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  1. A product of the famously heated Blazers-Pacers rivalry. Nurk said, "Can You Hear Me Now?" ~lw3
  2. “Geaux Tigers! Say, Freshman, what’s your name, again?” He was well on his way to a career-high scoring day in the first half, the guard leading the home team to a nearly 20-point halftime lead over an opponent missing multiple stars on the back end of a back-to-back. But soon, he and his team would find themselves knocked back on their heels. Their road-weary foes still scrambled to narrow the margin to single digits in the fourth quarter. His team’s potential Play-In status was in peril. Luckily for the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Atlanta Hawks by extension, Josh Hart wasn’t having it. Not on this day. The burly guard and fifth-year pro’s and-one four-point play closed out Saturday’s career-best outing at 44 points. Hart (6-for-9 on threes, team-highs of 4 steals and 6 assists) toiled in tandem with fellows named Trendon Watford and Brandon Williams to help Portland repel the Wizards (Molte Grazie!) and nip a six-game post-Break skid in the bud. Portland’s schedule out of the Break has been a bit unkind, for a club presently fielding none of the nine players that coach Chauncey Billups trotted onto the court to kickstart this season. (Damian Lillard? On the shelf after abdominal surgery in January. CJ McCollum, Larry Nance, Robert Covington, and Norman Powell? Traded. Nassir Little? Out for the season. Cody Zeller? Cut. Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons? Injured.) Hart and his newfound Blazers entered the Break with encouraging wins at Milwaukee and Memphis. But that was with Nurkic, Simons and fellow acquisition Justise Winslow upright. Nurkic’s plantar fasciitis put him on ice just as Portland embarked on a stretch of blowout losses, first versus G-State and Denver, then on the road at Phoenix, a pair of games in Minnesota, and at Utah. Simons (knee tendinopathy) and Winslow were lost along the way, too. Now after beating Washington, Portland is on the road once more, initiating a five-game Eastern swing in Atlanta (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, ROOT Sports in PDX). A hungry Hart coincidentally has the Blazers within 1.0 game of New Orleans, Hart’s prior employer, for the final Play-In slot. Everything about, “We have resorted to starting CJ Elleby and Drew Eubanks,” suggests stuffing this blah Blazer season in a pita, drizzling in some tzatziki, and calling it a wrap. But what goes down over the next couple weeks, as Portland visits Manhattan, Kyrie’s Funhouse, and the Pacers and Pistons, will dictate how eager they’ll be to get Nurkic, Eric Bledsoe and even Lillard out of street clothes. Will Portland need a gyro, after all? The juice of a Play-In road game as a 10-seed, for them, wouldn’t be worth the squeeze. But, say, a 9-versus-10 home game, with a win in Portland and then at Minnesota to set up a seven-game series with Phoenix? As, one supposes, LeBron watches the postseason proceedings from home? How are those crunches going, Dame? Portland (26-40) exists in a somewhat parallel universe to Indiana, their Eastern Conference cousins who mustered up enough second-half energy to nearly snatch the Hawks’ wigs at State Farm Arena last night. The Blazers, ignoring injuries, have been done-in to this point by their woeful 9-22 road mark. They are 1-12 amid a Northwest Division that includes OKC and no current top-three seeds, 10-18 against the rest of the NBA West. Yet Coach Chauncey’s team is 15-10 versus the NBA East, inclusive of their 136-131 victory back on January 3, when Nate McMillan’s Hawks paid them a visit and Trae Young (career-high 56 points; his 14 assists one off his season-high) could barely be contained. Watford, a two-time Alabama Mr. Basketball and an SEC All-Freshman Team member when the Skyhawks’ Skylar Mays was starring at LSU, is the only active Blazer that appeared in that game, a team-low 10 minutes off the bench. The forward’s two-way deal was upgraded a few weeks ago, in part out of necessity, and in part due to the potential of what he did on Saturday (career-high 27 points on 11-for-14 2FGs, 5-for-5 FTs) against the Fighting Kyle Kuzmas. Watford’s two-way slot was filled by Williams, one of Portland’s former ten-day contractors. The rookie guard set his career-high mark at 27 points (aided by 11 made FTs) last Monday at Minnesota, besting his 21-point outburst (nine FGs) against the same T’Wolves two nights before. Even Dame’s cousin, two-way hanger-on Kelvin Blejins, walked out with his career-high of 11 points in the rematch. Much like IHOP, any night is good night for a career night among the folks suiting up (someone double-check the uni colors pregame, please) for the Blazers right now. Former Spurs center Eubanks’ second 10-day hardship deal expired last night, and he made his best case on Saturday to get extended once more with his career-best 20 points plus 12 boards to zap the Zards. While Hart was hot from long-range, Portland’s 70 paint points were a season-high, as were their 28 points off the fastbreak. Sunday’s not-so-great escape of the Pacers by the Hawks was just yesterday’s second-least satisfying sports victory in downtown Atlanta (Thank you, Jake from Around the Corner from State Farm!). Atlanta United took a bunch of no-names from Charlotte un-seriously in front of the rabid home crowd. They coughed up the expansion MLS franchise’s first-ever goal, minutes after Atlanta’s soccer superstar gave the Five Stripes the lead, and they needed hustle and a dash of Irish luck in the waning moments to avoid gifting the wannabe rival Crowns their first MLS table point. Oh, what an unnecessary relief it is. The Hawks (33-34) don’t even have the fortune of ending games in a draw. 92.9’s Mike Conti, who called ATLUTD’s game, notes tonight will be the sixth consecutive opportunity for the Basketball Club to reach .500 since falling to 13-14 at home against Houston on December 16. To avoid a sixth consecutive failure, as the homestand gets disrupted with a trip up to Charlotte, our Cardiac Cagers need to do what it takes to keep random dudes named Trendon from trending. Halfcourt execution from Atlanta, the team that still sports the lowest turnover percentage in the league (12.2 TO%, 9.9 post-Break; 16 straight games w/ fewer than 15 player turnovers), will be essential, be it pick-and-roll offense or rotational defense. Portland’s 15.2 team TO%, since the Break, is neck-and-neck with Cleveland as the league’s highest, while their post-Break D-Rating of 123.4 is unmatched. Transition D is key, too, particularly with this current iteration of Trail Blazers seeking to pounce on its rest advantage as they did with the Wizards. Atlanta remains a cellar-dweller leaguewide in this category (1.20 opponent points per transition possession, slightly better than the Knicks), but there are encouraging signs some evolution is happening under Nate Mac’s watch. The Hawks have permitted just 6.9 fastbreak points per-48 since the Break, by far an NBA-best (20th-ranked before the Break with 12.8 allowed), while the Hawks +3.7 net points per-48 off TOs in that time (a negative net of -0.6 pre-Break) ranks behind only Toronto and Miami in the NBA East. Portland has been paint shy all season long, even with Nurk in tow (41.7 paint points per-48 post-Break, behind only the Sixers, somehow). But Billups now fields a bunch of opportunists ready to head off to the races, preferably toward the rim, upon snaring any loose ball or defensive rebound. Young, Kevin Huerter and Bogi Bogdanovic cannot get caught flat-footed and playing, “Who He Play For?” while settling for take fouls to stem Blazer runouts. Coming off his second-highest tally of the season just last night with 47 points (33 in the first half), Young will hopefully not need to match that season-high in shot volume (41 combined FGAs & FTAs) just to conclude Atlanta’s three-game homestand with a clean sheet. Danilo Gallinari and Huerter were duds from outside during January’s loss in Portland, negating not only Young’s offensive brilliance but also a perfect game, from the field (10-for-10 FGs @ POR; 5-for-5 last night), from center Clint Capela. Mays and TLC filled the gaps, albeit not so ably, from the absent John Collins, Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter in that January game. Collins (questionable with his finger and foot ailments) may find himself rested once more, so Bogi’s offense (2-for-9 3FGs vs. IND on Sunday) and Dre’s defense will be desired to get back on track. We’ll note here that Trae’s former defensive-nemesis-turned-momentary-backup, Kris Dunn, was scooped up yesterday on a 10-day hardship deal, and that his career-high 32 points was set with Chicago against recently-waived Blazer Dennis Smith’s Mavs back in January 2018. May we Hawks fans never have to revisit that particular figure again. And no Night to Remember for Cousin Kelvin, please! