Blazers' Corner

Blazers’ Corner: The Last Time Portland Won a Playoff Series

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Making the Playoffs, Great… But When Was the Last Time Portland Won a Series?

IN THE YEAR 2000.  IN THE YEAR 2000!!!!  Sorry, not only was I having a flashback to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but I was also thinking about the last time the Portland Trail Blazers actually won a playoff series.

Blazers Jazz Playoffs - AP-Kevork Djansezian
The last time Portland won a series, Arvydas Sabonis and Karl Malone were battling in the paint. | (AP:Kevork Djansezian) 

That’s right, it’s been that long.  To put it in perspective, every other team in the Western Conference has managed to win at least one series in that span.  This includes some pretty terrible LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors teams in the mid-00s.  But even they managed to have one year where they broke through (LA in ’06, Golden State in ’07 shocking the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks).

Because it’s been so long, I thought I’d take a look back at what was popular/normal in THE YEAR 2000 just to depress Blazers fans even more reiterate how long it’s been.  All of these stats and facts were taken from thepeoplehistory.com.

Price of Gas:  $1.26

Wow, just wow.  The less said the better with this one.

Tiger Woods becomes the youngest player to win a Grand Slam in Golf

And we all thought he was well on his way to passing Jack Nicklaus and becoming the greatest of all time.  Instead, the Mrs. decides to take up the game by using Tiger’s head as a golf ball uncovering a web of lies on Tiger’s part.  He hasn’t been the same since all the infidelity stopped.  Think about that for a second.

The 2000 Presidential Election ends with George W. Bush defeating Al Gore despite more than a month of disputes of the final tally in Florida

Bush vs Gore - Rick McKay
It was too close to call in 2000. | (Rick McKay)

Now this was a mess.  We all thought Bush had won and then the “Hanging Chad” joined the lexicon delaying the inevitable.  This event will forever be immortalized by this gentlemen.  Never has an individual been more confused about anything ever.

Y2K

Guess what?  The lights stayed on, Skynet did not become self-aware and mass hysteria did not occur as dogs and cats remained somewhat agitated by one another.

51 Million viewers watch the first season finale of the reality show Survivor

Thus beginning the horrible, brain-cell killing, thought-it-was-a-fad-but-really-it’s-here-to-stay epidemic that is reality television.  Can you tell I don’t watch any of it?

Popular Music 

The Dandy Warhols - bbook.com
The Dandy Warhols! Remember them. | (bbook.com)

You had your boy bands (N-Sync, 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys), female pop stars (Britney Spears, Pink, Christina Aguilera), indie bands going mainstream (Red Hot Chili Peppers), emerging UK rock giants (Coldplay) and a Pacific Northwest band creatively named The Dandy Warhols.

Popular Movies

It’s hard to follow a great movie year like 1999 (The Matrix, Fight Club, Office Space, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Three Kings, Election, etc..) and unfortunately, 2000 is not remembered fondly.  Sure you had Gladiator, Traffic, Wonder Boys (I threw that in myself.  It wasn’t popular) and Meet the Parents, but there was also bad blockbusters like Mission: Impossible II, Scary Movie and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

What was I doing in 2000

I can tell you what I wasn’t doing yet:

Driving with a license, smiling with my new straight teeth, graduating high school, discovering Arrested Development and breaking free of those totally awkward teenage years.

Blazers Team - Kyle Terada - USA TODAY Sports
A successful season for the Blazers is a series win in the playoffs. | (USA TODAY Sports: Kyle Terada) 

Why have I spent this entire Blazers column not talking about the Blazers?  Because I’m 30 now and I just realized they didn’t win a series in my 20s.  That’s how long it’s been since Portland won a playoff series.

Making the playoffs is great.  Portland has done it in 30 of their 44 seasons which is something the organization should be proud of.  But they’ve only managed to win at least one series in 9 of those 30 appearances.  They’ve lost in the first round in 9 out of their last 11 trips to the post season.

Is this the year they get over the hump?  And by hump I mean winning one series.  Blazer basketball in May, that’s all fans are asking for at this point.  Just a hint at the possibility of a team that might eventually be good enough to go deep in the playoffs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: Portland’s Late Season Struggles Seem Familiar

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What it is with the Blazers and the second-half to seasons?  Since the beginning of February, Portland is the only Western-Conference playoff team with a losing record at 13-14.  More recently, they’ve three of four and seven of ten.  Their star player, LaMarcus Aldridge, has been out the majority of this rough stretch, but if you’ve followed the team for a while, you know that All-Star player or not, this team always struggles to close regular seasons.

1999-20 Season

Ah yes, the last great Portland team.  Despite ultimately getting to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Lakers in game 7 (I apologize for bringing this up), Portland did not enter the playoffs on a particularly high note.

 

Portland Trail Blazers
Portland lost to the Lakers three straight years in the playoffs in the early 2000s. | (nba.com)

If you recall  on Leap Year Day in 2000, Portland and the Lakers played at the Rose Garden with matching 45-11 records and 11-game winning streaks.  Anyone who followed the league knew these were the best two teams in the NBA and when they inevitably met in the conference finals, the winner would go on to win the championship.

They eventually lost a 90-87 heartbreaker and the tailspin began.  They would go 14-12 the rest of the way and while it didn’t prevent them from reaching the conference finals (they easily dispatched the T-Wolves and Jazz going 7-2 in both series), they did not have home-court when they played Los Angeles which may or may not have played a factor in that series (they lost two home games and won two road games in that series anyway).

2000-01 Season

The very next season, the team was rolling again.  Following a drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on March 3, the team stood at 42-18.  Things were going so well, they decided to bring more depth to the team by adding an aging Rod Strickland.  As it turned out, he was not the final piece to the puzzle.

