Blazers at the Break: Amid injuries and distractions, Blazers brace for 'sprint' to finish

Blazers at the Break: Amid injuries and distractions, Blazers brace for 'sprint' to finish

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. The final installation features a look at the Blazers' mindset heading out of the break as they prepare for the season's final 26 games. 

This is an uneasy time for the Trail Blazers, who are a battered, bruised and beleaguered bunch as they head out of the All-Star Break.

A winter spent dealing with frustrating underachievement has been compounded by recent injuries to Evan Turner (broken hand) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee sprain), and a nagging ankle injury to star Damian Lillard. And now there is the uncertainty of an approaching trade deadline that has already improved two of the teams in the playoff hunt with the Blazers.

 “We are in a tough place,’’ Damian Lillard said of the 23-33 Blazers. “I don’t think we have ever been in this position … even in my rookie year, I think we were at least playing good basketball. Right now, it’s very up-and-down for us. We’re not being consistent at anything.’’

The good news is the Blazers are only two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot. The bad news is they are only a half-game ahead of New Orleans, which greatly improved its roster when it acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins in a trade this week.

When the Blazers reconvene in Orlando for a Wednesday practice, they will have 26 games remaining and what is mostly considered a favorable schedule that includes 10 of their final 12 games at home.

“You have two options: Either run from it, or … come back and man up,’’ Lillard said.

Of all the Blazers, Lillard has been the most visible in his unhappiness with how the season has transpired. After the Blazers went into the break with a 111-88 loss in Utah – the team’s third straight and fifth in six games – he stayed in the arena long after his teammates left and was last seen sitting under the bleachers talking with assistant coach David Vanterpool.

Lillard has long looked at the Blazers’ success as a reflection of himself, and he entered the break knowing his play has dipped since returning from his sprained left ankle in early January. But he said he would take the break to regroup and recharge and rejoin the team in Orlando ready to make a push.

“I don’t want to say I’m excited, because it’s not a good position to be in,’’ Lillard said. “But I’m excited for the opportunity to rise to this struggle. I’m looking forward to it.’’

Others, like CJ McCollum, said the team needed the break.

Why?

“Did you see what happened in the game?’’ he said after the Utah rout.

**

By the time the Blazers play their next game – Thursday in Orlando – the NBA trading deadline will have passed four hours earlier.

Portland appears to be gearing toward the 2017 NBA Draft, where they have three first round picks (10, 22 and 28 as of today) , while also stating it is prepping for a playoff push.

Coach Terry Stotts said his message after the Utah game heading into the break was to the point: “Enjoy the break and come back to Orlando ready for a sprint to the end.’’

The players went into the break uneasily awaiting word of their future while also wondering which direction top executive Neil Olshey is going to take with the NBA’s third-highest paid roster.

“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about (getting traded),’’ Ed Davis said. “Everybody thinks about it. I think everybody on this team, pretty much for the right price, is there for the taking except Dame, and possibly, CJ. If the right deal comes in that is best for the franchise, they are going to have to call that shot. That’s their job and what you are supposed to do.’’

Whether Olshey tries to acquire more picks, or whether he pairs one or more of the picks with a player to get some perimeter defense, or whether he chooses to stand pat, remains to be seen. The only insight Olshey has provided is that the league has been active in talks leading up to the deadline, with one blockbuster already going down.

New Orleans, a team that is 2.5 games out of the playoffs and just one-half game behind Portland, traded for DeMarcus Cousins. And Denver, which sits in the eighth spot, acquired Mason Plumlee from Portland in exchange for the less-accomplished Jusuf Nurkic, seemingly improving two of the teams Portland is battling with for the final spot.

The Blazers, rightfully so, are more concerned with themselves. Of their 26 remaining games, only 10 are against teams with winning records, which is a good thing considered Portland has only seven wins this season against teams with winning records today (Utah, Memphis twice, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Cleveland and Boston). Plus, with Turner out until mid-March and Aminu recovering from a knee sprain that kept him out of the last game, and Lillard still effected by his December ankle sprain, the Blazers know it will be an uphill march.

“I think of it as a test,’’ Lillard said. “It’s hard. Everybody has something to say about it, but it’s hard. I just tell myself that sometimes you have to go through a struggle. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had a good run. We’ve had good runs, and I always feel like when you go through tough things, you have a chance to make it special at the end.’’

McCollum said the Blazers’ standing could improve if they just close out games better. This year, the Blazers are 7-12 in games decided by five points or less. Last year, Portland was 9-11 in games decided by five or less.

“The year hasn’t gone as expected, however it’s not like we are out here getting shellacked,’’ McCollum said. “We’ve had some bad losses and we’ve had some good wins. But if you look at the difference of this year and last year, you can break it down to close losses. We are losing close games.  Against good teams and against bad teams, we are losing close games. The difference is buzzer beaters, one stop, one rebound, one missed assignment.’’

It has added up to the worst All-Star record in Stotts’ five seasons in Portland (25-28; 36-17; 36-17; 27-27; 23-33), which brings Lillard back to that scenario with two options: run or man up.

“Personally, I’m going to use this break, I’m going to go relax, and I’m going to man up,’’ Lillard said. “Period. That’s what has to happen.’’

Part 1: The Rise of CJ McCollum

Part 2: Can Blazers be a title contender with Lillard/McCollum backcourt?

Part 3: Health of Lillard's ankle central to team's playoff push.

Part 4: Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope?

Blazers at the Break: Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope into Trail Blazers?

Blazers at the Break: Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope into Trail Blazers?

As the Trail Blazers faded into the All-Star Break with their third consecutive loss – a 111-88 defeat at Utah – there was a flicker of hope.

Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot center acquired from Denver in a trade for Mason Plumlee, was an encouraging mix of size, athleticism, agility and smarts during his 21 minute debut for the Blazers.

“I’m excited about what he is going to bring to our team,’’ captain Damian Lillard said afterward.