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “Hi, everyone. My name is Tony Snell, and I can’t get down from here!” “Another Day, Another Opportunity to answer more of these same questions!” Having happily played the villain for so long in 31 other International Basketball Association cities, Trae Young is doing all he can to avoid becoming one in the 32nd. He has steadied the Hawks franchise through the pandemic era of the Twenties, helped his team sneak into the Eastern and Southern Continental conference finals on a couple occasions, and shattered as many passing and scoring records as there are to have. He has ensconced himself within the upper pantheon of sports greats in this town, making his club a top IBA draw while enriching himself through multiple contract extensions. Yet here sits Young, bristling with a gritted smile belying his rolled eyes, as the reporter-bot seeks to chase him once more around the same postgame topic. The Goose That Lays the Golden Dimes has declined, repeatedly, yet in a hundred different ways, to fly away from the Atlanta-Buckhead City metropolis he has called home for so long. But this year feels different in The ABC. 2032’s Trade Deadline is fast approaching, and PBO Landry Fields and GM Lance Stephenson may get that knock on their doors to get a deal done, allowing Trae to legitimately chase his first ring for the first time in a long while. But, where to? Paolo, Zaire and Bronny need a fourth wheel in Seattle, where Trae could reunite with his former coach. Joining forces with Cade and Los Pistones de Ciudad de Mexico is tempting, but finding a way past the Sonics, and then Onyeka and The Jalens in Los Angeles, to come out of the Western Continental sounds daunting. Lance and Landry wouldn’t dare risk Young sticking around in the East, so that rules Jean Montero’s San Juan Island Kings and Coach CP3's Tallahassee heat out of the equation as trading partners. On second thought, maybe not! If Trae chooses to play hardball with Atlanta, he could threaten to pull a Childress, setting sail for President Giannis’ country to tag along with Luka at Panathinaikos. “I mean, I never want to leave, certainly not in the middle of whatever I’ve got started,” Young responds diplomatically. “I always believe in my guys, and with Coach Dame in charge, there’s no telling what can happen if we turn things around and make it in.” Trae is looking ahead to Playoffs with the Hawks (16-19). Meanwhile, Atlantans would be simply blissful for a successful Play-In series, one that could forestall the same relegation to Gamma League that befell those poor Knicks. Trae has been paid handsomely in his NBA flagship city, his annual net worth now exceeding the value of retired teammate John Collins’ vaunted collection of crypto-posters. The rest of the team, not so much. Principal owner Jami Gertz-Ressler’s spend-thriftiness with the rest of the roster, over-reliant on youthful breakthroughs and free agent flops, has left too much on the soon-to-be 34-year-old’s superstar’s plate. Trae’s first-year head coach Dame Lillard, as much as anyone, relates to his plight as much as anyone. With a hairline now approaching that of Blazer great Clyde Drexler, Coach Lillard stands today in the same IBA locale where All-Star ballhandlers like he and Trae once made history. Specifically for Trae, it’s the tenth anniversary of a classic shootout between the Hawks and Trail Blazers (10 PM Eastern for those with Tesla Time Machines, Bally Sports Southeast, ROOT Sports) that, to this day, is known across the sports universe simply as January 3rd. Young and Lillard backup Anfernee Simons became the first pair of IBA opponents to drop 75 points in the same contest, and the dimes were doozies, too. It took a laser bounce pass from Trae through the spindly legs of Portland’s Tony Snell to Clint Capela, then Cameron Oliver’s crafty buzzer-beating cleanup of Capela’s point-blank miss at the rim, to conclude a 201-200 game whose ball sits prominently in the Naismith-Nash Hall of Fame in Springfield, Ontario. Capela skirting what would have been Young’s 31st assist was the only offensive blemish to that banner day. For Trae, that IBA single-game assist record would have to wait for a few more weeks. Coach Dame has a long way to go to catch the titans of the IBA, like the SuperSonics’ Nate McMillan, another coach who boldly bailed Atlanta, in his case after recovering triumphantly from a bout with long-haul COVID, in search of greater glories elsewhere. Despite the feats of fancy and occasional postseason heroics from Young, the many seasons of defensively flawed, shallow rosters spinning their wheels under coach Kent Bazemore’s watch was a colossal waste of Trae’s time. That time has become all the more precious with each passing season as he nears the peak of his stellar career. Lillard was hired to make sticking around worth Young’s while. The one-time franchise face and IBA85 Honorable Mention remembers vividly being strung along in Portland, under then-team president Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts, only to have a legendary guard-turned-coach, Chauncey Billups, foisted upon him. Then (13-22), as now, the results for Portland have been lackluster. Coach Dame wishes the rising 32-year-old version of himself had been wise enough to grant himself greater agency, demanding either a drastic change in personnel or a meaningful change in venue. This evening, before a nostalgic crowd, Damian’s distinctive “0.0” jersey gets retired, lofted into the rafters of a vapid Beaverton arena-luxury-condo complex he never played in, by a team that’s rumored to be on the move to Boise anyway. Loyalty has long been inside Lillard’s DNA. “I’m grateful for the Portland fans, who stuck with me through all those trying times. It’s just hard, looking back upon it all, to get a sense as to what it was all for.” Similar to the one-time fate of “Mr. Sonic,” McMillan, it is difficult to grasp what value being “Mr. Blazer” holds in a pro-sports town that may soon shift to following the Timbers and Thorns full-time. Dame's long removed from the days of January 3rd, when injuries to him (strained abs) and his backcourt co-star C.J. McCollum (recovery from collapsed lung) greased their team’s 3-14 slide out of relevancy. Without either, the Blazers scoring against Atlanta, becoming the first in IBA history to eclipse 200, was hoped to be the spark for Portland to mount a comeback that season. Alas, their on-ball defense (NBA-worst 55.5 opponent eFG%) was as pathetic as the offense, led on that historic evening by Norman Powell, Anfernee Simons and Lillard’s cousin, current Hawks assistant Keljin Blevins, was prolific. With Jusuf Nurkic and Cody Zeller (Protocols) out, and with Larry Nance, Jr. fouling