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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Lillard says sweep by Pelicans 'won't break me'; four players to become free agents; Olshey says he'll address 'weaknesses'

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Guard Damian Lillard says he is keeping a level head about the Trail Blazers' surprising 4-0 playoff loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.Just like that, the Trail Blazers' season is over.

And after Sunday's exit interviews at the team's Tualatin practice facility, many of the players have scattered to parts unknown to begin "summer" vacation earlier than expected.

The nuts and bolts on what's ahead, and what general manager Neil Olshey, coach Terry Stotts and the players were saying ...

• After winning 49 games to claim the Northwest Division title and the third seed in the Western Conference, Portland was the first team to be eliminated from the NBA playoffs, swept by the No. 6 seed New Orleans Pelicans. Four in, four out. Bye bye, baby.

"We had a very good regular season," Stotts said. "We had a very disappointing end to the season. It's as simple as that."

"If anybody would have told me we were going to get swept, I'd have really laughed at them," small forward Moe Harkless said. "New Orleans played a great series. (The Pelicans) came out and finished their business quickly."

"It's a shame we didn't go in the playoffs the team we were in the regular season," center Jusuf Nurkic said. "We definitely aren't the team we were in the playoffs."

"It was very disappointing, especially after the regular season we had," rookie center Zach Collins said. "To win the division meant a lot. To not win a game in the playoffs was frustrating. But Coach (Stotts) said it best in the locker room (after Game 4). Our regular season is something to be proud of. What we accomplished can't be taken away from us."

The Blazers were competitive at times and overwhelmed at other times by the Pelicans, who were led by Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Davis averaged 33.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.75 blocked shots; Holiday averaged 27.8 points and 6.5 assists. Throw in Nikola Mirotic (18.3 points, 9.5 rebounds) and Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists, 7.5 rebounds) and the Pelicans were simply too much to handle.

Portland had finished the regular season in shaky fashion, losing four of the last five and seven of the last 12. The Blazers had to go to the last day to clinch the No. 3 seed. The residue seemed to linger.

"Coming into the playoffs, we hadn't played our best basketball going down the stretch," point guard Damian Lillard said. "In the series, they just outplayed us. They had a great defensive game plan, got production from a lot of guys, top to bottom. We just didn't play well enough to get it done."

• The most shocking aspect of the Pelicans' sweep was the way they took Lillard out of his offensive game. The three-time All-Star tied for fourth in the NBA during the regular season with a 26.9-point average to go with 6.6 assists. Facing double-teams from the time he touched the ball in the New Orleans series, Lillard averaged 18.5 points and 4.8 assists while shooting .352 from the field and .300 from 3-point range.

"Their game plan was to take me out," Lillard said. "I came across half-court and there were two guys guarding me. I call that being up against it."

A day after the Blazers' elimination, the sting still hurt Lillard. But his new-found fatherhood — girlfriend Kay'la Hanson had their first, Damian Jr., a month ago — helped ease the pain.

"I don't want to say I'm over it," Lillard said Sunday. "I was disappointed (Saturday) night. But when I got home, I held my son and watched a boxing card on TV. Doing both of those things calmed me down."

Lillard says he understands he'll take a good portion of the blame for the series failure.

"I can handle the credit or the positive energy with a level head," he said. "You have to be able to handle the negative side, too, even if maybe it's not your fault.

"In this series, they'll say, 'Dame didn't do this or that.' The reality of it is, there's no excuse on my behalf. I understand you have to take the good with the bad. Just like I accept the credit when I do great things, I accept the criticism and the bad things people say about me when it doesn't go well. That's my responsibility as the franchise player and an All-Star and all the things I call myself."

One poor playoff series won't wound Lillard's psyche, he vowed.

"It won't break me down," he said. "It won't shake me mentally. It won't change who I am, how I feel about myself. You move on."

Lillard said having family helps him "put things in perspective."

"Right after (Game 4), walking out of the locker room, the first people I see are my parents and my cousin," he said. "It clicked for me. I get to play the game I love for a living. I get to be one of the most highly paid players in the game, one of the most respected. I get to play for a great organization.

"And at the end of the day, I'm going home to people who love me. It could be a lot worse. It's not like my next season is taken away. We continue to have opportunities to move forward."

Lillard was asked if he thinks opponents will borrow a page from the New Orleans playbook with the double-team treatment in the future.

"It wouldn't surprise me if teams tried it, but I don't think every team has the personnel to do that," he said. "There's something to be said about it being a playoff series. (The Pelicans) didn't have to play us and then go to Sacramento on (the second of) back-to-back (games). It wasn't like anything else was on their mind. You lock into one team, into going against specific players, and you stay to that. I don't think teams are doing that in the regular season."

Olshey has personnel business to attend to in the offseason. On July 1, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton become free agents and Nurkic and Shabazz Napier becomes restricted free agents.

"We have some guys we have to deal with internally," Olshey said.

Davis, Connaughton and Nurkic all say they would prefer to stay in Portland.

"For sure," Davis said, "100 percent. I've been here three years. The comfort level is there. Since I've been here, the fans have supported me. It's a first-class, players-first organization. A lot of organizations say that, but they really stand by that here. I like the guys in the locker room. I still think this team has a lot of potential. We still can get some places."

"I'd love to be here," Connaughton said. "This city and this organization have done a lot for me, growing up as a basketball player and a young man. I want to continue to help this city and organization have success. Hopefully, it's here with the Rip City faithful fans and the teammates I've been able to learn from the last three years."

"Everybody knows I want to be here," Nurkic said. "I found my home here. But I can't control those things. It needs to be both sides. I did my part on the court. My agent and (Portland management) need to do the rest."

