BOISE, Idaho — The Portland Trail Blazers will look for their first victory of the preason tonight when they “host” the Utah Jazz at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, home of Portland’s D-League affiliate, the Idaho Stampede.
Some pregame notes from Boise to get you ready for the game, which you can listen to on 620 AM (there is no television coverage of tonight’s game).
— Injuries continue to be an issue for the Trail Blazers going into Friday night’s game. Nicolas Batum (concussion), Dorell Wright (right middle finger), Earl Watson (left calf contusion) and CJ McCollum (broken left foot) are all out versus the Jazz, though all four players traveled with the team to Boise.
Meyers Leonard, who sat out Thursday’s practice after experiencing soreness in his right foot, is listed as questionable. When asked about the likelihood that he played Friday night, Leonard replied, “Questionable is definitely how I would put it.”
While there are certainly worse times for players to be sidelined with injuries, Stotts said that the growing number of ailments has made it more difficult to settle in on a rotation.
“It’s frustrating,” said Stotts. “I think it’s frustrating for the players because they want to be out there. We’re not able to establish a rhythm, but I think that’s going to come. We’re only, what, ten days into training camp? And I know we’ve got a game in two and a half, three weeks but you’ve got to fight through it. Everybody deals with different issues with their team. This is what we’re dealing with now.”
— Stotts didn’t say explicitly who would start Friday against the Jazz, but it’s likely he goes with the same group he started Wednesday night against the Suns. The one wildcard is at small forward, where it’s possible Stotts goes with Allen Crabbe, who has played well in the first two preseason games, over Victor Claver. Crabbe practiced with the starting unit on Thursday, though Stotts said that had more to do with players sitting out with injury than any potential lineup change.
“We didn’t have a lot of bodies (Thursday),” said Stotts, “so we picked (Crabbe) because Victor was playing four with the second unit.”
Stotts did say that two guaranteed starters, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, might see an increase in minutes from Wednesday’s loss to the Suns, though he’s open to the idea of going deeper into his bench depending on the situation.
“I think LA will probably play a little bit more, I might play Damian a little bit more,” said Stotts. “This is an opportunity for the young guys to get extended minutes, so those minutes have to come from someone. I would think, at a minimum, it would be very similar to the last couple games, especially with three or four days of practice coming up before our next game.”
— The Trail Blazers, by starting the preseason 0-2, are technically in the midst of a 15-game losing streak dating back to the end of the 2012-13 regular season. But while every player worth having on your team wants to win every night, there is no concern in the Blazers locker room regarding the losing streak, especially during the exhibition season.
“You always want to win, but a preseason win doesn’t count for the regular season,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “I think every guy wants to win but I don’t think we’re going back to last season. That was last season, a whole different team. This team is different. Different players, guys are older so I don’t think that’s on guys’ minds but I think every guy wants to win every night.”
Aldridge has a point. Seven players on Portland’s 15-man roster weren’t on the roster last season, so the losing streak carries little-to-no significance for them.
But more than anything, the players who suffered through 13-straight losses to end the season last year have turned the page. Having the ability to move on after tough losses or even thrilling victories is an important trait for professional athletes, especially those who play 82 games a season, to have.
“I don’t think about (the losing streak),” said Damian Lillard. “I haven’t thought about it so I doubt anybody else has either. It’s a new season, so it doesn’t really matter… You want to win every time you step on the floor, but that’s not what is most important at this point.”
— Finally, Trail Blazers fans attending tonight’s game are in for a real treat. While CenturyLink Arena is the smallest venue the Trail Blazers will play in this season, it certainly won’t be the smallest crowd they play in front off. It sounds like the game will be a sellout or very close to it, which should produce a great atmosphere in an intimate setting.
“Four or five years ago when I was the D-League coaches consultant, the Showcase was here,” said Stotts. “I have a lot of respect for the D-League with my roots in the CBA, both as a player and as a coach, and then helping the NBA out as a consultant. This environment, this arena, I think this is a great minor league arena because it’s got the right size. I know the fan base here is terrific. So I’m looking forward tonight.”
Though they were never teammates, Damian Lillard and Brandon Roy manage to talk from time to time. Their relationship started not long after Lillard was selected by the Trail Blazers with the sixth overall pick of the 2012 Draft and they’ve stayed in contact ever since over the years. During those somewhat regular chats, the current and former faces of the Trail Blazers’ franchise sometimes discuss the responsibility that comes with that title, especially at a relatively young age, and what could have been if the 6-3 guard out of Weber State and the now-retired 6-6 guard out of Washington ever had the opportunity to play alongside each other in Rip City.