out, the current governor of Northern California, Oliver, barged in and spoiled Portland’s party. Despite the lack of late-career prosperity, Lillard went down with the ship, all the way into retirement. He suffered through the slings and arrows of critics eager to lay blame for Portland’s longstanding woes on him and his once-hefty cap hit. The experiences of being always a David, and never a Goliath, echo for him as he looks upon Young’s highlight-laden career in Atlanta. "Back home, they should give Trae his flowers while he's here," Coach Dame declared, referencing the days when people rode racehorses into the ground. Whether the replacement for ShareCare Arena winds up at Atlantic Station or Fort McPherson, Gertz-Ressler has been badgering Killer Mayor Mike for local financing to expedite the transition of the downtown land into a casino palace. Wherever the new venue lands, on opening day, it will need at least one showstopping IBA player, on par with Young, to serve as an attraction. That’s the challenge facing Jami, Lance and Landry going forward, as the Trade Deadline looms. The team would much rather ride into the sunset with Trae. Yet, they don’t want their Hawks, once the freshest ticket in town, to grow stale and become the Blazers of the South. Or, worse yet, the Knicks. Whether Lillard, Young, or The ABC, is ready or not, it's 2032, and it's Traede Time. Happy New Year! Let’s Go “Hawks”! ~lw3
  4. A pleural-ity of injuries, illnesses and absences are befalling the league's top scorers, continuing with... ~lw3
  5. “Bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble, baby, bobble…” Sheed. Qyntel. Bonzi. Damon. Trent(, Sr.). Z-Bo. Ruben. These fellows ran Portland. Quite nearly, into the abyss. At the time, Trail Blazers execs sought out a lifeline for someone capable to come in and shake things up. In some cases, to help ship people out. That lifeline reached 150 miles north, to Seattle. “From Day One,” Nate McMillan told the Seattle Times, about four years after his arrival and into the Blazers’ revival, “the plan was to change the type of players we brought in. We were going to look at, not only the talent, but also the character of players.” Until then, Portland’s “Jail Blazers” were individually known for being a character, not necessarily possessing some. “What a player could do off the floor was just as important as what he could do on the floor. We had to change, on the floor, but we also had to get out into the community and allow them to get to know us.” It was a slog, to be sure. While shaping up and shipping out much of the clubhouse, the man called “Sarge” ought to be credited with salvaging Zach Randolph’s pro career, predating the folk-hero status the burly power forward would warmly receive in Memphis. Yet with Randolph taking center stage as one of the last vestiges of the tawdry Jail Blazers era, Portland finished a league-worst 21-61 in 2005-06, setting up an unsuccessful lottery and a draft that brought a pair of rookies, including a Seattle native, on board. Selecting Tyrus Thomas and trading up two spots with Chicago, Portland landed the Bulls’ pick, LaMarcus Aldridge. Theo Ratliff and Sebastian Telfair were packaged to Minnesota for the seventh pick, Randy Foye, who in turn was packaged for the draft rights to Timberwolves pick and Seattleite Brandon Roy. Just like that, McMillan had his young pillars. A more surefire big-man talent than Andrea Bargnani was in the waiting after next season, as Portland leapt over Atlanta, Seattle and five other teams to land the top lottery pick. With next-big-thing center Greg Oden set to join the emerging Roy and Aldridge, fans were enthralled again, home sellouts were a thing again, and the future was bright. 2007’s Rookie of the Year, Roy, became a heralded three-time All-Star in the ensuing seasons. Aldridge, a self-professed “project”, was fast becoming a double-double machine by year two of his development. By their second years, Portland was a .500 club and a playoff threat. The next season, 54-28, a remarkable turnaround under McMillan’s watch. But as the Jail Blazers were a thing of the past, it would not take long before the “Frail Blazers” label would take hold. Oden’s balky knee gave way midway through 2008-09, leaving McMillan little choice but to turn to the Vanilla Gorilla, Joel Pryzbilla, in a futile first-round contest with what we now know as the last hurrah of Houston’s Yao Ming. By the end of the next season, despite Portland’s 50 wins, it was Roy’s turn to begin breaking down, he and Oden contributing to, as The Oregonian recalled, 311 player games lost to injury. At playoff time, an aching Roy would be replaced at turns by starters Rudy Fernandez and Jerryd Bayless, McMillan’s lead-legged club unable to sustain the pace with Steve Nash and the Suns at playoff time. That cost McMillan’s GM buddy, Kevin Pritchard, his job one hour before the 2010 Draft, although the courtesy of letting him make the final trades and picks on that night, anyway, was a sweet touch. The next year, more of the same. More surgeries for Oden, the sad close to B-Roy’s ephemeral career via retirement, and 48 wins for Nate Mac, who was clearly on notice after an opening-round series loss to Dirk Nowitzki’s eventual NBA champions. Hired to replace Pritchard, Rich Cho never even got to do a draft before he was fired by gazillionaire owner Paul Allen at season’s end. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Aldridge tried to carry the load, with Gerald Wallace and a buttery Raymond Felton assuming what was Oden and Roy’s floor time. The club collapsed, losing seven of nine after the All-Star Break, and Mr. Allen ushered in what, remarkably to this day in 2021, was really the last big Blazerquake. Within days: G-Wallace and Marcus Camby, traded out of town. Oden, five knee surgeries in, placed humbly on waivers. And McMillan was handed his walking papers. Even team president Larry Miller high-tailed it up the road to his old job, running Nike’s Jordan Brand. Coach Nate would never get to see the next metamorphosis first-hand. And while beloved in Portland for wiping away the bad front-page news items, he was never given the leeway his successor did. Despite having failed to lift the fortunes of clubs in Atlanta and Milwaukee, Terry Stotts’ success as an assistant on that championship Mavericks roster compelled Allen and the Blazers to give him one more try. Only this time, new team exec Neil Olshey, saved from Donald Sterling’s Clippers, wouldn’t let Allen cut Stotts loose so easily. They stick with Stotts, despite the team finishing 8-26 after a 25-23 start. Dealing Crash Wallace away yielded the Blazers New Jersey’s first-rounder in 2012. There was no lottery win, and thus no AD. But Charlotte went for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while Cleveland and Sacramento plucked Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. Portland was the first to go small-school, drafting Damian Lillard of Weber State at Pick #6 ahead of UNC’s Harrison Barnes and the Washington Huskies’ Terrence Ross. As mostly disastrous choices were made above them the next year, the Blazers went small-school again, this time with fellow guard CJ McCollum of Lehigh. Stotts, like McMillan, would find that he got his young pillars, plus Aldridge, to coach up and build around. Unlike McMillan’s haul, Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves fairly durable, CJ joining in as a second 20+ PPG scorer by the then-two-time All-Star’s fourth season. Unlike McMillan, Stotts’ ace guard was upright and ready to shine at playoff time, Lillard first bidding adieu to the star-laden Rockets in 2014, dispatching a twilight Clippers club in 2016, then serving as the author of 2019’s shocker over Wayoff P and OKC, setting the stage for Portland’s first Conference Finals berth since 2000. As Lillard morphed from a David to one of the league’s Goliath’s, Stotts has been at the helm throughout, even though the team made a decided regression one season after each breakout playoff performance. Coupled with seven consecutive postseasons is an inability to improve the talent via the lottery. Olshey seems to have skated as well, more interested in giving away picks and settling for lower-first-round longshots. 