The real star of Oregon's Final Four push? The coach!

The real star of Oregon's Final Four push? The coach!

I've talked to several NBA people I know about the Oregon Ducks and I'm getting the same evaluation from just about all of them:

Coach Dana Altman has done an amazing job with that team.

Oregon heads to the Final Four this week without a big-time superstar. Without a lottery pick in the NBA draft, maybe even without a first-round pick in the draft. You aren't supposed to do that. At least you aren't supposed to do that if you have a legitimate chance to win the whole thing -- which the Ducks most certainly have.

But Oregon plays together, plays extremely hard and defends. Really defends. It's an athletic bunch and Altman has done something that a lot of college coaches can't seem to accomplish -- he's getting the most from the team's athleticism while retaining a degree of discipline. The Ducks are quick, fast and physical -- but they are seldom out of control. They are able to harness all that athleticism without going into a crazy, undisciplined style.

The win over Kansas was stunning. Not only was it more of a road game than any team is supposed to play in an NCAA tournament, it was against a team with more talent than the Ducks. Coming next is a game against North Carolina, which again, has more talent than Oregon. But I'm not sure the Tar Heels are ready for a team that's going to come at them with the energy and force that Oregon has brought. This bunch can be downright intimidating with its style of play.

My only question about the Ducks all season was whether they would shoot the ball well enough to win more than a couple of consecutive tourney games. But Tyler Dorsey has emerged as the reliable shooter this team has needed and Jordan Bell has become the inside defensive force to replace the injured Chris Boucher.

And these guys are fearless and relentless. That they can be that way and Altman can still retain a measure of control is amazing. The college basketball world is full of control freaks who want to stand on the sidelines screaming at their players, calling every play and controlling every facet of their team's game. And they end up stifling their team's creativity. Altman has let go just enough to allow his team to make the most of its natural ability.

And that's the very essence of coaching.

A FEW FINAL FOUR NOTES: They keep saying this thing is being held in Phoenix but it isn't. The Final Four is actually going to be played in a stadium in Glendale, a suburb of Phoenix that is a long way from a lot of places you may choose to stay in the Phoenix area. Be prepared for a long drive from downtown Phoenix, or points south or east. If you're staying in Scottsdale or Mesa or Gilbert or Tempe, it's a long haul. ... And yes, I said the Final Four is to be played in a "stadium" and not an "arena." This thing is going down in University of Phoenix Stadium, the home of the NFL Cardinals and various college football playoff games. It's the one that looks like a giant flying saucer and seats about 67,000 for football. I'm not sure what it will seat for hoops but you can bet there are thousands upon thousands of lousy seats where the scoreboard video screen will be your best view. That also means there should be plenty of tickets available, either through the NCAA, the schools or the secondary market. I'd be careful about paying a high price to a scalper early this week because the market could be flooded with tickets later on. And, as always at a Final Four, Sunday is a good day to buy a ticket on the secondary market for the championship game. The fans of the teams that lose Saturday are always looking to unload their tickets and go home.

Pat Riley was "beside himself" over fine for resting players... in 1990

Pat Riley was "beside himself" over fine for resting players... in 1990

The NBA world is abuzz over the memo that Commissioner Adam Silver sent to team owners recently, warning them of significant fines for resting healthy players. All of a sudden, this is a big issue in the league, even though it's been going on for years.

In fact, way back in 1990, the Los Angeles Lakers were fined what was then the healthy sum of $25,000 for not using healthy stars Magic Johnson and James Worthy in Portland for a season-ending game. And Laker Coach Pat Riley was very indignant about the fine, which was levied by then-commissioner David Stern:

"I'm sort of beside myself on this," Riley said. "Obviously, a new rule has been made, a new precedent set. I didn't do it out of disregard for the league. I did it for the well-being of our players. They do it (rest starters in meaningless games) in other sports."

You can go way back to 1985 and find healthy players being rested and teams being fined for it. Riley's argument is being made these days, of course. And it's hard to argue with it. I've heard all sorts of solutions for this problem but not many of them will solve it. The one getting the most traction is that teams need to give a few days' notice when they're sitting players out. But I find that inadequate simply because so many tickets to most teams' games are sold way in advance, including season tickets.

The best solution I could offer -- and I'm open to reasonable suggestions -- is to make teams sit healthy players out of home games. That way, they're at least not depriving fans of a chance to see stars who make just one appearance a season in their town. Make your own fans unhappy, rather than those of other teams.

