MEMPHIS — The Portland Trail Blazers held shootaround Tuesday morning at the FedExForum in preparation for their upcoming game against the Grizzlies (tipoff at 5 PM on CSNNW and 690 AM). Some notes from post-shootaround …
— Monday night, Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez posted the photo above featuring himself alongside Grizzlies forward Quincy Pondexter and professional wrestler Big Show from last night’s edition of “WWE Raw” held at the FexExForum. Lopez said that he isn’t much of a wrestling fan, but that he was happy go to go spend some time with a long-time friend.
“I went to high school with Quincy,” said Lopez. “It was Quincy’s birthday and he got us front row seats. We had a good time … I’m not that big of a wrestling fan. I’m aware of the various wrestlers and everything, but Quincy is a pretty big fan. He watched growing up and everything. I had a great time and I know he loved it.”
Despite the size of his stature and personality, Lopez said he doesn’t think he’s got a future in professional wrestling, though he thought at least one of his teammates could potentially thrive in the ring.
“I suppose anything could happen,” said Lopez. “I’d definitely be the good guy. I could probably see Wes being in that position first.”
— On a more serious note, the team spent a good portion of their off day in Memphis visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and St. Jude Children’s Hospital (I’ll have more on the latter trip later this week). The museum, which is housed at the Lorraine Hotel, the location where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, is just a few blocks from where the team stays in Memphis. Despite playing an overtime game in Houston the night before, the team got up first thing to tour the museum and present a donation on behalf of the organization …
“We think we’re tough – and we are- and we think we go through stuff. I don’t know if I could have gone through a sit-in. I feel like I’m as tough as they come, I don’t know if I could have gone through a sit-in and be beaten up and dragged out and not retaliate. That’s toughness.” — Wesley Matthews
“The things that African Americans went through to gain civil liberties and civil rights took tremendous courage. You don’t know if you have that same courage until you’re put in that situation.” — Terry Stotts
“It was almost perfect, timing-wise. We had just come off two tough losses, two losses where we could get caught up in ourselves and our profession and we forget what’s outside of basketball. It’s always important to be able to have something to bring you outside of this life. Going to St. Jude and the Civil Rights Museum just puts everything back in perspective for you.” — Wesley Matthews
Click here for more photos from the team trip to the museum, courtesy of Jim Taylor.
— Finally, tonight’s game in Memphis marks a homecoming of sorts for Blazers swingman Will Barton, who played his two season collegiate seasons for the Memphis Tigers. Even though he was born and breed in Baltimore, Barton said going back to Memphis feels like home.
“I spent my two years in college here, performed really well and the fans really embraced me and I really embraced them,” said Barton. “They kind of took me in. It’s like my second home now. Any time I come back here to play, it always feels good. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
Despite playing spot minutes, Barton has become somewhat of a fan favorite among Trail Blazers fans for his freewheeling style of play and boundless energy, something that his fans in Memphis appreciated during his two seasons playing under Josh Pastner.
“I get a lot of love because they appreciate what I did here for my two years while I was here,” said Barton. “I really appreciate that. I always say Memphis fans and Portland fans remind me of each other because they’re so passionate about basketball. The fans really embrace the city and the team and the players. I love Memphis, it’s my second home and it’s always good to come back.
“They love me here in Memphis, too. I can go anywhere in the world and make it my home.”
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.”
When USA Basketball announced the list a few weeks ago of 30 players who would be considered for the 12-man roster for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janerio, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard was not included. Though he had been in the USA Basketball pipeline for years and was one of the final cuts for the team that won gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball, Lillard was not up for a chance to play for Team USA in Rio, and at the time of the announcement, it didn’t sound like he really minded the omission.
“There’s no hard feelings toward (USA Basketball), but any time I go into a situation, I want to have a real opportunity,” said Lillard on January 18. “If I’m going to invest myself in something I want to have a real opportunity at it and the last time that I did that I felt like the decision was already made before the decision was made. Whether I played good or bad I didn’t feel like it mattered.”
Since then, Lillard has evidently been convinced that he WOULD have a chance at the 12-man roster this time, as it was announced today by USA Basketball that Lillard would in fact be one of the players considered for the 2016 Olympic team, which already qualified for the 2016 Games due thanks to winning the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
“I recently received a call from Damian, and during our conversation he expressed his desire to be considered for the U.S. Olympic Team and to remain involved with the USA National Team in the future as well,” said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the USA Men’s National Team, via press release. “Both Mike (Krzyzewski) and I feel like Damian is playing at a very high level and that he should be added to our list of Olympic finalists. Damian has been a member of the USA National Team since 2014, and he participated in National Team training camps in 2013 and 2014, so he does have equity in USA Basketball, which is always important to me.”
Now Lillard will have a chance to join his teammate Al-Farouq Aminu, who already punched his ticket to the 2016 Summer Olympics after helping Nigeria by winning AfroBasket 2015, in Rio. Lillard is still a long shot to make the team considering the fierce competition of whittling 30 All-Star caliber players down to just 12, but an outside chance is better than no chance at all.
The Trail Blazers host the Houston Rockets tonight at the Moda Center (tipoff scheduled for 7:30 pm on KGW, ESPN and 620 AM) in their last game before the All-Star break. If the Trail Blazers manage to beat the Rockets for the second time in the last five days, they’ll enter the break with a 27-27 record and will be no worse than eighth in the Western Conference standings. It would also give the Trail Blazers more wins with 28 games to play than the bookmakers in Las Vegas pegged them to get all season. There’s still a long ways to go and the schedule in March gets much more difficult — their first game back from the break is against the Golden State Warriors — but it never hurts to go into the stretch run with a little momentum.
It also takes some of the sting out of Portland having only one player, starting shooting guard CJ McCollum, invited to participate in All-Star Weekend, and even his inclusion is limited to competing in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. But with 17 of their remaining 28 games coming against teams above .500, Portland will need their roster to be as rested as possible if they’re serious about making the 2016 postseason, and that especially goes for McCollum and Damian Lillard. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann points out in the video above, Terry Stotts has had either Lillard, McCollum or both on the floor for almost the entirely of Portland’s 2015-16 season (not counting the games in which neither was unable to play due to injury). Stotts has been using this rotational tactic all season, and it’s one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers have outperformed expectations so far this season.