2015’s 23rd pick, traded on Draft Day essentially for Mason Plumlee, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is back in black and red, after being waived by Minnesota in December and having his 10-day contracts made full. The highest Olshey pick since McCollum, 2017’s 15th, was packaged with two other low-firsts to Sacramento, in exchange for what sounds like a Lifetime movie: The Wrong Collins. This year's mid-to-low-first heads to Houston as part of the pre-season trade for Robert Covington. Even their 2021 second-rounder belongs to Memphis as part of a 2019 multi-team deal. Last week, former Blazers beat-writer and Lillard chum turned insider at Yahoo! Sports Chris Haynes was right to wonder aloud whether Dame, in particular, is spinning his wheels for a club he his remained steadfastly dedicated to representing in the NBA. This, as the brain trust that was wise enough to reel him and CJ in, and pay them handsomely to stick together through 2024, hasn’t figured out how to draft or entice the right mix of co-stars for a championship-contending balance. Haynes also ponders whether Stotts will finally be the next chip to fall as Olshey tries to fend off a Blazerquake that’s beginning to feel overdue. The writer’s close connections to Lillard created consternation around Oregon that Lillard (43.6 FG%, his lowest since 2015-16; career-best 92.6 FT%), soon to be 31 and admittedly going through his roughest stretch staying healthy, is leaking out what he cannot opine publicly. “(Lillard) has been a constant professional,” Haynes opines, “and in return, it’s made central figures throughout the organization comfortable.” Dame was coy in denying a lack of communication with his front office, perhaps obscuring a lack of confidence. I ponder about what would have happened were McMillan granted the latitude to participate in the rebuild of the Frail Blazers, instead of dumping him to take a shot with Stotts. Maybe here, he would have transitioned Lillard, more quickly, from a high-usage shot-jacker to the more efficient game-managing clutch-gunner (NBA-best 8.3 Offensive BPM and Offensive WS last season) he is known for being today. Maybe Lillard and McCollum (career-highs of 23.3 PPG, 4.7 APG) would have been compelled to improve their defensive wherewithal sooner in their careers. Maybe it’s Lillard, at Dame Time, who helps McMillan shed his limited playoff success persona, as he did with Stotts. Nearly $103 million in guaranteed player salary is locked down for next season, including center Jusuf Nurkic’s $12 million that locks in on the first of July. But Blazer fans feel like they’re in a similar position on the gerbil wheel to where they were entering 2014, with the scale of their title contention tethered simply to whether Lillard can get the Dame Time apparatus going, and for how long. While they’re in better shape than at the finish of last year’s regular season, Portland (36-28) is now scrambling with the Lakers and the Mavericks to avoid having to fight their way into the postseason via a Play-In game or two. Injuries, to McCollum and Nurkic early, and to Lillard for a few games last month, have once more given Stotts the cover not bestowed upon McMillan for this long. Zach Collins still remains hopeful of a return during a playoff run, if it comes to that. But success in their topsy-turvy season hinges on the ability of Lillard, McCollum and/or Nurkic and the bigs (the latter group via screen sets) to find the hot hand, somewhere. Unable to rely on their defense to keep teams close on even mediocre shooting nights, Portland (115.6 D-Rating, 29th in NBA) is 19-0 so far when hitting threes above a 42 percent clip, 7-21 when they fall below 35 percent. An exception came when Portland made just 38.8 FG% versus the Atlanta Hawks on January 16, as McMillan assisted then head coach Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks were finding their way, but with the victorious opportunity that availed itself when McCollum (4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL) went down to an early-game injury, no one, save for Clint Capela (25 points, 11-for-16 FGs, 15 rebounds @ POR) could find the center of the hoop from long-range (6-for-30 team 3FGs). Capela also lacked the frontcourt support he needed on that eve from John Collins (8 points, 6 rebounds in 30 minutes) to secure defensive boards away from Derrick Jones and Enes Kanter, allowing the host Blazers ample opportunities to overtake the Hawks in the second half. Collins' activity on the defensive end, displayed in Saturday's 108-97 win over the Bulls (career-tying 4 steals, 8 D-Rebs, one block) will be needed today, as keeping Portland below triple digits is impossible without a concerted effort. Tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX), the Blazers are seeking to extend this successful road trip to 5-0, after Lillard’s return couldn’t stave off an 0-5 downturn that featured consecutive home losses to the possible 10-seed Grizzlies. Last night in Boston, Portland (50.0 3FG% vs. BOS) aided the Hawks by prevailing 129-119, pouring it on it the second half. Lillard (26 points, 13 assists, 5 TOs) and McCollum (team-high 33 points, 5 assists) dished it out, and Robert Covington, Trade Deadline arrival Norman Powell (questionable for today, knee tendinopathy) and bench vet Carmelo Anthony (combined 11-for-17 3FGs vs. BOS) could take it. They wore down a Celtics team still burning off the fumes of their massive comeback win over San Antonio. With limited depth and starters logging between 29 and 39 minutes last night, the Hawks (35-30) hope they can wear down Portland in turn, like they did after waking up against Chicago in the second half on Saturday, here at State Farm Arena. After Portland flew in from Logan late last night, this morning’s hotel evacuation due to a tornado warning (hope all’s good in Adamsville and along Cascade) may have the Blazers’ heads spinning a bit. Last night, Stotts reserved Hollis-Jefferson, Derrick Jones and Nas Little in hopes of working them heavily into the active rotation today. Bogdan Bogdanovic (probable, sore hammy) and Danilo Gallinari were unavailable at the time of January’s meeting, and each can help Trae Young (33 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, 11-for-12 FTs, 7 assists vs. CHI) match Portland’s firepower, possibly even Tony Snell (upgraded to available, ankle sprain). Bogi and Kevin Huerter (off the injury list, although still working through his shoulder stinger) can also play an important role of defending the perimeter and keeping Blazer guards off-kilter. McMillan’s coaching odyssey would likely have continued elsewhere anyway after 2012, particularly if he failed to overachieve at playoff time once more in Portland. But as it stands, considering where he has sated a playoff-hungry owner along with the fanbase, Nate would likely find more stability here than if he tried to ride out the current, longstanding epoch of the “Stale Blazers.” