Shooting down San Antonio
Reflections on the Trail Blazers as they hit the road for a four-game trip that begins Tuesday night at Oklahoma City. …
• Sunday's 111-110 victory over San Antonio at Moda Center was a fulfilling one, even with the Spurs (27-14) going without four of their top seven players — starters Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Danny Green and reserve Rudy Gay.
Leonard suffered a partially torn muscle in his left shoulder in Friday's win over Phoenix. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said he's not sure when his team's best player will return to duty. Parker took the night off to rest. Green (groin) and Gay (heel) were nursing injuries.
Portland also was at less than full strength. Point guard Damian Lillard was a late scratch as he continues to deal with a calf injury suffered last Tuesday against Cleveland.
The Blazers (21-18) rallied from a 12-point third-quarter deficit to beat the still-formidable Spurs, led by ex-Blazers great LaMarcus Aldridge, who collected 30 points and 14 rebounds against his old team.
But Aldridge was the goat at the end, missing two free throws with 1:27 left and San Antonio clinging to a 108-107 lead, then badly missing a contested 18-foot pull-up jumper that could have won it in the closing seconds.
"This one's on me," Aldridge said. "I rushed the shot. I didn't want to put it on the floor too much, because I didn't know who was behind me, but I rushed it. This one is definitely on me tonight."
• CJ McCollum was the hero, making the game-winning basket on a six-foot floater with 5.9 seconds left and the Blazers trailing 110-109. After a timeout with 13.4 seconds left, the ball was inbounded to McCollum in backcourt. He moved quickly into frontcourt, faked left, cut right and launched the high runner over Aldridge.
"I wanted him to be aggressive," coach Terry Stotts said. "I wanted to give him a head start in the backcourt, to build up some speed. If he has a head of steam, he's not able to be trapped."
"I was going to try to get a quick shot off, whether it be myself or hitting somebody else," said McCollum, who finished with 25 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and no turnovers in 38 minutes. "Once I got in there and I faked it, (San Antonio's defenders) stayed home. 'Chief' (Al-Farouq Aminu) was in the right corner and I looked at Shabazz (Napier) to the left, but I knew I had an open shot."
The ball hung on the rim for a spell before dropping.
"It didn't want to go in," McCollum said with a laugh. "That's karma from all the in-and-outs I've missed all year. I was due for one.
"I got a good look. I can live with that, even if it rolls out. That's a shot I practice over and over again. I get thousands of reps in the summer time. Going left, going right, I can get a good look at a floater pretty much any day of the week."
• The Blazers didn't know Lillard wouldn't play until their pregame meeting Sunday afternoon. He had played 29 minutes in Portland's 110-89 win over Atlanta on Friday, but the calf was sore enough that the team's medical staff thought it best he sit it out against the Spurs.
Will Lillard be able to play at Oklahoma City?
"I don't know," he said after Sunday's game. "I want to, but I don't want to rush it, either. As long as we're winning, it gives me a chance to get it fully healed."
Lillard said the same thing during his five-game absence with a strained hamstring. Portland's meal ticket — he ranks eighth in the NBA in scoring at 24.9 points per game — has missed six of the last eight games.
Lillard has played well enough to be almost assured of being added by the coaches to the West squad for the NBA All-Star Game Feb. 18 at Staples Center. Another extended hiatus could affect that, though.
Here's hoping he doesn't get impatient and come back too soon to enhance his All-Star chances. That $26-million salary is being paid by the Blazers to do all he can to help get them to the playoffs, and beyond. Participation in the All-Star Game is secondary.
• Before the game, both coaches were asked about Lillard's chances to make the All-Star Game.
Stotts: "I think he should make it, but I thought he should have made it the last two years."
Popovich: "We think he's a hell of a player, one of the best guards in the league. You hope everybody who aspires to be on the All-Star team can make it. It's just very difficult to do. There are a lot of good players. He's certainly more than deserving to be talked about in that regard."
• If it were hockey, Moe Harkless would have earned the Blazers' second star Sunday night.
The 6-9 small forward came off the bench for 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting — including 3 for 4 from 3-point range — along with five rebounds and two blocked shots in 24 sterling minutes.
It was similar to Harkless' performance in a 95-92 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 23, when he collected 22 points and six boards in 25 minutes.
"He was terrific tonight, just like in L.A.," Stotts said. "Being ready to play is part of being a pro. It's not easy to be in that position sometimes, but he has done it twice now in the last couple of weeks."
Harkless started the first 19 games this season but was largely ineffective, averaging 5.2 points and being all but invisible on the court at times. Since then, he has played sparingly, including a DNP/CD (did not play/coach's decision) Friday against Atlanta.
Lillard's absence opened the door for Harkless' playing time against the Spurs.
"He was our unsung hero tonight," McCollum said. "I respect him. I know how hard he works. He's a pro.
"Everybody can't play. We're all millionaires. We play the game we love. You have to do your job. You have to be a professional about it. I'm sure he wants to play, but he's not pouting or complaining like, 'Coach is screwing me over.' He's showing up every day and being ready. That's the sign of a true professional.'