A five-game losing streak followed, including two losses to the lowly Vancouver Grizzlies, Shawn Kemp got busted for drugs and left the team and the Blazers went 8-14 the rest of the way.

Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells - sikids.com
Portland was often frustrated late in seasons. | (sikids.com)

Despite finishing with 50 wins, Portland’s limp into the playoffs managed to get them the 7th seed and another matchup with the Lakers.  There was no exciting, long series this time around as the Blazers were swept by the eventual champs in three blow-out losses.  Oh, and they fired head coach Mike Dunleavy after the season.  The same guy who won Coach of the Year with the team two years earlier.

2001-02 Season

From mid-February to mid-March, the Blazers were actually playing really well.  At the All-Star break, the Blazers were an average team at 25-23.  But then they reeled off 18 wins in 22 games and were riding high at 44-27.

They then preceded to go 4-6 in the last ten games, finish as the 6th seed and once again got swept 3-0 by the eventual Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.  It’s a smaller sample size, but it’s still noteworthy.

2002-03 Season 

Another strong start and an average finish.  After winning 7 of 9, the Blazers sat at 39-20 on March 2 and possibly had one more deep playoff run in them with aging stars like Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis.  But once again, the team struggled heading into the post season.

Portland went 11-12 to finish the regular season, met Dallas in the first round as a 7th seed and after being down 3-0 in the series, the Blazers rallied and took the Mavericks to a game 7 in Dallas (the first team in NBA history to force a game 7 after being down 3-0).

But the team would run out of gas in the fourth quarter of the deciding game and eventually lose 107-95.  That was a competitive team with Zach Randolph coming into his own and Bonzi Wells playing the best basketball of his career (remember his 45 points in game 2?).

If only they had had that fire in the last quarter of the season?  They could have gotten home-court advantage and played Dallas four times in the Rose Garden.

2007-08 Season

This team brings back fond memories.  Expected to still be in rebuilding mode, the 07-08 team looked like it was headed there after a 5-12 start.  But then Portland did the unthinkable and won 13 consecutive games and 19 of 21.  On January 14, they were a solid 23-14 behind strong play from a couple of young studs (Brandon Roy and Aldridge), the Vanilla Guerilla Joel Przybilla and the irrationally clutch Travis Outlaw.

Travis Outlaw - wallcoo.net
Travis Outlaw was Mr. Clutch with the Blazers. | (wallcoo.net)

The honeymoon would not last however as the young pups would go 18-27 the rest of the way.  But it was fun while it lasted.

Recent History  

The following two seasons ended with a thud.  The 2011-12 team had expectations going into the season with Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace and newly acquired Jamal Crawford and Raymon Felton as well as rumors of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden’s return.

Yeah… about that.  Felton came in to training camp out of shape, Crawford went from being a streaky shooter to just plain awful, Camby got old overnight, Roy and Oden never played for Portland again and coach Nate McMillan was eventually fired.  The 66-game lockout season is not a fond memory.

And that brings us to last season.  Everyone remembers the 13-game losing streak to end the season, but do you remember that team was 20-15 at one point after beating the Miami Heat at home?  That doesn’t sound like an impressive record, but last year’s team essentially had five players worth a damn.

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns, Game 2
The last two months have been frustrating. | (Getty Images)

It’s because of this that the starters played too many minutes, broke down and the team went 13-34 (yikes?) the rest of the way.  After the win against the Heat, Portland lost six straight games where the margin of defeat was never greater than six.  This gut-wrenching stretch doomed them the rest of the way.

So as you can see, Portland apparently believes in the adage; it’s not how you finish, but how you start.  This season has followed the same formula and unless the Blazers right the ship quickly, they’re in danger of joining a long list of teams that had unmemorable playoff runs.

 

 

 

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: EDN Goes to the Portland Vs. Milwaukee Game

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This week’s Blazers’ Corner is a little different.  Unlike every other column where I watch the team from the comfort of my living-room couch in Springfield, Tuesday brought me a little closer to the Blazers as EDN was granted press credentials to the game between Portland and the Milwaukee Bucks.

But instead of doing a simple recap (everyone does one of those), I thought I’d share my experience at the game as well as provide some analysis on the game itself.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Nicolas Batum scored 19 of his 21 points in the first half. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck) 

My partner in crime for this trip was photographer extraordinaire Craig Strobeck.  We left Springfield at 3:30 and traveled up north in Craig’s Lincoln town car in hopes of beating the 5:00 traffic in Portland.  We did for the most part.

After leaving the car at the first paid parking lot we could find, we made our way down to the Rose Quarter and attempted to find the media entrance which was an adventure in and of itself.  The traffic guy with the funny accent didn’t know.  Neither did the two fellas siting in a Fox Sports media car (you’d think they would know).  Eventually we were escorted by a gentleman in a fancy suit to the elevator that took us down to the loading dock.

Around 6:00 we finally settled in to the media center after obtaining our press passes.  We stored our gear and enjoyed a nice free buffet.  I had the salad, broccoli and some sort of pasta.  Any meal that’s free is a good meal in my book.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Robin Lopez recorded 15 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks in the victory over Milwaukee. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck) 

We then got a lay of the land out on the court.  Craig found his designated spot on the hardwood floor where he would spend the next three hours.  I then preceded to walk to the different press tables to find where I would be sitting for the game.  Along the way I sheepishly walked through the camera section where Todd Bosma, Director of Game Operations & Events, put me in my place by saying, “Get low, we’re shooting right now.”  Rookie mistake on my part.

