Blazers Defeat Clippers, Finish Regular Season With 54 Wins

Casey Holdahl
by Casey Holdahl
2 years ago

PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers finished the 2013-14 regular season with a 110-104 victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night at the Moda Center. The win was Portland’s 54th of the season, which is tied for the sixth-best regular season record in franchise history. Their 21-game improvement over last season is a franchise record.

“I was glad to get a win to set that record,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “To establish a 21-game turnaround is really something to be proud of. I told the team that we’ve had a regular season that we should all be very proud of.”

With playoff seedings locked in, neither team had anything but pride to play for Wednesday night. With the Clippers assured the three seed and the Blazers guaranteed the fifth seed, both teams fielded lineups and players that were little used this season.

The Clippers left J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin back in Los Angeles for various reasons, and while he traveled with the team to Portland, Chris Paul sat out as well. DeAndre Jordan started the game at center but was subbed out less than two minutes in the game, presumably to rest and remain injury-free for L.A.’s first round series against the Warriors.

As for the Trail Blazers, they gave the night off to starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and backup guard Mo Williams, both of whom were inactive for Wednesday night’s contest.

Portland’s other four starters — Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez — all started their 82nd game of the season. It is the first time in team history that four players started all 82 games and are the first time since the 2010-11 Lakers to accomplish the feat.

“It’s luck. Honestly, it really is,” said Matthews, who has missed just 13 games in his entire NBA career. “With the way the game is now, to be able to play all 82 games and play through injuries and not be injured, it’s a blessing and a lot of luck. To be able to do it with four of your five starters is a big deal. We’re excited about that.”

After playing the entire first quarter, Lillard, Matthews and Batum sat for the remainder of the game. Lopez, however, started the second half and played just long enough to collect his 326th offensive rebound this season, which breaks the franchise record previously held by both Kermit Washington and Chris Dudley.

With Lopez on the bench, Stotts was able to give extended minutes to backup power forward/center Joel Freeland, who played for the first time Wednesday night since spraining the MCL in his right knee more than two months ago. Playing in five minute spurts as a precaution, Freeland ended the night with six points and seven rebounds in almost 18 minutes.

“I actually wasn’t as tired as I thought I was going to be,” said Freeland. “I played 17 minutes and I felt great. The knee was fine, didn’t really have any pain at all when I was playing. The thing I was more worried about was my wind. I really thought I was going to get tired quick and I didn’t. I sustained and I felt good. I was really surprised.”

The second-year player from England is averaging 3.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in nearly 14 minutes per game this season, which doesn’t sound like much. But he was one of Portland’s most consistent performers off the bench this season and gives the Trail Blazers another big body and six more fouls going into the postseason.

“I thought he competed well,” said Stotts. “He didn’t look like he was favoring his leg. I couldn’t tell if he was fatigued or not on some of his shots, but I thought the game probably for him was invaluable to get him out there and play him the last three minutes of the game in a game we’re trying to win. I was pleased with how he played.”

With most of the regular rotation out of the game or in street clothes, many of the Trail Blazers’ younger players were allowed to play significantly more minutes than their season averages.

“I was really pleased with the way everybody played,” said Stotts. “They starters came out and did a terrific job in the first quarter, set the tone. Offensively, the first half was fun to watch — 21 assists and the ball was moving and guys were making shots. It was fun basketball. I was proud of the young guys in the second half, the fact that they struggled through a third quarter where the offense didn’t quite click and it was a close game.”

Will Barton was the biggest beneficiary of extended minutes, finishing the game with a career-high 23 points, 10 rebounds, two assist and a steal in 35 minutes.

“Any time I get to play, it feels great man,” said Barton. “Being out there with my teammates and the other guys who don’t get to play much like Victor (Claver), Joel (Freeland) with his comeback, C.J. (McCollum), AC (Allen Crabbe), Meyers (Leonard), all of us work hard every day to get better and just be prepared just because we never know when our number is going to get called. So to be out there with those guys and to get a win, it was great.”

With the regular season now in the books, the Trail Blazers now have four days to prepare for Game 1 of their first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. Portland lost the season series 1-3 to Houston this season, but enter the postseason having won five in a row and nine of their last 10.