Moments later, as Lillard was leaving the locker room, he stopped by the stall of Nurkic and the two exchanged a hearty slap of hands and an embrace before talking about their plans over the break.

Nurkic vowed to the captain that he was headed to Los Angeles to get in shape and work on his game, and Lillard told him he would be in Portland working out if he wanted to join.

In the short time Nurkic has been with Portland, it is clear he values the opportunity to play with Lillard and CJ McCollum and the two guards have repeatedly said how they envision Nurkic’s post-up skills helping the offense.

“I’m really confident playing with those guys,’’ Nurkic said. “They just need to get used to me, but I think we will be fine.’’

So as the Blazers (23-33) begin the 26-game stretch run of their season on Thursday in Orlando, Nurkic figures to be an intriguing and central figure in the chase to catch Denver and Sacramento while also holding off a suddenly revamped New Orleans team.

Not since Robin Lopez have the Blazers had such an imposing figure to protect the rim, and not since undersized JJ Hickson played out of position have the Blazers been given a reason to run post up plays for their center. 

After Nurkic’s debut, the Blazers were left wondering about the possibilities that could transpire.  He made all five of his shots and finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, three steals and an assist and a block.

His statistics told only part of the story.

He impressed teammates with his court savvy and his heady passing, and the quickness in which he learned and retained the team’s playbook. His lone assist was a nifty touch pass that led to an Allen Crabbe three-pointer, and he had several other smart interior passes caught Utah flat-footed.

In coach Terry Stotts’ motion offense, which is predicated on movement and sharing the ball, Nurkic looks like he will be an asset – probably not on the level of Plumlee who leads NBA centers in assists – but certainly a weapon.

“He knows how to play,’’ Lillard said. “Just our communication on the floor, I can tell he has a good feel for how to play the game.’’

Nurkic also blocked a Derrick Favors shot near the rim and muscled his way to an offensive rebound that he put back up for a score, two traits the Blazers have sorely lacked from their interior players.

“I think he showed a lot of what he can give us,’’ Stotts said. “He was effective finishing around the basket, I think he has a nice shooting touch in the mid-range, and he is a big body who sets good screens.’’

He also provided a presence defensively and physically. At the end of the first half, he was in the middle of a ruckus that resulted in Jazz center Rudy Gobert getting a technical.

“You need to play defense at the end of the day to win some games,’’ Nurkic said of the exchange. “I’m there to protect the paint and help my teammates. I’m not doing to play dirty but I will have their back.’’

It is clear Nurkic is viewing his trade out of Denver as a rejuvenation, and a Blazers team that has had trouble kick-starting its season appears eager to fan any flicker of hope.

In the meantime, Nurkic has been posting on social media regular updates of his workouts in Los Angeles, creating a sense the Blazers will be getting a motivated player who is eager to impress.

“I know I will get better,’’ Nurkic said in Utah. “We will have a break and I will get better, definitely.’’

His main focus, he said, will be improving his conditioning, which faltered in Denver once he fell out of the rotation. Twice since Nurkic has arrived, Stotts has mentioned his conditioning, and it appears that might be the last obstacle in Nurkic starting.

Stotts has left open the possibility of Nurkic starting at center, but for the moment the coach has started Meyers Leonard the past two games at center. Stotts said after Nurkic’s debut that the team’s goal is to get Nurkic in better shape so he could extend his minutes. 

“I will be in LA practicing and trying to get better, every day,’’ Nurkic said. “But game time (conditioning) is different.’’

If starting is a priority, Nurkic isn’t saying so. In three availabilities to the Portland media, he has always put the team in front of himself.

“With me, it’s definitely all about the team,’’ Nurkic said.

Coming Tuesday: The Blazers' mindset heading out of break

Part 1: The rise of CJ McCollum.

Part 2: Can Blazers be a title contender with Lillard/McCollum backcourt?

Part 3: Health of Lillard's ankle central to team's playoff push.

 

 

Blazers at the Break: Health of Damian Lillard's left ankle at center of team's push for playoffs

Blazers at the Break: Health of Damian Lillard's left ankle at center of team's push for playoffs

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. Part 3 looks at the health of Damian Lillard’s left ankle, which might be the most important subplot to the team’s pursuit of the playoffs.

Little did anyone know at the time, but during a sleepy fourth quarter on Dec. 23, with Portland trailing San Antonio by 18, this Trail Blazers season was dealt perhaps its most significant blow.

With just more than seven minutes left, Damian Lillard went for an offensive rebound and landed on the foot of San Antonio center Dewayne Dedmon. Upon impact, Lillard’s left ankle rolled.

In retrospect, his ankle wasn’t the only thing that rolled. So too did the Blazers season.

Lillard would miss five games with an ankle sprain, and although the Blazers treaded water with a 2-3 record during that span, it has been the long-lasting effects of the injury that still haunt the team today.

Two months later, Lillard says he still feels the injury when he plays, and it has showed.

In 32 games before the injury, Lillard was averaging 27.0 points and 6.2 assists. In 19 games since returning, Lillard is averaging 23.4 points and 5.2 assists while shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from three-point range.

“Like I said when it happened: I’ve never rolled my ankle that way and when I came back it was as well as it can be to come back and play. But there are certain movements, certain situations where there are awkward angles or an awkward cut, or a jump and … it’s been a little bit different,’’ Lillard said in Utah after the Blazers’ final game before the All-Star break.

How much the week-long All-Star Break helps his ankle, and whether Lillard returns to the dominant player he was before that fateful roll, figures to be one of the biggest subplots in the team’s pursuit of the playoffs.

Lillard is never one to make excuses, and he has never outwardly complained about his ankle since the injury. The only time it comes up is when he is asked about it, and even then he often cuts short his answer.

“Once you are out there,’’ Lillard said, “there are no excuses.’’

But on Feb. 11, less than a week before the All-Star Break, he did provide perhaps the greatest insight into the severity of the injury, saying after a practice that he figured the pain and limited mobility of the ankle would stay with him until the summer.

