Posts Tagged ‘Terry Stotts’

Jeff Hornacek talks Suns’ 48-win season

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Suns’ Goran Dragic is a nominee for Kia Most Improved Player

DALLAS – The Phoenix Suns added their name to a very short list of teams to win 48 games and not make the playoffs. Their pleasantly stunning season has sparked increased debate about whether the NBA should look at ditching the conference model and put the 16 teams with the best record into the postseason.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek vaulted to the top of the Coach of the Year discussion early on and, like his team, never faded. Phoenix was believed to be a team headed for major ping-pong balls come the lottery, a team constructed of journeymen and unproven parts expected to top out at around 25 victories.

The first-time head coach will have competition from Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Charlotte’s Steve Clifford, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.

“Jeff is an awesome coach,” Suns point guard and team MVP Goran Dragic said. “He was a great player and he understands the game. As a coach, he sees things differently and he is always calm and gives us that extra confidence. He works hard with young players after practice and he gives us the strength to fight the whole season.”

Here’s how Hornacek views his rookie season on the bench:

Q: How did you manage to quickly establish a winning culture in a locker room with high turnover?

A: That’s the one thing going into this season we wanted them to do, just play hard, play together and for the most part they’ve done that. These guys care about each other, they’re a very close-knit team and that gives you an opportunity for success.

Q: How did Gerald Green, NBA.com’s choice as Most Improved Player, find success this season and bouncing in and out of the league?

A: Gerald is a guy who can get his shot off anywhere — and he does (laughs). He’s got great confidence in his shooting. He’s done a much better job of not just settling for the jump shot, but he’ll take it to the basket. If he gets a step and has a chance to jump, you know how good of an athlete he is, he usually gets the ball in the basket. He’s improved in terms of his consistency. It’s not where he’s jacking up 10 3s and making two of them. He realizes that if he’s not making them, he moves in and tries to take a different shot and that’s been big. I think that’s where a lot of his improvement’s come.

Q: It’s been said that you are the perfect coach for him and the system is a perfect fit. Do you agree with that?

A: He’s bought into what we’re trying to do, it kind of fits his style. We don’t mind running up and shooting quick 3s. I think his eyes light up when one of our point guards, Goran or Eric [Bledsoe], sprint down the court and he’s filling a lane. Guys have great confidence in him and they look for him now because they know he can get hot and make six, seven in a row. It’s a big part of what we do and he’s been great this year.

Q: You played for and coached under Hall of Fame Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. What aspects of his coaching style or philosophies did you incorporate into yours?

A: When we went into it I tried to take a little bit from all the coaches. With Jerry, it’s just go out there and try to play every play like it’s your last, that’s what Jerry always stressed and we’re constantly talking about that. We’re an inexperienced team in terms of playing games so those guys are learning on the fly of how to do that night in and night out, and then get to every play. You can’t have three or four plays that, ‘Oh I forgot,’ or ‘I spaced off’ or whatever it is because that’s going to be enough to cost you the game. Jerry was always on that: Play every play like it’s your last and we try to get that from our guys.

Q: Not sure if even you could have predicted the level of success the team had this season. What does it mean for the franchise when 20-something wins seemed to be the ceiling?

A: Well, the whole part of the rebuilding is you’re going to have steps. From a team that was supposed to win maybe 20 games, we thought if we can get to 30, 35, start establishing things, maybe next year make a push for the playoffs and the year after that get in the playoffs, the kind of stepping stones that you have to go through. Maybe we just skipped a rung. I think it’s great.

Q: Why were you able to skip a rung?

A: I don’t know. It’s always tough in the NBA, especially the way guys switch teams nowadays. The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys, you never how that’s going to come together, they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks if you’re on a good team. And so if we’re a good team, all that stuff will come, don’t worry about it, just play and try to win games and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve put it all aside and just played.

Q: When did you first see signs that your team could be pretty good?

A: Early in the season we lost a couple of close games to San Antonio and Oklahoma City at their place and our guys; when you’re in a rebuilding mode a lot of times guys are talking about, ‘hey, that’s a moral victory. Hey look, we played well.’ Our guys were ticked off, they were mad about it. So, to me, as kind of a competitive player, I think, I took that as a sign that, hey, we could be OK this year because these guys care and they want to win.

Q: You paired two point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, in the same backcourt. Why did you believe they could complement one another?

A: I just kind of envisioned it because I saw what Kevin Johnson and I went through way back in the day when you had two guards out there and we wanted to be an up-tempo team. We felt that the best way to do that is to have two guys you can outlet the ball to. We don’t need it in one guy’s hand when you can throw it to anybody. We just kind of, [general manager] Ryan McDonough, when we talked about if it could work, he said, ‘yeah I think it would be great getting them from one side to the other. Teams have to look at the mismatches. Someone’s going to have the advantage as good as those two guys are.

With Aldridge back, so is Blazers’ edge

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Trail Blazers cruise past Bulls in Chicago

CHICAGO – LaMarcus Aldridge realized early that it wasn’t going to be his night offensively.

“My first shot, I took it quick but I saw Bulls coming baseline,” the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward said. “And I remembered [in Portland in November] they doubled me the whole game. I’d had some good games versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I was going to try to be more active defensively.”

What mattered more to Aldridge was that it was going to be his night at all. He had missed seven consecutive games with a bruised lower back prior to Thursday, then got busy against the Hawks in Atlanta for 25 points, 16 rebounds and 32 minutes. The Blazers won, pulling up ever so slightly in what had been a nosedive (3-4 without Aldridge, nine losses in 15 games overall).

