Gerald Henderson remembers 'hungry' group of Blazers from last season

Gerald Henderson remembers 'hungry' group of Blazers from last season

PHILADELPHIA – Former Trail Blazers wing Gerald Henderson said he hasn’t watched Portland play much this season, but from what little he has seen, he can’t put his finger on why the Blazers are struggling so much.

“Just watching them, they run the same plays,’’ said Henderson, who is averaging 24.6 minutes a game in Philadelphia. “They have some different faces there, and they have some talented guys … it just hasn’t clicked for them yet chemistry wise, or whatever it might be, on either end.’’

Henderson last season was a key cog in what made the Blazers click, as his mid-season resurgence coincided with Portland’s January surge that eventually resulted in 44 wins and a playoff berth.

What made the Blazers work last season?

“We had a hungry group, a hungry group,’’ Henderson said. “A lot of guys up for contracts, a lot of guys trying to prove themselves in the league. At a certain point, that all came together for us and it ended up being a good year.’’

Henderson was one of those players up for a contract and he parlayed his 8.7 points and 2.9 rebounds into a two-year, $18 million deal with Philadelphia. With the Sixers, he is averaging 9.5 points and 2.6 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range.

Knowing much of the Blazers’ personnel and coaching staff, Henderson said he doesn’t expect Portland to continue its struggles.

“They have a good staff over there, they do things the right way,’’ Henderson said. “And they have some really good players, so I would bet they would start doing better at some point.’’

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

Inside the Trail Blazers: A look at what is ailing the team

Inside the Trail Blazers: A look at what is ailing the team

CHARLOTTE – Something is wrong with the Trail Blazers and everybody knows it, but no one has a simple explanation, let alone a plausible theory.

So perhaps it wasn’t surprising Wednesday that star point guard Damian Lillard flipped the roles after another loss Wednesday, this time by 22 points in Charlotte, and asked the questions.

After he finished answering questions for nearly seven minutes – which included questions about the team’s sometimes morose energy levels and whether coach Terry Stotts is still reaching the players, Lillard turned his Iphone to two local reporters as if he was a media member asking a question.  

“What you all think the problem is?’’ Lillard asked.

Much like his teammates during this confusing 18-26 start, we shrugged.

From one locker stall over, Lillard’s close friend and offensive cohort CJ McCollum chimed in.

“If we knew, don’t you think we’d fix it by now,’’ McCollum said.

As much as fans would like there to be an unearthing of sexy storylines like locker room discontent, or dislike for the coach, or players unhappy with roles, it doesn’t appear those disruptive forces are in play with these Blazers.

But with each passing practice, and each postgame letdown, more and more is being revealed about this Portland team, with Wednesday’s postgame in Charlotte offering perhaps our greatest window into the inner struggle of this young group.

Mason Plumlee was the most pointed, calling out not the team’s effort, but its energy level, which is an important distinction. Never has it appeared this team is dogging it on the court this season, but it has become almost palatable how lifeless and dull the game has become for the team.

They are playing, but not with energy. They are trying, but they are not having fun.

“I don’t think our energy is good, man, honestly,’’ Plumlee said. “It is in spurts. We will rally sometimes but it’s not sustained. That has to change.’’

How does that change?

“I couldn’t tell you,’’ Plumlee said. “You just have to want it. You have to want it.’’

Lillard, the unquestioned leader of the team, was not more than three feet away when Plumlee made the pointed remarks and later he echoed the same sentiment.

“I think our energy has to be much better, more consistently,’’ Lillard said. “When things go well, you get energy … (and) I don’t think we are giving ourselves enough situations to feel good about what we are doing, often enough. Our energy drops because of that, and teams take advantage.’’

Lillard pointed to Wednesday’s game, during which the Blazers closed a 14-point deficit to 79-72 at the end of the third quarter. The push was punctuated by a Noah Vonleh rebound basket in the final seconds of the quarter. Vonleh is one of the most well-liked players on the team, a guy everyone is pulling for, a guy whose success almost always elicits some of the more animated reactions across the team.

But when the Blazers gathered at the end of the quarter, there was little if any reaction.