“I’ve never turned my ankle the way I did this year,’’ Lillard said on Feb. 11. “When I did that, I knew even when I recovered from it, I knew it would be tough on it. I know it’s probably going to take until the summer for me to be completely explosive because I’ve never turned it like that.’’

Lillard said he will stay in Portland throughout the break until the team reconvenes in Orlando for a practice on Feb. 22. He said he would use the break to rest and workout, but added that most of his work would be shooting.

“It’s not like I’m going to run wild through workouts,’’ Lillard said. “I’m going to relax, sleep in, and at night I’m going to get a bunch of shots up. Probably every day, and then get in the cold tub and go home and watch TV and lay around until the next day.’’

Lillard said he does not want to take nights off during the season’s final 26 games in order to preserve the ankle, especially with the Blazers (23-33) sitting two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

“I always want to play, especially with the way our season has gone,’’ Lillard said. “I’m anxious to be like ‘We are getting it going … we are getting it going’ … I’m kind of thirsting for that moment. So I’ll play everyday if I have to.’’

In the meantime, his ankle is getting rest, and his mind is working to get back to the old, explosive and dominant Lillard.

“I just have to figure out how to do what I do,’’ Lillard said. “That’s the bottom line.’’

The Blazers chances for the playoffs might depend on it.

Part 1: The rise of CJ McCollum

Part 2: Can Blazers be a title contender with Lillard/McCollum backcourt?

Coming Monday: Can Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope?

Blazers at the Break: Can Blazers become a championship-caliber team with Lillard and CJ?

Blazers at the Break: Can Blazers become a championship-caliber team with Lillard and CJ?

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. Part 2 features a look at the dynamic between CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, and whether they can lead the Blazers to a title.

Perhaps no question is more important to the Trail Blazers’ long term future than this: Can the franchise become a championship contender with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as the starting backcourt?

There are two layers to that question:

 1. Can the two coexist while balancing their ego and their need for the ball?

 2. If they can coexist, are their defensive deficiencies too great to become an elite team?

Leading into the All-Star break, each provided their insights into the dynamics that make the duo work, and the challenges that exist before them.

Embrace & Sacrifice

There have been two trends leading into the All-Star Break for the Blazers: A dip in the production of Lillard and the continued rise of McCollum, particularly as a late-game option. 

The question of whose team this is -- once a clear distinction because of Lillard’s dominance and leadership – is now more blurred as McCollum has elevated his play and assumed a larger profile, both on and off the court. And the question of whether this duo is an effective tandem on both ends of the court -- the Blazers enter the break ranked 26th out of 30 teams in defensive rating -- has never been more scrutinized.  

But both players say the question of whether the backcourt duo can balance their egos and the need for the ball has never been less relevant.  

“For me, I think it’s something to embrace,’’ Lillard said of McCollum’s ascension.  “Because I’m the point guard and I have ball in my hands all the time, I still have the opportunity to be who I am. And I want him to have every opportunity to be who he is. I think the better we can be together, the better we can be for the organization.’’

McCollum said nothing has changed regarding the chemistry between the two.

“It has been the same as always,’’ McCollum said. “That the thing: Dame is a good character guy. He was raised the right way. He understands his role; I understand my role. And I think there comes a point in time when you have to put what is best for yourself on the backburner. I do that and he does it often. Late games, whatever the case may be, if somebody has the hot hand, or now understanding we have a big fella (Jusuf Nurkic) who can score on the block … we have to sacrifice. You look at the best teams, they all sacrifice: Steph. Klay. Draymond. If you want to win, sacrifice has to happen at some point. He is comfortable with that, I’m comfortable with that. And that’s what separates great players from good players.’’

For Lillard, there are two forces at work here: His upbringing and his experience in what McCollum (23.4 points a game) is going through right now as an up-and-coming star.

“My dad would get on me in elementary and middle school that ‘It’s not about you,’’’ Lillard said. “He told me I’m good enough and smart enough to do what I do while also allowing others to do what they need to do. And I think I’ve always played the game that way. ’’

Plus, Lillard says he draws off his experience of being in McCollum’s shoes as an up-and-comer, and he wants to make that evolution seamless.

“When I first got here, and I started making a name for myself and I started getting bigger and bigger, I had the most respect in the world for L.A. (LaMarcus Aldridge) and I wanted him to embrace that,’’ Lillard said. “Because I wasn’t trying to step on his toes, I wasn’t in competition with him. I was like, ‘Man, we are a 1-2 punch’ … and I wanted him to embrace me for that because I know myself, I’m not a jealous person or anything like that. But I wanted him to embrace that.

“Now, this is my fifth year and I’ve established myself and now CJ is coming along and it’s my job to embrace him,’’ Lillard said.

It’s why Lillard, who is averaging a career-high 25.7 points a game, was supportive earlier this month when McCollum took over down the stretch in a game at Dallas, which included McCollum hitting a game-winner in the final second.

“When it comes down to it, sometimes you have to be willing to put yourself aside,’’ Lillard said. “CJ can go out there and hit shots, and for our team, that’s a good thing.’’

A ‘real friendship’

In an era where conflict between accomplished teammates  -- be it real or manufactured -- seems to be the accepted as the norm, a very clear dynamic exists between Lillard and McCollum:

“We have a real friendship,’’ Lillard said. “People are so used to at this level it being an issue – where one guy wants to do more than the other – they tend to look at it in a certain way, instead of appreciating that I have that in me to do that (embrace and sacrifice).’’

The two have been friends since college, when they developed a rapport through text messaging as they took turns leading the nation in scoring. In Portland, the friendship has expanded to the point where their moms are now close friends as well.

“I don’t know how much better we can get as friends,’’ McCollum said. “We have a good understanding of each other and we do a lot of stuff off the court that I know a lot of teams and players don’t do. ‘’

They shop together (“probably too much,” McCollum says), go roller skating together, dine together and during the offseason fly to Las Vegas and other cities together.

