CJ McCollum feasts on Minnesota again, leading Blazers to another win

CJ McCollum feasts on Minnesota again, leading Blazers to another win

The best news for the Trail Blazers as they head down the stretch of their playoff chase?

CJ McCollum will have two more meetings against Minnesota.

McCollum on Saturday had another dominant performance against Minnesota, as he followed up a 43-point performance in January with a 32-point performance to lead the Trail Blazers to a 112-100 victory.

Of the Blazers’ remaining 10 games, two are against the Timberwolves, a team this season which McCollum has made 27-of-38 field goal attempts and is averaging 37.5 points. On Saturday, he made 11-of-13 shots, which came on the heels of his career-high 43-point night on Jan. 1 in Minneapolis, when Portland came back from a 14-point deficit to win.

On Saturday, McCollum scored his 32 points in 29 minutes, leading with 7:13 in the fourth quarter and the Blazers ahead 105-81.

"Very impressive,'' coach Terry Stotts said.  "He really had it going and he scored in a variety of ways – getting to rim, jump shots  ... he had an outstanding game.''

McCollum wasn’t the only one with the hot hand. Portland shot a season-best 62.5 percent and was so comfortably ahead that Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter.

The win moved Portland (34-38) to within one game of Denver (35-37) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference as both teams are streaking toward the finish line. Portland is 10-3 in March and 11-5 since the All-Star Break. Denver has won seven of 10 and next plays Sunday at home against New Orleans before heading to Portland for a Tuesday matchup with the Blazers.

Minnesota (28-44) has lost six in a row and seven of the last eight to fall out of the playoff race. They were coming off an overtime loss the night before in Los Angeles to the Lakers, during which they lost a 15-point lead, the 19th time they lost a game this season after leading by double-figures, the most in the NBA.

About the only bad news for the Blazers was Lillard having his consecutive games streak of 25-points or more snapped at eight, the third longest in franchise history. Lillard scored 21 on 8-of-13 shooting and added eight assists and six rebounds in 29 minutes.

The Blazers were in control by halftime, 60-46, thanks to a strong close. The Timberwolves trailed by 12 in the second quarter, but got within 44-41 before the Blazers went on a 12-1 run that was keyed by three-points from McCollum and Lillard and back-to-back fast break finishes from Al-Farouq Aminu. Jusuf Nurkic put the finishing touches on the half by rebounding his own miss and scoring with 2.2 seconds left.

The Blazers, who have had trouble protecting big leads at times this season, went for the jugular in the third, when they finished the quarter by scoring on seven of their final eight possessions to take a comfortable 94-74 lead heading into the fourth.

"I thought this was one of better games as far as building lead and holding lead,'' Stotts said, noting he was able to keep all his starters under 30 minutes. "It's good to have those.''

Minnesota would get as close as 99-81, but Portland closed the deal behind reserves Allen Crabbe (10 points) and Evan Turner (eight points) to improve to 19-15 at the Moda Center.

Andrew Wiggins led Minnesota with 20 points, Karl-Anthony Towns added 16 and Ricky Rubio had 16 points and four assists. Nurkic had 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists for Portland, which is 11-6 since he joined the team.

Next up: Blazers at Lakers, 6:30 p.m. Sunday (KGW)

Trail Blazers gain ground on Denver after easy win over Knicks

Trail Blazers gain ground on Denver after easy win over Knicks

It wasn’t as easy as they would have liked, but the Trail Blazers took care of business Thursday against short-handed New York with a 110-95 win in which they never trailed.

Playing a woeful Knicks team that was without injured starters Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, the Blazers bolted to a 15-point lead in the first quarter and a 21-point lead at halftime. The Knicks got as close as 98-88 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter before Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shut the door and locked Portland’s ninth win in the last 12 games.

The Blazers (33-38), who moved within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 11 games remaining. Denver (34-37) next plays at Indiana (36-35) on Friday.

Lillard had 30 points, the eighth consecutive game he has scored 25 or more, tying him for the third longest streak in franchise history with Geoff Petrie (1970-1971) and McCollum (this season). He scored seven points in a two minute span to lead a 10-0 Blazers run after New York cut the lead to 10. It was the ninth time in 15 games since the All-Star Break that Lillard has scored 30 or more points. 

McCollum added 20 points, Jusuf Nurkic 16 points and 10 rebounds and Noah Vonleh grabbed 11 rebounds.

"I thought we played a really good first half on both ends of the floor,'' Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I was disappointed with the fact that New York cut it to 10. Some of that is obviously New York playing better ... but they outworked us. We finished it off, so that was a positive.''