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Vatican just called. Il Papa wants the hookup on a case of BOLT24.” Tidbits Time! We won’t have Rudy Gobert around to spank us tonight! Dusting off the first double-digit L of the season, our Atlanta Hawks head to the Pacific Northwest. They’ll be thankful if the good sirs on the Portland Trail Blazers (10 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX) don’t have another paddling in store for them. Coach Lloyd Pierce conserved some players’ energies during the front-end of last night’s back-to-back, keeping every one of his Hawks (5-6) under 30 minutes. It’s not as if Trae Young (1-for-11 FGs; probable for today despite back tightness) and the starters did anything worth expending any more ergs. Imagine the margin if Cam Reddish (4-for-5 3FGs, rest of squad 1-for-23) didn’t bring his outside-shooting A-game! Cam’s questionable for today with a bruised knee, so even if he plays, he’ll give up some minutes to Kevin Huerter today. ‘Twas just a year ago, tomorrow, when Huerter’s velvety-smooth jumper ended our decades-long Hawks Hex in San Antonio. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell (7 steals combined, more than Atlanta’s tally of 6) stifled the Hawks backcourt with few problems, while Gobert gave Clint Capela and our wide-eyed rookie Onyeka Okongwu fits in the opening half. Aside from a pair of Atlanta runs in the second and third quarters, the eventual outcome was academic. Capela and the barely visible John Collins must be far more imposing this evening in Portland, as the Blazers (7-5) are reeling with the losses of their starting bigs. At worst, JC should find it easy to be the most impactful Collins on the court tonight. Zach Collins had to undergo his second ankle surgery in five months, on the same malady that ended his run in the Bubble. He’s out until probably the end of this month. The other beefy big in coach Terry Stotts’ starting lineup, 290-pounder Jusuf Nurkic, returned strong at Bubble time after planning to miss last season while recovering from a leg injury. But now, a broken wrist suffered in Thursday’s 111-87 home loss to Indiana will keep the center out, likely until after the Blazers’ currently scheduled games conclude. Nurkic wasn’t the singular reason the air escaped Portland’s balloon on Thursday. Even with him on the floor, Indiana went on a 21-8 run to close the half up 59-36. In the battle between Nate McMillan’s last two coached teams, the Pacers throttled the Blazers (7-4) without the services of either the traded Vic Oladipo or the incoming Caris LeVert. (Edmond Sumner filled in as the emergency starter for Indy; historians know who I’m talking about, but you’ll hear of another person named Sumner on Monday, if I can finish my rambling MLK Day pregame thread on time.) Portland had won four in a row before that loss, but now they’ve suffered four of their five defeats by double-digits. That includes losing the season-opener versus Utah, by 20, and at G-State by 13. How do the Blazers compensate? One thing Damian Lillard (26.9 PPG, 7.2 FTAs/game, 6.8 APG) and CJ McCollum (team-high 27.6 PPG, 43.4 3FG%, 5.3 APG) will try to do is shoot their way out of any situation. The pair was fairly inefficient with a combined 44 points on 34 shots plus 8 free throws. And aside from pogo-stick Derrick Jones (pro tip: if he’s heading toward the paint, foul him before he gets there, or run the other way), no other starters or Carmelo Anthony’s bench crew could get unstuck. For a team that’s not usually turnover prone (2nd-lowest TO% in NBA), Portland’s 16 assists and 18 player turnovers on Thursday won’t get it done on most nights. The Blazers (2nd in NBA for 3FGA rate, just ahead of Utah) could find themselves pressing too much to stay in front tonight, particularly trying to play tit-for-tat if Young’s wayward jumpers start finding nylon again. Make my funk a T-Funk! Trae’s momentary shooting woes (28.8 3FG%) are the least of my worries, as long as he contributes well in other facets of the game and other Hawks elevate their play when the ball heads their way. He won’t be hounded as much by Portland’s star guards as he will by Robert Covington and Rodney Hood. When the double- and triple-teams come, Young (8.4 APG, 4th in NBA) can artfully move the ball inside, where Collins, Okongwu and Capela can overwhelm the hope-you-miss defenses of Enes Kanter and Melo, the turn-sideways-to-go-missing Jones, and the hack-happy Harry Giles. Even if Atlanta’s shooters are off-line, second-chance points abound for the current NBA leaders in that category (16.6 points per-48). When Portland’s iron is unkind, there’ll be ample opportunities to score on the break (15.9 opponent fastbreak points per-48, 4th-most in NBA). A steal and a block from Young helped soften the blows last night in Salt Lake, with Portland’s backcourt stars getting multiple defensive looks from Atlanta’s young defensive wings, Trae will need to continue being an assertive help defender, aiding the Hawks in forcing mistakes and low-percentage jumpshots from Lillard’s and McCollum’s floormates. The Timberwolves will be in town for Monday’s MLK Day Game, and we’ve heard much of Karl-Anthony Towns and his family’s ordeal with the COVID-19 pandemic. @JayBirdHawk shared Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little’s weeks-long personal bout with the coronavirus in the Homecourt thread last month. As did Towns, Little advises everyone within earshot or eyeshot to please be careful: One clever way to stay close to family during the pandemic? Get them on the team! The pride of Hot Springs, Arkansas and Montana State basketball, Keljin Blevins is Damian Lillard’s cousin. Lillard has been a mentor for Blevins, even more so after the latter’s father passed away while he played at Southern Miss. After training with the Blazers and their Summer League roster in 2019, Blevins made it into the G-League and now serves as Portland’s sole two-way player. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. "And, at Center, from UCLA! Trevo -- excuse me, what? He refuses to come out of the locker room? Come on out here, Trevor! It's not gonna be so bad!" ~lw3
  8. “Terry, we need to talk about your flair.” Well, they say the sky’s the limit. And, to me, that’s really true. But, my friend, you have seen nothin’. Just wait ‘til Trae gets through. It’s well established that statistically, and as per the eye test, Trae Young has been the worst defensive point guard in this national association of professional basketball. Unlike many subpar defenders, Young’s blistering offense makes him a net positive on an Atlanta Hawks squad that would struggle for 48 entire minutes without him. But ranking #493 out of 494 NBA players (thank you, Brad Beal) by defensive metrics draws out the deTraectors like nothing else. The good news is that an NBA star, in his second pro season, someone as reviled for his defense as he had been revered for his offense is far from unprecedented. If Kyrie Irving was in town yesterday with the Nets, and if Damian Lillard was here tonight with his Portland Trail Blazers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 103.3 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PTL), they would concur wholeheartedly. “Damian Lillard’s defense has been a topic for the wrong reasons since joining the Portland Trail Blazers,” scribed Bryant Knox for some Bleacher Report content. “Coming from a small school, people recognized his defensive deficiencies would be his Achilles heel in the NBA.” Ah, so that’s the issue. Small school. Darn you, Weber State! Knox continued in his blog post, “In 2014-15, it’s still a problem.” Oh, well come on, Mr. Dame Time! Isn’t this, like, the start of your third NBA season, already? Do I have to resort to tapping the wrist where my watch is supposed to be? You’re already 24, for Nique’s sake! Get out there and guard somebody, you “guard,” you! Time’s a wastin’! In the half-decade since, at our disposal we have been granted a plethora of statistical defensive metrics to help confirm, or challenge, what we as fans and pundits witness on the hardwood. Those developments have only served to make us even more impatient, more damning, of the teenaged and newly drinking-aged set of NBA upstarts. Being a perpetual minus on the court can be managed in the grander context of team hoops. But