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)

 

As time goes by, 'Jail Blazers' trying hard to shed that nasty image

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As time goes by, 'Jail Blazers' trying hard to shed that nasty image

I usually pay very little attention to Kevin Garnett's bewildering segments during TNT's Thursday night NBA broadcasts. It's usually just a couple of washed-up players sitting there telling each other how good they used to be. It's a waste of time that I can't believe TNT finds them more entertaining than a couple of minutes of Charles Barkley talking about anything.

But I recently saw a clip of Garnett and Rasheed Wallace talking about the 2000 Trail Blazers-Lakers Western Conference finals Game 7 and the "Jail Blazers" Era. And for those who weren't around at that time, I can't help but attempt to set the record straight about a few things they discussed:

And let me say I agree with Wallace that Portland should have won that series and advanced to an NBA Finals berth against overmatched Indiana. It was a mystifying fourth quarter collapse in the seventh game by Portland that changed the course of the franchise in a big way.

But Wallace, whose image in Portland seems to improve with every year he's retired, misstated a few things about that final game.

The first thing is, he blamed Coach Mike Dunleavy for calling a timeout that he believes stopped his team's momentum and allowed the Lakers to make a comeback. I would say, though, the Trail Blazer players -- and Wallace in particular -- had much more to do with Portland's loss than did the coach. The Blazers had a 73-58 lead in the fourth quarter before being outscored 31-11 to end the game with a four-point loss.

Down the stretch of a magnificent upset of a loaded Laker team that featured Kobe and Shaq, the Trail Blazer players choked. They tightened up to the point they couldn't seem to get their shots to the rim. Wallace himself was awful in the fourth quarter, which wasn't surprising. The talented power forward could be spectacular for much of a game and then run from key shots in fourth quarters. He eventually found a home in Detroit, where there were other players more than willing to take the pressure shots.

And the other thing that happened in this game is that Portland could not buy a call from the referees once the Lakers got their machine revved up. This game has become one of those controversial events that people point to as possible "fixed" games down through the years in the NBA. Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis fouled out of this one, with Sabonis continually getting blocking calls when he had solid position on Shaq as the latter bulled his way to the basket.

A check of the box score shows Los Angeles getting 21 more free throws than Portland and the fouls put a lot of pressure on Portland in the fourth quarter.

But that was a loss and it will always be that way. What I found in the video clip more disturbing was Wallace downplaying the whole Jail Blazers thing, insinuating that the players were being pilloried by the media for little things like parking in handicapped spots or speeding and that the local media was just out to make a name for itself in a small market.

That's a steaming pile of stink, Rasheed.

I'm not going to go into the full list of transgressions by the players on this team but here are just a few I remember off hand:

  • Ruben Patterson --  a registered sex offender who was arrested for felony domestic abuse against his wife.
  • Zach Randolph --  Once punched Patterson's eye socket out in practice, had a DUI and was the leader of the infamous "hoops family" that was under suspicion for all kinds of local mischief,
  • Qyntel Woods -- Arrested for speeding and tried to use his basketball card as ID. A marijuana charge and an arrest for animal abuse because of his involvement with a dog-fighting group.
  • Shawn Kemp -- Departed the team to enter drug rehab during a season.
  • Bonzi Wells --  A couple of episodes of spitting on opposing players and a stated disregard for the team's fans.
  • Rasheed Wallace -- World records for technical fouls, throwing a towel in anger at Arvydas Sabonis in front of a packed house in the Rose Garden and once threatened referee Tim Donaghy in a loading dock incident after a game.
  • JR Rider -- Threatened media many times, couldn't get along with his coaches and once insinuated that people of color were being hanged from trees just a few miles outside of town.
  • Damon Stoudamire -- A couple of marijuana charges, one of them famously at an airport metal detector with weed wrapped in foil.

Wallace, of course, laughed it all off with Garnett. "There were some mishaps in there," he admitted. "We were the only show in town. The only professional sports show in town. The only professional sports show between Seattle, at the time, and LA."

Hmmm. I guess he must have forgotten about all those "professional sports shows" in San Francisco and Oakland. But this Wallace remark was a classic:

"The only thing that could blow up and make local writers big was to go ahead and report everything, like if you had a speeding ticket or parked in a handicapped spot..."