After foolishly thinking I would be sitting with the big boys (The Oregonian, Associated Press, etc..), I quickly discovered that I would be sitting at the kid’s table on this night amongst other smaller publications like Blazer’s Edge and Willamette Weekly in the upper section.  I could care less.

As for the game, the Trail Blazers as usual provided fans with another heart-pounding, stress-induced performance against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks.  If not for Nicolas Batum’s hot start (16 points in the first quarter), the Blazers would have found themselves in a bigger hole after the first quarter.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Wesley Matthews took advantage of small defenders by posting up and getting to the foul line in the second half. | (Photo: Craig Strobeck)

The second period was decidedly better as the Blazers outscored the Bucks by eight points.  Mo Williams was the catalyst in the period scoring 10 points including two 3-pointers.

Through three quarters, Damian Lillard was having perhaps his worst game of the season.  In fact, he had more turnovers (5) than field goals made (2) and yet the team maintained a three point lead heading into the fourth quarter (you can do that when you play the Bucks).

The fourth quarter and overtime belonged to the Portland backcourt.  Lillard emerged from the slump he was in and scored 15 points including the game-tying layup that eventually sent the game into overtime.

Wesley Matthews also poured in 15 points in the final 17 minutes and he mixed outside shooting (two 3-pointers) with post-up plays which led to a five-for-five night at the foul line in crunch time.  The capper on the Blazer win was a Matthews steal which he then turned into a behind-the-back pass to Lillard for the dunk.  The crowd that was left (people actually starting leaving at the end of regulation) erupted.  The Blazers defeated the Bucks 120-115.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 120-115
Damian Lillard realized the shot wasn’t falling so he attacked the basket more in the second half. | (Photo: Craig Colbert)   

At the press conference following the game, Terry Stotts walked up to the podium looking like he had just ate some bad fish.  Had to have been the most demoralizing victory of the season for coach.

“I’m glad I’m standing here after a win instead of a loss,” said Stotts.  “We didn’t come out with the urgency that we needed. … I hope we understand that we were very fortunate to win the game tonight.”

The mood in the locker room wasn’t exactly jovial.  Lillard was just happy to escape with a win.

“If we would have lost that game everybody in here would have been sick,” said Lillard.

Matthews reiterated that sentiment.  “[The Bucks] should have put us away.  We should have been in the locker room pissed off.  But they didn’t.”

Batum summed it up best.  “That was a weird game.  I don’t want to talk about it. … I want to forget that game.”

I met Craig back in the media center and found a bag of popcorn to eat on the way home.  Exiting the loading dock, a crowd of Blazers fans were excited to see Matthews approaching them for a few autographs.  It’s always a lot easier to please the fans after a win.

The Blazers will play Washington on Thursday night before embarking on another five-game road trip.

Random Game Notes:

The two teams combined for 39 points in overtime which has to be some kind of record.

Batum finished one rebound and one assist shy of a triple-double.

Good Meyers Leonard:  His outlet passes after rebounds.

Bad Meyers Leonard:  Missed dunk, total lack of inside presence, inability to block any shot whatsoever, the camouflage pants he was wearing after the game, etc..

Portland’s 20-4 record (83.3 percent) against the Eastern Conference is the best mark of any West team against the East this season.  And yet they still lost to Philadelphia at home.

Lillard is the first NBA player with at least 3,000 points and 900 assists in his first 150 career games since some guy named Lebron James.

Portland is 22-5 when Mo Williams scores in double figures.

Robin Lopez recorded his 26th double-double of the season.  He had 15 for his career entering the season.

Blazers’ Corner: Portland Woes Continue, Joel Freeland Could be Out for Season

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Portland Struggling at Wrong Time

Following a 103-90 loss at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, the Blazers have now fallen to 0-4 on their current 5-game road trip.  This latest loss led to a players-only meeting after the game.  It’s never a good sign for a team when the players need to discuss things without the coaches present.  Panic hasn’t set in apparently, but the players are certainly aware of their recent struggles.

They’ve lost 5 of 6 overall and have gone winless in their last 11 meetings against Western Conference playoff teams.  Their current four-game losing streak is also a first this season.  To say they’ve played their worst stretch of the season would be an understatement.

And it’s the way they’ve lost that has been even more maddening.  In the Texas-Two Step, Portland blew late fourth quarter leads in spectacular fashion.  In Dallas, after overcoming a 30-point deficit, the team regrouped in the second half and led 89-82 with under five minutes left.  They would go scoreless the rest of the way and allowed Dallas to get back in the game with free throw shooting.

Trail Blazers - sports.net
Portland has a month to turn things around before the real season starts. | (www.sports.net)

The Houston game was even more of a head-scratcher.  Leading virtually the entire way, the Blazers held a 13-point advantage midway through the fourth quarter.  Then suddenly, they couldn’t hit a shot or make a free-throw before eventually losing in overtime.

The last two, against Memphis and the Spurs, weren’t even that close.  Poor shooting continued to plague the team resulting in poor shot selection.  Gone was the crisp ball movement, slashing & cutting and confidence.  With one game remaining before returning home, the Blazers need to rediscover what worked for them earlier in the season.

Remember, this team has two wins each over San Antonio and Oklahoma City and victories against Indiana, Houston, Golden State and the Clippers.  They know how to beat good teams and yet lately, they’re reacting rather than dictating the tone of these games resulting in losses as well as making unforced mistakes like turnovers and missed free throws.

Negative results leads to negative press as well.  The “Damian Lillard can’t play defense” talk is back, LaMarcus Aldridge’s shooting percentage and shot selection are in question and the interior defense continues to haunt the team and fan’s dreams.

Since beginning the season 24-5, the team has gone just 18-18 and after being near the top of the Western Conference standings, they find themselves just a game-and-a-half ahead of the Warriors for sixth in the west.