I also think it's reasonable for coaches to cut back on some of their players' minutes, rather than have them miss games, or not sit all of their best players down on the same night. I've heard other ideas -- such as dock players' checks for the games they miss while healthy, but I don't think that will work because you'd just see a whole lot of trumped-up injuries or illnesses as an excuse for sitting down. "Flu-like symptoms" would become all the rage. I do sympathize with fans, though. Ticket prices are through the roof and teams often use "dynamic pricing" or variable pricing during a season -- meaning the cost of seeing the best teams and the true superstars is higher than for other games.

And what really irks me is that certain players see these rest days as proof they are stars. A few misguided players, I've been told, believe it to be a status symbol.

But when those big-time players -- the drawing cards -- don't show up on the floor for the game, fans are being ripped off -- just as Portland President Harry Glickman said way back in '90:

"I think (Riley) cheated the fans," Glickman said. "I think it (the fine) was a very appropriate action for the commissioner to take. I felt all along the commissioner would take some kind of action.

"I hope that it sends a message to the Lakers and to all of us that you don't do those kinds of things."

Spoelstra on Lillard: "That was one incredible performance"

Spoelstra on Lillard: "That was one incredible performance"

How great was Damian Lillard Sunday in Miami against the Heat? Well, I'd try to tell you but I believe it's better to yield to Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra. He's in a much better position to evaluate NBA players than I am and the fact that he's one of the most respected coaches in basketball means his words carry a whole lot more weight than most. Here are some of Spoelstra's post-game remarks, which basically turned into a tribute to Lillard:

"That was one incredible performance. There are less than five players in this league that you have to do something different on your pick-and-roll coverage. Lillard is obviously one of those guys. And once he got it going... there haven't been many shooting performances like that this year in the league. To be able to score, basically 50, on 21 shots on a back-to-back -- on an early back-to-back -- just shows the level of efficiency. He was outstanding.

"You have to give them a heck of a lot of credit. They came in here and took this game. ... Our guys were trying, they were working, but you had a great player who took his game to another level."

That sums it up pretty well. I'd only add one thing: I haven't seen a Portland player put the team on his back like Lillard has since the days of Brandon Roy... or maybe even Clyde Drexler. Sunday's game may have been his best ever as a Blazer -- at a time when his team needed it most.

 

Buying Blazer tickets on secondary market? Be careful!

Buying Blazer tickets on secondary market? Be careful!

This news release from the Trail Blazers today:

ROSE QUARTER WARNS OF INCREASED ACTIVITY
AMONG EVENT TICKET COUNTERFEITERS
Safest Ticket Purchase Options are RoseQuarter.com, TrailBlazers.com
 
PORTLAND, Ore. (March 17, 2017) – Officials with the Portland Trail Blazers, Rose Quarter, Moda Center and Veterans Memorial Coliseum are again sounding the alarm for all event guests – sellers of counterfeit tickets are after your money. With several regular season home games still left for the Trail Blazers and more headlining events coming this spring and summer, reports are surfacing of guests still being victimized by fake tickets and fraudulent transactions. It’s becoming an all-too-frequent scenario that officials say is avoidable.
 
“The best way to ensure you are purchasing a valid ticket is to purchase directly from us,” said Dewayne Hankins, Chief Marketing Officer for the Trail Blazers and Rose Quarter. “We have seen a recent increase in fraudulent tickets from purchases outside of our ecosystem and unfortunately it creates a bad experience for our fans and customers when the tickets cannot be honored. If you see a good deal on the Internet for a Trail Blazers game or concert at one of our venues, it’s likely too good to be true. We continue to try to combat these counterfeiters but as we get more sophisticated in our approach, they do as well.”
 
Hankins strongly urges purchasers to use either the RoseQuarter.com, TrailBlazers.com or Ticketmaster.com websites for their online purchases. Transactions through those sites are the only way to guarantee venue access and seating. Guests also have the option of on-site purchases of tickets at the Rose Quarter Box Office (M-F, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.), or by calling 800.745.3000.
 
Hankins added that guests discovering their tickets are counterfeit should seek restitution from the entity where tickets were purchased; and consider alerting law enforcement. They should also be prepared to miss the event for which the counterfeit tickets were purchased.

Trail Blazers: An exhilarating 48 minutes that ALSO defines a season

Trail Blazers: An exhilarating 48 minutes that ALSO defines a season

What happened Wednesday night in San Antonio was downright miraculous. A team that was completely embarrassed by hapless New Orleans Tuesday rose up to defeat powerful San Antonio on its home court.

Go figure.

The Trail Blazers' playoff push: You can't count them out, but you can't count them in, either.

