Posts Tagged ‘Robin Lopez’

Morning shootaround — Aug. 5


NEWS OF THE MORNING
Report: Cavs, Wolves have ‘handshake’ agreement on Love deal’ | Sarver feels Suns’ offer to Bledsoe is fair | LeBron sheds carbs, pounds for next season? | Don’t plan on a T-Mac comeback | Nets’ Lopez ‘fully cleared’

No. 1: Report: Cavs, Wolves have ‘handshake agreement’ on Love trade — Last we all heard on the Kevin Love/Minnesota Timberwolves/Cleveland Cavaliers trade saga was that team owner Glen Taylor said a trade of Love was likely to happen by the end of August. Today’s update doesn’t do anything to refute what Taylor said. ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst, in an interview with ESPN Radio 98.7 FM in New York, said that the Wolves and Cavs basically have a handshake agreement on a trade (fast-forward to the 9:39 mark to hear the details). Here’s a transcript of what Windhorst said in the interview:

The deal is done but not done. The teams have agreed, but they can’t say they have agreed and they can’t agree, because we’re in this weird moratorium period because you can’t trade Andrew Wiggins until the 23rd of this month.

So, between now and then – which is, what, 19 days – could some of that happen? Could a team come in with a trade that maybe Minnesota doesn’t see? Yes, it could happen. So therefore it is not done.

But essentially, before the papers have been signed, there is this handshake agreement that Kevin Love to the Cavs, Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves, and I believe Thaddeus Young will end up in Minnesota either as part of a separate deal or as part of a three-way deal. Possibly, Anthony Bennett, who’s on the Cavs right now could get re-routed to Philadelphia in part of a deal for Thaddeus Young. There will be draft picks involved.

But essentially what you need to know if you’re an NBA fan, Kevin Love is going to be on the Cavs barring anything unforeseen, and and Andrew Wiggins, No. 1 overall pick, is going to be on Minnesota.

***

No. 2: Sarver: Suns gave Bledsoe a ‘fair offer’ — Phoenix Suns young star guard Eric Bledsoe is one of the last big names left on the free-agent market and while he reportedly got an offer from his incumbent team to return, he hasn’t done so yet. There’s been talk of his relationship with the team nearing an ‘irreparable’ state and Bledsoe feeling that the team is using his restricted free-agent status against him in negotiations. Team owner Robert Sarver, in an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last Friday, said he and the team have given Bledsoe a fair offer thus far:

Phoenix reportedly offered the combo guard a four-year, $48 million deal in the middle of July, while the four-year pro apparently was looking for a maximum offer of five years and $80 million.

Sarver was asked Friday if he thought Phoenix’s initial offer was fair.

“We think it’s a fair offer. I think you could argue, you know, I mean some would say it’s maybe a little high; some would say it’s low,” the owner said. “What’s fair is important to us, and also important to him — him and his agent. It’s not necessarily us to determine what he thinks is fair; it’s him to determine that.”

“We’re a professional organization, and he’s a professional player,” he said. “And he’s a high-character guy. And his agent (Rich Paul), whose main client LeBron (James), is the utmost competitor and professional.

“As an organization, we do our 100 percent best to get behind the player and support him as best as possible. And what professional players do, regardless of how their contract works out, when it’s time to play, they play as hard as they can — for themselves, their teammates and for the organization. So what takes place before a contract is signed usually doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what takes place after a contract is signed — when you have a high-character athlete and a high-quality organization.”

Sarver also refused to agree with the notion that Bledsoe’s agent is inexperienced and over his head.

In closing, the owner also tried to put the whole negotiations process into perspective.

“One thing fans have got to remember is: Players, their careers are very short,” he said. “And at any given moment, they could be a lot shorter. You don’t know. And so, they’re trying to maximize what they can make. They’re not like movie stars where they can go cut a box office hit when they’re 45 or 55 years old like John (Gambadoro) is. They want to maximize what they can make. And that’s OK.” (more…)

Blazers’ would-be depth all in Vegas


VIDEO: The Trail Blazers’ young guns rout the Hawks in Las Vegas Summer League

LAS VEGAS – Two seasons ago the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench was remarkably young and perilously inadequate. Last season, the addition of veteran Mo Williams plus incredibly good health among the starting five limited opportunity for the Blazers’ babies.

