TORONTO — The Trail Blazers practiced Saturday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre in preparation for Sunday’s matinee contest against the Raptors (tipoff at 10 AM on CSNNW and 620 AM). The Trail Blazers will be looking for their sixth-straight victory while the Raptors are coming off a 96-80 loss to the Bulls, sans Derek Rose, on Friday.
Some notes from Saturday’s practice …
· LaMarcus Aldridge, whose 27-point, 12-rebounds, two-steal performance against the Celtics on Friday night helped the Trail Blazers get their first victory in Boston since 2004, reiterated the need for he and his teammates to keep perspective regarding their 7-2 start. Portland may currently have the third-best record in the league, but Aldridge has been around long enough to know a team has never made the playoffs by winning in November.
“I just don’t want guys to be overly confident too early,” said Aldridge. “In that season that Nate (McMillan) got fired and everybody got traded away, we started out 7-2 that year, too. Then we lost to OKC and it just snowballed from there. I just want everybody to stay hungry. We got here because of hard work and because of guys buying in and playing unselfishly. If we think we already made it, guys are going to feel like they ain’t got to work no more, but we do. We haven’t done anything yet, so it’s like, we have to do what we’ve done these first nine games over the whole season.”
Aldridge has made no bones about his frustration with missing the postseason the last two seasons, let alone never making it out of the first round, and his comments about this season’s hot start are an indication that he’s focused solely on the challenges ahead, rather than the successes in the rear view. And make no mistake: Aldridge is holding himself to the same expectations he has for his teammates. He’s not patting himself on the back for his own early season performance and says, despite averaging 21.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 9.1 rebounds, that he doesn’t feel like “I’ve played all that well.”
“I’ve had a couple games where I haven’t shot that well or I wasn’t in a good rhythm,” said Aldridge. “I feel like I’ve had some ugly games. I don’t feel like I’m playing all that great. I think the last game was a step in the right direction. I feel like if I can be that dominant more nights, that’s would be great for us. For me, I’m just trying to get better every day and I feel like last game was a great step in that direction.”
There has been plenty written about Aldridge’s growth as a leader this season, but maybe nothing is more indicative of the strides he’s made than his unwillingness to get caught up in a fast start. The idea of even a hint of complacency setting in after a 7-2 start seems to be almost offensive to the seven-year power forward, so if he has to rain on someone’s parade to make sure that doesn’t happen, so be it.
“I’ve seen teams start off hot before; you’ll have down spells,” said Aldridge. “You’ve just got to try to weather each storm. I feel like it’s early, so I don’t want to put much weight on being 7-2. It’s definitely a positive and it’s showing that guys are working hard. But I think on the other end, we’ve got to stay hungry and not be satisfied with it and know that we’ve gotten here because of hard work.”
· After the 7-2 start, the second-most talked about storyline this season has been Damian Lillard’s struggle shooting from the field. He’s shooting 38 percent from the field this season, five percentage points worse than this field goal percentage last season, but is also shooting six percentage points better from the three-point line.
“I get good looks,” said Lillard. “I need to finish in the paint better, it’s crazy some of the shots that I’ve been missing. I’ve just got to make this finishes and probably just wait for those shots to fall. I shoot the same. I ain’t worried about it.”
Part of the hand-wringing is due to his percentages the last five games in which he’s shot just 32 percent from the field. Of course, going one for 15 as Lillard did against the Kings on Nov. 9 will skew the percentages, especially this early in the season. Even though the averages tend to average out (after all, that’s why they’re called “averages”) and he’s legitimately not concerned, especially this early in the season, Lillard knows there are some areas of his offensive game that he could improve. He spent much of practice on Saturday watching film with assistant coach David Vanterpool, looking for areas he could tweak in order to get back on track.
“We were just looking at situations coming off screens and, not forcing the issue, but just being more in attack mode,” said Lillard. “Instead of coming off and seeing what’s happening, just going. I’ve just got to come off more aggressive right off instead of coming off, waiting to see what they’re going to do, just come off and attack … I’ve got to to a better job of getting to my spots. I just haven’t been in a good rhythm offensively. I think I’ve played good games but shots just haven’t fallen. But it’s not a concern of mine or nothing like that. You want to see shots fall but the positive part is we’ve been able to win games like that. It’s working for us.”
Which it is. Lillard is shooting a full ten percentages points better from the field in Portland’s two losses this season than in their seven victories, which he swears is perfectly fine by him. And even though he doesn’t thinking opposing defenses are keying in on him any more than they did last season, it’s worth considering that the attention Lillard draws has loosened things up for his teammates, particuarly Wesley Matthews, who is shooting well above his career averages from the field and from three. Lillard was reluctant to give himself much credit for his teammates’ improved shooting, but he did concede that, as the point guard, there’s some correlation between his and his teammates’ performances.
“They’ve shot the ball well and my job is to make them better, to get them shots and get them the ball so they can be in the position to do good things,” said Lillard. “I think I’ve done a good job of that and they’ve done a good job themselves … When you’ve got guys who are good players like they are, they’ll take advantage of it. When they’re open on the wing when (opponents) crowd me in the paint, they’re going to make the shot. Good things come of it.”
· Finally, C.J. McCollum went into a little more detail Saturday describing the process of rehabilitating the fifth metatarsal in his right foot that he broke in training camp. He recently had an x-ray of his right foot taken, after which he was told by the doctor that the bone was reacting well after undergoing a non-surgical ultrasound procedure on Oct. 16.