This game against Chicago, at the end of their five-game Eastern trip, was no time to start plummeting again.

“As long as I woke up and I could walk, I was going to play,” Aldridge said.

This wasn’t one for the portfolio – five points, 2-for-10 shooting – at the offensive end but he represented well on defense. Aldridge grabbed 13 defensive boards and had four steals, clogging up things inside against a Bulls team that was no threat outside (3-for-17 from the 3-point line).

And frankly, Aldridge’s mere threat, misfiring or not, drew extra defenders often enough to free up other Portland shooters. Free up and energize even. Hey, LaMarcus is in passing mode!

“They get more energy, and they get more happy of course,” Aldridge said after the Blazers hit 10 of their 22 attempts from the arc. “When teams double-team me, I feel like guys pull over to the ball faster, I think guys are more locked in. When I have the ball normally, I’m going 1-on-1 and I’m always shooting it. But I feel like tonight, my teammates were more engaged.”

Better now than never. Portland’s struggles over the past 10 weeks have been well-documented, notably by our guys Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith here and here in the past few days alone. The Blazers’ freefall was all the rage as a media topic, certainly in Portland, and even though the players and coaches were on the road, they couldn’t escape it.

“Look, we all know where things are in the standings and the playoffs,” coach Terry Stotts said after a solid, assertive 91-74 victory at United Center. “Every game is critical. We let a couple get away on this trip but I didn’t have to say anything – the team knows where we are and what we need to do.”

Getting Aldridge back was their top priority – a big no-duh, frankly – because life without him was a double-whammy: the Blazers lost his production and opponents felt freshly enthused, eager to test Portland’s vulnerability.

But there was more, perhaps some unconscious acknowledgement that, with or without their big guy, they weren’t the same team that had blitzed the league in the first two months. “Maybe not sustainable,” Aldridge said of the swift start.

Every team has lulls, but the Blazers’ looked more like doubts.

“Other than us getting our best player back – which changes everything – our urgency has gone up after the loss in Orlando [Tuesday],” point guard Damian Lillard said. “You realize, ‘All right, it’s time to turn it around right now. We can’t wait. We can’t have one of these lackadaisical efforts.’ The last two games we’ve really defended and done everything together.”

The unity Portland has flexed at its best was there particularly on defense, where having the other man’s back is king.

“I think the biggest example I can give you,” Lillard said, “is how consistent we were [against the Bulls] chasing over ball screens and communicating and pushing the ball up and moving the ball. Just everything the coaches are telling us and constantly on us about, we’ve been able to execute those things on the floor consistently.

“We were really missing that over that tough stretch.”

Aldridge made sure not to rush back, lest his back pains reoccur and he miss more time even closer to the playoffs. The Blazers are 7-5 without him this season, 40-22 when he plays. They locked up a winning record on the road in 2013-14 (21-18 now) and are 12-7 on the tail end of back-to-backs.

Going through the hard times – with no guarantees they’re gone, of course – did put a chip back on the Blazers’ shoulders, if that’s any help.

“I think we’re at our best,” Lillard said, “when everybody starts to doubt us and says, ‘Oh, they might not be in the playoffs. They’re falling off.’ That’s when we come together. We want to prove people wrong.”

Mavs’ Kaleb Canales a true trail blazer

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Kaleb Canales (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

If the name Kaleb Canales doesn’t ring a bell, it likely will soon. Think Erik Spoelstra. No one knew the two-time champion coach of the Miami Heat when he was living in the shadows of the franchise’s video room or as an assistant on the Heat bench.

Now everybody knows his name, as well as the fact that Spoelstra is the first Filipino-American to coach in the NBA.

Two seasons ago, Canales — born in Laredo, Texas and whose father is from Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — became the first Mexican-American to lead an NBA team when he took over the Portland Trail Blazers as the interim coach for 23 games after the team fired Nate McMillan.

In the offseason, a month after his 34th birthday, Canales was one of two finalists to become the next coach of the Blazers. Despite the support of the players, the club passed on Canales’ youth for the experience of Terry Stotts, who had previously been a head coach and just celebrated winning the 2011 championship on Rick Carlisle‘s staff with the Dallas Mavericks.

Canales remained with the Blazers last season as a lead assistant and helped ease Stotts’ transition with his new players. When Mavericks assistant Jim O’Brien decided to step aside last summer, Carlisle hired Canales at Stotts’ recommendation.

The move ended a long relationship with a Blazers organization that gave him his shot and the tools to grow. But it also delivered Canales back to his home state, just a stone’s throw away from where his unique coaching ascension started on the ground floor as a student and then as a coach at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“So when I was in high school, I’m sure like every kid, I had a list of goals I made with a pen and pad — spiritual goals and professional goals and personal goals,” Canales said. “And one of my professional goals was to be a coach in the NBA. Obviously, when I told my friends that growing up in Laredo, it was like, ‘Yeah right,’ you know?”

What do those friends, most of whom live close enough to hop in their cars to come visit, say now?

“They all come to the games and ask me for tickets,” Canales laughed.

Paying his dues

How did a kid from Laredo, Texas, a heavily Hispanic-populated border city of a couple-hundred-thousand, make it to the NBA, and at such a young age? Those who know Canales say his boundless energy and enthusiasm, belief and perseverance paved the way.

“First of all, he has good spirit,” Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He’s always into it with energy and he’s wholeheartedly always giving 100 percent. I think he put everybody in a good position and we loved him.”

Like Spoelstra — and, actually, with a little help from him — Canales accepted an internship in 2004 with the Trail Blazers to work in their video room. It was unpaid, but it counted as credit toward the Master’s degree he earned online from Virginia Commonwealth University while coaching at UTA.