As Summer League heats up, that banging sound you hear is opportunity knocking. Which young Blazers finally walk through that door will be an intriguing story line to monitor. The choices are all right here in Vegas. In fact, if the Blazers don’t boast the most players from their big-league team on their Summer League squad then they’re right there near the top.

Six of Portland’s 15 roster players are on its Summer League squad: Guards Will Barton, Allen Crabbe and C.J. McCollum, as well as frontline teammates Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson. All six players have either one or two years of league service, and all six are seeking to make a first-time impact in the Blazers’ rotation.

McCollum, Robinson and Leonard are all top 11 draft picks.

“It’s an important summer for our young bigs and and our young perimeter guys,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said as he watched Portland’s summer team beat down Atlanta, 91-76. “CJ, Will and Allen, there’s an opportunity. I can’t say how many minutes, but there’s an opportunity. Joel, Meyers and T-rob, after signing Chris [Kaman], there’s some competition.”

Kaman was granted a two-year, $9.8 million contract coming off two subpar seasons with Dallas and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet Portland felt compelled to sign him up as backup to starter Robin Lopez because they’ve haven’t been able to count on Leonard or Freeland.

The young guards won’t have to contend with Williams, who remains on the market as an unrestricted free agent, however the Blazers signed steady veteran in Steve Blake.

“In my rookie year everyone talked about the bench,” said Leonard, who took a step back last season, partly due to injury. “Last year was a much better year for us, young guys stepped up. Now we need to have even more of a deep bench, confidence from coach to put us in there and know the score isn’t  going to down, we’re going to keep it there or we’re going to increase the lead. It’s confidence in the starters and coaches that when we come in we’re going to do a good job and they can know we’re going to be all right.”

Self-confidence is a big pat of it, too. The leader in that category could be Thomas Robinson, the fifth overall pick two years ago by Sacramento, who was traded by the Kings and then the Rockets. He played in 70 games for Portland last season, averaging 4.8 ppg and 4.4 rpg in 12.5 mpg. He provided some high energy moments off the bench during the playoffs and now the 23-year-old says he’s discovered what it takes to be a productive NBA player.

“I am where I was supposed to be after my rookie year, making that leap to knowing what type of player you are in this league and knowing what you’re going to do for your team,” Robinson said. “That’s where I am now, where I should have been last year.”

Few expected the Blazers to end up where they did last season, winning 54 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in the last 14 years. They have a dynamic starting five with All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, streak-shooter Wes Matthews, stat-stuffer small forward Nicolas Batum and Lopez, their lunchpail center.

Bench parts at every position are on the roster. Now, with another year under the belts, the question is which ones walk through that door.

Aldridge: ‘I want to be best Blazer ever’

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Blazers to their first playoff series win in 14 years.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – LaMarcus Aldridge has put his name on it. In a year we’ll see if he owns it.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ All-Star power forward, seemingly so close to forcing his way out only to be coaxed back in, primarily by the drafting of young All-Star point guard Damian Lillard and a roster re-tool over the last couple years that led to the Blazers’ first playoff series win in 14 years, is now not only talking about re-upping with Portland for the maximum five years, but playing out his career in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

Here’s why:

“I want to be the best Blazer — ever,” Aldridge told Oregonian beat writer Joe Freeman on Tuesday. “I should be able to leave a mark on a big-time franchise that is going to be seen forever. And I will be able to say I played here my whole career. This city has embraced me and grown with me. I have so much history, it just makes sense to stay.”

And here’s how close he already is to so many franchise marks. From Freeman:

Aldridge’s name is dotted up and down the Blazers’ record books, listed among the leaders in a host of statistical categories. Next season, he conceivably could move into the top five in blocks, free throws, minutes and games played, while also moving past Clyde Drexler to become the Blazers’ all-time leading rebounder and moving ahead of Terry Porter into second place in scoring. If Aldridge signs that long-term extension next season, he will set himself up to finish his career as the leader in every major category in Blazers history.