Harkless, who started 73 regular- and post-season games a year ago, has been out of the rotation at times in his six-year NBA career.
"It's happened before," he said. "This time around, I'm more equipped to be ready to play.
"I just play as much as I can — at practice, after practice, before practice. I try to do as much as I can, and show I want to play. You have to stay mentally tough, knowing it's going to come back around. Play or don't play, I've got to have the same attitude."
Harkless said he doesn't get down, "just frustrated. If we're losing games, I feel like I should be out there helping the team. It's more of a frustration thing. Not sad, or feeling sorry for myself."
• The other Blazer who stepped up was Napier, who earned his fifth start of the season with Lillard unavailable. The 6-1 point guard scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half, sinking 7 of 9 shots from the field.
"Moe and 'Bazz' were the keys to the game," said center Jusuf Nurkic, who contributed 17 points and 13 rebounds. "They brought energy and scored and moved and did everything for us."
Said Stotts: "He was good defensively, too — aggressive, but not gambling."
Four of Napier's baskets came on drives to the hoop in which he tucked in an underhanded flip from the left side, a la Lillard. Despite playing only 21 minutes per game, Napier is Portland's No. 4 scorer at 9.5 points, shooting .487 from the field and .413 from 3-point range.
All of which doesn't interest Napier much.
"It's just the greatest feeling when you win," he said. "I'm not a stats guy. I'm not a guy looking to score 40 points. I'm going to let the game come to me."
• It's easy to take McCollum's talents for granted, especially given that he's playing alongside Lillard in the backcourt. But McCollum is near All-Star status, too, averaging 21.3 points, shooting .442 from the field, .419 from 3-point range and .867 from the foul line.
There aren't many players in the game as gifted in handling with a change of direction and creating for himself in the key area. And, at 26, his peak years are still in front of him.
• Portland's offense, a liability through most of the season, has trended upward the past four games. The Blazers have scored at least 110 points in each of those games and averaged 113.8 points and 24.8 assists. They have shot .486 from the field and .407 from behind the 3-point line over that span. Against the Spurs, they attacked the basket, winning the points-in-the-paint battle, 64-42.
"We're finishing a lot better — the guards, too," McCollum said. "It makes the game easier when you can get shots in the paint."
• Pat Connaughton continues to show that, in his third NBA season, he is ready to be a prime-time player.
The 6-5 shooting guard has been a reliable two-way performer throughout the season, heady at the defensive end and consistent on offense. Connaughton is averaging 6.4 points on .464 shooting, including .378 on 3-point attempts.
Against San Antonio, the ex-Notre Dame flash scored nine points while hitting 4 of 6 shots in his 25 minutes. He showed his athleticism in going to the hoop three times for baskets, the first time on a solo parade up Broadway that he finished with a flush. Connaughton's movement without the ball reminds of former Blazer All-Star Jim Paxson.
• Zach Collins had another good game with nine points and three boards in 16 minutes off the bench. The 7-foot rookie from Gonzaga, who turned 20 in November, has excellent ball skills and has 3-point range, which will improve over time. He seems a fixture in Stotts' rotation — at least for now — over veterans Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh.
For now, Stotts' 4-5 rotation has Nurkic and Aminu as starters and Collins and Ed Davis coming off the bench. Odd men out are Leonard and Vonleh, who have 138 career NBA starts between them.
Neither deserves to sit, but as McCollum noted, Stotts can't play everybody. Leonard and Vonleh have been good soldiers so far, which speaks to the very good locker room the Blazers have.
That will continue, of course, only as long as the team wins more games than it loses.
• Which brings us to Caleb Swanigan, the rookie forward banished to G-League on Dec. 26 after playing only 133 minutes in Portland's first 33 games. Swanigan is averaging 16.8 points and 12.4 rebounds for the Canton Charge, gaining some experience while avoiding the splinters he would absorb on the Portland bench.
It's not inconceivable Swanigan could still play a factor in the Blazers' season. He'll be back with the team at some point, and as both Harkless and Napier will attest, things can turn on a dime.
• The Blazers, incidentally, continue to be a nemesis for the Spurs. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Portland is 20-14 against San Antonio, including 11-5 at home.
• This week's road trip is important for Portland, which after Sunday's action was in a tie with Denver for sixth place in the Western Conference. The Blazers can move ahead of No. 5 Oklahoma City (22-18) with a win there on Tuesday.
After that, Portland faces No. 2 Houston (27-11), which is floundering without an ailing James Harden, and then No. 8 New Orleans (19-19), and No. 5 Minnesota (25-16). It's possible the Blazers will have to do it without Lillard.
"Even without our best player, we're always going to fight," Nurkic said. "We believe we can beat anybody if we play the right way."
"I don't worry about us playing against good teams," McCollum said. "We'll be OK. The scary trips are when we're playing against below-.500 teams. We'll be ready to play."