As one of those writers I can tell you that we were just as sick of writing about those "mishaps" as they were sick about reading about them. But they were news and these guys were relentless with their trouble. And the amazing thing about Portland as a basketball town was as long as the team was winning, virtually nobody cared what the players did. We were constantly criticized by fans for writing "negative stuff" about their heroes, who got standing ovation after standing ovation from their adoring fans.

Until they started losing.

And let me tell you, as soon as that team started losing (Bob Whitsitt just couldn't keep his hands off the roster -- he kept tinkering until he moved Jermaine O'Neal to Indiana for Dale Davis and that was a monster mistake that probably cost him his job) the fans turned on the team very quickly. Winning is the ultimate perfume. And when this team stopped winning and continued its misbehavior, the fans revolted about the offensive aroma.

And I'm sorry, any attempt to portray that group of players as a sympathetic bunch is very misguided.

And if you were here and paid attention, you know what I'm talking about.

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

Three "new" players fuel Blazer comeback win over Magic

ORLANDO -- Who were those guys?

It seemed as if three new players rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter to rally the Trail Blazers from deficits as high as 14 points Thursday night and a 112-103 win over the Orlando Magic.

The "new" guys?

Well, certainly nobody expected Shabazz Napier to play the entire fourth quarter and a total of 26:21 as a defensive stopper and cool offensive presence.

When all else failed -- and defensive stoppers Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner on the sideline with injuries -- Coach Terry Stotts turned to Napier to defend the Magic point guards, who were burning a path to the rim for layups. And it was part of a three-guard lineup that Stotts stayed with down the stretch of the game.

"It was Shabazz's defense that kept him in the game," Stotts said afterward. "Elfrid Payton had taken the ball to the basket three straight times and I just liked Shabazz's quickness on the ball. I just wasn't comfortable taking him out."

And Orlando seemed comfortable with not taking advantage of Portland's smaller lineup. Can Portland use that extensively the rest of the season?

"I don't know," Stotts said. "It worked tonight. With Evan and Al-Farouq out of the lineup, rotations are going to change. I thought defensively we were not hurt much by it, so it will depend on the matchups but it something we have to consider."

Napier was just pleased to be a contributor -- and in a city where he once played. He scored 10 points, had seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and just one turnover. This was a game, by the way, when turnovers were a real issue. Portland had 15 of them at the half and finished with 20, for 27 Orlando points.

"I'm just glad I could help us win," he said. "I have to contribute in whatever way I can."

Damian Lillard, whose fourth-quarter onslaught provided the firepower for the Portland comeback, lauded Napier's contributions.

"I said he was MVP," Lillard said. "He came into the huddle and said, 'Do we want to win?' He kind of challenged our team and this was before he even checked in. When he got into the game he impacted the game. He backed up what he was saying."

Lillard, by the way, was another "new" guy. This was a Damian Lillard seemingly refreshed from the All-Star break, who scored 17 points in the fourth quarter -- taking over the game with a ferocity and a purpose that we haven't seen from him since early in the season. He finished with 33 points on 12 of 23 shooting, including 4 of 7 from three-point distance.

Lillard has usually played well after the All-Star break and he said he enjoyed recharging his batteries during the time off.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," he said. "Over the break I took a lot of time to myself. I was sitting in the house and would go get treatment, then sit in the cold tub, shoot some free throws and then sit in the house all day watching TV, relaxing, drinking water, just chilling. That allows you to come back fresh, mentally and physically."

Lillard brought the whole package with him to the fourth quarter, hitting difficult, twisting layups and long bombs from the outside. It was some vintage stuff.

Meanwhile, the other "new" guy was a legit new guy -- center Jusuf Nurkic, playing in just his second game since arriving in a trade with Denver. He got his first start, too, and took full advantage of it.

He made half his 12 shots, had 12 rebounds, scored 12 points and had five assists. He was a plus-23 in his 34 and a half minutes on the floor. And he's excited.

"It feels great to play with those guys, especially CJ and Dame," he said. "They make my life easier. I really love to be here. The coaching staff has done a great job of putting me in position as to where I am supposed to be and my teammates are looking for me. This is the first time in two years I'm having fun.