“Put it like this: There’s not stories being written about how we don’t get along,’’ McCollum said. “And if there is like a mention of it, it’s people who don’t know us, it’s somebody from the outside who don’t know what is going on. It’s not like our beat writers are saying ‘Dame and CJ go left and right after practice.’ ‘’

Still, both know there are questions and whispers questioning whether one is uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with the other, and whether that might be at the root of the Blazers’ disappointing season.

“We are mature enough to understand when there are expectations, and you don’t meet them, they have to point a finger at somebody,’’ McCollum said. “So who are they going to point it at? They are not going to point it at Meyers (Leonard). They are going to look at the top, go from the top, and say it’s him-and-him … maybe they can’t coexist, or their defense isn’t good enough, or it’s this or it’s that.

“Maybe as individuals they wouldn’t be able to handle it, so they think we couldn’t handle it,’’ McCollum said. “But it’s not the case.’’

Defenseless duo?

Nothing touches a nerve with Lillard and McCollum quite like the subject of defense.

The Blazers for much of the season ranked last in defensive rating, and although they have improved to 26th out of 30, it is clear their defense – and in particular the perimeter defense -- is the biggest hurdle preventing them from becoming an elite team.

Both Lillard and McCollum are considered undersized at their positions, and both have trouble keeping their man in front of them, as well as being able to fight through screens.

When Lillard was asked if this duo could lead the Blazers to a championship level, he was quick to respond.

“Why not? I don’t see why you would think we couldn’t?’’ Lillard said.

“From a defensive perspective,’’ I responded.

“We … I think … We are not the best defenders in the NBA,’’ Lillard said. “A lot of  things go into that: Sometimes you get tired. Sometimes it’s responsibility. Sometimes it’s mental lapses. Whatever. But you look across the league – why do so many 1-2 punches average 20 points?’’

We went through some of the league’s top backcourts: Golden State (Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson), Toronto (Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan), Washington (John Wall/Bradley Beal), Boston (Isaiah Thomas/Avery Bradley).

My point was that each of those tandems has one elite defender (Thompson, Lowry, Wall and Bradley). Lillard’s point?

“It’s all perception,’’ he said. “Last year I scored 50 against Toronto. I scored 50 against Golden State … We aren’t the world’s best defenders but my point is, everybody has a hard time with everybody, that’s why the (scoring) averages are what they are.’’

McCollum said the frustrating aspect is even when the Blazers were winners, critics would point to the backcourt and say they weren’t elite defenders.

“It’s hard to be an elite defender. I’m not saying I’m a great defender. But it’s hard to be an elite defender,’’ McCollum said. “There’s not a lot of people you can name who are elite defenders.’’

I asked how he would describe his defense.

“I would say it needs to improve,’’ McCollum said. “But I work really hard. I’m in the right spots a lot of times. I understand watching film that I get beat sometimes, but sometimes I play good defense and I get scored on, which is part of the NBA. But it’s a work in progress and it’s something I am working at, and I’m aware of, and I’m self conscious of to the fact that I watch film, spend the time and I do my due diligence.

“But I know I’m not an elite defender, and I may never be an elite defender,’’ McCollum said. “But you look at our team, when you lose games and you don’t perform well defensively, they have to find somebody. And I’ve been in the wrong at times, and played great defense at times and been blamed. But if you look how we’ve defended the last two months – I know it’s not a full season – but we’ve been in the top 10 defensive rating with Chief (Al-Farouq Aminu) in the lineup. And I’m playing the same minutes with, and without him.’’

There was a small stretch when the Blazers’ defense did improve to a Top 10 rating, but over the final 15 games before the break they had the 20th best defensive rating.

That being said, Lillard staunchly defended the duo’s defense.

“I will stay this: We are capable as a backcourt of getting to the point where we can be a championship caliber team,’’ Lillard said. “Regardless of what our size is, and regardless of what people say, we can get it done.’’

Coming Sunday: Part 3 -- The health of Damian Lillard and his right ankle.

Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Blazers at the Break: The rise of CJ McCollum and the path he took to stardom

Editor's note: With the arrival of the NBA All-Star Break, CSN looks at the five most relevant/pressing issues with the Trail Blazers. Part 1 looks at the rise of CJ McCollum and the obstacles he encountered on his journey to stardom.

A couple of weeks ago, CJ McCollum was given a book by teammate Festus Ezeli that has resonated with the Trail Blazers’ growing star.

The book – “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday – uses stories from notable figures such as John D Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart and Theodore Roosevelt to frame obstacles as opportunities.

As McCollum entered the All-Star break, he had read about 100 pages of the book, and one section in particular spoke to him. It was the part that talked about astronauts, and in how before learning how to fly, they first learned the skill of not panicking.

“It’s a mindset thing,’’ McCollum said. “They have to learn how to be calm and cool under pressure before they begin learning how to fly.’’

The mental state is referred to as “apatheia,” a calm of equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.

McCollum loves the concept, for he feels like it captures his own approach to basketball. McCollum after games often talks stoically, and usually about statistics and techniques rather than feelings or emotions. He prefers that approach, he says, because emotions are unstable and statistics are facts, and therefore reliable.

“I was like, ‘Wow! I’m just reading this at 25, and this is how I’ve been my whole life,’’’ McCollum said.

He says this as he prepares to head to New Orleans not only as the Trail Blazers lone representative at the All-Star Game (3-point contest), but also as a growing figure within Portland and the Blazers franchise.

But to McCollum, the story is not his astronaut-like ascension toward stardom on a league-wide level, but rather the path that got him here, and the perspective gained during that journey.

And really, the journey’s destination was never calibrated toward stardom, but rather happiness.

“Finding that inner happiness, that’s the key,’’ McCollum said. “And I think I’ve finally found that.’’

That happiness has allowed him to slowly open up more, and it’s why he says he is more easily tempted to be more demonstrative during games, whether that be shimmying his shoulders after he caps off a nice move with a basket, or waving his arms in the air to encourage the crowd to make noise during an opponent’s free throw.