“We cut that lead to seven. You know, we’ve got a ballgame. We should feel good about, excited about, the way the game is going,’’ Lillard said. “Our energy – we should be excited about that – and when we come to the bench, it should be loud, we should be ready to come go out there and get after it in the fourth quarter.’’

Instead, the Blazers trudged out for the fourth with the enthusiasm of a TSA agent checking IDs. The result: Charlotte scored the first nine points of the fourth and within two minutes, it was a 16-point deficit.

“It wasn’t there, the way it should be,’’ LIllard said of the energy. “That’s because we didn’t have enough plays to feel good about to pick ourselves up as far as our energy. That’s not going to get it done. That’s not good enough.’’

Sometimes when a team looks like the Blazers – lifeless and clearly not having fun -- it signals a disconnect between the players and coaching staff. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, as Lillard staunchly defended coach Terry Stotts and his staff.

And to Stotts’ credit, he has searched for ways to engage and involve this team, from taking suggestions from the bigs to employ more traps and blitzes, to implementing a dodge-ball game during a practice, to encouraging the players to speak up in Tuesday’s film session in Charlotte.

Is Stotts still able to reach the team?

“That’s a given,’’ Lillard said. “We all respect the hell out of Coach Stotts, the entire coaching staff. That’s another thing that is frustrating for us as players: the amount of joy we get out of playing for our coaching staff, and how much time we know they spend in preparing us and how sharp they are … and us not executing it to the best of our ability.

“We want to go out  there and bring W’s for the effort they put out,’’ Lillard said. “They have our attention, we respect them. It’s more so us than everybody else. Coaches aren’t the ones out there shooting. They are not the ones out there turning it over. They are not out there having to play defense. I … I … don’t think that is even close to the issue.’’

So what are the issues?

Clearly, defense is at the top of the concerns. Out of 30 NBA teams, the Blazers rank 28th in defensive efficiency. As was painfully obvious in the blowout loss to Washington, elite guards such as John Wall and Bradley Beal have no problem penetrating and getting to the rim. It has been a season-long problem and one that has unfairly put the Blazers interior defenders in the spotlight as being unable to protect the rim.

Also, the expected strength of the Blazers’ second unit has been a decided weakness. Depth figured to be an asset for this team, but there have been drop-offs from last season in the play of Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis, while Allen Crabbe mixes a superb game between four or five non-descript games. Meanwhile, Evan Turner has recovered nicely from his slow start but still seems like an awkward fit to the flow and rhythm of the team.

But more than anything, the vibe of the team seems off. As Lillard noted after his brief role as reporter Wednesday, the Blazers last year just had more “fight” to them during games. They would “ugly” the game up with fouls, and would do a better job at dictating the pace and feel of the game.

Where that fight went, where the fun of playing the game went, is hard to pinpoint. This still seems like a close team, and the players still remark that they like each other and enjoy hanging around each other.

But as one key player noted, that type of chemistry – liking each other and being a bunch of nice guys – is overrated and doesn’t always translate to winning games. There is no one willing to rock the boat, no one who speaks out, no one who calls it like it is – all things which veteran Chris Kaman was so masterful at the last two seasons.

Also, much of this team’s vibe last season, and through the opening weeks of this season, were fueled by the powerful force that is Lillard and his exceptional play.

He was a player who would take over games, or establish a tone early, and the team seemed to feed off that and take on an air of invincibility.

Over the past couple months, that swagger this team felt in having one of the game’s takeover players has not been present, in part because Lillard hasn’t been that type of player lately.

That’s not to say Lillard isn’t trying. He is, in reality, probably trying harder than he ever has in his career. He has at times this season bristled that outsiders doubt him – especially following the team’s improved play while he was injured -- and he has vowed that he will carry the team, remarking that people shouldn’t underestimate the burden he can shoulder.

“We are trying, we try hard,’’ Lillard said. “Guys try hard, guys want to do the right things, want to help the team, and it’s a little bit tough when you try so hard and it goes the wrong way.’’

But for every blank face in the Blazers locker room after these losses, there is still a surprising and overriding feeling that this can turn around. And slowly but surely, it seems the issues plaguing this team are bubbling to the surface – be it through communication in the Charlotte film session to questions about the team’s energy the next night.