With Free Agency 2014 still in a holding pattern, Aldridge, one of several Big Fish who can become a free agent in the summer of 2015, certainly sounds as though his situation will be less LeBron James and more Dirk Nowitzki.

He told the Oregonian that he will not sign a contract extension this summer, but only because he plans to sign a new contract next summer. One of the odd quirks of the collective bargaining agreement is that it allows players to fulfill their current contracts, enter free agency and then re-sign with their teams for more years and more money than they could by signing an extension.

If Aldridge were to sign an extension this summer, he would play out the final year of his contract at $16 million, then begin a three-year extension for $55.5 million. However, if he becomes a free agent, he can re-sign next summer for five years and $108 million.

My theory on this is the NBA craves the offseason buzz created by free agency. Just look at what’s gone on since July 1. Extensions are boring. Free agency is suspenseful with a limitless rumor mill and headline potential. So even with a player who says he wants to stay with his team, the media can, and will create “what if” story lines throughout the final year of the player’s contract and into free agency.

LaMarcus Aldridge says he wants to re-sign, but will he really? Wouldn’t he rather play in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago … or his hometown Dallas ? 

Last month, Portland owner Paul Allen and general manager Neil Olshey put a three-year, $55.5 million extension on the table, but knew Aldridge would not sign it. It was a formality, a good-faith move. The billionaire Allen will be happy to pay the $108 million tab next summer.

And it’s great news for the Portland fan base, one of the most devout in the league. In an age where the grass always seems greener elsewhere – and we might be seeing it again with James and Carmelo Anthony – Aldridge a Dallas-area native, seems to be viewing the full arc of his career that has now spanned eight seasons all in Portland.

Last season marked his third consecutive All-Star appearance, and it probably should have been his fourth. Aldridge had the best year of his career under coach Terry Stotts, who completed his second season. Aldridge averaged a double-double for the first time in his career, 23.2 ppg and 11.1 rpg. He thrived with the addition of blue-collar center Robin Lopez to handle more inside dirty work and lessen Aldridge’s defensive responsibilities.

Aldridge turns 29 on July 19, and assuming he signs the five-year pact next summer, he will be playing his remaining prime years in Portland. He’ll turn 35 when that deal expires. Nowitzki, who stuck with the Mavericks through thick and thin, just completed a four-year deal at age 36 and has agreed to three more years for $30 million.

The Blazers were one of the great success stories of last season. How the next season unfolds could either reaffirm Aldridge’s stance or, if the team takes a step back, make him think twice.

For now, he has stated his intentions. We’ll see if they remain the same one year from now.

Slowing Parker is job one for Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Can the Blazers bounce back in Game 2 vs. the Spurs?

SAN ANTONIO — Gregg Popovich knows a way to slow Tony Parker down. He sat him down for 19 days smack in the middle of the season.

It’s not quite that easy for the Trail Blazers, who have to figure job one in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals is to stop the Spurs’ All-Star point guard from running amok as he did in the series opener.

While all of the very deep San Antonio lineup washed over them like a sandcastle at the beach, it was Parker’s 33 points on 13-for-24 shooting that set the pace and kept the Blazers on their heels all night long.

Parker attacked Portland running the fast break and repeatedly pulled up to knock in mid-range jumpers as the Blazers’ defense concentrated on not letting him get to the rim.

According to the Blazers’ statistics, Parker shot 5-for-5 in the transition game and 8-for-12 when he was able to get into the paint.

“He’s going to get there sometimes,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “That’s what he does. We had him 5-for-12 on midrange shots. That’s a number we can live with. But 5-for-5 in transition, that’s a number we have to be better with.

“We have to keep the ball out of the middle as much as we can. The more we can keep him out of the paint, that takes away opportunities for him and his teammates.”

Those were opportunities that might have have come for the Spurs once more this springtime if Popovich hadn’t made the bold decision back on Feb. 10, following a loss at Detroit, to simply shut down his trigger man and leading scorer for nearly three weeks.

