The rumors are true: In addition to competing in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge (also known as the Rookie-Sophomore Game) Friday night of All-Star Weekend and his first All-Star Game Sunday night, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title, compete in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and finish up his Saturday night in New Orleans by being one of the six participants in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest.
“I think, because I’m capable of doing them all and I was probably going to be shooting and doing Skills, once I got invited to the All-Star Game it was obviously an opportunity to have somebody do all of them,” said Lillard. “It wasn’t something that I reached out for and I don’t think the NBA kind of wanted me to do it from the jump either. I just think that, with me being in the All-Star Game and being a second-year player, so I have to play in the Rookie/Sophomore Game and winning Skills and wanting to shoot, it only makes sense to do them all.”
Lillard will be the first player in NBA All-Star history to compete in five events, which is one of the motivating factors in his decision.
“That was a big part of it,” said Lillard. “Because that’s obviously an opportunity for me to put my name on All-Star Weekend and be the first person to do something like that. Especially on that Saturday night. Because that’s a big part of it. The dunk contest, the Three-Point Shootout, Skills, just the fact that I could be all over that, that was a big thing for me.”
Lillard is the first Trail Blazer since Rudy Fernandez at All-Star Weekend 2009 in Phoenix to be invited to compete in the Dunk Contest. It’s been a much longer drought for Blazers in the Three-Point shootout, with Cliff Robinson being the last player to represent Rip City in that even during the 1996 All-Star Weekend in San Antonio. No Trail Blazer has ever won either event.
“It’s kind of like, I’m expanding as a brand, kind of opening more eyes to who I am,” said Lillard. “Also, for the Trail Blazers. It’ll always come back to my team. I think that’s an opportunity for our team. It’ll be more focused on our team.”
Though he’s not really known as a dunker (according to NBA.com/stats, Lillard has just eight dunks this season), Lillard is excited for the challenge of competing against some of the highest-flyers in the NBA.
“Only eight dunks, that means my legs are fresh,” joked Lillard. “I can get a lot more dunking in … The contest will be short. I’ve got to go out there and show some of the tricks that I do.”
“I know I can dunk and do a lot more dunks than people probably think I can,” said Lillard. “So it’s going to be fun to have that on my side. ”
The Sprite Slam Dunk contest field includes Indiana Pacer swingman Paul George, Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross, Washington Wizard’s point guard John Wall, Golden State’s Harris Barnes and Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore in the field. Of this year’s participants, only George and Wall are also playing in Sunday night’s All-Star Game. Ross, a Portland native, won the contest last year during All-Star Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, albeit in a field featuring much lower profile players than this year’s lineup.
Also at issue is the timing of the Dunk Contest, which is the final event on All-Star Saturday. While neither the Skills Challenge nor Three-Point Contest are particularly demanding, both events do require exertion, particularly in the lower body. And that’s to say nothing of the adrenaline expended while being the focal point of an arena full of fans. Considering that Lillard’s vertical leap isn’t that of some of his opponents, he might have to find other ways to impress or figure out adjustments if he’s at all fatigued from the first two events, though he said he’s confident he’ll be up to the task.
“In the Skills you’re going through a course and making passes,” said Lillard. “It’s pretty light. It’s not heavy at all. We warmup before games like that. The Three-Point Shootout is spot-up three-pointers so it’s not like I’m going to worry about having energy. It’ll be a big crowd and I’m sure that adrenaline and just being in front of that crowd will help me be able to probably jump higher than I normally do.”
While Lillard might be a long shot to win the the dunk contest, he’ll have to be considered one of the favorites to take the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest crown.
“I wanted to shoot in the Three-Point Contest,” said Lillard, “and I think that’ll be the one that I’m most excited about.”
He’s third in the NBA this season in three-pointers made with 140 while shooting a very respectable 41 percent from beyond the arc.
His percentages from certain areas on the floor also bode well for his chances, as he shoots 42 percent from the left side center, 46 percent from the right side center and a whopping 62 percent from the left corner. On the other hand, he’s a much better shooter from three when shooting pullups (68 percent) and step backs (68 percent) than he is on regular jump shots (37 percent), which are more akin to the shots taken in the three-point shootout.
“In the game, a lot of times they don’t leave me to get many spot-up opportunities,” explained Lillard. “I shoot those shots all the time when I’m getting reps in. I think the thing that I have to get used to is getting it off a rack. Which side I like to pick it up from, obviously doing it within the time that we have.”
And unlike the dunk contest, where handicapping the competition is somewhat difficult due to the vagaries of the scoring system, the field in the three-point shootout is undeniably strong. Lillard will be up against Kyrie Irving (35 percent), who won the event last year, Washington’s Bradley Beal (41 percent), Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson (39 percent), Orlando’s Arron Afflalo (43 percent), Golden State’s Stephen Curry (40 percent), San Antonio’s Marco Belinelli (44 percent) and Minnesota’s Kevin Love (38 percent).
Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title after being the first rookie to win the event last year in Houston. He bested Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Brandon Knight, Jeremy Lin and Tony Parker to come away with the trophy in his rookie season.
As for the Rookie-Sophomore Game, Lillard was “drafted” by Grant Hill’s team for the Rookie-Sophomore Game alongside the likes of Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes.
Some questioned whether Lillard was putting himself at risk of fatigue when news of Lillard participating in five events during All-Star Weekend broke prior to the official announcement, which Lillard brushed off.
“If you pay attention to it, the Skills is two rounds, maybe a minute a piece,” said Lillard. “That’s two minutes. The Three-Point Contest is probably two minutes. The dunk contest will probably take five. And then the Rookie-Sophomore Game is not like a real regular season game. So I’m not going to be out there exerting all of my energy, playing as hard as I would for the Trail Blazers. And who knows how many minutes I’ll play in the All-Star Game. So, in reality, it’s probably 45 minutes of work actually on the court. I don’t really think I’ll be tired from that.”
The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge tips off at 6 PM on Feb. 14, events on All-Star Saturday night begin at 5 PM on Feb. 15 with the weekend culminating with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16. All events will be televised on TNT.
MEMPHIS — The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t had much luck in Memphis over the last few years, be it in the regular season or playoffs. But their fortunes in the River City changed Monday night, as the Trail Blazers overcame a five-point deficit in the final 90 seconds of regulation, were the beneficiaries of basketball’s version of an own goal to force overtime and then proceeded to allow just four points in the extra period on the way to defeating the Grizzlies 112-106 in front of 15,892 at FedExForum.
“I was really pleased with our perseverance in that game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We just kept after it. We did a lot of good things, enough to win the game, but a lot of good contributions by a lot of guys and showed a lot of heart to win that game on the road.”
Portland is now 26-27 overall, which is a half game back from the Utah Jazz for eighth place in the Western Conference, and 11-16 on the road this season. The win is Portland’s first in Memphis since January 4, 2013, snapping a streak of eight-straight losses, including playoffs, and their 15th overtime victory since the start or the 2012-13 season. The Trail Blazers have won 11 of their last 14 games, with four of those occurring on the road.
Monday night’s game seemed destined to go to overtime, as evidenced by three of the four quarters ending with a buzzer-beating field goal. Between 17 lead changes, none of which were by more than six points, and 18 ties and it only seemed fair that Monday’s contest would last longer than the traditional 48 minutes.
Though the end of regulation probably didn’t feel all that fair to the Grizzlies or their supporters. Tony Allen’s free throw with 7.6 seconds to play in the fourth quarter gave Memphis a 102-100, a lead that survived a Damian Lillard three-point attempt with roughly 2.0 seconds to play and a would-be CJ McCollum putback. Both Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson would make contact with the loose ball as it bounced off the rim, but replays would show that it was actually Grizzlies forward Jeff Green who touched the ball last before it passed through the net as time expired. It wasn’t entirely clear what the call on the floor was initially, but in the end, Crabbe was credited with the basket, even though Henderson seemed to be the last Blazer to touch the ball, and the game went to overtime.
“I tried to make a play on the ball and it went in so they gave me the two points so I’m going to take credit for the tip-in,” said Crabbe. “I feel like I had a piece of the ball. I don’t want to lie, I saw the ball come out and I was down there. We can all just go back to the footage really and check it out. Like I said, they gave me the two points so I tipped it in.”
After going 4-of-12 from the field in the first three quarters, McCollum scored the first six points of the overtime to give the Trail Blazers a 108-102 lead with under two minutes to play.
“CJ McCollum was struggling, but over time late in the fourth into overtime, it was good to see him,” said Stotts. We needed every one of (his points). But he got on track, he got his rhythm on his jump shot and for him to fight through some of the frustration he was having throughout the game and coming out strong late was really a good sign.”
As was Portland’s play on the defensive end in the overtime. The Trail Blazers held the Grizzlies to 2-of-13 shooting, blocked two shots and forced two turnovers in the overtime period, with the play of the game coming with 10 seconds to play and the Blazers clinging to a 108-106 lead. McCollum had a jumper blocked by Green, which Zach Randolph securing the rebound before finding a streaking Allen for what looked like an easy game-tying layin. But the Blazers gave chase rather than giving up on the play, prompting Allen to flub the layup.
“I thought we played with a lot of grit and defensively we have really picked it up, getting key stops,” said Stotts. “I thought the play of the game was the runback by Damian Lillard and Allen Crabbe and Ed Davis and Gerald Henderson on the layup, that could have gone either way. That was a big time hustle play and it was a winning play, and I think we really locked in on doing those type of things.”