Portland Trail Blazers v Phoenix Suns, Game 2
Losses and injuries don’t mix well. | (www.nba.com)

Oh, and I forgot, Aldridge and Mo Williams are now both out with injuries so Portland now has to rely even more on bench players who have been inconsistent to say the least.

They’ve played with house money for the entire year and with a month to go in the regular season, beginners luck has been replaced with a slow losing trend.

Joel Freeland Mostly LIkely Out for Remainder of Regular Season

When Trail Blazers’ backup center Joel Freeland crumpled to the floor; clutching his leg and writhing pain, most people, including me, thought he had torn a ligament in his knee.  The injury, which occurred on Feb. 11 against Oklahoma City, ended up being a sprain of the right MCL.  The timetable for his return following the injury was four to eight weeks.

According to Joe Freeman of The Oregonian, Freeland said on Tuesday that he could miss another five weeks, which translates to the remainder of the regular season.

It’s been four weeks and Freeland hasn’t even participated in any basketball-related activities.  He’s been reduced to riding an exercise bike and shooting jumpers in practice.  The regular season officially ends on April 16 and Freeland intends to be on the court when the postseason start.

“I look at it like I’ve got a month to get ready for the playoffs,” said Freeland.

You wouldn’t think the team would miss 3 points and 4 rebounds a game, but it’s Freeland’s defense and basketball intelligence that the team’s second unit is missing.  Yes, Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard have been effective lately, but they still produce head-scratching plays every now and then because they’re still out to prove that they can be high-level players in the league.

Joel Freeland - www.fansided.com
Portland misses Joel Freeland’s presence in the middle. | (www.fansided.com)

Freeland knows what he is and he’s accepted it.  He knows that the team needs strong defense, aggressiveness in the paint, quality screens and a hard foul every now and then.  When Robin Lopez goes out of the game, the team lacks that dynamic and Freeland was the closest replacement the team had.

Freeland is one of the players that you don’t really appreciate or value until he’s out.  His teammates and fans certainly miss his presence and Freeland is in a situation he’s never faced before.

“It’s frustrating,” said Freeland.  “I’ve never had an injury in my life.”

Welcome to Portland, Freeland.

 

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: LaMarcus Aldridge Going Home, Fans Get to Design Court

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LA Going Home at Just the Right Time

LaMarcus Aldridge has appeared in three games following time off to nurse a sore groin and he’s looked a little rusty in all of them.  In games against Denver, Los Angeles and Atlanta, the three-time All Star is averaging just 15.7 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting a paltry 36 percent from the field.  Wednesday’s 1-13 performance was the worst shooting night of the season for Aldridge as he wasn’t hitting any of his patented fade-aways or 18-footers.

Not playing high-level basketball for nearly two weeks will do that to you and LA admits it’s mostly ‘timing’ that he needs to get back.

“Since coming back, I haven’t felt my timing has been great.  Tonight, I was trying to find it in the minutes I was out there,” said Aldridge.  “(The Hawks) were double-teaming some and digging a lot.  I was trying to force the issue, but I never found my rhythm.  I’ll find it (Thursday) at practice.”

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Portland Trail Blazers
There’s no place like home. | (nba.com)

Practice is a good place to start, but it also doesn’t hurt that the first game on Portland’s five-game road trip is in Aldridge’s hometown: Dallas.  LA always seems to play well there and in the team’s last trip to Dallas, Aldridge posted 30 points and 12 rebounds on 61 percent shooting.  He also hit a game-winner there a couple of years ago if you recall.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers reveals that for his career, Aldridge averages more points per game (21.9) against Dallas than any other opponent in the Western Conference.  The 52 percent shooting isn’t bad either.

The most important game of a long road trip is the first one.  It can make or break a team’s confidence and performance.  Dallas has dropped three straight games as they fight to claim one of the last three playoff spots so the Blazers can expect their best effort on Friday.  If Aldridge is going to discover his rhythm again, Dallas is the perfect place to do it.

Fans Get to Help Redesign the Blazers’ Court

In November of last year, it was announced that the Trail Blazers organization was going to replace the court at the Moda Center following the 2013-14 season and that there was serious discussion about changing the look of the court as well.

Blazer court - trailblazers.com
Here’s my design. What do you think? | (trailblazers.com) 

Well it’s official, they are indeed changing the design of the court.  But they need a little feedback from fans before that happens.  Actually, they need more than feedback.

On Tuesday, the organization announced a contest which allows fans to “Create The Court.”  This isn’t some silly, gimmicky online thing either, it’s the real deal.

From the press release:

The team has joined forces with lead partner Moda Health to launch the Create the Court contest.  Beginning today, fans can visit trailblazers.com/CreateTheCourt and choose from a variety of options to create and submit their design.  Among the customizable options: word-marks, color schemes, patterns and tones.  In all, there are 184,320 possible combinations all within the NBA guidelines.

“This will be one of the most visible changes we’ve made to our arena in over a decade, so it’s important that we involve our fans in the decision-making process,” said Chris McGowan, President & CEO of the Trail Blazers and Moda Center.  “Conducting the contest on trailblazers.com and enlisting the help of Rip City is going to be a lot of fun and I am excited to start seeing the submissions.”

The graphics on the Trail Blazers’ current court have been slightly modified over time, but this will be the first time an entirely new court will be installed since the 2002-03 season.

The design process is fairly straight-forward (and easy for people like me).  There are six parts to the court to design — the boards, the baseline, baseline text, center court, the key and the lines.