“I thought he was more mentally tired than physically tired,” Popovich explained. “He needed time away. No more shootarounds, no more game plans, the whole ball of wax. He just needed to shut down from it all.”

What looks like a perfectly logical move with a 31-year-old who is expected to carry so much of the offensive burden, was not exactly one that Parker swallowed easily. After all, Popovich did not take the same tack with 38-year-old Tim Duncan or 36-year-old Manu Ginobili.

“I [thought] it was too long,” Parker said. “At the same time, I trust Pop. He did a great job with me, Timmy, with Manu, managing us during the year to make sure we stay fresh for the playoffs. You can see the results.”

Including his Game 7 close-out performance in the first round over Dallas, Parker has rung up back-to-back 30-point games after hitting that level just three times during the entire regular season and appears energized.

The Spurs frequently ran Parker off picks against the Blazers and got him the open looks at the basket.

“I’m supposed to provide support,” said Portland center Robin Lopez, who stayed at home to guard the paint. “We’re encouraging him to take mid-range shots. Tony hit a few. In the best of all worlds, we’d be forcing everybody baseline.”

Parker was guarded during the game by Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews. While the preference for Stotts may be to use the length of the 6-foot-9 Batum on Parker, making that shift would force the Blazers to be undersized in their other matchups against Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

“If you take Nic off Leonard, it opens things up for Kawhi and shifts everything down,” Stotts said. “But we’ve done things like that in the past. We have to be able to make those changes and subsequent adjustments.”

Which leaves the dilemma of how to slow Parker?

“You have to be physical with him, like Wes did at the end of the game,” Batum said. “Wes pushed him fullcourt. That’s what you have to do.”

Underdog role suits Trail Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


Video: Spurs-Blazers series preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — So far.

That’s what Damian Lillard said when somebody asked him if that 25-foot, just-before-closing-time, crackling bolt of lightning on Friday was the biggest shot he’d ever made in his life.

It tells you all you need to know about the 23-year-old with the killer grin and assassin’s calm.

It also tells you all you need to know about the Trail Blazers, most of whom have come so far individually to become this team.

“It’s just kinda who were are. I know Damian has talked about being underdogs — Wes (Matthews) being undrafted,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Damian coming from a small school. Some guys feeling like they’ve been a little roughed up in their careers. I don’t think it’s really anything that we foster. I think it’s just grown organically.”

Grown from a chip that they all carry around on their shoulders into a big stick of righteous indignation that the Blazers have used to prod themselves to a different place.

The second round of the playoffs.

“You ask me if I’m counted out?” Matthews said. “Of course. I’m always fueled by being counted out and we’re gonna be counted out of this next series.”

The Spurs have won three of their four franchise championships, been to the The Finals four times and played in the Western Conference finals three on other occasions in the 14 years since Portland last won a playoff series.

Yet the Blazers can hardly wait to take their “nobody-loves-us” burden into San Antonio for Game 1 on Tuesday night.

It is a well-polished routine and they know it by heart:

  • Lillard was under-appreciated and under-recruited coming out of high school and had to play his college ball at Weber State.
  • Matthews was undrafted by the NBA out of Marquette in 2009.
  • Veteran star LaMarcus Aldridge had to fight for respect through five NBA seasons before he was finally selected for an All-Star Game and is still routinely overlooked in the All-NBA voting.
  • Nicolas Batum was just a 19-year-old Frenchman with no more than hope and a light resume when he arrived in Portland in 2008.

When it was mentioned that Robin Lopez isn’t even regarded as the best player in his own family, Batum doubled over laughing.

“Yes, it’s funny,” he said. “Good, not great. It’s who we all are. We all have been through a lot. We have all had our ups and downs to get here. Even L.A. was snubbed for all those All-Star Games. Nobody expects anything from us. Except for the ones in here.”

The Blazers were back on the court at their practice facility after a day to soak in the city’s joy over their accomplishment. Not that many took the plunge.

“I did pretty much the same things I always do,” said a beaming Lillard.

He went home. He relaxed. He watched replays of his shot “maybe 5 or 10 times” and he listened to an almost non-stop string of text messages buzz in on his cell phone.