Napier, who played only 35 minutes in the playoffs and had a pair of DNP/CDs (did not play/coach's decision), may see the handwriting on the wall.

"I've been in the league for four years now," he said. "It's a business. I'm understanding that now. What I can control is me being efficient in the summer, understanding that opportunity will knock on the door. You just have to be ready for it."

Olshey sounded as if he won't make a knee-jerk reaction regarding personnel after being on the short side of the playoff series sweep.

"We lost four (straight regular-season) games coming in to the playoffs, and that didn't change everyone's overall outlook (on the season) on a macro level," he said. "The playoffs brought a couple of issues to bear in terms of teams that can go small. Those are things we need to address. But playoff series are always going to illustrate deficiencies. That's what coaches do. They get to play you four times. They find your weaknesses. We'll address those in the offseason.

"Nothing is going to go unexamined in the organization. ... I don't want to overreact to one unfavorable matchup (against) a team that just played outstanding basketball. You just can't do that. We're going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster like we always do. But we're also not going to lose sight of the success and the growth that we had through the course of the season."

Some pundits from throughout the country have offered that to take the next step, the Blazers must split up Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum — primarily because both are a bit undersized at 6-3, and also because they're average at best at the defensive end.

"That's the easiest thing to say," Lillard said, "but I don't agree with it."

"People have to write about something," McCollum said. "That's a good narrative to find when you get swept. ... I don't think it's right to make those type of drastic opinions."

"When 27 teams aren't jealous of our backcourt, then I'll start worrying about it," Olshey said. "They're asking, 'Can you win with two 6-3 guards?' We just got swept by a team that started three guards under 6-4."

The Pelicans actually start 6-4 E'Twaun Moore, 6-4 Jrue Holiday and 6-1 Rajon Rondo. But Olshey's point is taken.

Olshey extolled the virtues of Harkless, who played well late in the regular season before going down with a knee injury. Harkless returned for two of the playoff games of the playoffs.

"Moe got off to a slow start to the season," the Blazers executive said. "Terry re-inserted him into the starting lineup and we went on a 17-3 run (actually 16-4).

"Moe is a high-impact guy for us. He gives us a lot of defensive versatility. He can score in transition. He's probably the best athlete on the team. He's a lynchpin to a lot of things we do. When Moe went down, there were guys who knew it would be a huge loss for us. We'll see a more consistent Moe next season."

Harkless started and averaged 26 minutes in the middle two games of the series just 3 1/2 weeks after surgery.

"It flared up a little bit during Game 3," he said. "That was kind of normal. I played a lot of minutes in two games. It was a fatigue thing for my knee. I wasn't on it for a month. It affected the way I was able to play. I was trying to get back as fast as possible to help the team. I won't say I rushed it, but I moved fast. When I rest it (in the off-season), it will be 100 percent."

Stotts spoke highly of Davis and Evan Turner.

Davis came off the bench to lead the NBA in rebound percentage (27.4) and defensive rebound percentage (46.6) but was also second in the league in turnover percentage (25.4). Beyond that, he was popular with his teammates and the fans.

"On the team and within the city, Ed gained a special place for the way he plays and his presence in the locker room," the Blazers coach said. "He's about the right things. I was pleased he came back after a frustrating year, fighting through an injury, and had the year he had."

Turner was a part-time starter at small forward, but Stotts was speaking as much about him as a human being.

"Evan has come into his own as a really important part of this team and its chemistry," Stotts said. "(Teammates) appreciate what he does on the court, but also what he does off the court and as far as being a good person. That is one of the joys of coaching that sometimes you don't get in the NBA. It makes my job more enjoyable and easier when you have that."

Most of the players dodged a question about what the team needs to do personnel-wise moving forward.

Turner had an answer, though, suggesting a third reliable scorer behind Lillard and McCollum would help.

"We all have to be more consistent in building an identity outside of our two strong scorers," Turner said. "Sometimes in our darker moments, we go downhill when the (opponent) focuses a lot of (defensive) attention on our stars."

THIS AND THAT: Turner, asked what message was conveyed during his exit interview with Olshey and Stotts: "Their message was, 'Stay slim and not get as big as you did last summer.' My message was, 'OK.'" ... Stotts said it was rewarding to work with such a responsible team. "We had seven players be late in a whole season," said the coach, who said 20 or so might be the average. "I had seven fine slips total. It's a good group of guys." ... Connaughton, who played a summer of minor-league baseball out of Notre Dame before beginning his NBA career, said he will continue to concentrate on basketball. "At the same time, I heard Portland's getting a (major-league) team," he said with a smile. "You never know." ... Napier, on the feeling of getting swept in the first round of the playoffs: "Unaccomplished. You always have that sour taste when you lose. It's even more sour when you get swept." ... McCollum said he will take blood tests for food sensitivity this summer to enhance his opportunity to maximize body potential.

"We've done it as a team for several years, but my agent has a doctor he wants me to see," McCollum said. "We're trying to find other ways to help my game. I don't diet in the summers, but I'm going to try some new stuff to see what happens." ... Nurkic dropped from 310 to 275 pounds during the last offseason. He said he stayed close to the latter figure through the season. "I think the most (I weighed) was 285," Nurkic said. "Losing 35 pounds for me was shocking (to the body). You just need time to adjust. But I was pretty good handling my body." ... The 7-foot, 230-pound Collins is going in the other direction. "I definitely need to put on weight," he said. "That would be a huge part of my development. I have the intention to put on good weight, a lot of muscle, this summer. Whatever my role, I want to play a lot of minutes. Adding weight is going to be a big part of that."

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