Old Memorial Coliseum - forums.nba-live.com
My inspiration. | (forums.nba-live.com) 

Each section can be customized with various designs, colors and logos.  The color schemes included the obvious team colors: red, white and black, as well as silver and orange.  The word-marks that can be used are “Portland,” “Trail Blazers,” and “Rip City.”

Personally, I went with a design that feels both new and old-school.  I made the baseline court white like the old days at the Memorial Coliseum and I threw in black for the key lines and red for all other lines.  “Rip City” is featured behind each basket and the center-court baseline at the bottom feature “Trail Blazers.”

Fans have until March 16 to submit their designs.  After that, the team will announced three finalists which fans can vote for.  The most-voted design will be installed for next season and the winner will receive court-side seats to the 2014-15 home opener.

 

Blazers’ Corner: Defense Improving, Lillard Shooting Better, Former Blazer Felton Arrested

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Raymond Felton Appears Unapologetic Following Arrest

Former Blazers guard Raymond Felton was arrested early Tuesday and charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree and criminal possession of a firearm after his wife turned in a loaded semi-automatic handgun to a local precinct.  She made the decision because she no longer wanted the gun in their home.

Felton returned to practice with the New York Knicks on Wednesday and addressed the media.  In less than a minute, not only did he not take any questions regarding the arrest, but he also thanked his family, friends and teammates for their support and insisted the felony weapons charges was “not a distraction” to the team.

Raymon Felton - AP-Darron Cummings
Raymond Felton likes to blame everyone but himself for his troubles on and off the court. | (AP / Darron Cummings) 

He’s probably right about the distraction part (that team is a mess either way), but for him to not apologize or feel contrite in any way regarding the matter is yet another example of how little Felton gets it.

Of course Blazers fans will remember (or choose to forget), Felton’s lone season with the team as one of the worst high-profile pickups in recent memory and it wasn’t for anything he did off the court.

Joining a promising Portland team that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby and Jamal Crawford, Felton was thought to be the point guard of the future.  Instead he came into training camp out of shape which greatly affected his and the team’s performance for the first quarter of the season.

Add to that every dribble off the foot, every turnover after a failed split of the double team, every awkward-looking floater and missed wide-open shot as well as blaming everyone (fans, Nate McMillan) but yourself about your poor play and by the end of the season, anyone who followed the Blazers had a pretty good idea of what kind of a person Raymond Felton was.

Watching the short clip of Felton on Wednesday where he appeared to be annoyed at the very thought of having his character questioned or the fact that he was speaking for everyone in the Knicks organization by saying his arrest wasn’t a distraction, it reminded me and probably a lot of fans of just how little he seems to care about anyone but himself.

His time in Portland was short-lived and based on this incident and his play with the Knicks this season (10.4 PPG, 40 percent shooting, 29 percent 3-point shooting), which is worse than his season with the Blazers, it’s safe to say he will be looking for yet another home in the NBA next year.

Portland Suddenly Playing Better Defense

With the loss of Aldridge, as well as the majority of the team’s frontline due to injury, the thought was that Portland’s defense would not only continue to be mediocre, but that it would get worse.  But during the team’s current four-game winning streak, they’ve held all four opponents below 100 points.  That’s a first this season.  So how are they doing it?

First of all, they’re giving a better effort which is half the battle.  In the last three wins, Portland has held each opponent under 40 percent shooting.  Guys are contesting shots better, anticipating double-teams and switching faster and Robin Lopez has decided to host a “Block Party” in the paint on a nightly basis.

Robin Lopez Blocking - therichest.com
Robin Lopez has been a shot-blocking machine this season. | (therichest.com)

Another area the Blazers are thriving in is forcing turnovers which turn into fast break points.  Forced to play smaller lineups with all the injuries, players like Mo Williams, Will Barton and Batum are leaking out on missed shots resulting in at least 19 fast break points in each of their last three games.  They know they give up a lot of points in the paint, so they’re creating easy buckets in transition to counter that.

Portland also may have found a specific lineup that consistently plays defense.  Victor Claver in particular has been a bright spot defensively.  He might be the worst-shooting European player I’ve ever seen, but he’s an intelligent basketball player who can guard multiple positions.  Pairing him with Lopez and wing players who are active and cause deflections and get in passing lanes has been an effective unit.  It’s a small sample, but still encouraging as the season winds down and the team prepares for the playoffs.

Damian Lillard Shooting On the Rise

In the absence of Aldridge, Damian Lillard has become the first option and despite an increase in shot attempts, Lillard has shot the ball considerably better.  Averaging 19 attempts, the young point guard is shooting 51 percent from the floor and a big reason for that is his sudden improvement in finishing at the rim.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard’s scoring inside is steadily improving. | (nba.com)

In the past, Lillard has driven to the basket and instead of simply shooting, he’s tried to force fouls by drawing contact which has resulted in countless missed and blocked shots.  For the majority of the season, he shot 38-40 percent in the paint which is terrible.  But for the month of February he’s shooting 48 percent overall and 45 percent in the paint which is still below average, but still better than where he was.

He’s always been a great shooter, but when the outside shot hasn’t been there, he’s made a conscience effort to attack the rim and that’s worked for him all month.

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: Injuries and Defense Becoming Concern for Trail Blazers

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Trail Blazers Suddenly Paper Thin in Frontcourt

As Blazer fans, we all know that inevitably, injuries will occur.  Up to this point however, the Blazers have managed to miraculously stay healthy amongst a rash of health concerns for other teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers.  In fact, Portland was the only team in the league to play the same starting five for every game through the All-Star break.

But that notable accomplishment ended on Wednesday when Dorell Wright started in place of LaMarcus Aldridge, who will be out a week with a nagging groin injury.  With Joel Freeland already down after a knee injury a couple of weeks ago, the Blazers had just three interior players.  But as is often the case with Portland when it comes to injuries, when it rains it pours.