“I’ve gotten so many videos of it sent to my phone,” Lillard said. “I watch it because every version is different. The thing I enjoyed the most about it was just seeing everybody’s reaction. You got to see how bad our team wanted to win that game.

“It wasn’t about me. You saw the coaches excited that we’re going to be moving on. My teammates running all over the floor. The crowd. I think a couple fans almost ran on the floor. I’m just happy we were able to get that series done. Because the last thing we wanted to do was go back to Houston.”

It was all glorious fun while it lasted. But now there is more serious work ahead against the defending Western Conference champions and the No. 1 seed.

“It’s over with now,” said Lillard. “It’s not like the moment is going to go away. We haven’t gone past the first round in 14 years, so people won’t forget it. But our team, we’ve got to move on from it, and we’ve still got games to play. Our goal wasn’t to make a big shot and be happy with that. I think, if anything, that made us want to get more done.”

The Blazers will continue to wear the underdog role as if it were an expensive fur coat, wrapping themselves up it and preaching that it’s still a cold, disrespecting world out there.

Yet beneath there is a silk lining of self-reliance and growing fearlessness.

“Anytime you win, you’re going to get confidence,” Matthews said. “To win in the fashion that we did, where the games were always tight and nothing was safe, we learned a lot. I think that was a learning process for everybody about how valuable all these possessions were and how fragile it could be and a wrong bounce could send you to a Game 7 that you don’t want to be in. Now, I don’t think there’s a limit.”

Maybe there never has been, at least in their own minds.

“We were up 3-1 on Houston,” Lillard said. “To be honest, after the first game, we felt like we were going to win the series. I think getting it done, we proved more to other people than we proved to ourselves. There’s no reason now to think it can’t go on.”

Lillard becomes one for the ages

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard joins Arena Link to discuss the big shot

PORTLAND, Ore. — Teammate Thomas Robinson says you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This was just a start for the kid.

If that’s the case, Damian Lillard‘s next trick will likely be a re-creation of that old McDonald’s commercial with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan: “Over the freeway, through the window, off the scoreboard…”

It wasn’t just a dagger through the heart of the Rockets. It was the kind of shot that defines a career, creates a legend and trails you like a permanent ray of sunshine long after the sneakers and jersey come off and the hair has turned gray.

The official play-by-play sheet called it a “25-foot, 3-point jump shot.”

And Moby Dick was just another whale.

“I’ve seen him do that kind stuff, make shots like that for the past two years,” said Wes Matthews. “From the first day you saw him out on the practice court, you could tell from the way he carried himself. He’s just, well, different.”

It’s the difference that allows a neurosurgeon to poke around inside somebody’s brain with with the sheer confidence, maybe the utter arrogance, that he just won’t slip with the scalpel.

It’s the difference that diamond cutter has when he knows that he won’t turn that big, expensive bauble into cheap rock with a bad tap on the chisel.

“I mean, I got a pretty good look,” said the 23 year old who might as well be an ageless Yoda doing tricks with a light saber. “Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”

It came after Chandler Parson‘s out-of-the-blue put-back had given the Rockets a 98-96 lead with 0.9 seconds left.

“The first thing I did when I saw Parson’s shot go in was look at the clock,” Lillard said. “I saw there was time. I knew we would have a shot. I just didn’t know what kind.”

It was the kind of shot that will replayed on the giant video screen at the Moda Center or whatever new-fangled arena comes next for as long as they play basketball in Portland. The biggest last-second shot in Blazers’ history.

It came fittingly on a night when the franchise honored the legendary coach Jack Ramsay, who led the Blazers to their only NBA championship in 1977 and died on Monday.

Rip City — R.I.P. City — indeed.

Up on the screen, there was grainy old color film of Dr. Jack in his wild ’70s disco era plaid pants and wide collars jumping for joy as his share-the-ball Blazers clinched the title.

Down there on the court, just an hour or so later, there were the linear descendants of those Blazers — who move without the ball, do all the little things and play unselfishly — leaping into each other’s arm.

“When he made the shot, I didn’t let him go for the next three minutes,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, the workhorse who carried the Blazers, averaging 29.8 points in the series.