And his happiness is why McCollum says he has been more active in the Portland community. In November, he unveiled a Dream Center at the Boys & Girls Club that promotes learning for youths, and earlier this week he held his second annual CJ’s Press Pass program for young aspiring high school journalists.

 “He’s coming into his own,’’ teammate Damian Lillard said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know the feeling. It’s like a feeling of certainty, a more sure feeling of things. I think that’s just where you get to, and it’s a good spot to be in. And he’s definitely there right now.’’

This is the path McCollum took to get there, and these are the obstacles he encountered along the way.

Understanding his place

His first lesson came in his rookie season, when he found himself summoned to the office of Neil Olshey, the team’s top executive, who felt McCollum needed some advice.

“It was about understanding your place,’’ McCollum said of Olshey’s talk.

McCollum, it had been reported to Olshey, had been ruffling the feathers of some veterans with what some referred to as an “Ivy League attitude,” creating unease within the Blazers front office that their rookie could become an outcast in the locker room.

The tipping point came during a practice, when McCollum’s supreme confidence sent ripples throughout the team.

“I still remember it,’’ Damian Lillard said of the practice. “He was actually on my team.’’

As the Blazers scrimmaged, McCollum became isolated on then-Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge.

“He did a move that kind of rocked L.A. a little bit,’’ Lillard recalled. “And CJ rose up and took the jumper.’’

As the ball was in the air, Aldridge yelled “That’s off!”

It wasn’t.

The ball swished.

“And when CJ made it, he was like ‘Shut up!.’’’ Lillard said, wide-eyed at the recollection. “That was his response: ‘Shut up.’’’

Aldridge, a prideful and sensitive veteran, was not pleased.

“You could tell it kind of bugged L.A. a bit,’’ Lillard said. “Not so much that CJ scored, but that he had that much confidence.’’

It wasn’t just his confidence, though, that was rankling the veterans. McCollum was refusing to embrace the rookie hazing that is a time-honored tradition in the NBA. Typically, rookies have to carry veteran’s laundry, run errands, and sometimes even wear silly outfits.

But McCollum eschewed the tradition.

“Sometimes, I would just be like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that,’’’ McCollum said. “I mean, think about it … think about it: You are asleep and somebody comes knocking at your hotel room door, they have a key made and come into your room at 2 a.m. and pour water on you? Come on, man.’’

McCollum would later learn that the pranking teammate – Wesley Matthews – and other veterans who would call at odd hours wanting chicken wings or other errands, were just trying to bond.

So in Olshey’s office, that one day after the scrimmage scene with Aldridge, a message was delivered.

“Understand where you are at and where you want to get to,’’ McCollum recalled. “And just blend in.’’

It was his first lesson about paying dues, and understanding the hierarchy of leadership.

Soon, he was dutifully taking the laundry bags of Aldridge, Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright. He would sometimes make trips to get Wright soft soap or playing cards, and for Aldridge he would have to get Starbucks – on command -- for which he said Aldridge was always paid him handsomely.  He even made a trip or two to fetch wings.

“I got really good at my duties after a while,’’ McCollum said, noting he had to be the team’s “rookie” for two seasons because the team was void a pick in 2014. “Eventually, you figure out it’s about trust. If you show you can be trusted to do these things, they can trust you on the court.’’

Finding balance

Three years later, McCollum has nudged alongside Lillard as the face of the franchise, not only for his entertaining play but also for his impact in the community.

His lethal crossover move has figuratively broken the ankles of players like Victor Oladipo, and sent Draymond Green guarding air in a different area code. And his pullback crossover once sent Dirk Nowitzki through the spin cycle.

But his most important move, McCollum says, was finding balance in his life that allows him to work on what he calls his “legacy” – helping kids.

In November, he partnered with the Boys & Girls club and opened the CJ McCollum Dream Center, an innovative learning room that includes computers, art and more than 200 culturally relevant books. He also has plans to open two more Dream Centers.

And last week, he held his second Press Pass event, where local high school students attended the Blazers game against Atlanta and learned the ins-and-outs of the journalism profession. McCollum majored in journalism at Lehigh University.

“I want to leave a lasting legacy as a guy who did more than just played basketball,’’ McCollum said.

Before he could start working on that legacy, however, McCollum said he learned he needed to find balance in his life.

For much of his early career, basketball was all consuming.

His first two seasons, he stewed as he rarely played. There were injuries --- a broken foot his rookie season that caused him to miss 38 games and a broken right finger his second season that sidelined him for a month --  and a roster that included veterans Matthews and later, Arron Afflalo.

“It’s hard. The injuries and stuff are mentally draining, it wears on you,’’ McCollum said.

He was watching players from his draft class he felt he was better than, getting opportunities and succeeding. Even when he came home to get away from the frustration of sitting the bench, he was reminded of his status.

“I would play 2K (video game) and I was sorry. I couldn’t make a lay-in. Couldn’t dribble,’’ McCollum said.

The hardest time might have been at the 2015 trading deadline, when the Blazers traded for Afflalo, pushing McCollum from second string to third string.

“Think about this: You show up to the arena, and you know you aren’t going to play, and your girl is in town to see you … you know how hard that is?’’ McCollum said. “You are at the highest level, and you are not playing. That’s a hard thing to live with.’’

Looking back, he realizes his approach was unhealthy.

“I was bad early in my career, because even in my relationships everything was basketball,’’ McCollum said. “I didn’t want to go out to dinner the night before a game because we had a game, stuff like that.’’

Now, he has taken an interest in Oregon red wines. He plans vacations with his girlfriend. He hosts a radio show, continues plans for more Dream Centers and finds himself in interviews with the cast of “Portlandia.”

“There was a time when it was 100 percent basketball, and that’s not healthy,’’ McCollum said. “Even Kobe and Steph have an outlet – be it golf or business ventures or something creative. Your mind needs that break.’’

He calls it the developing of his “sense of self.”

“I think as you get older, you just become comfortable in realizing there’s a lot of other stuff that is important besides basketball,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously, it’s still important to me, and I love the game, but there’s more to life than basketball.’’