“When you have hard times, which is what we are having so far this season, you have to be a man,’’ Lillard said. “You have to be man enough to say we haven’t been good enough, but you also have to be strong enough mentally to keep pushing forward. That’s what we have to keep doing – pushing forward – but also understand we haven’t been good enough.’’

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

Trail Blazers' spiral continues as Charlotte breezes to easy win

Trail Blazers' spiral continues as Charlotte breezes to easy win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tuesday's talk: Trail Blazers meet for animated film session

Tuesday's talk: Trail Blazers meet for animated film session

CHARLOTTE – A Trail Blazers team trying to find itself turned to a familiar tactic Tuesday in an attempt to remedy its season-long malaise: communication.

The Blazers had what more-or-less amounted to a team meeting during a film session before their practice inside Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, during which a handful of players spoke up about specific plays in the team’s humiliating 120-101 loss Monday in Washington.

The meeting included several players pausing the film and speaking about assignments and reads , and included input from six or seven guys, one of which was not captain Damian Lillard.

“As a leader, sometimes you have to just shut up,’’ Lillard said.

A similar meeting was held earlier this season, before a Dec. 19 practice in Sacramento, but players said that meeting was more centered around the mental approach of the team compared to Tuesday’s meeting, which was more centered on tactical issues specific to Monday’s loss in Washington.

“Sacramento wasn’t about film,’’ Mason Plumlee said. “That was just about … I don’t want to say effort, but I think Coach called it ‘mental effort.’ Physically we are exerting ourselves and trying to do the right thing, but we just weren’t playing smart, whether it would be dumb fouls, or not knowing game plan, or not being where supposed to be in offensive set. That meeting was ‘We are not a dumb group, let’s not play like we are dumb.’’’

The Blazers (18-25) players expected to be an upper-echelon team in the Western Conference this season, but they have never won more than three in a row and are fighting with Denver, Sacramento and New Orleans for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Through all of their struggles, the players say that their chemistry – which so greatly defined their surprising rise to a second-round playoff team last season – remains as strong as ever. But that chemistry hasn’t translated to the court, where they have the third worst defensive rating in the league and have had little offensive consistency outside of Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Perhaps trying to capitalize on that chemistry, players said that Coach Terry Stotts encouraged an “open” film session on Tuesday.

The first to talk was Plumlee.

“I encouraged guys to speak, because at first it was slow and kind of quiet,’’ Plumlee said. “I just said, ‘We have to speak up because we got ourselves the record we have right now – so we have to figure out how to get a better one.’’’

From there, players say that Maurice Harkless, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, and McCollum all contributed. 

“There were so many things that came up from different guys,’’ Lillard said.

Soon, they were talking about the poor defensive positioning that allowed John Wall and Bradley Beal to drive unimpeded to the rim. They were talking about how the bigs could help guards by peeling off a screen and rolling to the rim.

“Basically the same things we’ve been talking about all year,’’ Allen Crabbe said. “We’ve been trying to figure out what the issue is, how we can get better, you know, and this was just us identifying what we need to do.’’

There was more than a hint of frustration in Crabbe’s words.  He said he feels like the team has talked enough about improving, and now with 39 games remaining, it’s time to start backing up the talk.

“At this point of the season, man, it’s about us just really just doing it,’’ Crabbe said. “You know, what are we to say, what, a month from now? We going have the same conversation? Then what, then we are going to keep saying the same thing?’’

Plumlee, however, said any time a team communicates it is a good thing and a sign that they are still together. Plus, he said it carries more weight when a player has to verbalize his accountability to the group, rather than watching film and making a mental note of his mistake.

“Honestly, I think it’s good in a group setting to say, ‘I know I messed that up, but I’m not going to do it next time.’ If you just say it in your mind, who did you promise you wouldn’t do that to, just yourself?’’ Plumlee said. “So I believe in team meetings. I believe in talking to each other and trying to figure it out together.’’

To Crabbe’s point, it’s time the Blazers put their talk to action. The first chance will be Wednesday against the Hornets (20-21), who have lost five in a row.  In the last two games, losses against Orlando and Washington, the Blazers have trailed 18-1 and 10-0.

“How we respond is big,’’ Plumlee said. “If we come out tomorrow and play well, then this is more meaningful. It’s a better meeting if we win.’’