The Knicks (27-45) started three rookies – Willy Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Ron Baker – and they were overmatched in every facet of the game as they trailed by as many as 23 in the second half.

If Nurkic wasn’t powering over Hernangomez for dunks, Lillard was blowing past Baker for layins. New York’s lone remaining star – Kristaps Porzingis –finished with 18 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-21 shooting.

The rout started early as Portland jumped to a 37-23 lead in the first quarter behind 15 points from Lillard and some dreadful play by the Knicks. New York shot 28.6 percent in the quarter while Portland made 14-of-23 shots (60.9 percent). Lillard scored 15 in the first quarter.

"I thought the way Damian got off in the first quarter really set the tone for the rest of the first half,'' Stotts said.

The Knicks, who beat Portland earlier in the season, lost for the fourth consecutive time and seventh time in eight games.

Evan Turner, who tried his third protective apparatus on his right hand, had his best game since returning from his broken third metacarpal, recording 10 points and six rebounds on 3-of-5 shooting.

"Evan looked much more comfortable out there,'' Stotts said.

Next up: Minnesota at Blazers, 7 p.m. Saturday (CSN).

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Meyers Leonard limited as he tries to play through hip and back pain

Meyers Leonard limited as he tries to play through hip and back pain

Meyers Leonard’s right hip has been in so much pain recently he said he hasn’t been able to sleep at night. The hip pain, compounded with two herniated discs in his back, has left the Trail Blazers big man playing on virtually one leg for the past week and a half, he says.

“It’s a very bizarre feeling to be playing the highest level of basketball while feeling like I have one leg,’’ Leonard said Wednesday. “It’s frustrating to say the least.’’

Leonard had an MRI on the hip on Monday, which revealed some damage, but he wished to keep the issue private.

Leonard said he first felt the hip pain in Phoenix last week, and thought it was just the result of playing in a back-to-back. However, as the trip progressed, he was in nightly pain, so much so that he couldn’t sleep.

He said the combination of herniated L4 and L5 discs and the hip issue have rendered his right leg powerless. He knew it was a problem in New Orleans when he received an inside pass from Al-Farouq Aminu and was blocked as he went to dunk, unable to get his normal elevation.

Since that New Orleans game, Leonard has played seven minutes, three minutes, six minutes and seven minutes. In the 15 games prior, he was averaging 19 minutes a game while playing perhaps his best basketball of the season, with averages of 6.6 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 36.6 percent from three-point range.

“I can’t really explode to get rebounds, really,’’ Leonard said. “I’m just trying to hide it, trying my best not to let it show.’’

Against Atlanta, Leonard remembers coach Terry Stotts approaching him and asking him if he could give him three good minutes in the fourth quarter. He did – playing three minutes and hitting 1-of-2 shots while adding a rebound.

“I’m just trying to give some semi-quality minutes,’’ Leonard said. “If you watch the last couple of games it’s only been me trying to get Dame and CJ open on ball screens, get Allen open on pin downs, and get in the way on box outs … and shoot when I’m open. I’m just trying my best not to let it show.’’

Leonard, however, can be seen dragging his right leg in the limited time he has seen recently, in what he says is an effort to become tougher mentally. He said in Detroit last month he was bumped on the right hip during a pregame warmup by assistant Jim Moran and it felt like he had “been shot by a shotgun.”

He took anti-inflammatories and played 18 minutes in that game.

“I’ve just tried to hide it. I’ve got to be tougher about the situation, become tougher mentally.’’ Leonard said. “But it’s real odd to try and play on one leg.’’

Leonard said he has remained on anti-inflammatories and is under a strict rehabilitation and weight lifting regiment to build strength back in his right leg.

“Basically, they say hopefully it will die down in seven to 10 days,’’ Leonard said. “And it has gotten better. On our last trip, in Atlanta, I couldn’t sleep it was so painful. But it has died down with the medication.’’

Any marked improvement doesn’t appear imminent. On Wednesday, Leonard said he attempted a round of three-pointers during practice.

“I couldn’t get any lift off the floor,’’ he said. “It’s just odd, awkward feeling.’’

Leonard's injury comes at a time when the Blazers' already have center Ed Davis out for the season after undergoing left shoulder surgery on March 7. With Leonard's limited availability, Noah Vonleh on Tuesday played extended minutes at backup center behind starter Jusuf Nurkic. 

