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BLAZERS' BIG THREE LOOK READY
Critiquing the Trail Blazers after their 123-112 preseason loss to Utah on Sunday night at Moda Center ...
• The final score was more an indictment of the way Portland's reserves played — or affirmation that the Jazz bench is superior — than anything.
Portland led 70-55 early in the third quarter and was still on top 101-93 inside eight minutes to play. With starters of both teams on the bench, the Jazz outscored Portland 30-11 the rest of the way, including a 19-0 spurt that turned a 104-99 Blazers lead into a 118-104 deficit. The Blazers made two field goals over the final 7 1/2 minutes.
Portland's starters, though, got the better of their Utah counterparts, as evidenced by the plus/minus figures of Damian Lillard (plus-23), CJ McCollum (plus-21) and Jusuf Nurkic (plus-20).
Portland's Big Three played like, well, a big three, combining for 64 points on 25-for-33 shooting, including 9 for 13 from 3-point range.
Lillard scored 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting, including 4 for 5 on 3-pointers, and had seven assists, but six turnovers, in 25 minutes. McCollum tallied 21 points while sinking 8 of 13 field-goal attempts, including 3 for 6 from beyond the arc, in 27 minutes.
Nurkic collected 20 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots, going 8 for 9 from the field and 2 for 2 from distance, in 24 minutes — all this against Utah's Rudy Gobert, on the short list of the best defensive centers in the game.
"All three of those guys played well," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "Damian played with a good pace, had good looks and was very efficient with his offense. 'Nurk' was outstanding defensively. He disrupted things at the rim, blocked shots, rebounded. And CJ had a very good all-around game. It was good to see them out there playing that well."
Lillard said he feels as if he ready right now for the regular season, which begins Oct. 18 against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers at Moda Center.
"I did a lot of conditioning this summer, so I came into (training) camp and felt I was in pretty good shape," said Lillard, a first-team all-NBA selection last season. "Once we started playing, I was like, 'I'm in better shape than I thought I was.' Tonight, 25 minutes was a breeze. I think I could play my regular minutes and be fine, so we'll see going forward."
• Nurkic's bread and butter will be in the paint at both ends of the court. The Blazers need him to be an inside threat on offense and an intimidator/shot-blocker on defense. But the 7-foot Bosnian also has 3-point range, and he swished both of his attempts from beyond the arc against the Jazz.
That's in line with the philosophy of Stotts, who wants his Blazers — who averaged 27.8 3-point attempts a game last season, which ranked 18th in the NBA — to increase that number this season. Nurkic, who was 0 for 7 from 3-point range last season and is 0 for 13 in his career, wasn't excluded from the conversation.
"I was fine with (Nurkic shooting 3's) last year," Stotts said. "I didn't tell him not to shoot them. Nurk, with his feet set, is a good shooter. I knew that at some point in his career he would do it, because he has a good enough stroke. It's about getting comfortable with it. Now it's a question of getting that rhythm and confidence in a game."
During training camp, "I expressed to the team that we need to shoot more 3's," Stotts said. "A good 3 is an open 3. I didn't restrict anybody. Nurk picks and pops from 22 (feet). I said I'd rather have him shoot a 3 than a 22-footer."
Nurkic, 24 and entering his fifth NBA season, said he has always tried to "follow the rules" and obey previous coaches by being primarily a back-to-the-basket post-up player.
"But the coach (Stotts) and the organization here has confidence in me (shooting 3's)," he said. "I know what I can do. If I'm open, I'm going to shoot it, but I'm not going to force it. I want to still be the best I can at the rim, too. I'm going to shoot some 3's, but I'm not going to take away what I do."
• As might be expected, Lillard is on board with his coach's prodding to shoot more 3's.
"I think it will work for us, especially with some of the adjustments we've made in our offense, where we have more movement," Lillard said. "If we can do that well, we can create better opportunities instead of coming off the dribble the entire game. The better we do off the ball, we'll create better looks."
• The Blazers were last in the NBA in field-goal percentage inside 5 feet (.568, with Golden State the leader at .670) in 2017-18. Stotts wants his team to improve on that this season.
"Guys have to get better at having a feel around the basket," said Stotts, in his seventh season as Portland's coach. "Sometimes you have to pass out if you're in a crowd. We have to work on footwork, finishing over (defenders), concentration, receiving the ball in different positions."
• Portland also was last in the league in assists per game (19.5, with the Warriors the leader at 29.3) and fast-break points (8.4, with the Warriors again the leader at 18.8). Stotts said raising the assists average is a point of emphasis. He didn't mention fast-break points, but getting a few more easy baskets each game could only help the local quintet.
• Stotts thought small forward Moe Harkless, who has been rehabbing from knee surgery, would make his exhibition debut Sunday night. But Harkless' ankle has been bothering him, too, and he was a late scratch.
"He just didn't feel comfortable going tonight," Stotts explained.
Harkless' backup, Evan Turner, also missed the Utah game with a shoulder injury, though his absence was precautionary more than anything.
With Harkless and Turner unavailable, Stotts went to a three-guard lineup, starting 6-2 Seth Curry alongside Lillard and McCollum to open the game, then using 6-6 Nik Stauskas to start the third quarter.
Curry never got into a rhythm, scoring four points on 2-for-6 shooting in 22 minutes. Stauskas had a nice outing, making 3 of 6 shots from the field, once freezing Utah defender Grayson Allen with a crossover move before finishing with a two-handed dunk. Stauskas ended with eight points, three assists and no turnovers in 19 minutes.
"Nik shot it OK tonight, but he can shoot it better, too," Stotts said. "He's athletic and can handle the ball. He is capable of doing the things he did tonight."
• When everyone is healthy, it would be no surprise if Stotts went with a 10-man rotation — at least for a while — with front-liners Zach Collins, Meyers Leonard and Jake Layman and backcourt players Curry and Stauskas coming off the bench.
• Portland's two 19-year-old rookies, Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr., made their home debuts. Simons made the most of his 13 minutes with 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting. He's not bashful about getting his shots up. Trent Jr. missed all three shots and went scoreless in six minutes.
Stotts was asked what the hardest thing is that rookies must adjust to in the NBA.
"Everything," he said. "From a mental standpoint, you have a lot going on at both ends of the floor. There's the speed and the quickness of the game, trying to do everything right. It's tough on rookies. There are so many things that experienced players take for granted."
• The Blazers have two more preseason games, both at home — Wednesday against Phoenix and Friday against Sacramento. Stotts said he's not sure how he'll dole out his minutes.
"I'd like to get the starters a game with 30 minutes," he said, "but we'll see how that goes."
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