Meyers Leonard - The Associated Press
Portland hopes to avoid seeing this in the second half of the season. | (Photo/AP)

Backup center Meyers Leonard, who would have seen his minutes increase significantly after Freeland and Aldridge went down, sprained his ankle in practice and will be out 1-3 weeks.

That leaves only Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson as legitimate low-post players to fill the paint for the next week.  This couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Already reeling heading into the break with losses in six of their last nine, the Blazers who were once neck-and-neck with the Thunder and Spurs for the top seed in the west suddenly find themselves battling with Houston and the Clippers for spots 3-5.  The Blazers have managed to build a nice cushion for themselves up to this point, but there’s still 28 games left and a lot of western conference teams itching to take Portland’s spot in the standings.

The organization elected not to make any moves at the trade deadline on Thursday and so now the team will just have to right it out until Aldridge returns and it’s no guarantee he’ll be back in a week.  Groin injuries can be tricky and Portland can’t afford to rush their best player back too soon.

So for the forceable future, it’s up to Lopez, Robinson, Wright and the resurrected Victor Claver to manage the middle.  Doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence now does it?

‘Defense’ Continues to be Hot Topic with Blazers

On Wednesday, The Oregonian’s Jason Quick wrote an interesting column on the Blazers’ defense so far this season and whether they could muster enough of an effort on that end of the floor to make any kind of noise in the playoffs.  He spoke with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich about the topic and Popovich talked about how a player has to have the right mind frame and character to succeed on the defensive end.

“A lot of defense is focus,” said Popovich .  “And I think it kind of reflects the character of an individual.”

Blazers Struggling - Steve Dykes:USA TODAY Sports
Portland in the midst of its first three-game losing streak of the season. | (Steve Dykes/USA TODAY Sports)

Does that mean Portland has players with character issues?  Probably not.  But what is the purpose of basketball?  To put that little round ball in that little net.  Period.  When that’s the goal, every player is going to be thinking about accomplishing that because that’s the reward for playing the game.

It’s also a reward you can see, literally.  Defense on the other hand has no visible reward so in a sense, a player simply doesn’t put in as much effort or focus in that area because subconsciously, it doesn’t really provide much joy because they can’t physically see a satisfying outcome.

The players and teams that are able to see satisfaction and purpose in defense are the ones that end up winning championships.  Based on that mentality, Portland isn’t ready to contend.

They’re fourth-worst in the league in points allowed and dead-last in forcing turnovers to manufacture easy baskets.  In the playoffs, games are played at a slower, half-court pace and this results in lower-scoring games due to teams being able to have their defense set and ready to go.

As we saw last night, Portland has serious concerns on defense when they are ready to defend.  Patty Mills shredded the Blazers on pick-and-rolls multiple times in the second half and recent three-point champ Marco Belinelli had one wide-open three after another.

Wesley Matthews guarding Kevin Durant. -Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE
Wesley Matthews brings it every night on the defensive end. | (Steve Dykes/US PRESSWIRE)

Quick talked about whether or not the Blazers were rotating correctly, fighting through screens and contesting shots among others.  The answer to all of these things is no.  The only player who seemed committed 100 percent of the time was Wesley Matthews.  You could say that about a lot of games this season.

Popovich mentioned that he thinks Portland has played ‘great defense’ at times this season and it’s because of the personnel.

“They can get to you, and they can contest shots because of their length and athleticism.  That’s important, especially these days, because we all know how important the three-point shot is,” said Popovich.

So at least one coach, the best in the league, thinks Portland is capable of being a great defensive team.  That’s encouraging.  But once again, it comes down to seeing defense as a reward on the same level as putting the ball in the basket and right now, the Blazers don’t seem to see it that way.  With 28 games left to play, they don’t have much time to change that mentality.

 

 

Blazers’ Corner: How Should You Feel About The Season So Far

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It’s Been an Interesting Season No Matter How you Look At It

As the Trail Blazers head into the All-Star break following three difficult and frustrating losses as well as defeats in six of their last nine games overall, how well should they and fans feel about their play in the first half of the season?

If you were told before the season started that Portland would be 36-17 by the break, you would have taken that record and ran with it.  And yet with the way the last two weeks have gone, there is a sense that the honeymoon period is officially over and reality is setting in.  That reality being that Portland is a very good team that got off to a blazingly (no pun intended) hot start before cooling off and realizing that they are very good, but still not quite elite.

Blazers Team - Bruce Ely : The Oregonian
This particular Blazer unit has been very successful. | (Bruce Ely / The Oregonian)

But again, they’re 36-17 and two games behind San Antonio for second in the West.  If not for this recent stretch, the feeling would be one of excitement and optimism.  It probably still is.  I guess it comes down to whether or not you’re a glass half full kind of person or the other way around.  Let’s break down both perspectives.

Half Full

You’ve had one of the best records in the league for the first-half of the season and have consistently been 20 games over .500, a mark only the Heat, Pacers and Thunder can claim.

Against the elite teams (Miami, Indiana, OKC, San Antonio, Houston, Clippers), you’re 7-7 but really should be 10-4 if not for late threes by Chris Bosh and George Hill and a missed open jumper by LaMarcus Aldridge.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers-Training Camp
Coach Terry Stotts has a lot to be happy about this season. | (nba.com)

Your 17 road wins (a good barometer for great teams) is tied for the third most in the entire league and more than the Pacers, Rockets and Clippers.

Seven of your first eight games following the break are at home so the recent slump could be quickly forgotten.

CJ McCollum has played terrific in the last four games which is huge for a bench that has had only one consistent contributor; Mo Williams.  The team already has the best offense in the league and now you can add another potent scorer to the mix.