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (KGW)

Third time a charm? Evan Turner fitted with another apparatus to protect right hand

Third time a charm? Evan Turner fitted with another apparatus to protect right hand

Evan Turner on Wednesday tried out his third apparatus to protect his right hand, and the Trail Blazers guard said he is encouraged that the new approach will allow him to move past the frustration of playing with a protective device on his ball-dominant hand.

Turner, who is 4-for-21 in the three games since returning from a broken hand, has balked at the clumsiness and limitations the previous protective devices have caused, at one point ripping off his glove during the second quarter of Tuesday’s loss against Milwaukee.

“We had a different pad, where it doesn’t cover the palm,’’ Turner said Wednesday after trying out the new apparatus during a 45-minute workout in practice. “I played some pick up and I thought I shot it well. The three-point shot is going to look how it is going to look, but the mid-range was world class.’’

Turner said the latest protection is not as bulky and therefore not as restrictive as the previous two, which limited his grip.

He said during the Milwaukee game a couple of his passes were late, or behind teammates, because the padding prevented him from getting the ball out of his hands when he wanted.

“The palm was free today and I felt fine, and got pretty good rhythm offensively,’’ Turner said.

Turner was playing his best basketball of the season when he broke the third metacarpal on his right hand after he got tangled with Harrison Barnes during the third quarter of a Feb. 7 game at Dallas. He had started the previous nine games, during which the Blazers went 5-4, and was largely responsible for an uptick in the Blazers’ defense while he took on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s top backcourt player.

Since returning, he has come off the bench and has struggled, looking out of rhythm and generally rusty. He admitted part of his struggles have been mentally because he doesn’t want to play with anything on his hand.

“(Expletive) is annoying,’’ Turner said. “I don’t really get upset but it’s gotten to the point where I’m getting ready to throw a hissy fit. Last night was really tough not to do that. It’s just irritating – or was irritating – so I’m glad we were able to speed up the process and do what needs to be done.’’

Turner said he has been told by the Blazers' that the bone is 70 percent healed and he might have to wear protection on his hand for up to 10 weeks, which he can't imagine.

"Hopefully we can stop worrying about it relatively soon and call it a day,'' Turner said.

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. Thursday (KGW).

Blazers lose heartbreaker to Bucks, fail to move into eighth

Blazers lose heartbreaker to Bucks, fail to move into eighth

The Trail Blazers had a chance to move into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot Tuesday, but a young and athletic Milwaukee Bucks team stole their thunder with a 93-90 win at the Moda Center.

The Blazers didn’t score for the final 3:12 of the game, and still had a chance to send the game into overtime, but Damian Lillard missed a fade away three-pointer at the buzzer.

The game featured two of the NBA’s hottest teams, with each having won eight of their past 10, and each fighting for their playoff lives. Milwaukee (35-35) moved past Miami and into seventh in the Eastern Conference while Portland (32-38) fell one game behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with 12 games remaining.

Lillard finished with 31 points and seven assists and CJ McCollum added 21 points. Jusuf Nurkic had 11 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, but he also had four turnovers, including a crucial miscue with 1:28 when he lost the ball trying to post up and the Blazers trailing 93-90.

The Blazers are entering the homestretch of their season, with 10 of their final 13 at home, and coach Terry Stotts after last game said he wanted the Blazers to maintain the “edge” they played with while winning four of five on their recent trip.

Early on, the Blazers had that edge, building leads of 10-2 and 17-8, but an avalanche of turnovers and missed free throws enabled Milwaukee to stay in the game and eventually build leads as large as 15.

Portland stormed back in the third quarter behind the play of Lillard and a spark from Noah Vonleh, drawing within 67-63 entering the fourth.

The Blazers actually regained the lead in the fourth, going ahead 90-87 after a Lillard layin, but it would be the last time they scored. Milwaukee scored what turned out to be the game-winning basket with 2:16 left when Khris Middleton scored over Allen Crabbe inside. They added another basket with 1:39 left when John Henson scored on a rebound basket.

Middleton, who didn’t play this season until Feb. 8 because of a hamstring injury, had 26 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo added 22 points, eight rebounds and three assists. He scored 15 in the second quarter.  

Milwaukee took a 48-35 halftime lead after the Blazers’ played a second quarter that was among their worst of the month. Portland scored 14 points and made just 4-of-18 shots while still being plagued by the same sloppy turnovers that hurt them in the first quarter.

Notes: Lillard missed his first two free throws, ending stretch of 48 consecutive makes, which was the third longest streak in franchise history.

Next up: New York at Blazers, 7 p.m. (KGW)

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The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

When Damian Lillard retreated to his Lake Oswego home during the All-Star Break last month, he did more than just rest his aching body.