And the next time they talk, they’ll have something new to discuss. With his 31-point performance in Tuesday night’s victory versus the Rockets, Lillard passed Roy for 15th in franchise history in points. Lillard now has 6,119 in less than four seasons in Portland, surpassing the the 6,107 points that Roy scored in five seasons before knee injuries ended his career far too prematurely.
“I mean, that’s an honor,” said Lillard of passing Roy. “Just to be moving up on that list period, but I mean, if Brandon Roy got to play as long as he should have played and people would have liked to have seen him play, I probably would never pass him, so it’s a great accomplishment. It’s an honor you know, but the more important thing is just continuing to be myself and continuing to win games.”
Which Lillard has done an excellent job of his season. He’s the only player to rank in the top-6 in both scoring (24.3 points per game) and assists (7.3 assist per game) this season and has led the Trail Blazers to a 27-27 record this season, vastly outperforming preseason expectations, despite being the only holdover from last season’s starting five.
Though he’s had plenty of help this season from the likes of CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, Lillard’s performance through 54 games is the the primary reason that the Trail Blazers enter the All-Star break in seventh place in the Western Conference. Roy, a three-time All-Star, was a fantastic player in his own right, a player whose peak performances are still the stuff of legend in Portland, but even he never carried the load that Lillard has this season. And of course, Lillard has already helped the Trail Blazer win a playoff series in his first four season in Portland, something Roy never accomplished.
“He’s been pretty good in a short amount of time,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of Lillard. “I mean, Brandon Roy, I wasn’t here for that, but I know what an imprint he made on the city and the franchise and how important he was to the Blazers. The fact that Damian has passed him this early in his career really says something because I know how good Brandon was. I know his career was cut short but everybody here holds him in high regard.”
Assuming Lillard experiences relatively good health — the seven games he missed this season due to plantar fascitiis are the only games he’s missed in his profession career thus far — there’s no reason to think that he won’t replace Roy as the best guard to play in Portland since Clyde Drexler, if he hasn’t taken that mantel already. But Roy can take some satisfaction in knowing that at least some of the success Lillard has had as a Trail Blazer was accomplished in part due to emulating the example he set on and off the court.
“When (Roy) got to Portland, a lot of the stuff he did, it brought excitement,” said Lillard. “I think the city really embraced him, they liked who he was as a person along with what he did as a player, obviously. I think because I kind of came and did the same thing, did some of the same things he did, I think he respects that… He was well respected, people appreciated the kind of person he was and he got it done on the floor. I think I can say the same for myself.”
PORTLAND — What a nice way to go into the All-Star break.
For the second time in five days, the Trail Blazers built a large third-quarter lead against the Rockets in the third quarter, then allowed them to make a comeback, only to make a final push to come away with the double-digit victory, this time to the tune of a 116-103 win in front of a sellout crowd of 19,393 at the Moda Center.
“I really like the way we’re playing right now,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Defensively, we’ve been really good the last two or three weeks. Our aggressiveness has been good, our alertness has been very good and I thought we did that for most of the night tonight. It’s good to go into the break on a win streak and playing well.”
The Trail Blazers are now 27-27 overall and 16-11 at the Moda Center this season. With the win, Portland is .500 for the first time since the team was 4-4 on November 9, 2015, have won eight of their last 10 games at home and 12 of their last 15 games overall, regardless of venue. Thanks to that streak, the Trail Blazers enter the All-Star break in the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings while the Rockets, a team that started the game in seventh place, drop to ninth.
“We dug ourselves a hole to start the season, giving up some games late, but we stuck with it, we kept going, we kept working,” said Damian Lillard. “We didn’t get too high or low. We were able to close in and get to .500 going into the break. Our team has done a great job of sticking to the grind, working every day in practice and staying together. That’s gotten us to where we are now.”
After ending the first quarter tied 29-29, the Trail Blazers used a 18-3 run in the second quarter to build a 12-point lead. Portland would expand their lead to 21, only to see the Rockets cut the deficit to five with 9:31 to play in the fourth. But the Trail Blazers would close out the game by outscoring the Rockets 23-15 to come away with the 13-point victory.
Portland won Tuesday’s contest despite shooting worse percentage than the Rockets from the field and the three-point line, but making eight more free throws despite having the same number of attempts and turning 20 Rockets turnovers in to 31 points more than made up for their so-so field goal percentages.