The struggle for inner-happiness

McCollum doesn’t need to finish the book Ezeli gave him to understand he will be presented with more obstacles throughout his career.

Next season, he will play with the pressures of his $106 million contract, and with growing weight of becoming a franchise pillar.

“The money … I say it doesn’t change the person, it changes the people around you,’’ McCollum said. “With how I was raised, it’s not going to change me. I drive a Chevy. Look … go out there to the parking lot and look, I drive a Chevy Tahoe. I mean, I could buy a lot of cars, and I will buy a car at some point, and I do have a Mercedes I bought as a rookie, but I like my Chevy. I wear Ugg boots sometimes. This is not a competition to see who can buy the nicest house, or most things.’’

He is confident the trials that await him will become triumphs, because as he has matured, he is developing a greater sense of self, a self that still includes shades of that cocksure rookie telling Aldridge to shut up.

“I think at first, (his assuredness) rubbed people the wrong way,’’ McCollum said. “As a young guy, you don’t know any better. I was just out there hooping like I was at the park with my friends. But as I got older, I think L.A. and the rest of the guys started to understand my personality, and they started to like the fact that I’m not going to change who I am – I will adapt to fit in and make sure I don’t disrespect people -- but I’m going to be CJ.’’

The only difference now is this CJ is more balanced, and more securely rooted in who and for what he represents.

“I think it’s a constant struggle to find inner-happiness, because no matter how much money you have, you still need to be content with who you are,’’ McCollum said. “Like J. Cole says: ‘Love yourself.’ You have to find what you truly care about.’’

So he will continue to perfect his game, and continue to create avenues for kids to succeed, all with the hope of turning obstacles into a legacy.

“We have to remember: this is a game. That’s why I try to have fun, why I smile, why I dance … this is a game,’’ McCollum said. “It’s a game that ends. One day, it ends. When it does, I want people to know, I want my kids to know, that I did more than just play basketball.’’

Coming Saturday: Part 2 -- Can the Blazers be championship contenders with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as a starting backcourt?

Trail Blazers limp into the All-Star Break after lopsided loss in Utah

Trail Blazers limp into the All-Star Break after lopsided loss in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY – Coach Terry Stotts says the All-Star Break comes at a good time for every team in the NBA, but perhaps no team will welcome  the break more than the Trail Blazers.

Portland limped into the All-Star break Wednesday with its third straight loss and fifth in six game with a 111-88 loss to Utah at Vivint Arena.

Portland (23-33) fell to a season-low 10 games below .500 and will resume play Feb. 23 sitting two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Utah (35-22) ended a three-game losing streak as All-Star Gordon Hayward had 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds and fill-in starter Joe Ingles added 18 points.

Lost in the numbing end to Wednesday’s game, when Utah led by as many as 22 in the fourth quarter, was the successful debut of  Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot center acquired from Denver on Sunday in a trade for Mason Plumlee.

Nurkic finished with 13 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes and he showed a little of everything from passing, to defense to being an inside presence. He first entered with 4:22 left in the first quarter and immediately lost the ball while trying to make an offensive move, but he later made a nifty touch pass to Allen Crabbe, blocked a Derrick Favors shot at the rim, and scored off an offensive rebound. All told, he made 5-of-5 shots, 3-of-4 free throws and added two steals, two blocks and an assist.

The Blazers also used a new starting lineup, with Ed Davis replacing Noah Vonleh at power forward and Meyers Leonard starting his second straight game at center. Leonard hit his first two three pointers in the opening minutes of the game, but was quiet thereafter, finishing with 10 points and one rebound in 24 minutes. Davis finished with seven points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.

The Blazers made a 15-0 run at the end of the first half and into the third quarter, erasing a 40-26 deficit to take a 41-40 lead with 11:31 left in the third.

But Portland could never get a sustained offensive push as its two stars – Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum – had off shooting nights. Lillard went 3-for-19 and finished with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

McCollum picked up three fouls in the first quarter, anchoring him to the bench for all but the final 2:42 of the half. After missing his first five shots, he came in and made his next three to ignite the 15-0 run, but he suffered through an 8-for-19 night despite leading the team with 18 points.

Both teams struggled shooting in the opening quarter, with Utah missing its final 10 shots, allowing Portland to get within 18-17. Utah shot 6-of-21 (28.6 percent) in the quarter and Portland made 30.4 percent of its shots (7-of-23) as McCollum (0-for-5) and Lillard (1-for-7) were uncharacteristically off.

Next up: Blazers at Orlando, Feb. 23, 4 p.m. (CSN)

 

Jusuf Nurkic practices with Trail Blazers, will play Wednesday against Jazz

Jusuf Nurkic practices with Trail Blazers, will play Wednesday against Jazz

Fresh off his first practice with the Trail Blazers on Tuesday, newly acquired center Jusuf Nurkic will make his debut Wednesday at Utah, coach Terry Stotts said.

Stotts ran the 7-footer through 4-on-4 drills during practice to introduce the team’s plays, and said he liked what he saw.

“Very skilled young guy. Nice touch around the basket, good feel for the game,’’ Stotts said. “And, he needs to get in better shape.’’

Nurkic, who was acquired from Denver for a 2017 first round pick and Mason Plumlee, fell out of the Nuggets rotation in the past month. In the last 17 games, he did not play in five and had five others where he played less than eight minutes. Only twice in the last month has he played more than 20 minutes.

This season he is averaging 8.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 18 minutes a game, but he says he is capable of more.

“I’m able to do a lot more stuff,’’ Nurkic said. “(Denver) kind of hold me down. I wish them good luck. I’m here to show the coach I can work hard. I’m going to be in gym all day and work, and be patient.’’

CJ McCollum said he studied film on Nurkic and likes his ability to post-up with his back to the basket – a facet the Blazers haven’t had since LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2014 – as well as his ability to contest shots on defense.

“It was good to see him get up and down. He’s very skilled,’’ McCollum said. “He can move. He’s strong as an ox. I look forward to seeing him play.’’