these days, us fans can identify the most minus-y minuses out there. When it’s somebody we’re not wild about, we can keep actual figures in our bag when it’s time to dig at his fans. “How can the worst defensive players in the history of the NBA be All-Stars?” You can be a big loser, or a weak link, in some respects. Just don’t be The Biggest, or The Weakest, lest you find dismissive critics who are more than happy to bid you, “Goodbye!” In that half-decade, James Harden has gone from YouTube laughingstock for his defensive nonchalance to an ex-MVP whose most critiqued defensiveness is directed at other All-Stars making fun of him not passing the ball. Once you get the teammates around you that accommodate your shortcomings, and you’re given the room to leave indelible offensive moments in our collective consciousness at playoff time, poof! Your defensive Debbie Downers have disappeared, as if it took the snap of Thanos’ fingers. Kyrie had LeBron come home, and he hit The Shot that secured Cleveland its first pro championship since, like, the Eisenhower administration. From that point on, has anyone questioned aloud whether he can guard a chair? Big Game Dame waved bye-bye to Harden, Dwight and the Rockets in 2014, and when his buzzer-beater dispatched Russ, PG and the Thunder in 2019, his defensive pot-shot artists seemed to hit the exits with them. Young needs not to go worst-to-first anytime soon. He just has to work towards getting his name off Page 13. Unlucky Page 13 on ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus (DRPM) ratings site is where you find Beal and, one spot above Young, Anfernee Simons, the prep-school-faced bench guard who is getting a splurge in playing time for the Blazers (26-34) with the injury to Lillard (groin, probably out through Monday’s end to their road trip in Orlando) and the alleviating deadline trade of Kent Bazemore to Sacramento. Page 11 is where you’ll find Kyrie. These days, Damian’s hiding out as a Page 10 guy. If PIPM’s your thing, and you sort from bottom-to-top on D-PIPM, there are the usual suspects (Trae, Brad, Half-Penny) right at the “top”. But you’ve got to take the effort to scroll down in order to find Lillard (18th-worst D-PIPM). Kyrie and Dame are still net-negatives, defensively. But absolutely nobody cares, not anymore. Accomplishments on big stages with the world’s eyes upon you help a ton. Teammates that have the sensibilities to know how to provide you adequate cover on that end of the floor are a big deal. Competent coaching, developmental, and managerial staffs that don’t give up on you go a long way. But the first big step for going from The Worst to Not Quite That Bad begins with you, the player, and your will to get better. “We’ve gotta get stops!” has been a mantra Trae has used at every opportunity in front of a mic since the Hawks returned from the All-Star Break. He’s not merely trying to speak French by saying, “we.” His awareness of how to avoid getting caught in space, or woefully out of position on pick-and-rolls, is improving. He stands out when he’s actively fighting for strips around the rim, or hounding ballhandlers as the shot clock nears expiration. As @Cwell commented yesterday, “Trae with the CLAMPS!! Lol”. Hawks fans are as vociferous and joyful in noting Trae’s defensive hustle, especially when it leads to a “stop,” as they are when he cans a logo-distance jumper. Much like Lillard (NBA-high 37.0 MPG, career-high 7.9 APG and 29.5 PPG) in his early seasons, one sign of Trae’s commitment to improve in many aspects is coming at the free throw line (91.7 FT% on 10.9 FTAs/game in February; 82.9 FT% on 5.1 attempts last season). Just a modicum of measurable improvement and consistency on the defensive end (119.5 D-Rating in losses this season, 108.1 in wins) gives his Hawks chances to win, and his slovenly slanderers a spray of Haters-B-Gone. Young understands he doesn’t necessarily have to get all the steals, blocks and boards that sweeten up the boxscores. But the stat at the end of his boxscore line will look better when he’s thinking of his duties on the defensive side of the ball, not the myriad #SCTop10 opportunities that await his team on the other end. Atlanta (18-43) has gone 3-2 since the Break, and coincidentally, Young has been zero-or-better on the plus-minus figure in four of the Hawks’ past five games. His +14 showing as the Hawks turned up the defensive heat in the final quarter last night and flamed the Nets, 141-118, was his best in over a month, despite offensive output that was subpar for his typical mastery (6-for-18 FGs). Also once hassled as a young Hawks starter for his struggles defending pick-and-rolls, Jeff Teague remembers his All-Star run, where he drew praise not merely for his uptick in scoring but for dogged defensive plays that led to highlight transition buckets. He provided a glimpse of the not-all-distant past with his cherry-on-top dunk off a mid-court theft in the closing minutes of Friday’s win over Brooklyn. When Jeff was a positive plus-minus, the Hawks were successful on the scoreboard. Similarly, Atlanta is 11-0 this season when Young turns in a +8 or better in a game. Anything +1 or worse, his Hawks are a diametric 0-34. Being an offensive supernova, but The Worst of the worst defensively, leaves you perceived as an NBA novelty act, categorized with the D’Angelo Russells and Lou Williamses of the world. The league’s Top 20 players for RPM generally co-align with MVP and MIP finalists (hello there, Dennis). While there are plenty of great two-way players in that mix, there are stars – Luka, Russ, Damian, throw in Curry and Kyrie if they were healthier – who are just slight negatives in the DRPM column. In the years to come, as Trae transforms from The Worst to just Bad, like his more accomplished peers, he’s going to find himself with a dedicated rung on the MVP Ladder. Trae doesn’t have to aim for DPOY glories. Halfway decent isn’t even required. When it comes to defense, our Hawks simply need him to be Bad. Come on, you know. Once he makes the Leap from The Worst to Bad, the whole world will have to answer, right then. Just to tell you, once again. Happy Leap Day! Happy HBCU Night! Go United! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. Portland just stays unlucky. ~lw3
  10. I was gonna have him come in for a workout at Flowery Branch this weekend if teams continued holding out. ~lw3
  11. KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD! Anybody crazy enough to do a deep dive into the annals of the Squawk’s dusty “NBA Trade Ideas” forum will find a LOT of Kent Bazemore mentions. Yes, they were often posted immediately after one of his infamous Headless Chicken plays while in uniform for the Atlanta Hawks. But the threads would also reflect our understanding that Baze, thorns and all, possessed significant NBA value. We didn’t stop posting ideas for Bazetrades over his five seasons in town, even after Kent wisely inked that four-year, $70 million deal in Atlanta’s pivotal (not so much because of him) 2016 summer of free agency. It was a deal that, at one time, would once render a moderate NBA talent immovable. Yet, Baze would not hesitate to catch-and-shoot an open jumper. Baze, to the extent it would be possible in his case, would hike up his shorts and get into a defensive stance, determined to force an offensive threat into an ill-advised pass, a deflection, a well-contested shot, or an offensive foul. Baze would do what he could to keep spirits up along the bench. Those elements, unlike the BazeGaze, were of grand worth to many NBA clubs, and astute Hawks fans suspected as much. A starting fifth-man, or a high-end reserve, hauling in 18 or 19 million smackeroos per year as he prepares to reach 30 years of age? That would be a no for most dawgs. But some might bite if their teams have a highly price-tagged player to dump, or