Happy with start, Blazers coach notes tough games ahead

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts says the keys for Portland the rest of the season will be consistency, transition defense, mental toughness and focus.If there were an award for NBA coach of the half-season, Portland’s Terry Stotts would be on the short list along with Golden State’s Mark Jackson, Memphis’ Lionel Hollins, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Indiana's Frank Vogel and Vinny Del Negro of the L.A. Clippers, among others.

Portland enters tonight’s home date with the defending champion Miami Heat sporting a 19-15 and 11 victories in its last 14 games. Entering Wednesday play, the Trail Blazers were tied with Denver for second place in the Northwest Division and in seventh place in the Western Conference.

If the regular season were to end today, the Blazers would be a playoff team — a position few would have predicted entering the season with such turnover from last year’s roster and five rookies. In his first year as Portland’s mentor, Stotts has his team winning close games and the players believing in themselves.

Stotts sat down with the Tribune to discuss all matters Blazers:

Tribune: You, wife Jan and your Coton de Tulear dogs live in Lake Oswego, making you at least a pseudo-Portland resident. You spent six years living in Seattle when you were on George Karl’s staff with the SuperSonics. How do you like Portland compared to Seattle?

Stotts: The cities have a different feel to them — one city with the rivers versus one with the lakes and the (Puget) Sound. Seattle seems like a bigger city. I don’t know Portland that well yet, but it has a ... closer feel.

I’ve enjoyed living everywhere I’ve been — Seattle; Milwaukee; Atlanta; Rome; Paris; Madrid; Albany, N.Y.; Fort Wayne, Ind. I try to enjoy wherever I am. Every place you go, you make it what it is. When I lived on Guam, a lot of the military people called it ‘The Rock’ and didn’t want to be there, but we enjoyed it. It’s important to enjoy where you are.

Tribune: If I’d told you prior to the season you’d be four games over .500 at this point in the season, what would you have said?

Stotts: I’d probably have said, “I’m not looking at the schedule.” My response back then would have been, “Our goal is to get better every day, to compete and build championship habits and the record takes care of itself.” That’s still my answer. I’m pleased with the record we have. I’m pleased with the direction of the team, with how we’re playing.

But we can’t be satisfied or complacent with where we are. Our schedule from here on out is the toughest in the league. We have a lot of work ahead of us. We can’t get too full of ourselves. But we have a good home record, and the recent 3-1 road trip was the most significant thing we’ve done up to now.

Tribune: What did that tell you about the team?

Stotts: It was great to beat the Knicks in (Madison Square) Garden. The loss in Toronto was the biggest learning experience. It showed us how we need to play. It’s hard to win in this league. Nothing comes easy. We have to realize that. We didn’t play as well or as hard as we need to play in Toronto. That game served us well for (wins at) Memphis and Minnesota.

Tribune: What have been the keys to the success?

Stotts: Competitiveness and resilience. Those are the words that keeping coming to mind. Competitiveness was a goal of our players this season, and they’ve taken that to heart. The resilience is inside them. It’s an inner confidence, a never-quit attitude and feeling like you have a chance. We’ve had some come-from-behind wins. We’ve bounced back from losing streaks and bounced back from losses to get good wins. Whether it’s resilience within a game or in the course of a season, it’s been appreciated.

Tribune: Isn’t that surprising from such a young team?

Stotts: Part of it is the character of the players. The hallmark of that was the Charlotte game (a 118-112 win on Dec. 3 after trailing by 18 points in the fourth quarter). Things were not going in the right way and I was close to pulling the plug (by removing the starters). There was a little bit of light there and they stayed after it.

For a young team to do it — I don’t want to say they don’t know any better, but they just go out and play hard. That’s what you should do. The longer players are in the league, you get a little jaded, maybe think, “It’s not our night tonight” and move on. We haven’t shown any signs of that.

Tribune: How many rookies have you seen come into the league and make an impact as Damian Lillard has done?

Stotts: Kyrie Irving had a really good season last year. Chris Paul and Deron Williams and had a major impact on their teams as rookies. Those are the ones who come to mind. Being compared to Chris Paul is pretty good.

Tribune: You’ve made it a point recently to praise LaMarcus Aldridge, who perhaps has gotten lost in the shuffle with the performance of Lillard and the dramatic step up taken by Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.

Stotts: Damian deserves the attention. It’s a fresh story. Nic has improved and expanded his game, and that’s a good story. J.J. Hickson’s double-doubles is a great story. Everybody is surprised by what those guys are doing.

But LaMarcus has been the foundation. It’s easy to overlook that. He’s our best player. He makes everybody better when they’re on the floor with him. Four players in the league are averaging 20 (points) and 8 (rebounds) — LeBron James, Kevin Durant, David Lee and LaMarcus. That’s good company. LaMarcus has had 25 (points), 10 (rebounds) and 5 (assists) three times. LeBron has done it six times, and nobody else more than two.

Tribune: Plus, LaMarcus ranks fourth in the NBA in point differential during time on the court, with Lillard ranking No. 1.

Stotts: That says a lot about both of those guys. We appreciate LaMarcus, who has been doing it with new teammates and allowing them to flourish. When you have a franchise player like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki or LaMarcus Aldridge, it makes the job easier for the general manager, the coaches and the players. It sets an example. You’re fortunate to have those type of guys.

Tribune: Do you feel as if Batum and Matthews are having breakthrough seasons?

Stotts: The jumps have been pretty significant. Nic has expanded his game as far as being a playmaker. Before this season, his career high in assists was seven. Now for him to get seven is not even noteworthy. Wes’ ballhandling has improved. Now he’s making plays off the dribble. I’m not a big fan of step-back 3s, but he’s the one guy who has proved he can make them.

Defensively, both of those guys give good effort. Wes, in particular, is the heart and soul of our defense. And those two guys are young players.

Tribune: Batum, Lillard and Aldridge are averaging 38 minutes a game — among the top 12 in the NBA. And Matthews is at 35. Will they be able to continue to handle that kind of load?

Stotts: Big minutes are relative. The only thing unusual is four guys (on one team) averaging that many minutes. I don’t think individually those are heavy minutes.

Tribune: So this is what we’ll see?

Stotts: I’m very cognizant of their minutes and trying to rotate them. I try to keep them under 40. We’ve played five overtime games, which bumps the average. I want to keep them at a manageable number.

Tribune: Portland’s bench is averaging 17.4 points, with a point differential of minus-21.3 per game — by far the worst in the NBA in both categories. How have your reserves played?

Stotts: They have come in and contributed and helped us win games. People get too caught up in scoring. (The Blazers) are scoring points. It doesn’t matter who scores them. If we’re averaging a certain amount of points, what does it matter where they come from? You can look at it like we’re not getting a lot of scoring off the bench, or you can say, “Man, those starters are killing the other (teams’) starters.”

It’s convenient to look at the points and not look at the intangibles of what (the reserves) are giving. The young players have gotten their minutes and have improved, which is important. On a whole, the bench has given us what they can. It shouldn’t all be about how many points they score.

Tribune: What are the major areas of improvement necessary through the second half?

Stotts: Consistency in all areas. That’s what every coach searches for. You’re always going to make mistakes. You just don’t want to see the same things over and over. We’ve gotten better in transition defense. Our mental approach is going to have to be strong, because we have a tough road ahead of us. Mental toughness and focus is something that will be important to us.

Tribune: Is Portland a playoff team?

Stotts: It isn’t today, but it can be.

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