“I started doing a lot of research on how coaches were getting opportunities to coach,” Canales said. “I read Erik’s bio, I read a bunch of assistant coaches’ bios, I read John Loyer from Detroit; I saw video coordinator in their background. I knew that was something I could attack. I had some video experience at UTA. My first interview was with the Miami Heat. I know Erik last year [in an article], he was kind of nice because he said I wrote him a letter every week for a year. I think it was almost like every day for a year.”

Canales got an interview with the Heat and nailed it, but they politely told him they decided to hire from within. Impressed with him though, some phone calls were placed and Canales got an interview with, and then an offer from, the Blazers. He would quickly advance from unpaid intern to paid staffer as Portland’s video coordinator. Canales would pore over game film until his bleary, reddened eyes watered.

By the 2008-09 season he was promoted to assistant coach while keeping his duties as video coordinator. And by the next season he was out of the video room and fully immersed in player development as a full-fledged assistant. He was 30 years old.

“It started with Damon Stoudemire and Nick Van Exel for me and became LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy,” Canales said. “And it became Jerryd Bayless, it became Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard.”

From the start, he earned a reputation for having an insatiable appetite for work, practically living at the Blazers’ practice facility.

“He would watch film and work guys out, and at odd times of the night,” Aldridge said. “He wanted to make sure that if anybody came there at any time he would be there, so he would literally sleep at the practice court all the time. So if you came in at 12:30 [a.m.], he would be there. All basketball.

“When you ask him who is girlfriend is, he always says, ‘Spalding.’”

Learning from the best

Whatever free time comes his way, he typically spends it seeking out and studying other coaches. While still with the Blazers he made it a point to contact Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and attend summer workouts. He visited University of Oregon football practices before Chip Kelly left for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“I love studying coaches because I love studying leadership,” Canales said. “Watching and studying the practices of coach Carroll or coach Kelly, you see the energy from them, you see how they interact with their players and then you see them playing on Sunday. I went to an OTA [Organized Team Activities] in the summer with the Seahawks. I said, ‘Coach, it feels like you have a game Sunday,’ how sharp they were.”

Not much has changed in Canales’ hundred-mile-an-hour approach in his first season with the Mavs, a team that has improved throughout the year and is in a dogfight for one of the final playoff berths in the Western Conference.

Giving back

Canales plans to return to Laredo for a couple of weeks during the summer to visit with his mother, Alicia, his father, Victor, and his sister, Chantall, all of whom have become accustomed to rearranging the calendar to fit Canales’ busy schedule.

“We celebrate all the holidays in the summer,”  Canales said. “It’s like July 9 and we’re celebrating Thanksgiving or something. We try to get creative with that, understanding that this is a passion. It’s definitely a lifestyle and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

When he’s in Laredo, Canales runs a basketball camp for kids. It’s there he shares his stories and encourages the young campers, almost all of whom share a similar cultural heritage, to dream big. Canales said empowering Hispanic kids is a responsibility he takes seriously.

“You can’t be afraid not only to dream, but to dream big,” Canales said he tells the kids. “It’s a big-time responsibility, and I hope that kids can see my blessings and then see through faith and hard work that they can achieve their dream. It’s something I want them to really believe in.”

Before too long, much like Spoelstra’s rise from anonymity in the video room to the spotlight of the Heat’s lead chair, Canales may soon find himself making history.

“Obviously, looking down the road, I would love to have that opportunity again one day,” Canales said of getting another shot at an interview. “But that’s not where my concern is right now. I understand how blessed and fortunate I am, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Throughout the month of March, the NBA is celebrating Latin heritage through its Noches Ene-be-a program. For more information, click here

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

Blazers letting season slip away

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron, Bosh come up big against the Blazers

So it’s come to this for the Trail Blazers.

“It was a fine line,” said Terry Stotts.

When coaches and players start talking about fine lines, we usually know what side they’re standing on.

This time it was Chris Bosh getting a piece of Damian Lillard’s layup that resulted in a 93-91 loss at Miami on Monday night. It was the second straight defeat to open another critical five-game road trip for the Blazers. It was their eighth loss in the last 10 games. It was one more black mark on an awful road record — 6-13 — since Jan. 1.

Yes, the Blazers are playing without injured All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss his seventh straight game with a back contusion Tuesday night in Orlando ( 7 ET, League Pass) with no word yet on a return. Just as important, the Blazers have been playing without a sense of urgency or purpose, especially at the defensive end for more than a month, collectively shrugging their shoulders and figuring they’ll be able to shoot themselves out of their funk with the next barrage of 3-balls. Whenever that happens.

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

“There’s no reason to panic or start to worry about the season getting away from us,” Wesley Matthews said a couple of weeks ago after the Blazers lost in Houston. “We all know what we’re capable of doing. We all know how to play. It’s just a matter of us playing our game.”

That would seem to be the biggest part of the problem. While the Blazers have the No. 1 rated offense, they rely far too much on outscoring their opponents rather than trying to stop them. They’re careless with the basketball, slinging around difficult or careless passes and telling themselves that somebody will make a shot when they need it.

The Blazers were the surprise of the first month of the season. Nobody, even the Blazers, expected that to hold up in the face of the consistent play of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Yet on March 1, after beating the Nuggets at home, Portland was 41-18 and firmly in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Now the Blazers, as the fifth seed, are only a game up on Golden State at No. 6 and only three games from dropping all the way behind Dallas and out of the playoffs completely.