Notes: The Blazers said center Ed Davis will not play against Charlotte because of his sprained left ankle. Davis played on the injured ankle against Washington, but played just five minutes. “I just wasn’t 100 percent,’’ Davis said. “I was hurting the team and myself by trying to play.’’ Davis said he “for sure” intends to play Thursday in Philadelphia.

Next up: Blazers at Charlotte, 4 p.m. Wednesday (CSN).

Washington uses fast start to blow out Trail Blazers

Washington uses fast start to blow out Trail Blazers

WASHINGTON -- The Trail Blazers keep thinking they are turning the corner on their disappointing season, but each time they think they are headed for a straightaway, they find more curves ahead. 

The latest zig-zag in the Blazers season arrived Monday during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee when the Washington Wizards embarrassed the Blazers 120-101 in a game that got out of hand in the first quarter. 

One game after falling behind Orlando 18-1, the Blazers were in a 10-0 hole Monday against the Wizards. By the end of the quarter, the Blazers had allowed another 10-0 run and Washington had a 37-21 lead that would never been threatened as the Blazers were sloppy with the ball and off with their shots. 

Washington (21-19) won its 12th in a row at home as its young backcourt of John Wall (24 points, seven assists) and Bradley Beal (25 points, five assists) outplayed Portland's dynamic duo of Damian Lillard (22 points, 7 rebounds) and CJ McCollum (12 points). McCollum's streak of scoring 25 or more points ended at eight, three short of the franchise mark held by Geoff Petrie in 1971. 

The Blazers thought they were starting to turn their season around with a stretch of improved defense and some impressive offensive stretches from CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, which had helped them win four of seven games since the calendar turned. But their old habits returned Monday -- poor transition defense, porous perimeter defens, sloppy ball handling and overall bad play on the road -- pushing them back to their season-low of seven games under .500.

Things were so out of hand in the third quarter that with the score 95-65, Portland coach Terry Stotts took out his entire starting lineup with 4:05 left and replaced them with Shabazz Napier, Allen Crabbe, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard. The reserves made some headway, cutting the 30-point deficit to 24 entering the fourth and trimming the lead to as little as 107-90 with 6:49 left. 

Maurice Harkless returned to the starting lineup after missing the Orlando game with a strained left calf, but he was ineffective in 19 minutes, missing all five of his shots and finishing with zero points, one rebound and one assist. Turner was effective off the bench with 14 points and Aminu had 12 points and five rebounds. 

Next up: Blazers at Charlotte, 4 p.m. Wednesday (CSN).

Amid trying season, Trail Blazers remain optimistic

Amid trying season, Trail Blazers remain optimistic

WASHINGTON – Say this about the Trail Blazers: During a trying season of disappointment and inconsistency, they have remained optimistic about their standing.

After their latest one-step-forward, two-steps-back tango with their fan base – a rousing home win over Cleveland followed by a stinker home loss to Orlando  – many Blazers professed confidence in the road ahead, despite their 18-24 record.

“I feel like we are going in the right direction,’’ Allen Crabbe said.

That direction will be tested this week with a four-game trip on the East Coast that starts Monday afternoon with a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee at Washington (20-19), which has won 11 in a row at home, and continues with games at Charlotte (20-20), Philadelphia (12-26) and Boston (25-15).

“I feel like every game on this trip is winnable,’’ Damian Lillard said.

Nobody has been more optimistic than Lillard, the leader of the team and the pulse of the locker room.

His blunt “we kind of suck right now” assessment in Houston during a trying November stretch, has never resurfaced. Instead, he has led continuous waves of assurance and confidence that the Blazers will turn their season around.

“We’ve been playing the right kind of basketball,’’ Lillard said. “We just have to have faith.’’

Lillard is adamant that change is already taking place, even if it hasn’t been reflected in the standings, which find the Blazers clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, one-half game ahead of Sacramento and one game ahead of Denver. He says the defense is better and the attention to detail is more focused.

“We’re trying to find our way,’’ Lillard said. “I think at this point, as a group we feel much better about our understanding of what it takes. Over last 6-7-8 games we’ve been doing the right things.’’

Last season, the Blazers went 18-4 from Jan. 10 through March 1 – a spurt that was sparked by better defense, particularly on the perimeter with more pressure and more aggressive close outs on shooters.