The last three losses have all been games you could have and should have won.  Against both Indiana and OKC, you had control for most of the game against two potential finals teams and lost thanks to a missed offensive rebound and a missed open jump-shot.  The Clippers loss came down to bad shot selection in the final two minutes.

Blazers Team - Kyle Terada - USA TODAY Sports
Portland has seen a lot of success on the road. | (Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports)

So really, you could chalk up the team’s recent struggles in late-game situations as nothing more than the “Basketball Gods” setting things right.  Sometimes the ball bounces your way, sometimes it doesn’t during a long season.

Half Empty

You should be concerned.  The Blazers are limping into the break and the loss against the Clippers has them tied for third in the West but really fifth because the two teams in front of them have winning records over the team.

The defense, which has been your crux the whole season, isn’t getting any better and now other issues are drawing concern including poor shooting, turnovers and giving up offensive rebounds.

The bench just got even thinner with Joel Freeland going down with a knee injury.  Now the only two players to rely on to spell Aldridge and Robin Lopez minutes are Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson; two players with freakish athletic ability and a lot of potential, but also inconsistent and lacking in basketball intelligence.

Portland losing - sportsrant.com
Portland facing adversity as of late. | (sportsrant.com)

The team has two five-game road trips to look forward to including stops in Dallas, Houston, Memphis, San Antonio and Miami.

The Blazers are the only team in the league that can say they’ve had the same starting five for every game up to this point.  Can that last?  Does another team rely on their starters more than Portland?

The starters aren’t playing quite as many minutes as they did last season, but there is fear once again that they could begin to break down.  Blowouts would be nice, but when the defense can’t stop anybody, convincing wins are hard to come by.

No matter how you view the team’s play so far, you have to admit it’s been a fun ride.  The team has exceeded every expectation, which in that case has to mean it’s been a success, but now they’re feeling greedy which means any loss is considered a big deal.  They were a borderline playoff team before the season started and look how far they’ve come.  The second half should be very interesting.

Blazers’ Corner: Damian Lillard in Dunk Contest, Trail Blazers in Slump

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Damian Lillard Could Make History All-Star Weekend

Damian Lillard’s goal entering the season was to make the All-Star team.  He accomplished that after being selected as a reserve by the coaches last week.  But playing in the Sunday game might end up being the last of a long list of events for the second-year player.

According to Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com, Lillard has agreed to participate in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest.  He’s already competing in the Rising Stars Challenge (formerly the Rookie/Sophomore game) and he’ll defend his Skills Challenge title as well.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard will be flying high All-Star Weekend. | (Associated Press)

But it doesn’t end there.  The NBA has also asked Lillard if he would compete in the Three-Point Shooting Contest.  If he accepted, he would become the first player in league history to participate in every event All Star Weekend.  This unprecedented opportunity has Lillard intrigued and he’s apparently leaning toward doing it.  The NBA will announce the participants in each event today, but it appears Lillard could be representing the city of Portland in a big way.

Of course, this raises concerns about the point guard possibly expending too much energy during a weekend that is supposed to be reserved for limelight and rest.  But Lillard is just 23 and when you can make history, why not.

If Lillard indeed participates in the dunk contest, he would become the fifth Blazer to do so and the first since Rudy Fernandez in 2009 (remember that).  The young guard might need a break from the break.

Rough Mid-Season Stretch Could be Good for Portland

Portland is in the midst of a slump.  It began in the final minutes of the team’s loss at Oklahoma City on January 21 when the squad blew a 5-point lead as Kevin Durant decided to go 1-on-5 in the win.  The jump-shot abandoned them and the offense hasn’t been the same since.

They’ve gone 4-3 since that night and they’ve failed to put together four straight quarters even resembling the number one-rated offense in the league.  But as the team attempts to stay afloat during this rough patch, perhaps this is how it should be.  They were never going to continue shooting at the pace they were at and the mark of a great team is one that can adjust accordingly when times get rough.

LaMarcus Aldridge-Getty Images
Portland is getting more baskets like this lately. | (Getty Images)

One adjustment the team has made is a greater emphasis on points in the paint.  Night after night, the Blazers would get dominated down low, but it wouldn’t matter because of the 3-point shooting and LaMarcus Aldridge’s dominance on the left block.

But the outstanding perimeter play just hasn’t been there since a blowout victory at Dallas on January 18 (the last time Portland shot above 50 percent) and when the outside shot isn’t falling, get closer to the basket.  The Blazers have outscored their opponent in the paint in three out of their last six games and the other three have been pretty even.

This slight adjustment in the offense could be just what the team needs.  “You live by the jump shot and you die by the jump shot,” is one of Charles Barkley’s favorite quotes and he’s right.  One-dimensional teams don’t last in the playoffs and if the Blazers intend to make a significant run, they need to be able to score in different ways to keep the defense honest.  That or get significantly better on defense.  Based on how the season’s gone so far, my money‘s on the former.

New Orleans Pelicans Sign Luke Babbitt

Former Trail Blazers forward Luke Babbitt has found his way back in the NBA.  The New Orleans Pelicans announced on Tuesday that they have signed the former first round pick.  Terms of the contract were not released.

Babbitt joins the Pelicans after playing part of the 2013-14 season for Nizhny Novgorod (Russia).  The forward played in 18 games averaging 13.3 points and 3.7 rebounds.

While those numbers aren’t earth-shattering, New Orleans has been looking to help fill the void left by Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday, who are both dealing with long-term injuries.

Babbitt was a polarizing figure in Portland.  Despite being the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft and a supposed deadly shooter, Babbitt could never consistently shoot or get minutes to improve his shooting.  In three seasons as a Blazer, Babbitt appeared in only 126 games averaging 3.8 points and 2.1 rebounds.

