of the emerging strengths of the Blazers is the ability to have three “closers” – players who can make a big shot, or put away a game with their shot-making ability.

“All season long, Bazz has had moments where he has hit a big pull up or hit a big three, or made a big steal,’’ Lillard said. “He’s a game-changer, a big-time play maker. I think Ed is right.’’

Napier has long lived for the big moments. Now that it’s March, the two-time NCAA champion from UConn says he welcomes the big games looming on the Blazers’ schedule.

“I’ve always felt my game does change when -  not really because it’s March - but when I know its coming down to the wire. It fuels me, puts more wood to fire – like, what impact can you make today? Because I know: it’s winning time. I know that my biggest goal is to win a championship so you have to play your best games at the end of the year. ‘’

Of course, his big moments against Minnesota came on the heels of his worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, a slump that was punctuated by an 0-for-10 night in Phoenix. On the Blazers’ off day, he was in the gym working on his shot, and after the next practice, he was the last player to leave the practice courts.

“I’ve always felt failure is a learning experience,’’ Napier said. “And I’ve always felt especially in those times where the game is on the line, you know, clutch moments, that I would rather be the guy who is taking the shot. Because I can deal with being the hero and I can deal with being the zero. It’s kind of who I am.’’

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

Blazers' Shabazz Napier thinks he has found way out of shooting slump

After an 0-for-10 shooting night Saturday in Phoenix, Trail Blazers’ point guard Shabazz Napier had one thought on the flight home: getting back in the gym to work on his shot.

“I was thinking about coming (to the practice gym) when we landed, but we didn’t land until around 1 a.m.,’’ Napier said.

So, after a night’s sleep, Napier came to the gym Sunday morning, even though the Blazers’ had the day off. Truth is, Napier would have been in the gym on Sunday had he gone 10-for-10 in Phoenix, but considering he is now in the worst shooting slump of his four-year NBA career, having gone 7-for-36 in his last four games, there was an added urgency to get to his shooting routine.

“Have to keep shooting,’’ Napier said.

On Monday, Napier was the last Blazers player to leave the practice courts following the team’s workout. He put in so many extra shots that sweat was dripping from his chin.

“I have to keep shooting, keeping working out and try to erase all the shots I’ve missed,’’ Napier said. “Eventually, it’s going to fall. I mean, I put up a lot of shots every day, so I have a lot of faith in my craft. It’s going to fall.’’

The next chance for Napier to break out of his slump will be Tuesday when the surging Blazers (33-26) – winners of five of the past six – play at home against Sacramento (18-41). The last time Napier played the Kings, he made all five of his shots.

In the meantime, nobody on the Blazers is worried about Napier, who this season is shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range.

“I think good shooters work themselves through it,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “You gotta have confidence and know the next shot is going in.’’

Added team captain Damian Lillard: “I don’t worry about him … Bazz is not a mental midget. You see (against Phoenix) he missed a couple and he kept shooting. That tells you all you need to know.’’

While confidence is never a problem for Napier, two things have entered his mind. During his slump – and particularly against Phoenix – several shots have appeared to go in, only to spin off or bounce out of the rim.

“The one that are the worst are the ones that go in the hoop, then come out … it kind of sticks with you,’’ Napier said.

Also, he has detected a couple flaws in his shooting stroke. For one, on some shots he says he can feel the ball is too far back in his palm. He wants the ball to come off his fingers and not be touched or influenced by his palm. Also, he doesn’t feel he is getting the same lift on his shots because both of his big toes are swollen and injured. His right big toe was hurt this season in Philadelphia, and his left big toe swelled up so much after the game in Toronto he had to miss the game in Boston.

“At the end of the day, when you put that thing up, you have to forget about all the excuses and just shoot the ball,’’ Napier said. “And hopefully, you make it.’’

Napier this season has been one of the best stories on the Blazers. After playing bit roles with Miami, Orlando and Portland in his first three seasons, Napier is now a key player on a team in the playoff hunt. He forged his role amid the most unlikely landscapes – playing behind two All-Star caliber guards.

He forced his way into the rotation during a stellar December, when he averaged 13.8 points in 11 games. He then cemented his place while filling in for the injured Lillard, during which he started eight games and averaged 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

For the season, Napier is averaging a career-high 9.1 points and 2.2 assists in a career-high 21.2 minutes a game.

It’s that body of work this season why nobody is worried about the last four games, and Napier admits it is easier to cope with the slump knowing he has a secure spot in the rotation.

“It helps when teammates and coaches say ‘Keep shooting,’’’ Napier said. “(Assistants) Jim Moran, Nate Tibbetts, Coach Stotts - every time I get to the huddle they keep saying ‘Keep shooting. The next one is going to fall.’ They believe in my shot as much as I do. And I know it’s my job to knock down the next shot.’’