He healed a troubled mind, and worried heart.

As much as the Trail Blazers’ 23-33 record at the time was bothering him, so too was a family matter that touched him to his core.

“If it’s really in my heart, it’s going to weigh on me, consume me,’’ Lillard said while touching his chest.

Lillard asked that the issue remain private, but he admitted it had seeped so deeply into him that it affected his sleep, his focus, his persona, and ultimately, his play.

“It wasn’t like I was going through something off the court, then it was working out on the court,’’ Lillard remembered. “It was like – we’re losing games, we’re not performing like we need to, I’m not playing my best basketball, and I’ve got things stressing me off the floor. It was kind of a tough spot.’’

So during the mid-February break, he holed up in his Lake Oswego home and did something he hasn’t done in some time:

He opened himself up and let those close to him inside.

From his home, he phoned his grandmother. His uncle. And three times he spoke with his former college assistant coach, whom he calls one of the most important people in his life.

“That was the first time in a long time that I allowed people to pour into me, to give something to me,’’ Lillard said.

By the time the break was over, Lillard said more than his ankle had healed. He had become liberated from a burden he had carried for much of the season.

“A weight,’’ Lillard said, “was lifted off my back.’’

That weight has freed him to assume a more familiar load – the Trail Blazers – and since the All-Star Break Lillard has been one of the NBA’s most dominant players, carrying the Blazers from the precipice of a disappointing season to the cusp of perhaps a memorable late-season run.

Lillard is averaging 31.2 points since the break, a mark eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook, while leading the Blazers to a 9-4 record and to within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Never was his newfound liberation more on display than the last week, when the Blazers went 4-1 on a crucial five-game trip. Lillard averaged 36 points while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 54.8 percent from three point range, which was capped by a 49-point performance Sunday at Miami.

On Monday, Lillard was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the third time in his career. 

“Dame,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “is leading the charge.’’

**

Lillard, of course, is not unique in encountering personal struggles during the course of a season.

Teammate Maurice Harkless said he has dealt with personal issues both last season and this season. And Meyers Leonard recently revealed his beloved Siberian Husky, Bella, was diagnosed with lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy.

“We all go through things; we are human,’’ Harkless said. “I’m not going to go too deep into detail, but there’s been times in my career where you have family stuff, stuff with your friends, or something happens to you, and when you wake up, if affects your mood the whole day.’’

Leonard two weeks ago was on the road when he learned of Bella’s sickness, and was so devastated that he had trouble sleeping, let alone focusing on the game. When the team celebrated a victory in the locker room at Oklahoma City, Leonard was by himself, crying.

“Almost every NBA player deals with more than people think,’’ Leonard said. “Yes, we are treated so well, but a lot of times people see us almost as robots. It’s almost like we don’t have feelings.’’

Harkless said so much goes into being a professional athlete, both mentally and physically, that it starts the minute you wake up.

“The game is not just two hours on the court,’’ Harkless said. “It’s the whole day. Preparation starts when you wake up. So when you are going through something else, it affects your mood, affects the way you prepare, affects the way you play. It’s as simple as that.’’

There were signs something was amiss with Lillard. His bottle-rocket start to the season, which put him in the early MVP conversation, tailed off amid shaky shooting and rashes of turnovers. Radio talk shows wondered if he had become content playing in the first season of his $125 million contract, or disengaged with the team’s poor start.

More tangible signs could be seen in his body language. His smile and playfulness were not as easily displayed, instead replaced by a quietness and steely stare. And his interactions with the media, where he is always one of the most cooperative and insightful interviews in the league, started becoming shorter, and more terse.

After the Blazers’ last game before the All-Star Break, in Utah, Lillard stayed in the arena long after the team had departed. With his head down, Lillard sat in the shadows underneath the bleachers with assistant David Vanterpool, engaged in a long conversation.

 “I was trying to do what I need to do on the court, but I also had some personal things with my family, and I was trying to manage all this stuff,’’ Lillard said. “It was wearing me out. It was just hard.’’

Around the All-Star Break, Lillard talked with his mentor, Phil Beckner – the former assistant coach of Lillard at Weber State who is now with Boise State. Beckner, who has travelled to China with Lillard and trains with him during the summer, said he could sense something was wrong.

“He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders,’’ Beckner recalled.

Over the course of the week-long break, Beckner said the two had three one-hour phone conversations.

Those conversations, Lillard said, opened the door to his liberation.

**

For as long as Lillard can remember, this is how he would handle a conversation within his circle:

“Hey Dame, you good?”

