Blazers win, but things still not clicking
Observations from the Trail Blazers' 114-107 victory over Phoenix Saturday night at Moda Center. …
• For all the talk about the recent improved play at the defensive end, offense is what won it for the Blazers against a Phoenix team that is no longer the embarrassment it was under coach Earl Watson.
Watson was let go after an 0-3 start — including that 124-76 humiliation by Portland at home on Oct. 18, the largest margin of victory on an opening night in NBA history.
In his place as interim coach is former Blazer assistant Jay Triano, who has restored order and a sense of respectability by emphasizing defensive effort and offensive execution.
Triano had mentioned revenge as an auxiliary means of motivation for his troops prior to the game.
"We're a different team than we were the first time," Triano said beforehand. "At least I hope we are."
The Suns (2-4) pushed Portland to the brink, trailing by two points with inside two minutes to play before the Blazers (4-2) pulled out the victory.
"They're playing with a new sense of purpose," said Portland's Damian Lillard, and he's right.
But after six games, we're still not seeing consistent play from the Blazers on either end.
"It was an ugly win," Blazer CJ McCollum said. ""They're going to be like that sometimes. You have to be able to win games like that, especially at home. The way we beat (the Suns) last time, we knew they were going to come in hungry."
• McCollum was the most efficient Blazer offensively, collecting 23 points on 9-for-20 shooting, with five rebounds and six assists and one turnover in 34 minutes. But Lillard and center Jusuf Nurkic continued to struggle.
Lillard piled up 25 points, seven rebounds and nine assists but was only 7 for 21 from the field. In his last three games, Lillard has made 17 of 56 shots (.304) and is at .370 for the season.
On Saturday, Nurkic missed his first five shots and was 1 for 8 in the first half. He recovered to finish with 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting to go with nine rebounds. But the 7-foot Bosnian is shooting .394 for the season — third-worst among the NBA's 30 starting centers.
As a team, the Blazers are firing at a .434 clip — 23rd in the league.
"We had another game where we could have been much better offensively," Lillard said. "We didn't shoot the ball well. We defended well in spots.
"We weren't nearly as consistent as we need to be to be the team we want to be. But we played well enough to win the game, and that's what's most important."
Reserve Evan Turner had this to say on the Blazers' offense: "Compared to last year, we're at a higher level. But we have to make it click for a full 48 (minutes)."
• Maybe I'm being too tough on the Blazers, who rank third in the league in offensive efficiency behind Golden State and …ahem, Orlando.
Portland is shooting well from the 3-point line — .434, which ranks second in the NBA. McCollum (13 for 23, .565), Al-Farouq Aminu (11 for 21, .524) and Pat Connaughton (13 for 26, .500) are all off to sizzling starts.
The Blazers also entered Saturday No. 1 in the NBA by a wide margin in rebounding percentage (.570), and outboarded the Suns 53-46.
On the other hand, Portland went into the day ranked last in the league in shooting percentage inside of five feet.
"And we didn't improve on that in the first half tonight," Portland coach Terry Stotts admitted.
When might it be time for the Blazers to worry about their offense?
"When we lose a bunch of games because of it," Lillard said.
McCollum didn't sound convinced there is any problem to worry about.
"We're struggling on offense, but we still scored 114 points tonight," he said. "It's going to be all right. No matter how we play, we'e going to be able to get 100-plus points. We just have to continue to do a good job on the defensive end."
• The Blazers have emphasized defensive improvement, and the numbers justify that. Opponents are shooting .427, which means Portland ranks fifth in field-goal defense. Foes are hitting at only a .306 clip from 3-point range — putting the Blazer defense on 3's third-best in the league.
But it's a very small sample size, and two of the six games have been against Phoenix — now improved, but still not exactly a juggernaut.
• Phoenix guard Devin Booker — who turns 21 on Monday — bombed in 34 points Saturday night, mostly against McCollum, who reputedly has upped his defense a notch this season.
"He hit some tough shots and got to the free-throw line," McCollum said. "He's one of the best young talents in the league. He can do a lot of different things. (The Suns) know he's good, and they empower him."
Added Turner, who took some turns defending Booker: "He's a talented kid. He's a great offensive player, and he's got a green light as well."
I asked Turner if it was fun to take on the challenge of guarding such a promising young player.
"I don't get excited to guard anybody when he gets 25 shots and I get five," he said. "That's not fun at all. It's a lot of work."
Booker was 11 for 19 from the field — 4 for 7 from 3-point range — and it seemed to take the Blazers a long time before they concentrated on 1) getting out on him at the 3-point line and 2) getting the ball out of his hands.