“I was proud of the way our team responded after the Orlando game,” said Stotts. “That was the low point as far as trying to get things back on track. Since that point, winning nine out of 10 and beating some playoff teams got us back on track. In this league, you’re going to have some rough patches and it’s how you get through them (that matters). I was proud of the way that we fought through the rough times. Part of those rough times were in February when we lost a lot of close games in a row and we fought throught that as well. I thought that showed our mettle and you need that going into the playoffs.”

That you do. Tipoff for Game 1 in Houston is schedule for  Sunday at 6:30 PM on KGW, TNT and 620 AM.

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McCollum Proves You Don’t Always Need A Backup Plan

Casey Holdahl
by Casey Holdahl
1 day ago

As a boy growing up in Canton, Ohio, CJ McCollum only had one plan: to make it to the NBA. It seemed farfetched to many, a group which included some of his teachers, who had surely heard students before McCollum declare such goals only to eventually fall well short, and teammates who questioned whether he was even good enough to make the team at GlenOak High School by his own merits.

And to be fair, McCollum’s detractors did have a point. Standing at 5-7 and weighing somewhere well south of 150 pounds, McCollum didn’t really look the part of future NBA player, nor did he necessarily possess the skills at the time. He failed to make varsity his freshman year, and while he did get the bump up from JV the next season, he played sparingly. So realistically, if you were to ask someone in Canton about a McCollum going on to play in college at that time, let alone in the NBA, they most certainly would have assumed you were talking about CJ’s older brother Errick, who started at GlenOak and would later go on to be named a four-time D-II All-American at Goshen College.

“My brother was really good at basketball and played varsity, so my freshman year I’m on junior varsity and a lot of people would say I was only playing because of my brother,” said the younger McCollum. “They’d say ‘You’re only on JV because your brother is the starting point guard’ this and that. It kind of pissed me off, so I just used that as motivation. I always used to tell my brother — I was Errick’s little brother — I told him ‘One day you’re going to be CJ’s older brother’ and he’d just laugh. He’s like ‘I hope so!’ because that’s the kind of relationship we had.”

Even though Errick might have been the only one to believe him, the lack of faith never prompted CJ to downgrade his expectations nor consider a more feasible plan. It was always NBA or bust for McCollum, a tact he made peace with long before he signed a four-year extension this summer with the Trail Blazers worth roughly $106 million.

“I had that dog in me, just wanted to be great, wanted to kind of prove I belonged because I was a lot smaller than other people.” said McCollum of his first two years at GlenOak. “Teachers telling me ‘You need a Plan B. You’re small, you know the chances of you making it are slim.’ I would tell them ‘My Plan B is Plan A. I make it to the NBA and everything else will fall in line. The degree will take care of itself, I’ll build a resume, but without the NBA, there is no Plan B for me.’”

Which seems a bit reckless, though it’s hard to argue with the results. And there were players who had similar backgrounds to McCollum who gave him the confidence to reach for his incredibly lofty goals. Granted, those players had more going for them than McCollum did at the time, but they still served as models nonetheless for what a kid from Canton could achieve.

“I just remember watching and going to to Cavs games early on as a youngster, being able to see LeBron, playing for King James, seeing LeBron play and just watching his demeanor, his approach to the game,” said McCollum. “Warmups, the fans, how his family reacted and just saying ‘I can’t wait to be in a position to make that kind of impact on the community.’ LeBron being from Ohio, me being from Ohio, I was always able to watch him, watch how he approached everything, watch his business strategies and how he was able to grow his brand. So for me, it was simple. It was like, LeBron is kind of laying the platform for kids from Ohio. You work hard, you do what you’re supposed to do and you can make it to this level, because he grew up 10, 15 minutes from me going to St. (Vincent’s).

“So I was able to watch him and some other guys like Keith McCleod, Kosta Koufous, watching them work hard and get results. So my idea was just work hard, don’t worry about anybody else, don’t worry about distractions, don’t worry about obstacles, injuries. Just do your job, focus on you. You need to have that trust, that faith in yourself and God that everything else will handle itself.”

Though there were moments when it seemed like that faith might not be enough. While he swears he never experienced full-blown doubt  about whether he’d be able to follow in the footsteps of players like James and Koufos (which isn’t hard to believe if you’ve spent any time around him), there was a sense that perhaps things weren’t going as well as they could be. But the combination of redoubling his efforts and undergoing a growth spurt midway through high school put him back on the right path.