Green’s putback attempt would also miss the mark, Davis would grab the rebound and all that would be left is for the Blazers to make their free throws, which they did, on the way to the four-point victory. In a season that has seen the Trail Blazers blow leads for losses on numerous occasions, winning a close game after trailing in the fourth quarter seemed to be a demonstrable sign of growth for a team that feels they’ve left a few wins on the table.
“We know how to close games out now,” said Crabbe, who finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three steals after missing Saturday’s game in Houston with a bout of gastritis. “We know what it takes now. Everybody is digging down defensively to get the stops we need. I think everybody’s game has taken that next step. As the season goes along, I just feel like we know how many wins we can get at home, winning in these situations and we need to make sure we get these wins. I think everybody is just on the same page and we’re just playing hard.”
The Blazers were led by Lillard, who score 20 points in the first half and went on to finish 9-of-22 from the field, 5-of-13 from three and 10-of-12 from the free throw line for 33 points in 43 minutes. It is the 12th time this season that the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State has scored at least 30 points.
“(Lillard) was really good all game obviously, but Memphis did a good job defensively in the second half,” said Stotts. “They went small pick-and-rolls, they did a good job defending the pick-and-rolls… But Damian certainly had it rolling in the first half.”
Lillard also added five assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block.
“I think our team was excited because our last time in Houston, we let the game slip at the end,” said Lillard. “Our last time (in Memphis) we lost the game with 0.6 seconds left. We’ve been playing a lot better since then. We handled our business in Houston, we came out tonight, we grinded it out, we had a lot of things not go our way, but we stayed the course, we stayed together, we trusted each other on the defensive end of the floor — I think that’s what it came down to.”
McC0llum late-game flurry helped the starting shooting guard shake off a tough start to finish with 21 points and six assists in 38 minutes. Gerald Henderson continued a streak of strong play to finish with 16 points and three rebounds in 35 minutes. Henderson, Crabbe, Davis and Maurice Harkless combined to score 47 points on 63 percent shooting off the bench in Monday’s victory.
Meyers Leonard started in place of Noah Vonleh, who missed his second-straight start with a sprained left ankle, and finished with three points in 13 minutes. Stotts opted to use a small lineup for most of the game after Grizzlies center Marc Gasol left the game in the first quarter with a right foot injury.
The Grizzlies were led by 27 points from Mike Conley, with Zach Randolph right behind him with 26 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Both Green and Mario Chalmers scored 12 points off the bench.
Next up, the Trail Blazers return home to host the Houston Rockets, a team they beat to start the now-completed two-game road trip on Saturday, with a chance to get back to .500 before the All-Star break. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm.
The 2015-16 NFL season comes to a close Sunday with the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers facing off at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, CA. And after having an official rooting interest the last two years by way of the Seattle Seahawks, a team owned by Paul Allen, making the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons, the Trail Blazers seem fairly ambivalent about the result this time around. Various player on Portland’s roster have acquaintances on both the Broncos and Panthers, and Gerald Henderson is probably pulling slightly for Carolina considering he spent his first six NBA seasons in Charlotte while playing for the Bobcats/Hornets, but outside of those casual ties, the preference among most of the Trail Blazers is to simply see a good game regardless of which team wins.
Outside of Terry Stotts, that is. While he’s not taking the game too seriously, if at all, Portland’s head coach would like to see the Broncos win the Super Bowl for one reason: he looks a bit like Denver quarterback and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Despite being almost 20 years older and roughly five inches taller, it’s not uncommon for Stotts to be mistaken for Manning, at least outside of Portland.
“I was sitting in Starbucks in a Vegas and a guy kept looking at me while I was drinking my Starbucks,” recalled Stotts. “As I was leaving he showed me a picture on his phone and he goes ‘Is this you?’ and it was a picture of Peyton Manning. I said ‘No, wrong guy’… And last summer I was up in Canada and somebody thought I was Peyton Manning up there, too.”
It’s not hard to see the resemblance. They share similar complexions, similar builds and just have the somewhat difficult to pinpoint look of men who have played contact sports at their highest levels for extended periods of time. Putting your body through that kind of rigor obviously takes a toll, one that can be seen in both Stotts and Manning, the most obvious example being the long, thin nose rendered permanently crooked by countless hits and multiple breaks that both men share.
But on a more obvious and less esoteric level, the two share some easy to distinguish features that make for apt comparisons. They both have narrow jaws, long faces, large foreheads and closely cropped, slightly thinning brown hair parted from left to right. Then there’s the shared facial expressions that fluctuate between aw-shucks when content and red-faced, about-to-blow when angered. Whatever is, Stotts looks enough like a Manning to get mistaken for Peyton on the regular while somehow avoiding comparisons to his younger brother Eli, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants.