if a swap could get themselves out of salary cap Hades in a year or two. I’m sure there were many Bazetrade ideas, because I posted more than my share of them. But I had another strategic carrot to dangle. It was essential, in my role as armchair GM, to woo Baze to teams in NBA markets that had the most eccentric denizens. My last failed attempt, “Laissez Lin Baze Temps Roulet?”, tried to get Kent and Jeremy to Aintsville in 2018, an idea gained probably after catching one of Dr. John’s records playing on alt-radio. The more flair that fans accept as part of everyday life, the more that Bazemore’s peculiarities would serve as a sweetener in a trade deal. And the only thing better than the late Dr. John’s vibe, in my mind, would be the late Dr. Jack’s pizzazz. I can find few better marriages of player and fans, respectively, than Kent Bazemore and the frolicking followers of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hawks kick off their 8-day, 5-game West Coast road trip (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest) in the town that was meant to have a Baze Craze. The people who know me, know well, that I know weird when I see it. At least from the first time Bill Walton stepped a giant foot in this town, Blazers fans have grown to accept that there will be times when their first major pro franchise would be competitive, and times where it would be run-of-the-mill. But they will accept no time in which the players they root for would be dull or, worse, normal. Kent just got there a few months ago, and already there he is, at the Blazers’ annual Fan Fest, holding up a trophy. He is not a guy that is going to win league-wide honors for player of the year, or month, or week, or hour. What the pride of Bertie, NC (10.4 career PPG, 3.8 career RPG in ATL) will do is collect a closetful of honoraria for his civic engagement and local philanthropy, when he is not on an NBA court giving it everything he thinks he’s got. He just left this town with the 2017 Phoenix Award, the City of Atlanta’s highest civilian honor, and a 2019 Jason Collier Memorial Trophy from the Hawks for his community service. He’s good people, through and through. And he’s weird, and comfortable in his weirdness. In this Oregon town, that’s perfect. On and off the floor. I defy you to come up with a better fit for misfits than the one Baze was traded to, acknowledging that Evan Turner was goofball enough. Hassan Whiteside? Professional podcaster CJ McCollum? Mario Hezonja? That’s just for starters (not kidding, those are starters, in Whiteside’s case until Jusuf Nurkic returns from his 2018 leg injury). Zach Collins (shoulder surgery, out for four months)? Rodney Hood (questionable, back injury)? Anthony Tolliver? Skal Labissiere (questionable, sprained ankle)? There’s no need to map it out for you. They’re just weird birds, man! Enough oddballs to set up a billiards tournament. You know there that there is no mold that could reasonably reproduce any of these cats on an NBA roster. Maybe the most on-the-mark typecast of a player the Blazers have in their rotation is the guy who does all he can to save their bacon on most nights, then hits the mixtape studio on the other nights. Damian Lillard (36 points vs. ATL on Mar. 29; 33.3 PPG, 2nd in NBA) dropped a career-high 60 big ones on Brooklyn here at the Moda Center. He and his mates also went home with an L. Hopefully his teammates brought him some Voodoo Doughnuts for the effort he put in during the 119-115 Netspick-pleasing defeat. I can’t find the stat I saw after Friday’s game, but 9 games into Portland’s season, and not one Blazer has assisted on a Lillard bucket more than twice all year. The beauty of the play by the star point guards tonight, Lillard and Atlanta’s Trae Young, is they will hurl a cross-court, behind-the-back, between-the-legs pinpoint pass on the money to the likes of Damian Jones, and not care a whit that the person on the receiving end is, with all due respect, just Damian Jones. Or, Jabari Parker just after blowing a layup on the last SCTop10-worthy pass. Or, the second biggest Ukrainian scandal going, somehow-still-starter Alex Len. Young (8.1 APG), and Lillard (6.9 APG), will dutifully find their teammates the rock, and will not expect much generosity in return. Portland is last in the league with 17.0 measly APG (41.2 assist%), and it would help if the goofs would at least pass the ball to each other some more. Bazemore (1.6 APG, 1.6 TOs/game) is third among active Blazers in assists after McCollum, who could stand to pass more until his jumper returns (3.1, 32.6 3FG%, 38.0 FG%). Kent could be more of a secondary passer on the team once coach Terry Stotts figures out why he’s there. They may one day have a secondary dime-dropper in the up-and-coming Anfernee Simons (1.0 APG), but the youngster isn’t ready yet. The Hawks have gotten next-to-zilch from Turner, due to a persistent Achilles injury, and have suffered similarly (22,9 team APG, 22nd in NBA) despite Young's occasional brilliance. Kevin Huerter (4-for-7 3FGs, 4 assists in Friday's loss vs. SAC) showed he may be coming out of his shell, and hopefully his improved shooting and passing will be in time for Atlanta (3-5) to hang tough with its Western foes this week. Bazemore is a free agent this summer, and he’ll do all he can to show Portland and the Blazers why he ought to be a keeper, although it would really help if the team improves enough that he can show off his indispensable play in the postseason. Don’t nobody tell him yet about the World Naked Bike Ride. He might never want to leave. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. Way too much "Turmoil" for clubs winning 50-55 percent of their games, IMO, but that's coming from a fan of a team whose "Turmoil", for the past decade, usually had to happen away from the hardwood. ~lw3
  13. “NOW, WHEN I SAY FIRE, YOU SAY STOTTS. FIRE!” After beating the Kings back in mid-November, it took 40 calendar days before the Portland Trail Blazers came away victorious again in their own building. Back at the Moda Center following an up-and-down road trip, the Portland Trail Blazers seek to avenge last weekend’s 104-89 loss in Atlanta against the Hawks (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PDX). Might the next winless streak for the home crowd stretch beyond eight days? I’m not so sure ex-Hawks coach Terry Stotts can last in his current gig with another weeks-long home drought. Yes, Damian Lillard (25.2 PPG, 7th in NBA) is back, and although his right calf is a bit gimpy after returning from a hamstring injury to post 25 points (7 TOs) in 33 minutes during Wednesday’s loss in Cleveland, Dame DOLLA probably won’t miss a chance at getting a measure of payback versus Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder (favorite candy bar: 2 Musketeers). Lillard’s return alleviates sidekick C.J. McCollum (23.2 PPG, 37.5 FG% in five games Lillard missed) from being excessively hounded by defenders while jacking up shots. Dame also allows Shabazz Napier (21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks @ ATL on Dec. 30) to provide some spark to an otherwise offensively lifeless reserve unit (26th in bench O-Rating; 28th in bench eFG%; dead-last 43.9 bench assist%, no other NBA bench below 50 assist%). But if the Blazers fail to grab the home W tonight versus league-worst Atlanta (10-27), or against a rested Spurs team on Sunday, then they’d have to endure a tough four-game Western Conference road trip before the suddenly upbeat Phoenix Suns pays Rip City a visit, 11 days from now. Since turning a 33-win outfit in Lillard’s rookie season into a 54-28 squad with a legendary first-round playoff upset, Stotts’ Blazers have declined in the win column in every season since, going from 54 to 51 to 44 to an even-steven 41. They’ve never entered a playoff series under Stotts as a favored seed, and