The organization opted not to pick up Babbitt’s option for a third year, making him an unrestricted free agent.  No one wanted him during last off season so he made his way to Europe to crack a roster.

Hopefully Babbitt can stick with the Pelicans.  He seems like a nice kid who was never really given much of a chance to succeed in Portland.  There were glimpses in Portland, but perhaps Babbitt can fully realize those talents and carve out a niche in the NBA.  There’s always room for a shooter.

Blazers’ Corner: Aldridge and Lillard All Stars, Team Gets Break, Fans Content With Jerseys

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Aldridge and Lillard Named to All Star Team

For the first time since 1994, the Trail Blazers will have two players representing the team in the NBA All Star game.  During TNT’s pre-game telecast, the All Star reserves were announced for both the Western and Eastern Conference and Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard were named to the team.  This is Aldridge’s third-consecutive selection to the team and Lillard’s first.

LA and Lillard-sport.net
LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard get All Star nods. | (sport.net)

The selection of Aldridge was a no-brainer as the majority of national pundits believe he should have been a starter in the exhibition game.  Lillard’s selection on the other hand was still a little up in the air.  The Western Conference is loaded with guards, but with injuries to Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe and Chris Paul, Lillard’s chances of making the team were greatly improved.

This isn’t to say Lillard didn’t deserve to be on the team.  In fact, he has had a phenomenal sophomore season averaging 20.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range.  Other than Aldridge, he’s the main reason Portland is tied for the second best record in the West so his selection is more than deserved.

It will be a busy weekend Feb. 14-16 for the guard as he will not only play in the All Star game on Sunday, but the Rising Stars game on Saturday representing the second-year players.  It’s a lot of attention for Lillard but it’s well earned.

Portland Gets Mini-Break Following Slump

The Trail Blazers have hit a bit of a fatigue wall following back-to-back demoralizing losses at the hands of Golden State and Memphis.  Is this just a rough stretch or should players and fans be concerned of bigger problems to come?

The team has played eight games in 12 days including three back-to-backs.  Yes, they’re professional athletes, but even they can get tired sometimes.  A three-day break before playing the Raptors on Saturday might have come at the perfect time.

A little over a week ago, the team was riding high after two impressive victories over San Antonio and Dallas to begin a tough four games-in-five nights stretch.  But since then the team has dropped four of their last six games.  Emotions have varied from looking disappointed after they felt like they gave away a win in Oklahoma City, going through the motions before rallying in wins against Denver and Minnesota and looking downright tired and dejected against the Warriors and Grizzlies.

The biggest factor in the team’s rough stretch has obviously been the shooting.  The team relies on jump shots and 3-pointers more than any other team, but the last two games have been their worst shooting and scoring performances of the season.

Trail Blazers slump - Associated Press
Portland’s 3-day break comes at the right time. | (Associated Press)

 

Portland failed to reach 90 points in either game and they shot an average of 34 percent from the field.  Even worse, they went 10-for-45 from long distance.  The 3-point shooting has been a growing problem.  Not since the victory against Spurs have Portland shot above 38 percent from 3 as a team.  This has resulted in more emphasis on scoring in the paint, which is very encouraging, but the team’s bread and butter is outside shooting and it hasn’t been there in nearly two weeks.

When your greatest strength is offense and it isn’t working, the defense has to step it up.  But that end of the floor doesn’t seem to be getting better as the season progresses.  Opposing guards are penetrating the middle with ease resulting in points in the paint or open jumpers for wing players.  The normally offensive-challenged Grizzlies looked like an elite scoring team on Tuesday getting whatever they wanted from inside or out.

The Blazers have seven more games before the All Star break and five of them are on the road including a four-game east coast trip.  Whatever problems they’re currently having are going to be tested even more next week.  So far the team has answered just about every challenge, but this next week could end up defining their season for better or worse.

No Changes Coming with Trail Blazers Uniforms

The last few years in the NBA has seen a bit of an evolution in uniforms.  From throwback nights to alternate colors to now sleeved jerseys, the league has apparently decided that the uniforms are in need of a makeover.

The Trail Blazers have been relatively tame in this regard.  They’ve maintained the classic white home jerseys and black road uniforms with the occasional road-flair red alternates making an appearance and only in the last couple of years have they worn the “Rip City” home uniforms every once in a while.

But in an effort to gauge fan interest in the uniforms, the Blazers put out an exploratory survey in November to see if there was any demand or need to change things up in time for the 2015-16 season.

After looking at the fan input however, the team has decided against any uniform changes in the near future.  The survey results showed that fans generally had no issue with the current uniforms, which have been the same since the 2002 season.

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers
Blazers “Rip City” Jerseys will be getting sleeves soon. | (uniformcritics.com)

As someone who doesn’t really like change, I have no problem with the team’s uniforms.  I do however wish they would wear the red alternates and “Rip City” home jerseys more often as well as having the occasional reversal night where they wear their road uniforms at home and vice versa for the opponent.

You may have noticed that Portland has been able to avoid the sleeved jerseys up to this point.  But according to Chris Haynes of CSNNW, at the beginning of next season, any team wearing their “heritage jerseys,” such as Portland’s “Rip City” uniforms, will be required to have them converted to short sleeve jerseys.

The sleeved jerseys have been met with mostly negative feedback from players and fans, but I don’t really have a problem with them.  When Golden State became the first team to wear them, I kind of liked the look.  It reminded me of college hoops and some players just looked good in them.

The Trail Blazer uniforms are classic and elegant.  There really isn’t any need to make any drastic changes and the fans recognize that.

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