It was not just a Portland moment, but an NBA moment, the kind that should be frozen in Jurassic amber.

Lillard’s was the first buzzer-beating shot to clinch a playoff series since John Stockton did it to the Rockets’ ancestors in the 1997 Western Conference finals.

Put it a gold frame and hang it behind a velvet rope with:

Ralph Sampson‘s rim-rattling prayer that beat the Lakers and sent the Rockets to the 1986 Western Conference Finals.

Garfield Heard‘s heave for the Suns that forced triple overtime at Boston Garden In the 1976 Finals.

Derek Fisher‘s running miracle with 0.4 seconds in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals that beat the Spurs.

– And yes, even Michael Jordan‘s hanging, leaning, drifting to the side jumper over a helpless Craig Ehlo in the Bulls’ Game 5 clincher of the first round in 1989.

That last one started a legend. To hear the Blazers tell it, their second-year guard is already writing the first few chapters of his own.

“Oh, he’s doing things all the time in practice and all season long in games that you just don’t expect and maybe don’t think are possible,” said center Robin Lopez.

“I’ve been around the NBA for 10 years and played a lot of games with a lot of players and seen a lot of things,” said guard Mo Williams. “I’ve seen shots, yeah. Have I seen a shot like that? Noooooo.”

It ended a series that had three overtime games, only one margin of victory that was by more than single figures. The only double digit lead of the night lasted just 16 seconds. The biggest lead of the second half by either team was four. The cumulative score of the entire series had the Rockets ahead by two points.

Just like they led by two with 0.9 seconds left and when Lillard zipped away from the defender Parson and came zooming wide open right toward the inbounding Nicolas Batum.

“I clapped my hands at Nico,” Lillard said. “He threw it to me and I turned. The rim was right there.”

And Lillard let it fly.

If we ain’t seen nothing yet, that next chapter will be a doozy.

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”


VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.


VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

Is Aldridge’s pick-and-roll defense a problem for Blazers?


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge talks after the Blazers’ win against the Hawks

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – When we looked at the teammates that had defended the pick-and-roll the best on Wednesday, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez were sixth on the list, but the Portland Trail Blazers were nowhere near the top 10 in team rankings.

According to SportVU, the Blazers ranked 26th in pick-and-roll defense through Monday’s games and are up to 22nd after a game against the reeling Hawks on Wednesday. They’ve allowed 1.06 points per pick-and-roll possession overall, even though they’ve been pretty good when Lopez has been the guy defending the screener, allowing just 1.01. That ranks 55th among 134 players who had been the screener’s defender on at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions through Wednesday. Not great, but above-average.

Note: All stats included here are through Wednesday, March 5.

But near the bottom of the list is Lopez’s frontcourt-mate, LaMarcus Aldridge. The Blazers have allowed 1.17 points per possession when Aldridge has been the guy defending the screener. Of those 134 players who have defended at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions, only one – Trevor Booker – has a higher mark (1.18).

The discrepancy between Lopez’s and Aldridge’s numbers is rather remarkable, because both bigs basically defend pick-and-rolls the same way (though Portland will mix things up a little with Aldridge). While the Pacers drop back with their centers and show high with their power forwards, both Aldridge (most of the time) and Lopez drop back…

20140307_aldridge_pnr

20140307_lopez_pnr

Who are they guarding?

Is it a power forward vs. center thing? The players Aldridge is guarding (Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, etc.) are generally more potent offensively than those Lopez is guarding. And the biggest difference in Aldridge and Lopez’s numbers is the field goal percentage that the screener has shot when he has got the ball…

Pick-and-rolls vs. Lopez and Aldridge

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss BH FGM BH FGA BH FG% S FGM S FGA S FG%
Lopez 948 908 914 1.01 140 347 40.3% 59 131 45.0%
Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 102 249 41.0% 75 132 56.8%

BH FGM, FGA, FG% = Ball-handler shooting
S FGM, FGA, FG% = Screener shooting

But other defenses in the West don’t have the same discrepancy.