This season, the Blazers are again trending in the right direction defensively -- in part because of new wrinkles such as going under screens with non-shooters and trapping and blitzing against lineups without a three-point shooting threat – and in part because Al-Farouq Aminu has returned to the lineup after missing 18 games with calf and back injuries.

But even with the improved defense, the team continues to tread water, going 5-5 in its last 10, including home losses to teams with losing records (Detroit and Orlando).

Lillard said that inability to build momentum has led to an anxious feeling as the season heads into its second half.

“I feel it every game,’’ Lillard said of that anxiety. “It’s like, man, if we get this one tonight, three in a row … and then a road trip with winnable games. If we have a good trip, then boom, that’s it.’’

That anxiety hasn’t translated to their postgame remarks. From coach Terry Stotts, to players such as CJ McCollum, Mason Plumlee, Crabbe and Lillard, there has been a surprising willingness to credit the opponent rather than pass judgment on their own shortcomings.

Against Orlando, when the Blazers fell behind 18-1, the common refrain from Stotts and the players was “they made shots, we didn’t.” Also, it was noted that Portland came back from that bad start to actually take a third-quarter lead, only to eventually lose in the fourth when Turner noted the Magic made shots against good defense.

"You see what just happened?'' Turner said after the Orlando game. "I mean, we do analytics and everybody does that bulls--- with the stats and stuff ... is that the team that makes shots? No. They hit shots and had a great day .. and we had a rough day.''

Later, as he was preparing to leave the locker room, Turner feigned disgust about a question regarding the team's inconsistency, again referencing Orlando's shot making. When told that the Blazers should be a team that beats the Magic, he chuckled. 

"Well, Hillary was supposed to beat Trump, too'' Turner said.

Eventually, Lillard says he figures the Blazers' character will be rewarded. He often uses quotes such as "the sun shines brighter after it rains" and he says one of this team's strengths is its ability to believe in themselves when few others do.

“Things don’t always go perfect, things don’t always go as planned,’’ Lillard said. “But if you start to lay down, you start to give up and get negative, things start going in the wrong direction. If you stick with it, I feel like there’s always a reward for that. How hard you work and how committed you are – I feel there’s a reward for that because every team isn’t willing to do it, every team isn’t tough enough to do it. That’s why eight teams go (to the playoffs) and the rest of the teams fall by the wayside. I feel like we are one of the teams mentally strong enough and confident enough to stick with it and it will work out in our favor.’’

Injured Festus Ezeli won't travel with team on 4-game trip

Injured Festus Ezeli won't travel with team on 4-game trip

When the Trail Blazers departed Portland on Saturday for a four-game trip, it was without two of its players: Festus Ezeli and guard Tim Quarterman.

Ezeli, the injured center who has yet to play a game for the Blazers, on Friday made his rounds around the locker room saying goodbye to teammates after Orlando’s 115-109 victory.

Later, a source within the team said Ezeli would not accompany the team on the trip, but is scheduled to rejoin the team when it returns after its Jan. 22 game at Boston.

Agent Bill Duffy said the absence was not for a knee surgery. Ezeli in December indicated he is considering a surgery on his left knee that could potentially end his season.

Ezeli in July was signed to a two-year, $15 million contract, with only this season’s $7 million salary guaranteed. He had a procedure on the left knee in August and was scheduled to return in mid-October. He returned and participated in two practices before he suffered swelling, forcing him back to the sidelines.

Ezeli, 27, was signed after an injury-riddled career in Golden State. He missed the 2013-2014 season recovering from right knee surgery and last season he missed 36 games recovering from left knee surgery.

Quarterman, meanwhile, was assigned on Thursday to the Windy City Bulls of the Development League and is scheduled to return to the team in time for the Jan. 20 game in Philadelphia.

Quarterman, a rookie point guard out of LSU, will take part of the Development League Showcase in Mississauga, Ontario, playing Jan. 18 against the Delaware 87ers and Jan. 19 against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Before Quarterman left, he got a call from Blazers guard CJ McCollum, who had a D-League stint as a rookie.

“I told him to play his game and take advantage of it,’’ McCollum said. “Every (NBA) team is going to be represented there, I told him to play the game the right way and show why you are here.’’