"It was a tough two years (in Denver) and that is all I can say. I was just frustrated and not being in position that I am supposed to be for some reason, but I wish them good luck. I'm just having fun here and I love it, man. I enjoy every day here.

"When you have those type of All-Star guards it is so easy to play with them. First time in my life I have those guys and those type of guards. It feels great and finally I am happy."

And so were the Trail Blazers. But ahead on this trip are a couple of difficult assignments.

Sunday there is a game at Toronto, followed by a Tuesday contest at Detroit.

Perhaps the "new" guys will still have some energy.

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

Lillard rides to the rescue in the fourth quarter

ORLANDO – At the outset of the Trail Blazers’ first game after the All-Star break, the most interesting topic would be how long it would take for new center Jusuf Nurkic to get into the starting lineup.

That question was answered immediately Thursday night. He started against the Orlando Magic and played well.

But Damian Lillard stole the show down the stretch of the game. Lillard went on a shooting rampage that helped bring his team out of a game-long funk and to a 112-103 win over the Magic, putting an end to Portland’s three-game losing streak.

Lillard was sensational in the fourth quarter – on a scoring rampage with difficult twisting layups and contested threes.

He finished with 33 points, 17 of them in the fourth quarter.

Nurkic earned his first Trail Blazer start and during his eight minutes of play in the first quarter he hit two of his four shots, had two rebounds and an assist.  He finished with five assists and a double dozen -- 12 points and 12 rebounds while doing a nice defensive job against Nikola Vucevic, who is usually a Blazer killer.

The first quarter ended with Orlando holding a 25-23 lead. Portland had six turnovers in the period and put the Magic at the foul line 11 times. Fortunately for the Trail Blazers, Orlando hit just seven of the 11.

Lillard had seven points and McCollum six for Portland over the first 12 minutes.

The Blazers quickly fell behind as the second quarter unfolded, continuing to turn the ball over as Orlando warmed up at the offensive end. When Terry Stotts called a timeout with 9:36 to go in the first half, the Magic had a 33-26 lead.

The turnovers were the story in the first half for the Blazers. They coughed up 15 of them for 20 Orlando points – leading to a 55-46 halftime lead for the home team.

McCollum led Portland at halftime with 14 points. Lillard, saddled with three fouls early in the second quarter, had seven.

Portland fell behind by 13 in the third quarter but got going with a three-guard lineup that featured Shabazz Napier with Lillard and McCollum. The trio helped cut the lead to 71-68 with 4:39 to go in the third.

Orlando carried an 85-77 lead into the fourth quarter when the Blazers were trailing by five and had the ball for the last shot. A McCollum turnover on a play when the Trail Blazers were screaming for a foul resulted in a three-point field goal at the other end – a huge momentum buster for Portland.

Orlando got the lead back up to 11 four minutes into the final period but the Trail Blazers kept on fighting back. But they couldn’t stop the steady flow of turnovers, which kept costing them critical points and momentum.

And with 5:22 to play Lillard’s three-pointer from the corner put pushed Portland into a 96-95 lead. Orlando couldn't respond and the Blazers owned the final minute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turnovers playing a big factor for Blazers in 1st half vs. Magic

Turnovers playing a big factor for Blazers in 1st half vs. Magic

The Portland Trail Blazers are on the road to face the Orlando Magic on Thursday night as the Trail Blazers resume play of the second half of the season.

Portland is without Al-Farouq Aminu (left knee) vs. the Magic.  With Aminu out, the Blazers starting lineup Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Noah Vonleh and the newest Trail Blazer Jusuf Nurkic.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said before Thursday’s game there would be no minute restrictions on Nurkic. This game against the Magic is Nurkic’s second game as a Blazer.

Midway through the first quarter, Orlando went up 11-8.

It was a low scoring first quarter for both teams.  To end the first quarter, Orlando held a 25-23 lead.  The Blazers shot 55.6% as a team, while the Magic shot 37.5% after one.

In 17 minutes of first half action, Nurkic scored eight points on 4-for-8 shooting and pulled down five rebounds.

The Blazers had trouble taking care of the ball in the first half, committing 14 turnovers as a team.

At the break, the Magic are up 55-46.  Portland ended up shooting 47.2% from the floor.  Orlando shot 39.6% for the first half.