Portland’s last extended road trip was a 1-4 disaster, bottoming out when Aldridge crashed to the floor in San Antonio, landing hard on his back. Then the Blazers flew to Charlotte to open another five-game set — and it looked like the entire roster had simply missed the flight. They lost in to the Bobcats 124-94 on Saturday before Monday’s loss to Miami.

With a schedule that is fast getting late — 11 games left — and a season of goodwill that is slipping rapidly through their hands, there is a combination of denial about what’s happening and a refusal to change. Nic Batum continues to ride the roller coaster offensively, even in the absence of Aldridge and the need for him to step up. Matthews and Dorell Wright are careless handling the ball. And when the bombs-away approach isn’t working, they’re in deep, deep trouble.

“I don’t think it’s a larger issue,” Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the disaster in Charlotte. “We played bad. They played well.

“If you kill us, you’re gonna look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.”

Yes, write it down. Portland went into Miami on Monday night and took the Heat to the edge. But LeBron James made the bucket to win the game, Lillard didn’t and the Blazers came out living in that gray area of relativism.

In and out. Make or miss. A fine line where teams in trouble seem to spend too much time tip-toeing on the wrong side.

“We’re tired of losing close games,” Stotts said. “But you can’t help but be proud of the way we competed.”

It’s come to this for the Blazers. Moral victories instead of real ones.

Big moment of truth for Blazers


VIDEO: Blazers rally but come up short to Mavs

DALLAS –  The Trail Blazers’ locker room was a quiet place Friday night. No solace was taken in running down Dallas’ 30-point lead. Only lament that they could somehow trail by 30 and then allow an avalanche of late-game miscues to bury their own lead.

Maybe the 103-98 defeat wouldn’t have stung so deeply if it were not a virtual repeat of Monday night when the wayward Lakers popped Portland in its own building, racing to an early 15-point lead and then winning it in the final seconds.

These are losses teams don’t get back, not at this stage of the season. They’re losses that ultimately swipe homecourt advantage for what promises to be a rugged first-round series regardless of opponent.

Neither loss, however, triggered a team meeting a la Indiana following the Pacers’ third consecutive loss Friday, a thumping at red-hot Houston. That’s where these Blazers head next for a Sunday showdown. Then their five-game, nine-day, potentially season-defining road trip winds through Memphis and San Antonio before finally ending Friday at still-feisty New Orleans.

Entering Saturday’s game, Portland is in fifth place in the West, one game behind third-place Houston and now one-half game behind the Los Angeles Clippers. The current road trip could make or break the Blazers’ chances of homecourt advantage, but they say playoff seeding is not a conversation they’re having.

“Nah, we just try to take care of business,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, who broke out of a post-injury shooting funk with an 18-point third quarter Friday for a game-high 30 points plus 17 rebounds. “We feel like if we go through every game and take care of business then we should be where we want to be. We definitely notice that we are right there with them. We do want homecourt, but we don’t want to get caught up into watching all those things. If we take care of business it should all work out.”

That would suggest falling behind by 30 is not exactly taking care of business. Nor is losing on their home floor to a last-place team. It’s not time to panic. The best teams struggle at times, just as the Pacers and even the Heat are doing now. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be concern over recent patterns.

“We weren’t playing very well at either end of the court,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the start of Friday’s game when Dallas surged to a 40-10 lead. “We weren’t communicating well defensively, we had miscues reading each other, there were a lot of things that weren’t going right. Dallas made no secret, this was a must-win for them, they were approaching it like that and Houston, you go down the line, we’re going to be in a lot of situations like this, and we know what we’re capable of doing, but it’s going to be a dogfight every night.”

Portland plays good enough defense to get by with a high-octane offense. But when the shots aren’t falling as they weren’t early in Dallas, it can spell big trouble. Incorporate sloppy turnovers, six in the first quarter and three during their final, scoreless 4:26 of the game, and eventually that path will lead to a closed-door team meeting.

At 42-20 and 18-12 on the road, the Blazers, a surprising success story throughout the season, have proven themselves as resilient time and again. With 20 games to go, this would be a poor time to allow a couple of clumsy losses to teams beneath them in the standings to linger.

“You always worry about that,” Aldridge said. “But I think guys are just angry about it and I think just want to take it out on Houston.”

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 26


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 25

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Trail Blazers are more than just a two-man team | Shaw relished time with Vogel | Raptors weary of injuries | Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade

No. 1: Blazers more than a two-man team — The Portland Trail Blazers are riding the wave of a MVP candidate (LaMarcus Aldridge), a Most Improved candidate (Damian Lillard) and a Coach of the Year candidate (Terry Stotts) to one of the most surprising and impressive starts we’ve seen from any team in recent years. They have already equaled their win total from a year ago, after taking care of the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday. But they are more than just a two-man team with one of the hottest coaches in the game. The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman explains:

As the Moda Center masses gathered to watch LaMarcus Aldridge go head-to-head against Kevin Love and reignite the debate over which player is the best power forward in the NBA, a funny thing happened:
The Trail Blazers proved yet again they’re more than a one-man team.
With a difference-making outing from the bench, balanced scoring and meaningful contributions up and down the roster, the Blazers used a team effort to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves 115-104 Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Oh, sure, Love and Aldridge had some sparkling moments and they provided enough highlights to satisfy a salivating sellout crowd. But their growing rivalry was more fizzle than sizzle as the Blazers (33-11) used a team-oriented approach to avenge a December defeat to the Timberwolves and equal the number of victories they had all of last season.
“One thing about LA — and we talked about it — the media and (the team) put more into it than he did,” Mo Williams said of Aldridge’s matchup with Love. “All he kept saying was, ‘Man, all I care about is the win. All I care about is the win.’ And I believe him. I thought he just came out and played basketball. He didn’t try to overdo it. He didn’t try to do too much. He wasn’t bigger than the game. I thought the game was more important than the matchup with him and Kevin Love.”
In the end, the Blazers won thanks to their bench, which outscored the Timberwolves’ second unit 34-15, and the sum of their parts rather than the talent of their All-Star. As usual, backup point guard Williams was at the heart of the Blazers’ bench, and he finished with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds during a flashy 25 minutes that featured behind-the-back passes, three-pointers and a relentless push-the-pace mentality.