Coach Terry Stotts said the Blazers chose Windy City for Quarterman because they felt it was the best situation to get him playing time.

Trail Blazers stunned out of the gate, lose to Orlando Magic

Trail Blazers stunned out of the gate, lose to Orlando Magic

The win of the season for the Trail Blazers was followed Friday by one of their more frustrating losses. 

In a microcosm of their season, the Blazers went from great to puzzling in the span of one game, falling behind 18-1 before losing 115-109 to the Orlando Magic at the Moda Center. The loss came one game after the Blazers handled the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers 102-86 and proclaimed themselves as turning the corner on their disappointing season. 

The Blazers (18-24) recovered from the 18-1 deficit -- which included missing their first nine shots and allowing Orlando to make their first nine -- and actually led 63-58 in the third quarter, but center Nikola Vucevic was too tough, finishing with 30 points and 10 rebounds. Orlando (17-24) snapped a four-game losing streak and won in Portland for the first time since 2012. 

The Blazers played without starting small forward Maurice Harkless, who was scratched before the game because of a left-calf strain. Allen Crabbe started in his place and had seven points and three rebounds on 3-of-10 shooting. 

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 34 points and eight rebounds, but he was 2-for-11 from three-point range. CJ McCollum scored 26 points, marking the eighth consecutive game he has scored at least 25, which is now tied with Geoff Petrie (1970-1971) for the third longest streak in franchise history. 

The Magic led 82-78 heading into the fourth and never relinquished the lead, even though the Blazers tied it at 90 with 8:41 left. Orlando got big contributions from bench players D.J. Augustin (15 points) and Jodie Meeks (12 points) and clutch play from Elfrid Payton (19 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Vucevic, who scored eight of his 30 in the final period. 

The Blazers were trying to match their season high with three straight wins, and signs pointed to Friday being a good bet. In the past 11 games, the Blazers have emerged as the fifth best defensive rating in the NBA, and with McCollum and Crabbe shooting lights out and Evan Turner beginning to conduct the offense in an efficient and effective manner, the Blazers figured they were ready to make a late-season push that mirrored last season. 

Instead, they were stunned out of the gate by the Magic, who were up 18-1 and 20-3 before many had settled into their seats.

Next up: Blazers at Washington, 2 p.m. Monday (CSN)

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Like his favorite red wine, CJ McCollum and the Blazers are getting better with age

Like his favorite red wine, CJ McCollum and the Blazers are getting better with age

A connoisseur of red wine, CJ McCollum on Wednesday figured he had earned a glass or two after the Trail Blazers routed the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

For the seventh consecutive game, McCollum had scored 25 or more points, this time pouring in 21 of his 27 in the second half to lead the Blazers’ 102-86 victory over the Cavaliers.

And this time, McCollum even showed a rare side of him – some emotion. After a fourth quarter three gave the Blazers an 85-69 lead, he raised his hands and invited the packed Moda Center stands to join him in reveling in the moment.

Normally, McCollum prides himself on a stoic approach to the game. He is more tactical than emotional, his reasoning rooted in the inconsistency of emotions compared to the more reliable probability of numbers and facts.

But there he was Wednesday, arms raised, hands encouraging more applause, head nodding in approval of the crowd’s crescendo.

 “I usually don’t,’’ McCollum said of playing to the crowd. “But tonight was different. Tomorrow is a blackout day (no practice, no treatment) and I can go home and drink my wine.’’

What made Wednesday’s game different was a culmination of several factors: A quality and convincing win against the defending champions. An impressive display of focus after a wacky day of travel because of the crippling snowstorm that hit Portland. And the validation of a growing feeling around the team that a disappointing season is beginning to turn.

“The game is fun, and when you are playing defense and winning games, it’s (more fun),’’ McCollum said. “And you have to show it’s fun and that you are enjoying it. That’s what I tried to do.’’

Of course, McCollum has been showing more than just emotion lately. His offensive play has been among the best in the NBA.

He is the first Blazers player in 30 years to record seven consecutive games of 25 or more points -- Clyde Drexler in 1987 had a nine-game streak -- and McCollum is tied with Kiki Vandeweghe for the fourth longest streak in franchise history. Geoff Petrie in 1971 established the franchise record of 11 straight games of 25 or more.