“I like the fact that we’re doing it within the context of our defense rather than gambling and extending our defense,” said Stotts of forcing turnovers. “We’re being aggressive on the ball, we’re alert on the weak side, so I think those two things combined help create those turnovers.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who went 9-of-22 from the field, 4-of-11 from three and 9-of-11 from the free throw line for 31 points to go along with nine assists, three rebounds and three steals in 35 minutes.
Maurice Harkless remained in the starting lineup, despite Noah Vonleh being on the active list for the first time in the last two games, and responded with his best game as a Trail Blazers with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 13 rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes.
“I liked his defense on Harden, he finished around the basket, he got rebounds, he ran the floor well,” said Stotts of Harkless. “He did a little bit of everything in a kind of understated way.”
Meyers Leonard went 6-of-9 from the field for 14 points while grabbing eight rebounds off the bench. Al-Farouq Aminu shot just under 50 percent to finish with 11 points and five rebounds and Ed Davis grabbed 13 rebounds in 21 minutes. Gerald Henderson went just 3-of-10 from the field but made up for it by going 7-of-10 from the line to finish with 13 points.
The Rockets were led by James Harden, who finished with 34 points, and Dwight Howard, who added 28 points and 13 rebounds in 35 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers have more than a week off before hosting the Golden State Warriors on February 19.
“We’re playing well and hopefully when we get back we pick up where we left off,” said Stotts, “but everybody could use a break.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 pm.
Prior to Wednesday night’s game versus the Rockets at the Moda Center, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard discussed his decision to rejoin the pool of players eligible to be selected for the 2016 Men’s National Team, which will compete at the Olympic Games this summer in Rio De Janerio. Lillard had taken his named out of consideration for Team USA after participating in the run up to the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball, but has since decided to continue his involvement.
Can you explain the process of reaching out to Jerry Colangelo? What made you do it?
Damian Lillard: “After one of our home games I saw Sean Ford, who is pretty heavily involved in USA Basketball and we spoke. He just said that they wanted me to be a part of it still. I expressed to them what my frustration was and why I chose to remove myself from it and they respected that. I knew that down the line I still wanted to be a part of it and I think it was just the fact that we got to speak about it face-to-face. I also had a chance to speak to Jerry Colangelo. I also told him how I felt about my last time with him and why I was frustrated. He said what he had to say and I think we just came to a point where we both felt like it would be good for me to be a part of it. It was something that I actually wanted to do but I had my reasons why I chose to not be a part of it this past summer and here we are.”
How does it feel to be back on the list?
Damian Lillard: “It feels good. Obviously that’s something that not a lot of people get the opportunity to be a part of. I’m thankful that I’ll have an opportunity to in the future.”
What was Jerry Colangelo’s message to you during your conversation?
Damian Lillard: “We basically just talked about how I’ve spent time with them. It’s not like it’s just out of the blue where I’m just all of the sudden back in the pool. I’ve been there for the past two years, I was with the team up until they left for the World Championships. That was pretty much it. He didn’t say I was wrong for feeling how I felt; he just said that he would like for me to be a part of it and I said I would like to be a part of it as well. He said what he had to say, I said what I had to say, we came to the conclusion it would be good for me to be back in the pool.”
Do you feel like, moving forward, you’re going to get a legitimate opportunity to make the team from here on out?
Damian Lillard: “Yeah, I mean, I believe so. For us to be able to have that conversation lets me know that I’ll probably get a better opportunity.”
Do you know what the next step in the process is? Tryouts?
Damian Lillard: “I’m not sure. At this point, it probably comes down to them just making the decision on who it’s going to be. I don’t know if that’s based on the type of season that people have, who’s healthy, I’m not sure. Just being a part of that pool gives me a chance, so we’ll see.”
Are you looking forward to being in that environment again?
Damian Lillard: “My past experience, like I said, the first two summers that I did it, it was fun to be begin with. But like I said, when it got to the point where I wasn’t getting the opportunity and I felt that way, I was a little bit down on it. But going into it I won’t have that on my mind and on my heart. I’ll go into it with good intentions and I’ll go into it with the right things on my mind. Like I said, I’m just happy that I have an opportunity going forward.”
Does it feel good to have a resolution with the process, with those bad feelings?
Damian Lillard: “It does feel good because I’m not a negative person. I’m not going to go out of my way to remove myself from something unless I feel really strongly about it. For me to be able to talk it out with him, for us to be able to get on the same page, it does feel good to get to that point.”