“They said I’m progressing as they thought I would throughout the process,” said McCollum. “Basically (the doctor who performed the procedure) said I can continue to progress and they have different type of progression for me on the court, in the weight room, the type of stuff where I’ll increase some of my workload and some of the stress loads. Right now I’m on low stress, limited impact, so I’m trying to limit that with the minimum amount of jump shots a day. We’ll continue to progress as we get closer and closer to the next CT scan.”
That next scan, according to McCollum, will likely take place in a month, as was the original plan of action.
McCollum, much like the people who cover the team, is asked all the time about when he’s returning, which is not entirely surprising considering he was selected with the 12th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. But with the knowledge gained from rehabbing the same bone in his senior season at Lehigh, he says it’s not so difficult being patient, even with the constant stream of inquiries.
“When you go through injuries you’ve got to get used to taking your time,” said McCollum. “You don’t want to rush anything or make anything worse, have lingering effects just because you didn’t want to sit out a complete months or whatever. Just trying to train myself to make sure if I’m supposed to shoot 70 jumpers, I shoot 70 jumper. If it’s an 80 (jump shot) day, you take 80 and you don’t go over just because you don’t want to put too much stress on your foot when you have a fracture.”
What McCollum says isn’t so easy is seeing his fellow rookies playing while he’s relegated to wearing suits and watching from the bench. But he’s trying to view the time as a chance for preparation rather than a punishment.
“It’s tough to watch other rookies, especially guys that you worked out again, guys that you know you can compete with,” said McCollum “At the same time in this situation now there’s nothing I can do about it but get ready and get myself back for when I do return. In the meantime, the best thing I can do is get my body ready and get mentally ready for the roller coaster ride.”
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 a relatively 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.
HOUSTON — The old saying goes that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If Saturday’s result in Houston is any indication, the Trail Blazers’ collective memory is well intact.
After losing to in overtime in the last game in Houston despite owning a 15-point fourth-quarter cushion, the Trail Blazers did a much better job protecting their lead in the second meeting, with the result being Portland besting the Rockets 96-79 Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 18,308 at the Toyota Center.
“That was a really good win, obviously,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I like the way we came out. Defensively we were solid all night, for the most part… They’re a dangerous team. They can get the threes going and I liked we kept our composure when they made their run.”
Portland is now 25-27 overall and 10-16 on the road this season after playing their last seven games in the cozy confines of the Moda Center. The Trail Blazers have now won 10 of their last 13 games and are currently mere percentage points behind the Utah Jazz for eighth in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers looked to be the better team Saturday night from the opening tip. Portland shot 52 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the first quarter while scoring eight points on six Rockets turnovers to take a 29-23 lead into the second quarter. They’d start the quarter a 13-2 run to take their first double digit lead of the night and would go up by 21 by way of holding the Rockets to just four made field goals in the second quarter while turning six more turnovers into seven more points. Add with the Portland bench outscoring Houston’s 18-0 in the first half and it was easy to see how the road team took a 55-36 lead into the intermission.
“We played really well defensively, I thought,” said Damian Lillard. “We set the tone from the start of the game with active hands, getting our hands on the balls. We just weren’t fun to play against to start the game. That’s what we wanted to go coming out tonight and we did a great job.”
Portland would take their largest lead of the night at the 5:01 mark of the third quarter, though Houston managed to get that down to 21 before the start of the fourth. The Rockets would continue to slim the Trail Blazers’ lead, getting it down to 11 points in late in the fourth quarter. One can imagine there had to be a little nervousness on Portland’s bench after seeing two-thirds of a 32-point third quarter lead evaporate, especially with the specter of the last game in Houston still looming. But after a 10-0 Rockets run cut the lead to 91-76 with two minutes to play, Portland scored the final five points of the game to secure the 17-point lead.
“I don’t know if nervous is the right word, but certainly the way (Houston) won the last time here, I think that was probably in the back of everybody’s mind,” said Stotts. “They’re capable of doing that… I liked the way we kept our composure and pulled out the win.”
Six Trail Blazers finished in double figures led by Damian Lillard, who went 7-of-20 from the field and 3-of-9 from three to finish with 21 points and 10 assists for yet another double-double in 36 minutes.
CJ McCollum went 6-of-13 from the field to finish with 16 points, while Gerald Henderson went 5-of-8 from the field to 16 points as well. Al-Farouq Aminu filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. Maurice Harkless, who started his second-straight game in place of Noah Vonleh (sprained left ankle) and saw extended minutes due to Allen Crabbe missing the game with gastritis, went 6-of-13 from the field for 14 points, six rebounds and two steals in 30 minutes.
Portland’s bench would outscore Houston’s 24-12 thanks in part to the Rockets not getting any points from a reserve until early in the fourth quarter. James Harden finished with a game-high 33 points with Dwight Howard adding 17, but no other Rocket scored more than eight points in the loss.
“James (Harden) is a good player,” said Henderson, who spent a good chunk of his minutes defending the hirsute shooting guard. “He knows how to score, he knows how to draw fouls so sometimes it’s very difficult to guard him. He got his 30 but we felt like we did a good job containing some of the other guys.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers head to Memphis to finish a quick two-game trip versus the Grizzlies at FexEd Forum on Monday. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 pm.