“Once he gets hot, it’s hard to stop him,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “He’s been great.’’

During that seven-game span, McCollum is averaging 31.6 points and shooting a blistering 53.7 percent from the field. Only Boston’s Isiaah Thomas (34.1) and Houston’s James Harden (32.7) are averaging more points than McCollum over the last seven games.

“Just shows a lot of hard work,’’ McCollum said of the streak. “An appreciation for the game and understanding it takes a lot of time in the gym, a lot of countless hours watching film. Just a credit to my teammates. I have a lot of good guys on this team who share the ball. Dame puts me in position to score a lot of times and when I’m on the floor with him my percentages sky rocket. And I think Coach has done a good job of putting me in position as a 6-4 combo guard to have success in the NBA.’’

McCollum cautioned that the Blazers (18-23) need to sustain their improved level of play, and noted that the next 10 games will go a long way in determining whether they have indeed turned the corner.

But with Allen Crabbe becoming a more explosive and consistent scorer, Al-Farouq Aminu spearheading a defensive resurgence, and Evan Turner blossoming as a defensive Swiss Army knife and a play-making passer,  the Blazers seem to be getting better as the season ages.

Much like the wine McCollum planned to enjoy Wednesday night.

Next up: Orlando at Blazers, 7 p.m. Friday (KGW).

TRAIL BLAZERS' STREAKS OF 25+ POINTS

11 - Geoff Petrie (2/12/71 - 3/2/71)
9- Clyde Drexler (11/20/87 - 12/6/87)
8 - Geoff Petrie (12/26/70 - 1/8/71)
7 - CJ McCollum (12/28/16 - PRESENT)
7 - Kiki Vandeweghe (1/23/86 - 2/4/86)
7 - Sidney Wicks (1/19/73 - 2/6/73)
6 - Damian Lillard (10/25/16 - 11/4/16)
6- LaMarcus Aldridge (1/15/14 - 1/23/14)
6 - LaMarcus Aldridge (1/15/14 - 1/23/14)
6 - LaMarcus Aldridge (12/30/10 - 1/9/11)
6 - Clyde Drexler (1/14/88 - 1/26/88)
6 - Sidney Wicks (3/9/72 - 3/21/72)

Blazers end the first half on a high note with rout of LeBron James and Cleveland

Blazers end the first half on a high note with rout of LeBron James and Cleveland

The Trail Blazers ended their first half on a high note with perhaps their best outing of the season, a thorough and dominant 102-86 victory over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Behind the shooting of Allen Crabbe and an explosive second half from CJ McCollum, and with the help of an active and swarming defense, the Blazers beat the defending champions to run their record to 18-23, one game better than last season at the halfway mark.

McCollum scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half and became the first Trail Blazers player since Clyde Drexler in 1987 to score 25 or more points in seven consecutive games. The franchise record is 11 by Geoff Petrie. 

Crabbe, meanwhile, hit 9-of-10 shots and scored 24 points, two games after he established a career-high with 30 points against Detroit, and coach Terry Stotts recorded his 200th win in Portland. 

But perhaps more than anything, the Blazers' win was fueled by its defense, which held Cleveland to 34.1 percent shooting, one night after Portland held the Lakers to 29 percent shooting in the second half of a win in Los Angeles. Evan Turner keyed the defense by often holding his ground against repeated post ups by James, who was held to 20 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on 5-of-12 shooting. Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless also played a part in defending James and the entire Blazers roster was a step faster and had a greater sense of urgency than the Cavaliers (28-10), who lost their second straight.

Both teams were coming off brutal travel schedules that were effected by an unexpected snowstorm that hit Portland on Tuesday night. Cleveland played at Utah on Tuesday and didn't land in Portland until 5:15 a.m. on Wednesday. Portland played in Los Angeles and spent the night in Seattle after flying to Sea-Tac Airport. The team flew to Portland and arrived at 1 p.m., then bused to the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland before heading to the arena at 4 p.m.

It was the sixth time Portland has held its opponent to less than 100 points in its last 11 games. In the season's first 30 games, the Blazers accomplished that feat five times. 

Next up: Orlando at Blazers, 7 p.m. Friday (KGW)