McCollum said it will likely take time for Nurkic to become acclimated to the Blazers’ plays and players, but both said it should help Nurkic that the All-Star break starts on Thursday, allowing more time for film study.

“Obviously, it will be a process,’’ McCollum said. “It’s not going to look perfect overnight, but I think he will help us right away.’’

Nurkic repeatedly said he is “all about winning” and that he will do whatever Stotts asks when it comes to his role. He also said he is excited to play with All-Star level guards like Damian Lillard and McCollum, noting that he has never played with such a high-caliber backcourt.

“First time in my life I get to play with those kind of guards,’’ Nurkic said. “I can’t wait.’’

His first chance will be Wednesday at Utah against a Jazz team that is 34-22 and a half-game out of fourth in the West and features one of the premier defensive centers in the NBA in Rudy Gobert.

Down the road, though, Nurkic said he hopes his stay in Portland will be long term. He is under contract through next season.

“I think it’s the perfect place for me,’’ Nurkic said.  “They need me; I need them.’’

Next up: Blazers at Utah, 6 p.m. Wednesday (KGW).

More frustration for the Blazers after they lose late leads to Atlanta in regulation and overtime

More frustration for the Blazers after they lose late leads to Atlanta in regulation and overtime

A season of frustration continued to slip away from the Trail Blazers on Monday when Atlanta forged two comebacks that eventually resulted in a 109-104 overtime win at the Moda Center.

Hawks forward Paul Millsap forced overtime with a finger roll at the regulation buzzer, then the Hawks overcame a seven-point deficit in overtime, sealing the victory when Damian Lillard fell and coughed up the ball with 6.4 seconds left on a drive with the Blazers trailing by one.

The Blazers (23-32) lost their third consecutive home game and fell two games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and into a tie for ninth with Sacramento.

Millsap, who scored the overtime-forcing basket after taking an inbounds pass with 2.2 seconds left, finished with 21 points and nine rebounds and five assists. Atlanta (32-23) won after losing its last game in Sacramento at the buzzer.

Portland looked like it was headed to a gritty win when Maurice Harkless scored on a tip-in with 34.6 seconds left, beating Dwight Howard to a rebound off a missed free throw by Ed Davis. The hustle play gave the Blazers a 97-94 lead, but after a Howard free throw, and a McCollum miss, the Hawks rebounded and called timeout with 2.2 seconds left, setting up Millsap’s left-handed finger roll.

In overtime, Portland scored the first seven points – an Ed Davis inside basket, a long three-pointer by Lillard and a floater by McCollum, but the Blazers missed their final eight shots.

Aminu had 14 points and 15 rebounds – his third straight game in double figures – and McCollum scored 13 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, when Portland overcame a one-point deficit.

It was the first game after the Blazers traded starting center Mason Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic. Meyers Leonard started at center and finished with two points, six rebounds and three assists in 24 minutes. He missed his first five shots and finished 1-for-7 from the field.

Ed Davis played backup center and recorded 11 points, 13 rebounds and three assists before fouling out with 2:24 left in overtime after playing 27 minutes.

Atlanta took a 75-74 lead into the fourth quarter after Mike Muscala scored a layin off an inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds left in the quarter.

The Blazers led 48-42 after both teams struggled from the field. Atlanta shot 33 percent and the Blazers 32 in a lackluster first half. The Blazers made only six field goals in the second quarter, but two of them were three-pointers by Aminu to start the quarter and push the lead to 34-21.

Portland closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run to take a 28-21 lead. The run was capped by a three-pointer from Pat Connaughton at the buzzer, which came after Ed Davis grabbed and offensive rebound and fired a pass to Connaughton on the wing.

Next up: Blazers at Utah, 6 p.m. Wednesday (KGW)

 

Mason Plumlee's memorable Sunday involves break-in and a trade to Denver

Mason Plumlee's memorable Sunday involves break-in and a trade to Denver

As fate would have it, Mason Plumlee was at the Trail Blazers practice facility earlier than normal on Sunday.

Players are required to be at the team’s facility by 10:15 a.m. for an 11 a.m. practice, but Plumlee on Sunday was there at 9:30 a.m. in order to expedite a pressing order.

Earlier that morning, as he approached his SUV in the parking garage of his Pearl District complex, he noticed someone had broken into his car.

His mind raced. Gone was his checkbook. His wallet.

“I went in early to the facility to start cancelling my checkbook, my credit cards,’’ Plumlee said. “And someone said, ‘Neil wants to meet with you.’’’

When Plumlee arrived at the office of Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, coach Terry Stotts was also in the office.

“They told me I wasn’t going to practice today,’’ Plumlee said.

Plumlee, the Blazers’ starting center who was having a career season, had been traded to Denver for 22-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick.

Because the league office is not open on Sunday, the trade is expected to become official on Monday. Plumlee said he spoke with Denver representatives and he tentatively is planning to fly to Denver on Sunday night.

By the afternoon, the blur of the morning news distracted Plumlee from his task of cancelling his bank accounts. It was difficult reaching banks on a Sunday, and his phone has been ringing off the hook. One of his first conversations was with his brother, Miles, who 10 days ago was traded from Milwaukee to Charlotte.

“I was just talking to my brother. It’s very different getting traded in the season,’’ Plumlee said. “As a player, you always feel like you are in the fight. We were just talking as a team yesterday, that ‘We are in this … we have to get into the playoffs and come through …’’’

It would turn out to be his last team meeting.

“All of the sudden,'' Plumlee said, "the whole conversation changes.''

**

The day before he was traded, the Blazers had long ago finished practice when Plumlee walked into the gym, hoodie over his head and hands in his sweat pants.

He was headed toward the team’s video room to pick up film of the Saturday practice so he could study it at home. After picking up the video, he noticed Stotts and myself talking on a bench at the other side of the gym.

I gave him a peace sign, and after he waved back, he called out to Stotts.

“Have a good day, Coach.’’