“Yeah, I’m good. How are you?’’

From there, Lillard would absorb the life, and sometimes problems, of those people.

“Automatically, I would always flip it to ‘what’s up with you?’’’ Lillard said. “For me, I’ve always tried to be there for people.’’

But somewhere in all those conversations, somewhere in all the goodwill Lillard was  bestowing upon family, friends and co-workers, he forgot about himself.

Beckner could sense Lillard was becoming bottled up with emotion and that it was starting to overwhelm.

“I thought where he was with how the team was doing, and with the other stuff he was going through, he was trying to get it all done in a hurry, and on his own,’’ Beckner said.

So the former coach offered some advice.

“He told me I have to allow people to pour into you,’’ Lillard said. “He said I can’t always be the one to pour into other people, because I would drain myself. So he told me to open myself up and allow people to pour into me so I can have something to give.’’

So during the All-Star Break, save for nightly workouts at the practice facility, Lillard said he didn’t leave his home. Inside, he picked up the phone and took Beckner’s advice. He opened himself, and his problems, to his family.

“Had a long conversation with grandma. We talked about it,’’ Lillard said. “Called my uncle. We talked about it. It was real helpful. When people genuinely love you, and they care about you and they know who you are as a person,  they can come forward, and that’s what my family did. Just hearing those voices and having that support, it allowed me to relax.’’

**

When Lillard and the Blazers reconvened in Orlando after the All-Star Break, it was clear the team’s star had returned to his old self.

After a sterling fourth quarter performance in a win over Orlando, Lillard remarked how his body felt refreshed. It wasn’t until nearly a month later, during a practice in Atlanta, that Lillard revealed his mind was healed, too.

“Once I was able to get to the break, I was able to check in on things, step away, and speak to my people,’’ Lillard said. “Then, I was able to move on from it.’’

Since then, he has been moving the Blazers closer and closer to the playoffs. With a series of stirring games, Lillard has carried the Blazers to wins in eight of their last 10 games.

On the recent 4-1 trip, he ignited each game with inspiring first quarters, averaging more than 12 points in the opening stanza.

“I think it’s just important to come out and establish the mindset ‘We comin’,’’ Lillard said. “As a leader, it’s important for me to spark that up, and I guess put that urgency in our minds that this is the way it’s going to be.’’

He can help establish that mindset because now, his own mind is clear and free.

Up next: Milwaukee at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)

Damian Lillard does it again: His 49 points lead streaking Blazers over Miami

Damian Lillard does it again: His 49 points lead streaking Blazers over Miami

MIAMI – Led by another powerful performance from Damian Lillard, and more late-game nerve, the Trail Blazers on Sunday continued their late-season rush toward the playoffs with an impressive 115-104 win over streaking Miami.

Lillard scored 49 points, tying the franchise record with nine three-pointers, and the Blazers held off a late rally by the NBA’s hottest team to complete their five-game trip with a 4-1 record.

The win, the eighth in the last 10 games for Portland, moved the Blazers (32-37) within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot with 13 games remaining.

Lillard, who is averaging 31.2 points since the All-Star Break, came to the Blazers’ rescue in the fourth when Miami had cut an 87-79 deficit to 87-86. Portland hadn’t scored in more than three minutes, but Lillard hit a three-pointer, igniting a 14-point quarter.

Lillard got some help, too, primarily from his pick-and-roll partner, center Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth and also added a key block and a crucial defensive slap away that resulted in a Miami turnover.

The Heat (34-36) entered the game having won 23 of their last 28 games and were trying to become the first team in NBA history to improve to .500 after being 19 or more games below .500 in a season.

Lillard, who the night before in Atlanta told the team they needed to be greedy in going for the trip finale, set the tone early by scoring 15 points on 4-of-7 shooting. For the trip, Lillard was the catalyst early, posting first quarter scoring of 15-9-12-13 and 15 points while hitting 21-of-34 shots.

The Blazers now finish the season with 10 of their final 13 games at home, beginning with a three-game homestand on Tuesday against Milwaukee.

Nurkic finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds and three blocks, CJ McCollum had 18 points and Noah Vonleh had 11 points and seven rebounds.

The Heat, which played without Dion Waiters (sprained ankle), were led by James Johnson, who had 24 points off the bench. Hassan Whiteside, who scored the team’s first eight points, finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds in 31 foul-plagued minutes.

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

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

ATLANTA – The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season and even before Portland demolished Atlanta 113-97 on Saturday, Damian Lillard knew why the team is surging.