***

No. 2: Shaw relished time with Vogel: – Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw has nothing but love for his Indiana Pacers’ counterpart Frank Vogel. When you work as closely as they did, when Shaw worked as an assistant under Vogel prior to this season, a mutual admiration society (of two) can develop. And if familiarity with one another gives your current team an edge, as it perhaps did when the Nuggets snapped a three-game skid with a win over the Pacers, so be it. But the bond between these two men remains, regardless of the outcome of games. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star has more:

As the story goes, Shaw would indeed listen to Frank Vogel and join his staff as an assistant head coach. Shaw became an integral part of the Pacers, influencing their play and developing lasting relationships with players. Saturday, as the head coach for the Denver Nuggets, Shaw faced his former team for the first time and recalled how his time in Indianapolis influenced his current mindset as a leader.

“I was coming from Los Angeles to Indiana,” Shaw said. “I had to learn how to do things a different way under Frank Vogel and being a part of the group that he has now, and I watched some of those players grow.

“Frank Vogel is a great coach. He comes from a video coordinating background so he believes in watching a lot of video and that was different for me. We had to come in every day and get 20 minutes every day of watching videos. Just watching how he organized practices every day and getting prepared for games, I learned from him.”

In the summer of 2011, as Vogel sought Shaw to join the Pacers, he pitched the family-friendly suburbs but mainly the opportunity for a young assistant with high aspirations.

“I told him he was crazy to go to ESPN, he should come work for us,” Vogel said. “We’re doing special things. I knew he wanted to be a head coach, and I really felt like staying in the trenches was his best way to do that and not just staying in the trenches for anyone but for a team that’s really doing some special things.

“And the first phone call, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Listen, we need to talk because we can really help each other.’ I was recruiting him to try and position himself but I really needed him as well.”

***

No. 3: Raptors weary of injuries, especially after big night from Ross – Terrence Ross enjoyed the finest night of his NBA career against the Los Angeles Clippers, albeit in a loss. But his 51-point explosion was directly impacted by an injury to the man who has been perhaps the Raptors’ most important player this season, DeMar DeRozan. Injuries, the great equalizer for any team, are a concern for a Raptors crew, GM Masai Ujiri in particular, that understands the greatest of plans can be derailed by the wrong player going down at the wrong time. Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star delivers the details:

A few weeks ago, GM Masai Ujiri was chatting about his short-term vision for this club. As you might expect, the short-term vision is all over the place. Everything depends on how they perform. He was certain about one thing.

“Injuries,” Ujiri said. “That’s what haunts me.”

Patrick Patterson had his nose broken by a Blake Griffin elbow. In a truly Raptor-y touch, Patterson was called for a foul on the play.

But he’ll be OK; and even if he weren’t, this team would survive.

However, without DeRozan, this is an untenable exercise. There can be no true tank now — it’s too late for that. But it would be a tank without volition. This team would get very bad, very quickly.

Nonetheless, DeRozan played 10 more game minutes. He came out before the end of the first half to get re-taped. He went for two more minutes in the second half before giving up.

“It’s a little painful right now,” DeRozan said, but didn’t seem terribly concerned. An X-ray was negative.

We’ll see in a day or two. If DeRozan plays Monday in Brooklyn, no harm. Even if he sits a game or two, no biggie.

But if this is the beginning of an extended absence, some hard questions will have to be asked about those 10 extra minutes, and putting this team’s leader in real jeopardy.

***

No. 4: Heat forced to play waiting game with Wade – Dwyane Wade isn’t the only NBA superstar whose injury issues have forced his team to adjust its long-term plans for this season. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul have all missed significant time for their respective teams this season. But none of those other stars toil for the two-time defending NBA champs. And the Heat, with today’s Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs on tap, still don’t know what to expect from Wade. He might very well sit out again today. The Heat have no choice but to play the waiting game with Wade. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald sheds some light on the Heat’s plight:

If this were the postseason, then Dwyane Wade would be playing.

Wade has missed four straight games do to pain in his knee, and could miss Sunday’s game against the Spurs as well, but he indicated Saturday that he’s only missing games because, well, these games aren’t really that meaningful when weighed against protecting one of the best players in the NBA.

“The playoffs are different,” said Wade, who spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since scratching himself from the lineup last week. “If this was the playoffs, I wouldn’t have been out.”

Wade went through some of the Heat’s practice drills Saturday and worked on his conditioning in preparation for the Spurs’ first game at AmericanAirlines Arena since Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. A final decision on his playing status likely will not be made until about an hour before tipoff, which is set for 1 p.m.

“I don’t know,” Wade said when asked if he would play. “Today was a good day just being back on the court and [Sunday] we’ll see.”

Wade, who has missed 13 games this season, hasn’t played since scoring eight points in consecutive games against the Wizards and 76ers. Before that, he scored at least 20 points in 10 of 12 games. Despite the sudden drop-off in production and games on the bench, Wade wouldn’t call his latest block of rest a setback.