“My sophomore year when I didn’t start varsity, I was coming off the bench, sixth man, and that was when I was like ‘Alright, I’m a little behind,’” said McCollum. “You start to look at the trajectory levels of where you’re at — I’m a realist — averaging 6.0 points a game on varsity, I’m 5-7 and I really need to take my game to the next level if I want to make this dream a reality. So I just kind of focused. I evaluated my lifestyle, my work ethic, reevaluated how I could kind of get better and find my niche. Continued to shoot, shoot, shoot, handle, perfect my craft so once I grew a little bit more and got my chance to start varsity, I just told myself ‘This is it. If you leave everything out here, you give yourself the best chance to get a scholarship.’ Then for me, it was baby steps. Get a Division I scholarship and then get to the league, but I hadn’t got that scholarship yet, so I wasn’t even thinking about the league. I was like ‘Just get this scholarship.’ I got my first offer and I was like ‘Alright, we got one, let’s get some more.’ That’s kind of how it went, it kind of snowballed.”

His junior year, McCollum started and scored a school-record 54 points in the first game of the season. His senior year, he would be named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Ohio and finished runner-up to Jared Sullinger for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball. Then it was on to Lehigh, where he started all but the first two games of his collegiate career, led the Mountain Hawks to an upset victory versus Duke in the NCAA Tournament and ultimately won Patriot League Player of the Year twice.

So by the start of his junior year, it was fairly obvious McCollum would at least get a crack at the NBA despite having his final collegiate season cut short due to a broken foot. In the end, Plan A, the only plan McCollum ever had, was fully realized when he was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 10th overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. And while being a max-level player wasn’t in CJ’s initial plans, he was nonetheless overjoyed to sign on the dotted line this summer rather than testing his fortunes as a restricted free agent in 2017.

“I’m just really thankful, thankful that the organization has been patient with me, they’ve trusted me, they’ve given me opportunities,” said McCollum. “Obviously it’s a dream come true to be able to get an extension of that magnitude. To get that trust and that commitment from an organization is huge, it’s everything a player looks for and everything a player works for. So it’s very comforting to know that they’re willing to go to those measures to secure an extension and keep me here long term. I’m thankful because this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be here long term, I want to continue to get better, continue to grow and be a part of this city, on and off the floor.”

But now McCollum has new plans, or at least more varied plans than the singular all-or-nothing approach he took as a young man growing up in northeast Ohio. Few have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to professional athletes like McCollum has in his first three season, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down despite the fact that he now has, as he puts it, “generational wealth.”

“I laid out a plan early on about what I want to do in the community, what I want to do off the court,” said McCollum. “Launching my journalism program, CJ’s Press Pass, incremental steps that I had planned as we continue to get closer to 25, get closer to 30. I’ve got a lot of things lined up, I’m happy everything is falling into place. Obviously basketball is my priority, that’s my love and my joy and how I make a living, but I want to leave a legacy besides basketball and I think I’ll be in a position to do that. I’m just taking advantage of these platforms and writing, continue to build my resume. I’ve got a lot of stuff planned this year, it’s going to be a great year on and off the court. Just thankful because it’s been a long process and a long journey, but it’s all paid off.”

Though McCollum is quick to point out that this journey isn’t anywhere close to completed. It’s true that he is set for life financially — or at least he will be once his extension kicks in come the start of the 2017-18 season — and his position as Portland’s starting shooting guard is all but assured, barring injury, for the next half decade. But as he has grown from the scrawny kid who was known primarily as “Errick’s little brother” to the man he is today, so too have his expectations going forward. Just having an NBA career, even one which has made him incredibly wealthy, is no longer enough.

“I’m driven by legacy, I’m driven by my last name, I’m driven by where I come from,” said McCollum. “I don’t want to be known as a guy who got paid and then fell off. I don’t want to be know as a guy who they say ‘He was really good early and then he kind of faltered late.’ I want them to say ‘He consistently got better each year. He loved this game. He never changed. He’s the same guy from 16 to 26 to 36. He never changed, he’s just a little bit more mature, but he does the same things, he has the same friends, he acts the same way, he treats people the same way. He treats the janitor like he treats the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.’ I think based on how I was raised, I was raised to never be content and continue to seek the ultimate amount of success, and that’s just not money. Money doesn’t always define success. You need to find that happiness and for me, happiness is working out, giving myself the best chance to put my best foot forward. I think that’s huge, putting a good product on the court, representing where I come from — Canton, Ohio — representing Lehigh University every time I step on the court, every time I leave the house.”