“We understand this is when we have to make our push,’’ Lillard said at the team’s practice on Friday. “This is our last opportunity to get to the postseason, that’s why you are seeing the focus we have. This is it. We want to play in the postseason, so this is what it is: You either do it, or you don’t.’’

Behind Lillard, the Blazers lately have the look of a team that is playoff bound.

Lillard continued his torrid post-All-Star pace with 27 points, which included 13 in  the game-deciding first quarter, when the Blazers blitzed Atlanta by making their first seven shots while jumping to a 17-3 lead.

The lead ballooned to as many as 23 in the first quarter before the Blazers settled for a 40-18 advantage, and from there on out the closest Atlanta got was 11 early in the fourth.

Lillard is averaging 29.8 points since the All-Star Break, second highest in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (35.1), and his play has spearheaded the Blazers’ 8-4 record since the break, which has included wins in seven of the last nine.

That surge has separated Portland (31-37) from Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans as Denver’s prime contender for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With 14 games left, the Blazers are 1.5 games behind Denver after the Nuggets lost 109-105 at home to Houston.    

Heading into the five-game trip finale on Sunday in Miami, Lillard said the Blazers have to adopt an unfamiliar trait:

"I think we need to not be happy about what we've accomplish in the first four games,'' Lillard said. "I think our mentality needs to be greedy.''

The late-season rally has been more than just Lillard, as evidenced by Saturday’s performance, which bordered on spectacular for long stretches and included all five starters scoring in double figures.

CJ McCollum had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists and Jusuf Nurkic continued to be a revelation in Portland, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five blocks. His inside presence on defense and his exuberance and craftiness on the court has been one of the biggest subplots to the resurgence.         

Meanwhile, Noah Vonleh continued his solid March with his first double-double of the season (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Allen Crabbe continued to become more of a factor, on Saturday finishing with four three-pointers and 16 points,.

Maurice Harkless made a case to keep his starting small forward position despite Saturday’s return of Evan Turner from a broken hand. Harkless finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists while Turner played 20 minutes in his return and finished with two points, eight rebounds and three assists.

Atlanta (37-32) lost its third straight and played without All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who was a late scratch because of left knee tightness. Ersan Ilyasova started in his place and led the Hawks with 23 points and Dwight Howard had 14 points and 10 rebounds, the 11th consecutive game he has had at least 10 rebounds. 

The Blazers jumped to a stunning start, which not surprisingly was led by Lillard. The Blazers made their first seven shots to take a 17-3 lead, and Lillard scored nine of the team’s first 11 points, which included a four-point play.

Portland led by as many as 23 in the first quarter at 35-12 and led 40-18 heading into the second quarter.

Notes: Portland ended a five-game losing streak to Atlanta … Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder had a miserable game, finishing 2-for-14 from the field and finishing with eight points and seven assists.

Next up: Blazers at Miami, 3 p.m. Sunday (CSN)

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Evan Turner set to return to Trail Blazers in Atlanta, will likely come off the bench

Evan Turner set to return to Trail Blazers in Atlanta, will likely come off the bench

ATLANTA – Evan Turner, one of the Trail Blazers’ top play-makers and perimeter defenders, is ready to make his return to the team, and coach Terry Stotts said the guard will “likely” play Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.

Turner, who broke the third metacarpal in his right hand on Feb. 7 at Dallas, missed 14 games, during which the Blazers went 7-7. He said if he doesn't make his return against the Hawks, he doesn't know why he flew across the country on Thursday. After practice, the team officially listed him as "probable" to play against the Hawks.

"If they didn’t clear me, I would have stayed my ass in Portland,'' Turner said. "I would have stayed at home or gone to Miami early if I wasn’t cleared. But I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore to tell you the truth.''

For the past week, Turner has felt like his broken hand has been healed enough for him to play, but team doctors held him out of workouts to ensure the bone healed properly. 

At the time of his injury, he was a starter and often charged with guarding the opponent’s point guard. Initially at least, it appears he will come off the bench, and initially it appears he will wear a protective brace and tape his ring and middle fingers together.

“I’m done talking about the injury and being worried about it, because it’s already over with as far as I’m concerned,’’ Turner said.

Turner rejoined the team in Atlanta on Thursday then took part in his first workout with the team at a light Friday practice at Philips Arena. He mostly played one-on-one in the practice, but said he has been running and keeping in shape throughout his rehabilitation. 

He said the brace and the taping of his fingers hinders his grip of the ball, particularly when he dribbles. He said he feels like the bulkiness of the brace could get in the way when he dribbles because the ball could hit the contraption and cause it to spin.