“At that time it was a setback,” Wade said, referring to a comment he made after playing the Sixers on Jan.17. “Now it’s not … At this point there ain’t no setbacks, it’s just what I’m dealing with.

“It’s what I’ve been dealing with all year. I don’t know how much back I can go, so it’s the same thing.” 


VIDEO: RAnother huge night around the league is captured in the Top 10 plays

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tom Thibodeau could care less about aesthetics. The Bulls coach only cares about winning games … Might Carmelo Anthony be ready for an encore performance against the Los Angeles Lakers today? Could be … Jazz rising star Trey Burke won the battle of young point guards and the game against the Wizards’ John Wall … Lakers forward Pau Gasol delivers some painful truths about his team and their season, to date …

ICYMI of The Night: You didn’t think Kevin Durant was done, did you? He earned a night off Friday and bounced back in the fashion you’d expect from a man who has been destroying the competition all season. The leading candidate for the MVP kept up his torrid pace in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers:


VIDEO: Kevin Durant makes it 10 straight games with 30 or more points while also notching a triple-double

Batum Says He’s Earned All-Star Nod


VIDEO: Nicolas Batum has 14 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 14 assists

DALLAS – Portland Trail Blazers do-it-all small forward Nicolas Batum readily admits that pal Tony Parker remains France’s No. 1 NBA heartthrob. Perhaps that gap will narrow a bit if Batum is selected to his first Western Conference All-Star team, an honor he says he would relish and, in all honesty, deserves.

NBA All-Star 2014His team’s 31-9 record, and his advanced stats suggest he is right.

“I look at all the small forwards in the West,” Batum told NBA.com Saturday night prior to putting up 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting with seven assists in a blowout win at Dallas. “You know, KD [Kevin Durant], is way up there, so can’t reach him he’s so far. But the West has to take a small forward after KD; I think it should be me. The West is crazy. I talked about it with Tony Parker two nights ago — I had dinner with him — that in the West, for a bench, to pick seven guys is pretty tough. KD is going to start at small forward, but I know if I get a chance to be on the bench to be a backup to KD, I would be very happy to do it.”

In his sixth season, the soft-spoken Frenchman is quietly having a sensational season playing on the league’s most potent offense. He’s averaging 13.4 ppg, scoring in a variety of ways, and posting career bests in rebounds (6.8 rpg) and assists (5.6 apg). His 46.1 field-goal percentage pales only to his second season in 2009-10 when he shot 51.9 percent, but played in only 37 games. He is shooting 36.3 percent from beyond the arc. His lanky frame and long arms help make him a sturdy defender who often checks the opponent’s top scorer.

On any given night, the 6-foot-8 Batum will post double-digit points or double-digit rebounds or double-digit assists. On some nights he might do it in two of the three categories, if not all three. He owns two triple-doubles this season, plus one points-rebounds double-double and one rebounds-assist double-double. On many nights he flirts with — at least — a double-double of some variety.

As for the All-Star Game, the West’s frontcourt is crowded with contenders, but the majority are power forwards such as Aldridge, Kevin Love, David Lee, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis, as well as center DeMarcus Cousins.

Delving into the advanced stats reveals Batum’s all-around value to the Blazers as well as his worthiness for a coveted All-Star spot. Here’s how he ranks among the league’s forwards in key categories:

> 1st: In offensive rating (113.5 points team scores per 100 possessions with Batum on the floor)

> 4th: In net rating (10.2, the difference between offensive and defensive rating) behind his teammate Aldridge, Indiana’s David West and Golden State’s Lee)

> 4th: In true shooting percentage (59.2 percent, adjusted to include the value of 3-pointers and free throws) behind Miami’s LeBron James, Oklahoma City’s Durant and Toronto’s Amir Johnson

> 4th: In effective field-goal percentage (55.5 percent, adjusted for 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than 2-pointers) behind James, Johnson and Houston’s Chandler Parsons

> 3rd: In assist percentage (21.9 percent, percent of teammates’ field goals that the player assisted) behind James and Durant

> 5th: Among small forwards in rebound percentage (10.3, percentage of total rebounds a player obtains while on the court) behind New York’s Carmelo Anthony, Dallas’ Shawn Marion, James and Durant

Not too shabby.

Here’s Batum in his own words:

NBA.com: You are a unique player in that you can fill up the stat sheet in a variety of ways. Is there a player you modeled your game after?

NB: When I grew up, my favorite player was Scottie Pippen. He was a guy that could do everything on the court, on offense and defense, and that’s what I love to do. I love to rebound, I love to assist, I love to score points, I love to play defense. I love to do everything on the court, so that’s what I try to do every night.

NBA.com: You said you would be happy to back up Durant on the West All-Star team. Do you believe you have earned the right to do so this season?

NB: I think so. I mean we’re winning, so if we’re winning games — we’re top three in the NBA — we should get at least two guys. I don’t think we’re going to get three guys, but Damian [Lillard] and L.A. will make it for sure.

NBA.com: Do you go into a game with an idea if you will attack as a scorer or facilitator?

NB: It depends on the flow of the game. When I come in and I see like is it going to be Damian’s night or Wesley [Matthews]? I don’t know if I’m going to have a triple-double every night, but if I can do it, I will do it.

NBA.com: So your goal every game is to shoot for a triple-double?

NB: Yeah. if I get like a 14 [points], 10 rebounds, 11 assists, that’s my kind of night. I don’t think I can average a triple-double, I’m not saying that, but I am the type of guy that can do the 14, 8 and 7 every night.