 


Top performers of the first half:

Trail Blazers

Points:
  CJ McCollum, 14

Rebounds:  Jusuf Nurkic, 5

Assist:  CJ McCollum, 3

 


Magic

Points:  Nikola Vucevic, 13

Rebounds:  Evan Fournier, 4

Assist:  three players tied with two assists 


Following tonight’s game, you can check out an all-new Talkin’ Ball live on CSN.  And if you can’t get to a TV, you can catch The Scoop Postgame show presented by Toyota of Portland on Broadway streaming live at Facebook.com/CSNNW on your phone, tablet, or computer.

Blazers resume play without Aminu (left knee), Portland at Orlando on CSN at 4pm

Blazers resume play without Aminu (left knee), Portland at Orlando on CSN at 4pm

The Portland Trail Blazers (23-22) are back on the court on Thursday as Portland begins a three-game road trip.  First up, for the Blazers, the Orlando Magic (21-37)

It was a three-game losing streak for Portland heading into the All-Star break after dropping a road game to Utah last Wednesday, 111-88.  In the loss, CJ McCollum led the way with 18 points.

As for the Magic, Orlando lost two of its last three game heading into the week-long break.  The Spurs took it to the Magic in Orlando last Wednesday, 107-79

The first meeting of the season between the Blazers and Magic was back on Friday, January 13th.  Orlando beat Portland, 115-109 despite Damian Lillard scoring 34 points and dishing out eight assists.

The Trail Blazers announced on Wednesday that Al-Farouq Aminu (left knee) is out for Thursday’s game vs. the Magic.

Portland will return to Moda Center on March 2nd to host the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Catch an all-new Rip City Live starting at 3:00pm on CSN as we set the stage for Thursday’s contest between the Trail Blazers and Magic. 

And if you can’t get to a TV, you can check out The Scoop Pregame Show streaming live on your mobile phone, tablet, or computer at 3:00pm at Facebook.com/CSNNW.




Quick Links:

Blazers at the break: Amid injuries and distractions, Blazers brace for “sprint” to finish

Can newcomer Jusuf Nurkic infuse some hope into Trail Blazers?

Health of Damian Lillard’s left ankle at center of team’s push for playoffs

 

Video:   1080 the FAN: Trading Lillard would not be a good idea for the Blazers

Video:   1080 the FAN: Blazers shouldn’t make a move just to make a move

Video:   1080 the FAN: Where do Blazers go after the All-Star break?
 

 

Game Details:

Where:  Amway Center, Orlando FL

Television: CSN, 4:00pm

CSN Programming:  Rip City Live (3:00pm), Talkin' Ball  (Immediately after the Blazers postgame show)

Live streaming: The Scoop Pregame Show streams at 3:00pm at Facebook.com/CSNNW. The Scoop Postgame Show will stream immediately after the game at Facebook.com/CSNNW

Radio: Rip City Radio 620

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?

McCollum comes up short in 3-Point Contest, but enjoys All-Star Weekend

McCollum comes up short in 3-Point Contest, but enjoys All-Star Weekend

CJ McCollum was eliminated in the first round of the Three-Point Contest during the NBA’s All-Star Saturday night event.  McCollum scored 10 points out of a possible total of 34.

McCollum was competing against the defending Three-Point Contest winner, Warriors’ guard Klay Thompson.  The other competitors were Hornets’ guard Kemba Walker, Mavericks’ guard Wesley Matthews, Lakers’ guard Nick Young, Rockets’ guard Eric Gordon, and Raptors’ guard Kyle Lowry 

After the contest concluded, McCollum was asked if he was rushing his shot with the one-minute time limit. McCollum laughed it off saying, “Nah I just missed shots. I’ve gone through it a few times and I just didn’t make shots tonight.”

McCollum also added that he enjoyed the All-Star weekend experience in New Orleans, saying “I think it’s been fun. I’ve done a lot of different stuff. Some charity work, some stuff with NBA Cares. I’ve enjoyed the weekend, overall it’s been a good experience. I’m looking forward to many more”.

Former Pelican Eric Gordon is your 2017 Three-Point Contest winner after getting past the Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving in a tiebreaker round. The two advanced to the final round, and were tied with 20 points. Gordon ended up winning 21–18.

CJ McCollum returns to action with the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday as the team resumes the season on the road in Orlando.