However, Turner said he is not convinced he will wear the brace during Saturday’s game.

“I don’t have to listen after this (game) … we will see after tomorrow if I’m going to listen (to team doctors) or not, because you might not see this (expletive) again,’’ Turner said.

Turner is averaging 9.7 points, 3.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 26 minutes a game. Captain Damian Lillard said he envisions Turner making a seamless return.

“At the beginning of the year it took him some time for him to figure out how to impact the team, but once you know, you know,’’ Lillard said. “At this point I think he knows what he is to our team and what his role is … I don’t think we will have to re-adjust.’’

Up next: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)

After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

After win over Spurs, mercurial Blazers leave us wondering what's next?

SAN ANTONIO --  When the doors opened Wednesday night to the locker room of what might be the most mercurial team in the NBA, Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was just getting around to the night’s final order of business.

With his feet soaking in a tub of ice and his eyes transfixed on a group chat with his cousins, Lillard felt a sudden urge.

He switched screens on his phone and scanned the night’s NBA scores, and as he turned to teammate CJ McCollum, he transposed himself from star performer to reporter.

“Wizards lost to Dallas … Minnesota lost … New Orleans lost …’’ Lillard said, naming some the teams fighting with Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot.

The most important score of the night went without saying: The Blazers’ gutty 110-106 victory at San Antonio that was as stunning as it was impressive.

It was stunning because it came on the heels of a hideous 100-77 loss the night before in New Orleans, and it was impressive because it came after repelling an MVP-like performance from Kawhi Leonard, the return of LaMarcus Aldridge and the relentless chaos usually imposed by the 52-win Spurs.

It was also another reminder of how unpredictable, and dangerous, this Portland team can be as the season’s final 15 games plays out, a feeling that gained momentum after Lillard reported the scores to McCollum.

 “I was like, man, let’s see who else played tonight … and a few teams we would like to see lose tonight, lost,’’ Lillard said. “We are at that point now – Who won? Who  lost? – especially the times when we win.’’

The win moved Portland (30-37) within two games of Denver (32-35) for the final playoff spot in the West, while remaining one game ahead of Dallas (29-38) and two ahead of Minnesota (28-39).

The 2-1 start on their crucial five-game trip probably didn’t unfold the way Portland envisioned, but then again, not many this season have been able to wrap their minds around the mystery that is the Blazers.

“When you figure us out,’’ a Blazers assistant coach said on his way out of the locker room, “let us know.’’

**

As the Blazers’ late-season surge has been unfolding, so too has an interesting dynamic between Lillard and newcomer Jusuf Nurkic.

As Lillard on Wednesday was studying his phone and later reporting scores in the locker room, Nurkic sat in front of his own locker, wrapped only in a towel, repeatedly shaking his head.

He was a central figure in the Blazers’ ability to repel the Spurs’ fourth-quarter assault, but it was also painfully evident the 22-year-old center was not yet ready to shoulder the full responsibility of such an important moment.

Nurkic had 10 fourth quarter points and in a frenetic free-for-all, he chased down a key rebound with 21 seconds left. But he also had two crucial turnovers, missed two crunch-time free throws, and couldn’t connect on some close-range shots that could have buried the Spurs.

 Hence, the head shaking.

“I’m learning out there,’’ Nurkic said.

Moments later, as he headed to the shower, Nurkic passed by Lillard, who was still soaking his feet in ice. Lillard stuck out his hand and the two quickly slapped hands once, twice, three times before ending with an emphatic fourth connection. Both broke out in laughter, tickled at how such an intricate exchange could be executed with such little time together.  

Since Nurkic arrived in Portland in a mid-February trade, Lillard has studied him, and gone out of his way to not only embrace him, but as he put it, “mold” him.

“With him being young, I’m kind of able to mold him to what I want to do, and the things in how he can help our team more,’’ Lillard said.

Some of that is telling Nurkic to hold his screen longer on pick-and-rolls. And some of that is reminding him to get more power and balance on his inside shot by jumping off two feet, not one.

But he is also helping mold Nurkic emotionally. One of the knocks on Nurkic in Denver was he had a tendency to pout, or obsess when things didn’t go his way, and Lillard has been keen to the warning signs.

“I stay positive with him,’’ Lillard said. “If he throws a turnover, I grab his hand (and say) ‘It’s all right. You are good. It ain’t your fault.’ He wants to do so well and the thing that is great about him is he takes ownership. When he throws ball away he is like ‘I’m messing up’ …’’

Lillard is convinced that Nurkic’s heart is in the right place – he has shown he cares about winning and he wants to play a team game – so Lillard’s focus has been on Nurkic’s mind.