One might assume Stotts would take offense at being mistaken for a Manning considering he’s built an impressive pro sports resume of his own, but apparently the flattery of the comparison more than outweighs the annoyance of being lesser known.
Said Stotts: “Saying that I look like someone who is 20 years younger than me is totally okay.”
It’s been a bit of an up and down year for both Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson in their first seasons as Trail Blazers since being acquired via separate trades during the 2015 offseason,
Henderson missed all of training camp, preseason and the first eight games of the regular season, a difficult hurdle for a new player to clear, even for one entering his seventh NBA season, after undergoing a minor hip surgery in the offseason. As for Harkless, he’s already appeared in more games this season with the Trail Blazers as he did during the entirety of his last season with the Orlando Magic, though he’s seen most of his statistics, from minutes to points to rebounds, diminish every month as the year has played out.
For much of the season, Harkless and Henderson have been in a competition for playing time, with head coach Terry Stotts playing both roughly equal minutes in the first half of games, with the second-half minutes going to whoever played the best in the first. That went on for the first half of the season until Stotts opted to cut his rotation from 10 players to nine, which resulted in Henderson’s minutes increasing considerably while Harkless was relegated to playing mop-up minutes or simply drawing DNPs.
But Saturday night in Houston, Stotts would need both Harkless and Henderson with starting power forward Noah Vonleh out with a sprained left ankle and Allen Crabbe, Portland’s top sixth man this season, sidelined with a bout of gastritis. They responded by combining for 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting while taking turns checking Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden as Portland defeated Houston 96-79 at the Toyota Center. It was arguably the first game in which both players exceeded the high hopes Trail Blazers fans had for the two athletic wings, a game in which they were menaces on the defensive end while managing to take advantage of the opportunities provided by playing alongside the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the offensive end.
“I (Harkless) he was very consistent with (Harden),” said Stotts. “He had good length, he was really in tune every possession. Harden is a great player, he’s going to get shots and you’re not going to completely stop him but I thought he worked really hard on him.”
Harden finished with 33 points, but needed 18 shots from both the field and free throw line while committing a career-high 10 turnovers, due in large part to the effort Henderson and Harkless put in.
“Gerald had a lot of bounce,” said Stotts. “He’s been on a roll, he’s feeling very comfortable out there. I thought defensively, he was good as well, he had his stint on Harden.”
As noted by his head coach, Henderson played easily his best basketball of the season since the middle of January, which has coincided with the Trail Blazers winning 10 of their last 13 games. Whether it’s due to being completely fit after missing the start of the season or knowing he’s going to second-half minutes — or a combination of both — Henderson has looked more like the player who started 292 games over six season with the Hornets.
“I feel good. I think that’s how I’m used to playing. I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor. I think that helped us win tonight.
“I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor,” said Henderson. “I think that helped us win tonight.”
While Henderson’s production has become somewhat expected over the last month of the season, seeing Harkless go from playing seven minutes combined in the five games prior to starting the last two games in place of Vonleh has been a surprise. Harkless himself said he was a bit taken aback by his promotion, though it was something he had prepared himself for, even when he was only playing fourth-quarter blowout minutes.
“I just stayed locked in the whole time,” said Harkless. “Even when I wasn’t playing at all, just stayed locked in, stayed ready, just kept working every day. I knew it would come back around.”
He only got 16 minutes in his first start of the season versus the Raptors, taking just one shot and scoring just two points in the loss. But on Saturday, Harkless almost doubled his playing time to 30 minutes and made a much larger impression in the process, going 2-of-3 from three in the first quarter and 6-of-13 from the field for the game while grabbing six rebounds and tallying two steals.
“I definitely think I just played better tonight,” said Harkless. “Last game, I hadn’t played in six games or something like that, it kind of caught me off guard when (Stotts) told me I was starting. So I think a little bit of it was rust but tonight I just went out there and just played. Making those first two shots, that was big for me as well.”
“For a guy to go games without even checking on sometimes or getting in for the last few minutes of blowouts, he could have easily been in his feelings and checked out on us, but he’s stayed locked in,” said Damian Lillard of Harkless. “At practice when they get out there and play three-on-three, he’s playing hard, he’s competitive, he’s positive. He’s been himself. I talked to him, I told him ‘You’ve just got to stick with it. You’re a huge part of what we’re gonna do. Just keep your mind right and be ready because you never know.’ We had a few guys do down and now he’s playing really well for us. I was happy with the way he played tonight.”
It’s hard to tell what will happen to Harkless’ and, to a lesser extent, Henderson’s minutes once the Trail Blazers are back to full strength. But for the first time this season, the full potential of both players was a welcomed sight.