When the starting power forwards from the other top 10 teams in the West have defended the screener on a pick-and-roll, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. And when the starting centers on those same teams have defended the screener, the opponent has scored 1.02 points per possession. No discrepancy at all.

The Suns’ pick-and-roll defense has been slightly better when Miles Plumlee has defended the screener than when Channing Frye has, and the same goes for the Warriors, Andrew Bogut and David Lee. But none of the other nine teams has nearly the difference that we see with the Blazers.

The eye test

Watching film, Aldridge doesn’t come across as a noticeably bad pick-and-roll defender. He’s usually in the right position, he doesn’t get caught standing still, or get turned around and lost on possessions (like a couple of bigs in New York).

The Blazers track every defensive possession themselves and say that Aldridge grades out closer the league average on pick-and-rolls (and that Lopez still grades out as better). And when we look at the 57 percent that the screener has shot on Aldridge-defended pick-and-rolls, we’re only talking about 132 shots, not the greatest sample size.

But Synergy Sports grades him as “poor” in regard to defending the roll man. And it’s not hard to find examples (via NBA.com/stats video boxscores) where he fails to close out and lets an opposing big shoot in rhythm…

You can also find examples of him closing out fine, but other West power forwards grade out better via SportVU. The screener takes more shots and shoots them better against Aldridge than any of the other nine guys listed below (from the other West teams at or above .500), even though they’ve all had to defend Aldridge himself, who has attempted almost 200 more mid-range shots than any other player in the league.

Pick-and-roll defense, West power forwards

Defender Scr. Poss Opp PTS PTS/Poss Rk S FGM S FGA S FG% Rk
LaMarcus Aldridge 734 703 826 1.17 10 75 132 56.8% 10
Tim Duncan 849 817 854 1.05 8 42 96 43.8% 4
Channing Frye 729 698 755 1.08 9 39 96 40.6% 2
Blake Griffin 925 896 935 1.04 7 46 91 50.5% 7
Serge Ibaka 733 706 687 0.97 2 32 71 45.1% 5
Terrence Jones 584 561 560 1.00 4 30 72 41.7% 3
David Lee 657 629 592 0.94 1 31 77 40.3% 1
Kevin Love 638 609 593 0.97 3 38 71 53.5% 9
Dirk Nowitzki 668 645 659 1.02 5 44 85 51.8% 8
Zach Randolph 794 767 788 1.03 6 48 98 49.0% 6

Right shots, wrong results

Again, we’re only looking at 132 of the 5,350 shots that Portland opponents have attempted this season. And the Blazers do force the right shots.

The intent of their drop-back scheme is to force the least efficient shots on the floor, between the restricted area and the 3-point line. And 45.4 percent of Portland opponents’ shots have come from there. That’s the fifth highest mark in the league, behind only teams that rank in the top five in defensive efficiency. Portland also ranks in the top 10 in percentage of jump shots that they’ve contested.

But their opponents have made 41 percent of those shots between the restricted area and 3-point line, the fourth highest percentage.

Highest percentage of opponents shots from between
the restricted area and the 3-point line

Team FGM FGA FG% Rank %FGA
Indiana 943 2,462 38.3% 7 48.5%
San Antonio 974 2,469 39.4% 15 48.2%
Golden State 964 2,503 38.5% 8 47.9%
Chicago 905 2,377 38.1% 4 47.6%
Portland 994 2,428 40.9% 27 45.4%

%FGA = Percentage of total field goal attempts

Whether that’s a case of bad luck or because they don’t really contest that well, that’s still just 0.82 points per attempt, which is fine defensively. The Blazers also rank 11th in 3-point defense and second in defending the restricted area.

So, in terms of defending shots, the Blazers do a pretty good job, despite the Aldridge pick-and-roll issue. They rank seventh in opponent effective field goal percentage. But they rank 19th in defensive efficiency, mostly because they force the fewest turnovers in the league, just 12.3 per 100 possessions. And they force only 11.3 with their starting lineup on the floor.

In part, that goes back to their pick-and-roll defense. Not only do the bigs drop back (which means that ball-handlers don’t have to pick up their dribble and make a pass as often), but the guards (especially Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews) don’t apply much pressure up front and can get caught on those screens. No Blazer ranks in the top 80 in steals per game.