NBA.com: Why do you think more players aren’t as adept in filling up the stat sheet in a variety of ways?

NB: The system we do have helps me to do that. I know all the players I have around me. I know where they are, I watch a lot of video and I know who I am. I just know and read the game situation what I have to do. If I get 10 assists tonight, I get 10 assists. If I get 15, 20 points, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I just adjust my game to the other guys and the coach [Terry Stotts] told me that this season I am going to be the key to success.

NBA.com: It seems a good number of observers are waiting for the Blazers to flatten out a bit after such a first half of the season, or are still not yet ready to declare this team “for real.” Is this team built to continue at its current pace and challenge for the No. 1 spot in the West?

NB: We had a tough stretch at the end of December, beginning of January, like we lost four games out of six. But we knew we were going to go through tough times. The good thing on this team is we are, OK, we lost those four games, but we got back on track, we regrouped, we stayed together and now we’ve got a five-game winning streak. We know that this is the first time we’ve done this. OKC has been there, San Antonio’s been there. Last year we only had 33 wins and were like 11 or 12 in the West and now we are like No. 2 and we will be No. 1 if we win [Saturday]. So after 40 games people might be surprised or expect us to fall down, but we know who we are. We know what we’ve done to be in this position so far, so we are going to try to do the same thing.

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 19



VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 18

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Cuban docked $100,000 | Beverley return set | George’s All-Star choices | Blazers romp to top spot | Durant in a zone
No. 1: Cuban gets his wish — Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for weeks touted his desire to be fined one last time before commissioner David Stern steps down on Feb. 1. Stern granted his wish Saturday night with a hefty $100,000 fine for confronting officials on the court and directing inappropriate language toward them at the conclusion of the Mavs’ intense, 129-127 loss Wednesday night to the Los Angeles Clippers. Cuban’s team blew a 123-106 lead with 4:30 to go amid a storm of turnovers and fouls. The fine came down moments after Cuban had spoke to reporters as he typically does prior to games. Cuban beat the league in announcing the fine, using his Twitter account to let everybody know his pleasure: “I couldnt let the commish go without a proper farewell. Its been a fun 14 years of trying to create change and donating to the donut fund !” ESPNDallas’ Tim MacMahon has the details:

He added in another tweet that he would donate an equal amount to a charity.

Cuban’s latest outburst occurred after the Mavs blew a 17-point lead and Clippers guard Jamal Crawford scored the go-ahead points on free throws after a controversial foul call against Dallas forward Shawn Marion.

Cuban has said several times this season that he planned to draw the final fine of Stern’s 30-year tenure as commissioner. Cuban reiterated that intention to ESPN.com this week before his outburst Wednesday night.

This is the 20th time the league has publicly assessed a fine against Cuban since he bought the Mavs in Jan. 2000, including 14 fines that were the result of criticizing officials or interacting with them in ways the NBA deemed inappropriate.

Those fines have cost Cuban a total of $1.9 million, plus matching donations to charities of his choice.

***

No. 2: Beverley back Monday — The Rockets’ backcourt is about to get its starting point guard back. Patrick Beverley is expected to return to action Monday night at home against the Portland Trail Blazers roughly four weeks after he broke his right hand. Beverley went through the team’s full shootaround Saturday night and will practice Sunday as his final tune-up. Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle has more:

“I’m back now,” Beverley said. “I went through shootaround. We’ll see how it goes. I went through the whole shootaround like I did before, ran some drills, got a lot of shots up and went over the other team’s game plan.”

Though he prepared as if he was going to play against the Bucks, Beverley was held out to allow him one practice with the team before returning. He said he has been working out enough that he was “not rusty at all. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said the plan is to have Beverley return Monday pending that day’s final medical evaluation.

“I’ve been getting a lot of shots up the last past days,” Beverley said. “ I think our training staff has done a great job with my conditioning, helping me being ready when my number is called.”

Beverley said it is difficult to simulate the energy and intensity of actual games, but said he has made up for lost time with Rockets performance and rehabilitation coach Joe Rogowski.

“It was Camp Rogo,” Beverley said. “Went on like a hell week where just got after it, got stronger and quicker, more explosive. I think it’s going to pay off. Hard work always pays off.

“I felt I could have played last Thursday. I feel I could have played a couple days before that. Something with my body I just heal fast. I’m able to endure a lot of pain. I’m just happy to be back on the court and happy to mix it up with these guys.”

***

No. 3: All-Star choices for George — Pacers wing Paul George is all but set to become a first-time starter in next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans, and the NBA can’t get enough of the emerging superstar. George has been asked to participate in the 3-point shootout, the dunk contest and the skills competition. What are the chances he soaks up the entire weekend as a participant in one, two or all three events? Scott Agness of the Indianapolis Star has the odds:

The chances of him competing are slim, as he would prefer to rest and enjoy the weekend in The Big Easy. But he said that he hasn’t declined and was still open to the idea of taking part in at least one event. He plans to decide in the next few days.

When asked whether he had declined the offers, George said, “No, I haven’t declined. I’m keeping my options open.”

You know a player is at an elite level when he is considering turning down these invitations because All-Star weekend is typically a time where lesser-known guys or an up-and-coming player can be noticed.

George knows.

He has been actively involved at the past two All-Star weekends. In Houston last year, he played in the big game and was in the 3-point contest. The year before, George and his glow-in-dark-uniform placed third in the dunk contest and he played in the ‘Rising Stars Challenge,’ the same game he was left out of as a rookie.

Frank Vogel and his staff will be down there to coach the Eastern Conference team, which should have at least three members of the NBA’s best team. Lance Stephenson, the flashiest player on the Pacers, said he won’t be involved in any of those events, but he does have a message for his teammate.