That’s why he was in the gym early Sunday, and then again late on Monday. He’s a shooter, and shooters shoot, even when they are in a slump.

“That’s why I’m always here,’’ Napier said as sweat dripped off him at the practice facility. “I gotta figure it out.’’

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

Did Damian Lillard being injured help the Trail Blazers? Star guard thinks so

OKLAHOMA CITY – Damian Lillard knows it sounds crazy, but the best thing that might have happened to the Trail Blazers this season is his recent bout with hamstring and calf injuries.

With Lillard forced to miss seven of the team’s past nine games, a funny thing has happened to the once struggling Blazers: the offense has found its groove, role players have emerged, and the team has gone 6-3.

Blessing in disguise?

“Definitely,’’ Lillard said of his time on the sideline. “The last two years that’s what it seems to be the case. I get hurt and guys have to step up.’’

The latest and most emphatic example came Tuesday in Oklahoma City, when the Blazers routed the Thunder 117-106 behind an All-Star-like 27 points from CJ McCollum, an efficient 20-points from Jusuf Nurkic, and another steady fill-in performance from Shabazz Napier (21 points). Topping off the best performance of the season was sterling bench contributions from Pat Connaughton (10 points), Zach Collins (nine points) and Maurice Harkless (nine points).

It was another affirmation that the team’s dormant offense was awakening. In the last five games, the Blazers have scored 124, 110, 110, 111 and now 117 – outputs that have been punctuated by rapid ball movement, crisp cutting and a blend of inside and outside play.

“We are forced to play that way because I’m not playing,’’ Lillard said after the Thunder win. “Because we have to lean on each other. That’s not to say we don’t when I’m playing, but there’s so much more opportunity out there.’’

Around an already smiling Blazers locker room, nothing caused players to laugh more than to suggest Lillard’s theory that his absence may turn out to be a good thing. 

“I don’t think Damian Lillard getting hurt is ever a blessing,’’ Connaughton said. “However, I think it has allowed guys to at least see what an extended role in their NBA career would look like. And that has value. There’s validity to the fact that guys have stepped up and have shown things they can do that they might otherwise not.’’

Added Ed Davis: “Obviously, we want him out there, but when your star player goes down, other guys have to step up and there is going to be more shots, more movement and that helps us in the long run. Confidence wise guys like Pat, Bazz is playing well, Moe … it has helped them. So sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise.’’

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Lillard said he is unsure if he will play Wednesday in Houston. On Tuesday, he had a morning workout, then an extensive pregame workout where he pushed himself, followed by a conditioning session that left him drenched in sweat and catching his breath.

The next hurdle, Lillard and his teammates say, is keeping the same rhythm and momentum when he does return to the lineup.

“The biggest thing is making sure when he gets back, that things don’t change,’’ Connaughton said. “In the sense of guys are still being aggressive, guys are still moving without the ball, and things that we can and have done in the past.’’

Napier, who has been a star in Lillard’s absence, said he thinks the Blazers were beginning to find their offensive footing even before Lillard became injured.

“No one person can make up what he does, so it has to be a collective group, everyone has to pitch in,’’ said Napier, who in six starts is averaging 18.7 points. “But I always felt like we were trending that way when he was playing.’’

Lillard agreed, saying the Blazers’ loss at Cleveland and home rout of Atlanta were the first steps to show the offense was coming along.

“So I think (when he does return) I just have to play the same way as always – make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Right now, that once sputtering offense that had a devil of a time making layins and close-range shots, is starting to cook. Nurkic is starting to make more of his layins, McCollum has found a better balance of passing and shot-making, and the team has made more cuts and dunks in the past week than seemingly all season.

“The shot making is the biggest thing,’’ Lillard said. “You make shots and you keep defenses honest. Tonight, we were running offense and (Oklahoma City) didn’t know what to do. CJ and Bazz were hitting, Nurk was finishing, Moe was cutting … now you get down the stretch, and they are trying to make a run, and we are picking them apart. Because we had been doing it all game. It’s not like this is a flash in the pan.’’

So maybe, just maybe, the player the Blazers could least afford to be injured was a good thing. Or maybe the team was already trending in this direction. Either way, it was symbolic of the Blazers offense that McCollum left the locker room feasting on some bread.

The Blazers’ offense is back, eating up opponent’s defenses once again.

“We have been saying so much about our offense: ‘It’s going to come around … It’s going to come around ‘… and y’all like, When?’’ Lillard said with a smile. “And now, it’s happening.’’