Still, the Blazers are OK when Lopez defends pick-and-rolls. And it may be that his ability to stop the ball-handler and stay in contact with the roll man that allows his teammates to better defend their own guys. If Aldridge is a step slower, that can have a domino effect two or three passes away.

Trending up?

The Blazers actually have the No. 1 defense since the All-Star break. That number has been schedule-aided though, as they’ve played the Jazz, Lakers, Hawks, and two games against the depleted Nuggets. It also may have been aided by Aldridge’s absence in the first five post-break games, as they found some defensive success playing smaller and quicker.

Aldridge is back and we’re going to find out if the Portland defense is really improved over the next 10 days, when five of their six games are against teams that rank in the top 12 offensively (and the other is against the improved Grizzlies).

A five-game trip begins against the fourth-ranked Dallas offense on Friday and we’ll see how well Aldridge contests Nowitzki.

Trail Blazers Face First Gut Check


VIDEO: Blazers fall short to Kings in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The Trail Blazers scored 13 points in the third quarter Tuesday at Sleep Train Arena against a sieve defense, putting themselves in such a bad place that even a 46-point fourth period couldn’t save the night. This is what adversity looks like.

Robin Lopez sat at his locker after Portland lost to the Kings, contenders for the worst record in the West and not far from owning the basement for the entire league, and straight out said he and some teammates have not been playing as hard as before. This is what adversity sounds like.

Nicolas Batum, in addition to the pain of playing with a fractured left middle finger that requires a splint and heavy tape job, the only benefit being that it’s on his non-shooting hand, couldn’t help but admit that skeptics of the Trail Blazers’ kick-the-door-down start were pointing at the last six games and smugly nodding. This is what adversity feels like.

It has, out of nowhere, become gut-check time, one of the success stories of the first three months of the season suddenly trying to regain its footing and mostly looking inward at the problem: themselves.

“I think we’ve been shown a lot of our flaws,” Lopez said. “We need to be more consistent on the defensive end. When things aren’t going right offensively, that (defense) has to be our strength. We can’t turn tail on that end.”

Their flaws?

“I think our consistency,” Lopez said. “Not to say we weren’t going hard at that end. Obviously we were getting after it. Maybe just speaking for myself, I can’t help but feel there were a few times where maybe I let off the gas pedal and maybe some of the other guys did too.”

Defeats happen, but the Trail Blazers just lost at home Saturday to the 76ers, with a day off before and Philadelphia on the last stop of a five-game trip, and Tuesday at Sleep Train, with two days to prepare. That would be concerning enough, except Portland has instantly flipped from 24-5 and wins in seven of eight, including over the Clippers and Rockets, into dropping four of six as the defense takes on water.

Portland is suddenly at a mini-crossroads, with a home game tonight against Orlando, another lottery-bound opponent (10 p.m. ET, League Pass), much more meaningful than a team setting itself up for April would prefer to sweat in January. But welcome to it. Blazers-Magic is undeniably important.

“Yeah, we know people doubt about us,” said Batum, who is playing through the finger injury. “People may talk about us right now and say, like you said, ‘Told you so. What happened right now?’ But this is a long season. We’ve played 35 games. OK, we’ve missed like five games, the last five games. We still have 40-something games remaining. We know what we are. We know we have a good team, so we’ll get back to it and show them that the Trail Blazers are for real.”

This should be the perfect time for a recovery. The Magic, Celtics and Cavaliers are the next three opponents, all in Portland and spread out over eight days. C.J. McCollum, the No. 10 pick in the 2013 draft, has yet to play while recovering from a fractured left foot, but at least he is healthy now and available in what could become additional depth in the backcourt behind Wesley Matthews at shooting guard and Damian Lillard at the point. In a season when the Trail Blazers have made so much go right, they now get a lot of things breaking right when they need it most.

Waste this fortunate moment of the schedule, though, struggle with Orlando, Boston and Cleveland as the Blazers did with Philadelphia and Sacramento, and then they’ll see what mounting skepticism really is. That will be what real adversity tastes like.