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Lowe: Blazers Wanted Whiteside, Aminu Will Start At Power Forward

Casey Holdahl
by Casey Holdahl
2 days ago

ESPN’s Zach Lowe, one of the best journalists covering the NBA, if not the best, posted a story today laying out almost the entirety of the Trail Blazers’ offseason moves. Lowe seems somewhat optimistic about the deals Portland made this summer (though he notes they also have the potential to be “disastrous”), while stating the cold fact that a franchise which has shown no ability to draw big name free agents doesn’t have a whole lot of options when trying to build a winner. It’s easily the best retelling of the plan Neil Olshey executed this summer that you’re going to find, so I recommend reading it from start to finish.

But let’s pull look at some of the more interesting tidbits, of which there are many. First, the true target…

They wanted Hassan Whiteside, a sneering rim-runner just a year older than Damian Lillard with the potential to plug every hole in a squishy defense that ranked 21st in points allowed per possession last season.

When Whiteside spurned them, the Blazers faced a choice: hoard cap room, pursue a lesser center (Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi), or go whole hog in a fit of irrational exuberance with a team that barely cracked .500.

They chose the latter. Lowe points out that in order to keep any real cap space for next season, the Blazers would have had to part ways with many of the players from last year’s team and delayed CJ McCollum’s extension. And even then, it wouldn’t be enough space to sign a max player, assuming one could be lured to Portland anyway, which has never been the case.

On the much-discussed topic of who plays what position, Lowe reports that Al-Farouq Aminu will start at power forward, a move that both Olshey and Terry Stotts have signaled this offseason, though he takes it one step further…

Young teams grow with watering, and the Blazers, expert nurturers, aimed their win-now splurge mostly at young-ish wing players well-suited to a league trending smaller and faster; there is no Tyson Chandler mid-30s appendage here. Portland will start Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward, carrying over a late-season adjustment that jump-started them, and play Aminu there almost exclusively, Stotts said. (Uh oh, Noah Vonleh.)

It’s one thing to use Aminu at power forward for spurts, something the Trail Blazers did often last year, particularly late in the season, but another for him to play there “almost exclusively.” According SportVU player tracking, as provided by Nylon Calculus, Aminu played 56 percent of his minutes at small forward last season while playing power forward 44 percent of the time. Granted, these numbers are imperfect, and positions in the NBA have never been more fluid, but going from roughly splitting time between small and power forward to playing almost entirely at the four is a fairly drastic change.

Then there’s the topic of Dwight Howard, who the Trail Blazers were rumored to be pursuing during the July moratorium. According to Lowe, those rumors might have been a bit overblown…

Pivoting from Whiteside to a Hawks-level offer for Dwight Howard would have been interesting; there’s some chance Howard rediscovers his All-Star form, and a connected chance that a rejuvenated Howard catapults Portland into a 55-win team. But Howard is 30, and the Blazers — like most teams — wanted no part of a long-term commitment to him.

This is just a guess, but this might be what Olshey was referring to when he mentioned “unfounded” speculation and that “a lot of names on lists that were never viable that we never had any interest in” during the press conference to introduce Festus Ezeli. Of course, there’s no lack of speculation during free agency, so it could very well be in reference to someone else.

There’s a whole lot more in there, particularly if you’re interested in how Stotts might utilize Evan Turner, which is very much worth your time.

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Podcast: The Rip City Report, Finalized Roster Edition

Casey Holdahl
by Casey Holdahl
4 days ago

Greetings podcast enthusiasts. Between CJ McCollum getting an extension and Moe Harkless signing a new deal, Portland’s roster for the start of the 2016-17 regular season is all but finalized. So it seemed like a good time to hit the studio with Joe Freeman of The Oregonian/ to record yet another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…

On this edition, we discuss the near-max extension for McCollum and the four-year, roughly $40 million contract for Harkless, which directions Terry Stotts might go in terms of starting lineups and minutes allocations, the news that both Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli will forego playing for Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics, give a quick rundown of the preseason schedule and answer your Twitter-submitted questions.

You can find the Rip City Report on SoundcloudiTunes and Stitcher. Thanks as always for listening.

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