“It’s my job to be positive with him and to continue to encourage him,’’ Lillard said.

Lillard’s attention and positivity has seemingly liberated Nurkic. He often says how he has never played with such a leader, and how a teammate has never inspired him like Lillard. Meanwhile, Nurkic’s big smile and playfulness have become part of the fabric of the Blazers locker room.

On Wednesday, when Nurkic was asked about his inbounds pass with 53 seconds that went into the Spurs’ bench, he grinned and looked across the locker room at  McCollum, who was going through the buffet line.

“I don’t know,’’ Nurkic said, raising his voice so McCollum could hear, “ask CJ what happened.’’

McCollum was the intended recipient of the pass, which he called a “Meyers Leonard chest pass,” but he likened their communication to that of a quarterback and receiver.

“I stopped,’’ McCollum replied back to Nurkic, “and you threw it as a go-route.’’

Nurkic nodded, his smile still wide.

“He’s going to catch it next time,’’ Nurkic said to reporters, before returning his attention back to McCollum. “You almost made me get on Shaqtin’ A Fool.’’

McCollum and Lillard looked at each other and laughed.

“Oh, you gonna be on there anyway,’’ Lillard said of the TNT bloopers segment originated by Shaquille O'Neal.

**

The Blazers have won six of their last eight games, which includes three road victories and quality wins at the Spurs, at Oklahoma City and at home against the Thunder.

If one thing has defined the push, it has been the exceptional play of Lillard, but there is also a growing subplot: a decided growth from some of the Blazers’ role players such as Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard.

Vonleh suddenly looks more comfortable and that has translated into some assertive play underneath that has resulted in dunks and flurries of rebounds. Never was that on display more than Wednesday against the Spurs when Vonleh had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in a season-high 26 minutes.

Lillard remarked on Vonleh’s confidence, and noted how his strong play in the paint has given defenders two options:

“They either have to foul or get dunked on right now,’’ Lillard said of Vonleh’s defenders. “That’s the kind of presence we need to have.’’

Crabbe is also providing a presence as he has become more involved in the offense, in part because of a meeting to brainstorm plays with coach Terry Stotts and McCollum earlier in the month, and in part because of a revamped hold-nothing-back attitude in taking his shot.  

Leonard has also played better of late, perhaps because of a recent visit in Portland with former Blazers assistant Kim Hughes. In the locker room following Tuesday's loss to New Orleans, Leonard's phone buzzed from a text message. It was from Hughes.

"That's my man,'' Leonard said.

They stay in touch often, but recently Hughes was in Portland and the two visited, after which Leonard said his mind was in a better place. Is his improved play a result of his recent interactions with Hughes?

"I guess you could say that,'' Leonard said. 

Aminu, meanwhile, continues to make key contributions – be it with his shot or his defense – that go a long way in making up for his Tasmanian Devil moments of carelessness.

“Chief made the play of the game,’’ Lillard said Wednesday, noting Aminu’s rebound of Kawhi Leonard’s miss with 43 seconds left and the Blazers holding a 104-102 lead.

But nobody and nothing has been more important to the Blazers during this push for the playoffs than Lillard, whose impact as a leader and a performer has been substantial, if not staggering.

“When you the leader of the team, you try not to do it yourself, but lead the charge,’’ Lillard said. “You have to inspire the group, be a leader of men, and you do that by your actions before you say ‘Oh, let’s go!’ You have to give them something to get behind. That’s all I’m trying to do.’’

**

On Friday, the Blazers will get back to work, with a practice in Atlanta that will include the return of Evan Turner from a broken right hand suffered Feb. 7.

Stotts said “the hope” is that Turner will be a full participant, but the coach didn’t want to speculate on whether Turner will play Saturday against the Hawks (37-30), and he has said he is unsure if Turner will regain his starting role.

As encouraging as the Blazers’ win over San Antonio was, it didn’t come without warts, which will surely be addressed in the Friday practice. Once again, the Blazers were shaky in the final minute with their decisions and execution, giving credence to the theory that Portland  -- in its true mercurial ways – can’t help but make games interesting.

“We always do,’’ McCollum said. “You want to see a long game in the fourth quarter? Watch us play.’’

And so the final 15 games await, figuring to bring more intrigue, more ups-and-downs, and more mystery. And like Lillard on Wednesday, we all figure to be watching the scores.

Next up: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)