"With a guy like that, it's a team effort," said Turner, who made four of the seven shots he attempted and scored 10 points off the bench. "The biggest thing is communication and limiting him on what he likes to do."
Let's just say, Portland's defense is still a work in progress. Twenty games into the season, we'll be able to make a better judgment.
• One player who was on his game against the Suns was Aminu. "The Chief" had 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in 29 minutes but was most impressive on the defensive end, with a pair of spectacular first-quarter blocks and also two steals.
"He was doing a little bit of everything," Lillard said. "His activity was huge. We didn't have that energy we needed early in the game, and he sparked us."
• The other player who sparked the Blazers was Connaughton, who knocked down his first four shots — three from 3-point range — and had 11 of his 13 points in the first half.
In the opening blowout of the Suns, the third-year pro went for a career-high 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
"When he sees the Suns," Lillard mused, " I guess the ball just goes in."
Connaughton has been the Blazers' most consistent offensive player all season, averaging 9.8 points on .525 shooting while playing 22 minutes a game. The 6-5 former Notre Dame star, who produced only in fits and starts his first two years in the league, is playing with poise — he has only five turnovers in 133 minutes — and a self-assured maturity to his game this season.
"It's a mixture of confidence and opportunities," Connaughton said. "The vets (he mentioned Lillard, McCollum, Ed Davis and the traded Allen Crabbe) did a great job of helping me learn over the last two years. That experience translates into production.
"My goal is to go in and have an impact on the game — not necessarily offensively, but to make sure I do the things I can do … defend, use my athleticism, rebound, continue to grow in making plays for my teammates. As teams try to run me off the 3-point line, I can get other guys shots."
• Connaughton took a lob pass from McCollum and flushed it to start the second quarter.
"That's one of the plays I really like," Connaughton said. "Coach (Stotts) drew it up in a timeout, and CJ and I were talking about it. He told me if the (defender) stays on you, be sure to curl. I said, 'You read my mind.' So when (the defender) bit on the top side, the back side was open, and I like to think I can jump a little bit. It's the first time I've showed it off in a game this year."
People underestimate the athletic ability of Connaughton, an outstanding pitcher who played one season of minor-league baseball.
"That's happened to me for a while in my basketball-playing career," he said with a smile. "I don't necessarily know why — there's a bunch of speculation why that may be — but it's a matter of continuing to disprove that theory."
NOTES — Portland next plays Monday night at home against Toronto. … Lillard scored his 9,000th career point in the third quarter. Lillard accomplished it in 402 games, quicker than Geoff Petrie (405) or Clyde Drexler (421). … The Blazers have won nine of their last 12 meetings with Phoenix. In his last six games against the Suns, Lillard has averaged 31.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists … Triano served as Stotts' lead assistant coach for four seasons (2012-16) in Portland. "We're really good friends," Stotts said. "He has a great sense of humor, he's fun to be around and I have a ton of respect for his basketball acumen. His team is playing hard. That's a reflection of Jay and his attitude." … Blazer rookie Caleb Swanigan had his first DNP-CD (did not play/coach's decision). Stotts chose to use the team's other rookie big man, Zach Collins, who went scoreless in eight minutes. "Mostly, it was I wanted to get him on the court," Stotts said. "He hasn't had (much of) a chance to play." … Davis scored six points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 19 minutes off the Portland bench. He has double-figure rebounds in each of his last four games.
Phoenix point guard Mike James — who finished with nine points on 2-for-8 shooing and had four assists in 26 minutes — grew up in Portland and as a senior, teamed with Mike Moser and Paul McCoy to lead Grant High to the Class 6A championship in 2008. James, a 27-year-old rookie, didn't qualify academically for a four-year college so played two seasons at Eastern Arizona JC before transferring to Lamar. He played in Croatia, Israel, Italy, Spain and Greece before making it in the NBA. "I always felt I could make it (to the NBA)," he said, "but the right opportunity never came up." Phoenix signed him before the season to a two-way, 45-day contract. Now the Suns are keeping him for the entire season, and with the suspension of starter Eric Bledsoe, James is running the team. "The guy paid his dues," Stotts said. "It's a great story." … James participated in five-on-five offseason pickup games with Blazer rookies and training camp participants three years in a row from 2012-14, he said. "When I was home, they let me come in and play," he said. "I think I've improved gradually. I've gotten better every year." Is he realizing his dream from the time he was at Grant? "Not really," James said. "I wasn't thinking this far ahead. I was just hoping to get a shot to play in college."