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by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - A rookie, Damian Lilliard, has led the Trail Blazers to two wins in four games, and two competitive performances in Portland's losses. After a perusal of the Trail Blazers’ early schedule a few weeks ago, a fellow pundit and I came to the conclusion that the local NBA contingent could wind up with a pretty good oh-fer — like, 0 for 7 — before maybe final cracking the win column at Sacramento on Nov. 13.

Imagine our surprise that Portland takes a 2-2 record into tonight’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers at the Rose Garden.

The Blazers have that great opening-night victory over the Lakers and the overtime win at Houston already in the bag. And they were in road games against Oklahoma City and Dallas into the fourth quarter. Not a bad start.

“We’re competing,” first-year Portland coach Terry Stotts says. “The two games we’ve won have been with our defense and belief at the offensive end. I’d like the second half and overtime at Houston to be the standard for the way we want to play — with toughness, grittiness.

“And I like that the games we lost we were competitive going into the fourth quarter; then it slid away. You want to be in that position on the road.”

Normally when a coach puts in a new system, the defense comes around first. That’s not been the case with the Blazers under Stotts. The disparity in fast-break points against Dallas — a shocking 24-2 edge for the Mavericks — notwithstanding, the Blazers have already run much more effectively than they ever did in the Nate McMillan regime. And they’ve done a good job creating open shots for the big four — LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard.

It has been a different story at the defensive end, where Portland ranks 28th in opponents’ shooting percentage (.488, ahead of just Cleveland and Charlotte) and 26th in opponents’ scoring (102.8).

“I’m not pleased with our consistency on defense,” Stotts says. “We spent a good amount of time in training camp and through October in shoring up our defense. To give up 50 percent shooting in three of four games is not what we’re looking to be, even though we’ve gone against good teams and some on the road. We could have done a better job, particularly in transition defense, in two of those games.

“I’m reluctant to say I’m pleased with what we’ve done so far, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Drawing the most attention has been the performance of Lillard, who has done no disservice to those who think he will win the NBA’s rookie of the year award. Lillard joined Oscar Robertson as the only players in league history to notch 20 points and seven assists in each of his first three games and Geoff Petrie as the only Blazers to score 20 in his first three. Not bad company.

Drawing double teams much of the way, Lillard suffered through a dismal shooting night Monday at Dallas, making 2 of 13 from the field and 1 of 8 from the foul line. But Stotts wants to draw a distinction between poor shooting and playing poorly.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - New coach Terry Stotts hasn't been pleased with the Blazers' lack of consistency on defense, but says the team is 'going in the right direction' overall.The Mavericks “were looking to trap him and get the ball out of his hands, but Damian made good decisions when we gave him an outlet to throw to,” the Portland coach says. “He was really 1 for 7 on 3s — one of the misses came at the end of a quarter — but they were all were good clean looks. He penetrated with the ball, got to the free-throw line and had five assists with one turnover.

“He did a lot of good things. When so much is made of shooting, it colors the view of whether a person played a good game or not.”

Lillard is not shooting well from the field (.406) or 3-point line (.292), but he is averaging 19.3 points, 8 assists and 3 turnovers while shooting .947 from the field. I can’t remember the last time a rookie shot technical fouls for the Blazers.

Stotts takes up a case for Batum, who took much heat for his 1-for-11 shooting performance in the loss to the Thunder. Batum is averaging 15 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting .412 from the field and .320 from 3-point range.

“People made a lot of the OKC game, but I don’t want that to be a stigma against Nic,” Stotts says. “He didn’t shoot the ball well, but he played a decent all-around game. In the other three games, he has been exceptional.”

Aldridge hasn’t shot well — .433 — but is putting up all-star numbers with 22 points and nine boards a game.

“He has been a stud, and I say that defensively as much as offensively,” Stotts says. “He has been engaged in our pick-and-roll coverage. He is alert on defense.

“He has been easy to get shots for. Put him in pick-and-rolls with Damian, something good happens. I haven’t been able to move him around as much (on offense) as I anticipated because of the nature of these games, and I want it to evolve a little more. But he has been an anchor, a security blanket for me.”

If there has been a consistent player thus far, it has been Matthews, who is averaging 18.8 points, shooting .458 from the field and .500 from 3-point range.

“I didn’t know Wes that well when I came, but I’ve come to appreciate he has been such a gritty competitor at both ends of the floor,” Stotts says. “I knew he could shoot. He established that last year. His playmaking is better than I thought. He’s making a lot of good passing decisions. And defensively, he is taking on a challenge every night. He just competes and finds a way to be successful.”

The fifth starter, J.J. Hickson, has averaged 10.8 points and 11.3 rebounds — 5.3 off the offensive glass.

“He is doing it with effort and his athleticism,” Stotts says. “I really like how he complements the other starters. He gets rebounds in a crowd and gets after it.”

Rookie center Meyers Leonard had his best moments in the first half of the Dallas game, getting six points and seven rebounds before intermission.

“He is getting better,” Stotts says. “Defensively is where we need him most. It’s about understanding the league and how to defend within NBA rules. The game moves so fast. (Teammate) Jared Jeffries is an exceptionally smart player who has seen everything and can anticipate what’s going to come. Meyers needs that.

“His offense is going to come around. I like his approach to the game. He likes the physical nature of it. He wants to learn. There won’t be quantum leaps after four games. Against Dallas, his first half was very good, and then in the second half there was slippage.”

Depth has been a problem, which will likely be the case all season. The starters are playing big minutes — Aldridge and Lillard 37 a game, Matthews 38, Batum 39. The reserves are providing only 18 points a game, though offense isn’t what Stotts is expecting from rotation players Leonard, Jeffries, Ronnie Price and Sasha Pavlovic.

“I’’ve established a rotation where two of my top four scorers are on the court at all times,” Stotts says. “What I like about our bench is they’re complementary players. I don’t expect them to score but they are always going to be on the court with some scorers.

“I just want them to play within a system and structure that allows them to be effective. It’s the nature of our team right now.”

The immediate schedule remains difficult. After the Clippers come home dates with San Antonio and Atlanta. It will probably be the seventh game — at Sacramento — in which the Blazers will be favored for the first time.

“We knew the early part of the schedule would be a challenge,” Stotts says. “The biggest thing is, we need to go out and compete. We’ve shown when we compete, we’ll be in position to win games.”

I still think there will be more downs than ups for Portland this season. They’re likely to finish on the south side of .500. But the early signs are encouraging. Stotts is doing a nice job taking the pieces he has and making the most of them. It provides hope that good things are ahead.

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