There were a lot of things I liked about Wednesday's game, but here are the things I liked the most:

  • Focus. The Trail Blazers paid attention throughout. They were alert and aggressive. It was a complete turnaround from the previous night.
  • Passing. Yes, they found open teammates and got them the ball with a minimum of mistakes.
  • Shooting. Against a team that's usually one of the best in the league at defending the three-point shot, they hit 40.9 percent.
  • Free-throw shooting. It's been spotty of late but against the Spurs, Portland won the game at the foul line, hitting 25 of 28.
  • Spreading the ball around. It was almost as if something was said in the halftime locker room but after intermission, the Trail Blazer guards seemed more intent than ever at hitting the roll man -- usually Jusuf Nurkic -- on the pick-and-roll. And it made a very big difference.
  • Nurkic. He may have struggled inside the final minute but there's no question that age 22 he continues to show a skill level that Portland hasn't seen at center in a very long time.
  • Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. A combined 62 points that included a 17-for-17 night at the foul line and a lot of clutch shots and sharp passes. A sparkling performance.
  • Al-Farouq Aminu. Some outstanding defense, outside and inside.
  • Noah Vonleh. He made every shot he took and didn't have a turnover. You couldn't ask for much more.

There were other things, I'm sure. This was a big-time recovery for a team that looked down and out the previous night. And if there's ever a win that should be a catapult for more consistent performance it's this one.

BUT.

I wouldn't count on it. You just can't seem to expect much of anything but inconsistency. The overwhelming picture of this season is going to be of a very big roller-coaster ride.

 

Trail Blazers: An excruciating 48 minutes that defined a season

Trail Blazers: An excruciating 48 minutes that defined a season

After sitting through the Trail Blazers' 100-77 debacle of a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night, I noticed how tired I had gotten. Watching that mess just exhausted me.

It was a bewildering performance by Portland, a team that had suddenly appeared to have found itself in a five-wins-in-six-games streak. But the Blazers ran head-on into a wall against the Pelicans -- a wall of inconsistency borne out of a seeming lack of attention to detail.

You can't do big things without doing the little things and so many times this season the Blazers have failed to do all the little things that make their team work. This is a team with a very delicate balance between pretty good and pretty mediocre and the latter is winning the battle a good deal of the time.

When you don't play consistent defense, your offense better be pretty solid night after night. When you don't have a frontcourt that provides any measure of consistent scoring, you end up relying too much on your backcourt to carry the load. When you don't have a reliable No. 3 scorer it's difficult to get the No. 1 and No. 2 scorers to give the ball up to people they don't trust.

And the real problem with that long chain of things that have to go right is that everything is reliant on little things like ball movement and player movement. Screen setting. Not only seeing teammates when they are open but finding them with sharp passes, not looping, lackadaisical ones. Focus is needed. Attention to detail. Focus.

Seriously, when you turn the ball over two or three times in a row, the next possession should bring more careful passes and smarter decisions -- not yet another careless turnover.

And some nights -- too many nights -- focus just hasn't been there. I don't understand that because last season this team was sharp and attentive. This year there are way too many lapses in judgment and focus. And I think the disappointment has led to some sort of deep mass frustration and disappointment. There are good people on this team  -- they care a lot about their team -- and they are dealing with a lot of frustration. And it's mounting up.

Tuesday night's loss was a joke, not necessarily because of the outcome but because of the process. Portland was never in this game, right from the start. For a team fighting for a playoff berth it seems to desperately want, this was a trainwreck. And we've seen this so many other times this season -- just when it appeared the team had found an answer for its problems.

It wasn't so much that New Orleans hit Portland with a great game, it was that the Trail Blazers were so off kilter they never had a chance. Yes, the Pels shot 47.5 percent from the field -- but at this point of the season we're accustomed to opponents shooting near 50 percent. The Blazers make up for that by shooting well themselves, making more threes than their opponent, rebounding well and holding turnovers down.

Lately, though, the turnovers are coming in large bunches and, Tuesday, the shooting was way, way off. Portland made just 30.3 percent of its shots and hit only 11 of its 32 threes. When you shoot that poorly, there's usually a reason and it's that you aren't getting good shots.

The Blazers didn't move the ball well, didn't move their bodies enough, didn't set enough effective screens and didn't find open teammates often enough to shoot well. At times they made the Pelican defense look like the best defense in the league. Which it isn't.

By the third quarter, the Trail Blazers were standing around trying to figure out what to do next, seemingly befuddled about how to score. I can't remember the last time I've seen this group so baffled on offense. If Damian Lillard hadn't just taken things into his own hands in this game, Portland might not have reached 60 points.

But let's face it, this is the way the season has gone. This is what it's all been about and it's probably too late to salvage anything from it. The 2016-17 season is going to be a write-off, I'm afraid. We are just going to have to consider it a lost season and move on.