Stotts turned to me and said, ‘What a great guy, huh?’’

I told him Plumlee was one of my favorite guys on the roster. He was personable, smiled easily, and was thoughtful in his responses. Plus, he played hard, and throughout this trying season he was never one to focus on the negative. His approach is best summed up by one of his favorite sayings: he would rather focus on a solution rather than dwell on the problem.

On Sunday, Plumlee was curious about the previous day’s scene.

“Let me ask you something,’’ Plumlee said. “Is (the trade) what you and Stotts were talking about yesterday?’’

I told him the truth – it was not part of our conversation -- and told him I didn't know whether Stotts knew something was brewing. 

Recently, Plumlee said he had conversations with his agent, Mark Bartlestein about his future. Plumlee is set to become a free agent this summer after he and the Blazers didn’t come to terms on a contract extension this fall.

Plumlee said his agent had talks with the Blazers, but the Blazers never made an offer before the Oct. 31 deadline, setting him up to be one of the more prized big men on the free agent market this summer. 

“As I talked to my agent (recently), he said he would be surprised if I was moved before trade deadline,’’ Plumlee said.

But there he was Sunday morning, sitting in Olshey’s office with Stotts.

“They really handled the trade in a classy manner,’’ Plumlee said. “They thanked me, and I thanked them. This organization has always been very good to me.’’

**

It was fitting that one of Plumlee’s final scenes in Portland was walking to the video room to get film of that day’s practice.

He was a student of the game and one of the smartest players on the team, which is one of the reasons why Stotts entrusted him to be the team’s primary inbounder, and why Stotts broadened the team’s offense to put the ball in Plumlee’s hands more often.  

Plumlee’s  study of the game was also why he bonded so closely with Lillard, the team’s captain. Lillard earlier this season called Plumlee a “servant” because he always put other’s needs before his own. In particular, he would often pull Lillard aside to suggest a play call to help get a teammate involved, or stop by Lillard’s locker after leaving the showers to talk review an aspect of that night’s game.

“Every flight you walk by Mason’s seat and he was watching film, guarantee you,’’ Lillard said. “You don’t find people that committed to being a better player and committed to our team.’’

When Lillard encountered Plumlee cleaning out his locker Sunday morning, he told him how he felt.

“I just told him how much I appreciated him as a teammate and let him know he was one of my favorite teammates that I’ve played with – not just in the NBA, but in my life, period,’’ Lillard said. “I will miss him.’’

**

As he prepared to leave Sunday for his new team and his new city, Plumlee couldn’t help but realize he was leaving more than his checkbook and wallet in Portland.

It is here where he blossomed as a player and forged lasting relationships, both personally and professionally.

“There are a lot of guys I learned from on those Portland teams,’’ Plumlee said. “And as I said last year in my exit interviews, Dame is the best player I’ve played with to date. And the staff there was really good. A good group of people. I was happy to say I could be a part of it.’’

He was traded to Portland from Brooklyn on draft night in 2015, and by the time he reported in September, Stotts envisioned great things. He saw an athletic and skilled big man who could not only bring the ball up court, but thread beautiful and heady passes.

He soon became an important cog in the Blazers’ flow offense, hitting backdoor passes to Lillard for layins and becoming an accomplished finisher around the rim, often times with his distinctive style: a back-to-the-rim reverse dunk.

“It was a great time for me as a player to establish myself as a starter in this league,’’ Plumlee said. “My whole thing coming over from Brooklyn was ‘I’m a starter in this league.’ And last year, I will always remember winning the playoff series, and this year … team wise it hasn’t gone as well, but I’ve improved. So the last year and half, I will look at it as a time of growth.’’

He said he hasn’t put much thought into his new team, the Nuggets, who are one game ahead of the Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot.

“I just know they have a lot of talent, they are young – they are playing really well right now,’’ Plumlee said. “I’m excited to go there. I’m glad Denver is the place I ended up. It’s good to be wanted and the trade that happened show they wanted me.’’

Trail Blazers lose 17-point lead, and game, as Boston gets revenge

Trail Blazers lose 17-point lead, and game, as Boston gets revenge

The Trail Blazers’ chance to move into a tie for the eighth and final playoff spot was thwarted Thursday when the short-handed Boston Celtics overcame a 17-point halftime deficit and beat the Blazers 120-111 at the Moda Center.

Isaiah Thomas had 34 points and fill-in starters Marcus Smart (18 points) and Jaylen Brown (14 points, 7 rebounds) carried Boston (34-19) to its eighth win in nine games.

The Blazers (23-31) fell one game behind Denver (23-29) for the final playoff spot in the West despite a season-high 26 points from Al-Farouq Aminu and Damian Lillard’s 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Boston started the second half on a 10-2 run to take a 59-57 lead and complete their comeback from 17 down. The lead see-sawed for much of the third before Brown hit a corner three with 4.2 seconds left to give the Celtics a 77-76 lead heading into the fourth.

The Blazers were within 99-98 with 5:43 left after an Aminu three, but Boston pulled away, thanks in large part to Thomas’ 15 fourth-quarter points.

It was the first game for the Blazers without Evan Turner, who broke his right hand Tuesday in Dallas. Maurice Harkless started in Turner’s spot and finished with four points and four rebounds in 23 minutes.

The Celtics cut into a 17-point deficit to draw within 55-49 at halftime thanks to a streaking finish by Thomas. The Celtics’ point guard, who hasn’t scored below 20 points all season, started 2-of-10 from the field, but heated up by scoring 10 points in the final 2:30. His flurry led a 13-2 run to close the half for Boston.

Portland raced to a 32-22 lead after the first quarter as McCollum made his first three shots and Lillard hit two early three-pointers, which complemented the active inside play of Mason Plumlee, who had seven points and four rebounds in the quarter.

Boston played without starters Avery Bradley (Achilles) and Jae Crowder (family matter), starting Brown, a rookie, and third-year player Smart in their place.

Next up: Atlanta at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Monday (TNT)

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