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Blazers prove the NBA truism -- the aggressive team gets the calls

Some real talk about Portland's 114-110 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night:

  • A wacky, crazy, strange game. And for Trail Blazer fans, probably the most exciting game of the season. In the fourth quarter Portland did a great job of mucking the game up -- being physical on defense and very aggressive at both ends of the floor. It resulted in a 42-point quarter while holding the Sixers to 25. I liked the Blazers' passion in the period more than anything. They fed off the home crowd, which was rightfully going bonkers for the first time in weeks
  • And speaking of the home crowd, the referees pitched in and helped as much as they could. Portland shot 47 free throws while Philadelphia got just 14. That's a joke, but once again testimony to the NBA truism that the aggressive team gets the calls.
  • The game may have turned on a flagrant foul call on Joel Embiid in the fourth quarter when he bumped Jusuf Nurkic to the floor. Or Nurkic just flopped onto the floor. I can understand an official watching that in real time and thinking it may have been a flagrant foul -- but after watching a replay? That was a real bad call -- and even though Nurkic missed his free throws, you could feel the game changing on that call. Embiid seemed discouraged and tired down the stretch. Great player, though.
  • Nurkic offered a look at both sides of his game. He suffered through all sorts of stumbles, fumbles and misfires over the first three quarters. The man has missed more close-in shots and layups this season than any player I've ever seen. But in the fourth quarter, after getting his nose bloodied, he found passion and assertiveness. He was an inspiration down the stretch -- leading to the obvious question: Where has THAT Nurkic been?
  • The Sixers are a well-coached team but I could not figure out why they didn't send Embiid to the low post in the fourth quarter and let him go directly at Nurkic who played most of the final period with five fouls. My goodness, Nurkic will commit that sixth foul if you give him half a chance. in fact, the passive game officials aside, I thought he did commit his sixth foul two or three times but it just wasn't called
  • Like Nurkic, Shabazz Napier completely turned his game around in the second half. He missed his first six shots and struggled against the quickness of 76ers guard T.J. McConnell in the first half. But he hit seven of his last eight shots and was a big part of his team's late rally.
  • I'm not sure how much longer NBA officials will keep falling for Nurkic's flopping around but you have to figure it will reach that point.
  • CJ McCollum had one of those games we've come to expect of him -- making just about every open shot he got, including some big ones.
  • Somehow, Portland found its passion button in the second half. I don't know what triggered it, but it's been missing most of the season. What a difference when this team is playing with desperation and aggression.

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Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

Blazer rotations continue to change but the losing streak reaches 5

It wasn't surprising that the Trail Blazers lost another game Monday night. The fifth straight defeat came in Oakland to the Golden State Warriors, a team that has beaten Portland like a snare drum recently.

Yes, the Warriors were without all-stars Steph Curry, Draymond Green and others -- but they still had enough to handle the Blazers with relative ease.

Portland staged a fourth-quarter comeback, mainly due to Damian Lillard's heroics. Lillard was playing with yet another new lineup combination down the stretch, this one consisting of Jake Layman, Zach Collins, Noah Vonleh and Pat Connaughton. Later, CJ McCollum came on for Layman, but this was the group that played most of the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, starters Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard, who helped stake their team to a lead after the first quarter, didn't appear in the final period. Just as Shabazz Napier -- who had put together a nice run of off-the-bench performances -- rode the bench for the entire game. Napier has not played in the last two games and has seen just eight minutes of action in the last three. This after Napier had played at least 14 minutes in all of the previous 14 games. Leonard's playing time has been odd, too -- he went four straight games without playing, then in his last 12 games has played a streak of 4, 22. 17, 4, 0, 0, 0, 8, 16, 3, 20 and 18 minutes.

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Injuries have complicated Coach Terry Stotts' rotations recently, but Portland hasn't been crippled by injuries the way some other teams have. Stotts has said previously that he is more comfortable when he finds a set rotation but so far this season, it just hasn't been there.

I think it's become a problem for this team because players -- in any sport -- usually need a consistent role in order to perform consistently. Players need to know what's going to be expected of them every game.

But Stotts' job isn't easy. He has too many players who bring similar skills, too many who defend well but can't shoot and a roster that's unbalanced. His best two players -- McCollum and Lillard -- basically play the same position and he doesn't have any consistent scoring on the wings. In the middle, he has a center who hasn't played anywhere near what we saw from him during his sneak preview last season.

I don't know the answer to all this but I know the roster isn't going to change much. It's locked in. I think at some point the coach is going to have to make rotation choices and stick with them. I think, too, he may need to define who his shooters are and make sure they get more shots than the ones who can't make shots.

And hope that his team stays together long enough to get things straightened out.