And hope that the malaise that periodically engulfs this team can be left behind, too.

 

I'm not certain that every NBA franchise wants to have to listen to Old Man Ball

I'm not certain that every NBA franchise wants to have to listen to Old Man Ball

I'm not sure whether we should laugh or cry at all the preposterous stuff LaVar Ball is saying about his basketball-playing sons -- and even himself.

Here's a compilation of some of the things Old Man Ball has said recently and you can make your own decision about which is the most ridiculous. For me, it was the latest remark:

“Back in my heyday, I would kill Michael Jordan one-on-one."

How in the world am I supposed to buy into all the wonderful things he says about his basketball-playing sons when the man makes a stupid statement like that one? He played one season of basketball at Washington State and averaged 2.2 points per game. There is delusional and there is DELUSIONAL. LaVar is the latter. And it's obviously not confined to his own basketball talents.

This man once famously said his son Lonzo is better than Steph Curry:

“I have the utmost confidence in what my boy is doing. He’s better than Steph Curry to me. Put Steph Curry on UCLA’s team right now and put my boy on Golden State and watch what happens.”

Here's the thing about that: Even if his kid IS better than Curry, what's the point in saying it? Why put that pressure on his oldest son? If he's that good, he'll prove it.

People tell me that the dad's plan is to make sure his kids get attention through his remarks. But come on, they are going to get plenty of attention if they're as good as he says they are. And I'm not sure any teenager needs to hear all this stuff. To me, it's all about getting some attention for himself.

You can look back at parents/coaches like Richard Williams and Earl Woods and say that Ball's kids have a chance to be every bit as good as their dad says they will. Or you can look back at the sad story of Todd Marinovich and his father, Marv, and shake your head.

But there are unintended consequences to all the attention the daddy is getting. Basketball is a team sport, unlike tennis and golf, and these kids have to fit into a team. A franchise, even. I am hearing there are some NBA teams that are worrying about what kind of a problem LaVar would cause if they draft Lonzo. What I'm hearing is that if the kid is judged to be about the same ability as another player, the other player is more likely to be drafted first because of the possible pain in the backside the elder Ball could turn out to be.

You don't want this guy in the ear of the media if his son doesn't get to play as many minutes as LaVar thinks he should. Or he doesn't start right away. Or... whatever. NBA coaches have enough problems without this guy yelling at them to use his son in a different manner, get him more shots, etc. The father makes a lot of noise and I'm not sure coaches and general managers in the league want to put up with it.

And over time, I'm not sure what it's going to be like for young Lonzo to try to live up to his father's lofty and very public expectations. As good as Steph Curry? Well, if he falls a little short of performing like a two-time MVP will he be a failure? Probably not to you or me... but to his father?

It's going to be very entertaining to see this story play out over the next three or four seasons, as sons No. 2 and 3 show up at UCLA and then, the NBA. And at some point we'll find out the truth about that old NBA truism, "Ball don't lie."

 

If a boundary call that decides the game can't be reviewed, what's the point of replay?

If a boundary call that decides the game can't be reviewed, what's the point of replay?

Really, you can blame whomever you wish for Portland's one-point overtime loss to the Washington Wizards Saturday night in Moda Center.

Yes, the men with the whistles erred at the end. Yes, officials should have the ability to review on video any boundary calls inside the final 10 seconds of a game or that they know would be a game-decider. Give them some discretion to do so. But the problem with that is, nobody even seemed to know Markieff Morris stepped on the sideline before hitting his game-winning jumper until the play appeared -- over and over -- on the replay screen above the Moda Center court. So can the reaction of a home crowd trigger a replay? If this game had occurred in Washington, the fans in the arena wouldn't even have known he stepped out because the hometown team wouldn't have put that replay up on its screen.

Of course, the officials at the time should have called it without a replay. There's really no excuse for them not to get it right in the first place. And that's the real problem here. But it was a poorly officiated game throughout, with more controversial non-calls than calls.

But I would say this, the Trail Blazers better not get so wrapped up in the officiating that they don't notice that they blew a 21-point halftime lead and stumbled, once again, in the fourth quarter. They are still not finishing games well and that problem may take until next season to straighten itself out.

The ball and player movement that serves this team so well throughout games seems to vanish in the waning moments of their games. When it showed up late Saturday, it resulted in a couple of wide-open Al-Farouq Aminu three-point goals and two Jusuf Nurkic free throws. But the Portland guards are so accustomed to needing to take the game on their shoulders they are overdoing things a bit right now. This team is going to get much better in the future at using Nurkic at the low post and playing the inside-outside game to get open perimeter shots or point-blank attempts at the basket. Of course Nurkic needs to get better at the post, too. His footwork still isn't where it needs to be in order to be an efficient scorer at the block.