“I ain’t got no dunks like that,” he said. “Paul, that’s the guy that needs to be in the dunk contest.”

***

No. 4: Hot Blazers soar again — For anyone thinking Portland’s recent slowdown signaled the start of a permanent trickle back to the pack in the Western Conference, the Blazers say believe what you want. One night after winning at San Antonio, 109-100, Portland went into Dallas and destroyed the Mavs with a near-flawless performance through three quarters. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge‘s 30 points and 12 rebounds, the Blazers led 104-70 after three quarters. Winners of five in a row, they’re now 31-9 and reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the West. Are they for real? Mike Tokito of The Oregonian has the latest:

Portland fans might hope the Blazers are truly one the league’s best teams, critics might suggest they’re interlopers in the elite class. Guess what? They don’t care.

“We just take it day-by-day and game-by-game,” forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “We don’t get caught up in all the hype. We just focus on doing our things that we need to do. Getting better defensively, staying focused on us.”

The Blazers were very good defensively and focused like a laser Saturday as they put on as impressive a performance as they’ve had all season, running the Dallas Mavericks out of American Airlines Center for three quarters in a 127-111 victory. The fourth quarter was a different story, but more on that later.

First the dominance: One night after putting San Antonio away with a strong fourth-quarter stretch, the Blazers took that sharp play and extended into a dominant first half, when they outscored Dallas 71-52, then revved things up further in the third, when they outscored the Mavericks 33-18.

The Blazers (31-9) have a reputation of a team that relies heavily on three-pointers and tries to outscore the other team, but on this night the catalyst was defense as they held Dallas to 39.4 percent field goal shooting in the first three quarters.

“Having the lead at halftime and coming out with that defensive focus in the third quarter was a really good sign for us,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

***

***

No. 5: Durant in a (right) zone — Thunder forward Kevin Durant is again leading the league in scoring and he’s doing so with remarkable efficiency. No game highlighted this quite like Friday’s 54-point performance on 19-for-28 shooting. During a one-minute stretch of that win over the Warriors, Durant scored nine points all from the same zone on the floor. Which zone? And why is that important? Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman explains:

Kevin Durant was stuck on 41 points for more than three minutes of game action. And on Friday night, that stagnation felt like an eternity.

So he called for the ball on the right wing, got it, and immediately rose for an in-rhythm three. Swish.

Then, on two of the next three possessions, he did the exact same thing.

Nine points in less than a minute. All from an increasingly more comfortable spot on the floor.

“I’ve been working on that shot, the right wing,” Durant said. “It used to be the shot I missed the most.”

But now, it has just become another lethal option in his unguardable arsenal.

Of Durant’s career-high 54 points on Friday night, 10 came near the rim, 11 came at the free-throw line and 12 came from that right wing, the zone in which he produced the most damage. Overall, he was 4-of-6 on that shot.

And in the grand scheme, that only continued an upward trend that Durant has clearly identified and worked to produce.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Dwight Howard says he was promised a trade from Magic to Nets … Clippers center DeAndre Jordan wants All-Star invite, not (necessarily) dunk contest … Nets finalizing trades to open roster spot; Bulls give up on Marquis Teague

Trail Blazers Answering The Questions


VIDEO: Blazers hold off Spurs in battle of West titans

With four losses in six games from the end of the old year through the first week of the new one, it was easy and popular to say that reality might finally be taking a bite out of the Trail Blazers. Losing to the lowly likes of New Orleans, Philadelphia and Sacramento will do that.

There were questions about Portland’s 3-point happy offensive attack, ability to engage in elite level defense, to have the kind of tough inner stuff that marks the true contenders.

It was one thing to snap out of the funk with a couple of home wins over the Celtics and Cavaliers. It is quite another to deliver against the upper crust.

The Blazers’ road trip to San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City is nothing but hard, crusty competition, four games in five nights against nothing but Western Conference playoff teams.

So it was satisfying and maybe revealing that the Blazers took the opener against the No. 1 seeded Spurs. They followed that Saturday night with an easy 127-111 win over the Mavericks, behind 30 points from LaMarcus Aldridge.

“To beat the best team in the West on their floor, that sticks out,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Like I said, we showed a lot of resolve at both ends of the floor…I thought we showed our mettle.”

It was more than the usual bundle of points from Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews and more than another night in triple-double neighborhood by Nicolas Batum. It was a game than could have gotten away from the Blazers after coach Gregg Popovich’s ejection that lit a fire under Manu Ginobili that lit a Spurs charge to a 78-77 lead.

If there was a time when the Blazers’ resolve and mental toughness was going to be pushed to the limit, this was it. The fact that letting it slip away could have set a bad tone for the start of the grueling road trip only made the situation more urgent.

It was a time for poise over panic, and the Blazers delivered.

Their recent slippage notwithstanding, the truth is Portland has been coming up big against the elite teams all season. The win over the Spurs gives them a 6-1 record against the top five teams in the Western Conference.

Going into tonight’s back-to-back game at Dallas (8:30 ET, League Pass), the Blazers are just one-half game behind the Spurs for the top spot in the conference and it’s even possible that with a strong finish to the trip, Stotts could be in the running to coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game.

“We have a pretty good record right now,” Matthews said. “We’re beating teams that are upper echelon, home and road. We just got to keep our heads down and stay humble and know that we can compete with anybody. We’re not getting too full of ourselves. We’re sticking with the process.”

The trip continues at Dallas, Houston and OKC with a chance for the Blazers to provide their answer to any questions.