the prospects for a top-4-seed, for a well-paid roster that has few tradable components, continues to dwindle. Very little of this has been Stotts’ fault, considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s defection to the Spurs, and GM Neil Olshey’s sketchy decisions during the draft (giving up 2017 first-rounders before-and-after John Collins, to take Zach Collins in the lottery) and in free agency (Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner ‘16). But a January tailspin would have Portland (19-18) sinking below .500, and possibly out of the playoffs for the first time in five seasons, in the unforgiving NBA West. While the Blazers are aiming for a must-win, the Hawks come up the Oregon Trail after wrestling away a must-lose from the jaws of victory against the Suns. Despite his team blowing a double-digit lead in the final three minutes on Tuesday, Dennis Schröder (favorite sitcom: Two’s Company) had an opening to dish to an open Taurean Prince (eager to make amends, moments after getting highlighted at the rim by Marquese Chriss) for the game-tying three. Schröder (5 TOs @ PHX, most since Nov. 15) may have caught wind of Prince’s boxscore line (2-for-14 FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs) and elected to press his luck with a last-second layup try instead. It was the type of questionable decision-making that could weigh Ay ton for Atlanta a few months from now. Tanks a bunch, Dennis! For Portland, it all comes down to these critical fourth quarters, where they make an NBA-low 1.9 threes per game. Their offense petered out during the final frame of their games in Atlanta (20-32 points differential) and Cleveland (23-36), and in their last five losses, the Blazers have averaged a mere 20.6 PPG as a team in those quarters. “We gotta put together a full game,” McCollum told The Oregonian yesterday, perhaps recalling his Lillard-less squad’s 17 third-quarter tally last Saturday as well. “The second half will be huge for us; how we start the third quarter, and how we sustain that.” It’s usually in that last quarter where the Hawks’ field goal-making comes alive (47.9 FG%, 2nd-best in NBA; 40.9 3FG%, 3rd-best in NBA). That is, at least, when they can get shots off without turning over the ball (16.4 TO%, 2nd-worst in NBA) or missing free throws after getting hacked (hey there, Miles Plumlee). With top-scorers Lillard and McCollum usually in to close out games, Stotts’ challenge is to find the complementary frontcourt contributors who can get stops and spark transition (27th in PPG off TOs, last in fastbreak PPG), but can at least look like a threat to be involved in plays on the offensive end. We may be in the throes of Winter, but if the Blazers don’t figure out some stable lineups to finish games, Stotts is certain to become Olshey’s Fall Guy before the Spring gets here. Go Dawgs! Rise Up! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. “Say, Jeff Teague’s no longer around these parts, right? Phew!” I never promised you a Portland Trail Blazers win at the Rose Garden. Yet here they are, entering tonight’s game with the Atlanta Hawks at The Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest) having just won its first game in its home arena since November 18. The Blazers are feeling quite relieved, having previously gone 0-6 in that 42-game span, beating a 76ers team that had last month handed Portland its worst loss of the season, a 101-81 thrashing in Philly. At least that game featured Damian Lillard, who missed Thursday night’s rematch and may sit out today’s game while healing a strained hammy. Hopes were wilting once again on Thursday in the City of Roses, when the Sixers widened their lead to 18 points late in the third quarter. But as Lillard sat, Shabazz Napier rose. To that point of the game, Lillard’s replacement in the starting lineup had a solitary point on the scoreboard. He finished the game with a season-high 23 points, helping out C.J. McCollum (34 points vs. PHI) and Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 12 rebounds vs. PHI), who finally found a way to make baskets in the vicinity of the rim. A 19-0 fourth-quarter surge helped coach Terry Stotts’ club avoid a seventh-straight home defeat and, at least for now, remain at arm’s reach from the lottery-bound teams in the Western Conference. The reason Portland (18-16) has remained above water is their solid record away from home (10-6), with wins notched specifically against Eastern clubs – Indiana, Brooklyn, Washington, the Knicks. This month alone, they’ve won three games in a span of just four days in Miami, Orlando, and Charlotte, and they come into Atlanta aiming for a Southeast Division road sweep, with or without Big Game Dame (25.2 PPG, career-low 41.8 FG%, career-high 92.8 FT% and 5.0 RPG). The Blazers do have a one-day rest advantage, as the Hawks flew in last night from Toronto after getting stiff-armed by our old friend Bebe Nogueira and the Raptors. Atlanta (9-26) doesn’t win when they’re not fending opponents off the glass, as yesterday’s loss extended their winless streak to 0-9 when opponents nab 50 or more rebounds. They also don’t stay in games when they get sloppy with execution, and the Kent Bazemore we all know and loathe returned yesterday with five first-half turnovers, coincidental with the game getting squirrely for the visitors. The lack of care with possessions wasted a banner evening from second-year forward Taurean Prince. No one will mind if his career-high 30 points (5-for-6 3FGs) and 10 rebounds becomes closer to a norm for Taurean the DeLorean. But if we’re ever able to return to something resembling Budball, Prince (2.5 APG) and the Hawks’ frontcourt must be more routinely involved in the passing game. With small forwards included, the frontcourt contributed just two of Atlanta’s 21 assists on Basketball Night in Canada. In Tuesday’s big home win over Washington, Miles “Hands of Stone” Plumlee collected three dimes on his own. Prince’s season-high of eight assists came in the biggest-margin victory of the season, the 46-point crowning of the Kings last month. The Hawks need all hands on deck to keep opponents from feasting on the offensive glass, as everyone from centers Jonas Valanciunas (6 O-Rebs vs. ATL), Bebe (3 O-Rebs in 7 minutes), Jakob Poeltl (3 O-Rebs) and even rangy guard Delon Wright (3 O-Rebs) were having their way on Thursday. After getting schooled early by Joel Embiid and then busting heads with J.J. Redick, Portland’s Nurkic (5 O-Rebs vs. PHI) re-awakened his Bosnian Beast act in time for the Blazers’ late run. He and the crafty Ed Davis intend to be particularly active around the rim today. Perimeter defenders, particularly in the corners, must get in proper position in the paint after shots go up, given the likelihood of long caroms. The Hawks can stay in games, and even lead them, when they’re at least staying even on 50/50 balls. Perhaps inspired by the ghost of LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland bigs like Nurkic, Noah Vonleh (probable, disloc’d finger), and Meyers Leonard (questionable, ankle sprain) have grown particularly fond of settling for long-range two-pointers, so it’s essential for the Hawks to collect those probable misses and spark swifter transitions downcourt. After getting boatraced downcourt repeatedly in the first half in T-Dot, the Hawks should rather enjoy a game against a Blazers team that doesn’t push the tempo very often (NBA-low 5.5 fastbreak PPG) and would much prefer a halfcourt battle-of-wills. If Dennis Schröder (6-for-20 FGs @ TOR; 8.3 APG and 1.3 SPG last 7 games) is on his A-game at both ends, controlling the tempo and contributing to getting stops, Atlanta can enter 2018 smelling more like a nice bowl of roses, and less like what it often takes to grow them. Happy New Year! Go Dawgs! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record