Moving forward, I know the Trail Blazers can get better. I'm sure execution can improve. At least I think it can. But I know one thing is certain -- there's NOTHING they can do about poor officiating. That last-two-minute report will be coming out Sunday afternoon and it's going to say the officials made a mistake in not seeing Morris step out of bounds.

And that isn't going to mean a thing to anyone but the officials who missed a very big call. And I'm not even sure how much it will mean to them.

There are questions about UO strength coach certification -- no answers from Ducks

There are questions about UO strength coach certification -- no answers from Ducks

CBS Sports has an interesting investigative piece about certification of football strength and conditioning coaches and Oregon's football program is at the center of it.

The story alleges that Oregon football's strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde was certified as a strength coach by the track and field coaches association, which is, in their estimation, a low standard of certification for football strength coaches. The story goes into detail about the difference in certification between what Oderinde has and a higher standard that is recommended for someone in his position:

For a $245 fee, the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) offers a 21-hour strength training course to become a certified NCAA strength coach in any sport. By comparison, the widely-used Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCA) requires 30 times as much training -- a 640-hour certification process.

It's a very important story and what caught my eye was this line:

Oregon did not grant CBS Sports requests to interview Taggart, Oderinde, the three players who were hospitalized or athletic director Rob Mullens.

That just doesn't work for me. Last time I checked the University of Oregon was a public institution. People who work there are entitled to State of Oregon benefits, including PERS. That seems to make them public employees, and as such I think they need to provide transparency like any other arm of our government. But the UO athletic department lately seems to act as if it's bigger than the school -- or the state of Oregon.

Interviews with anyone connected to the athletic department are highly regulated and difficult to obtain. The CBS Sports story was a serious one, an investigative piece that talked about players dying while playing collegiate sports and a lack of true regulation by the people hired to protect them. It went so far as to label football's off-season as the "killing season" because that's when "the overwhelming majority of deaths" occur.

Are you telling me that even the school's athletic director couldn't make himself available for an interview regarding this hot topic?

Football coach Willie Taggart is obviously tired of taking about the incident involving his strength coach and the three players who landed in a hospital -- he engaged in a very public spat with The Oregonian's Andrew Greif about his reporting of the story. But Taggart didn't yet seem to realize he's the virtual COO of a very public company and is going to constantly be held accountable for that company. Mullens, of course, is in an even more important role, the CEO, and is supposed to be the spokesman for the entire athletic department.

But very seldom do you ever hear anything from him other than statements contained in news releases. And I seem to recall a disturbing trend of those news releases coming out at times when reaching sources was next to impossible.

Cover-ups are almost always worse than the incident itself. Shunning interviews or refusing to comment often means a suspicion of guilt -- and always leads to the same question:

"What are you hiding?"

 

 

Jusuf Nurkic has become a symbol of hope for a franchise's future

Jusuf Nurkic has become a symbol of hope for a franchise's future

Yes, of course. I have The Fever -- Nurkic Fever. Heck, I'm the one who was first afflicted with the rapidly spreading virus.

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland's new center, has played in eight games for the Trail Blazers, starting the last seven of them, and he's averaging 16.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 blocked shots. He's shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free-throw line.

And I will admit that three times in that short span of games I've already said, "I didn't know he was THAT good."

I don't know how anyone could know he'd come very near a triple-double in his eighth game in Portland or block five shots in the first quarter of that same game. What Nurkic did against Philadelphia Thursday night in Moda Center hasn't been done in the NBA since November of 1986 when Charles Barkley did it. Even Barkley Thursday had to admit, "That's amazing."

I asked a couple of scouts for other NBA teams for their opinion on Nurkic prior to the Philadelphia game and they said, "The rap in Denver was that he'd pout when he didn't get playing time and tended to put on weight when not playing. He's a little crazy but he's not afraid of anyone. He definitely has good hands and a good basketball IQ."

The big question, of course, has been how good can he become? I would almost promise you that if he keeps his feet on the ground and doesn't get carried away with his success, he's going to continue to improve. He has great (and large) hands, a soft shooting touch, and he's still just 22. But really, he's good enough already to make the Trail Blazers feel more comfortable with their center position than they have in years.

And I must admit, I cannot ever remember a player joining the team during a season and having the kind of instant impact Nurkic has had. He's captured this city's imagination and his teammates' attention. More than anything, though, he's a symbol of hope for the future of the franchise. Watching him cavort up and down the court, it's pretty hard not to believe there are better days ahead for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Everybody, it seems, has The Fever.