Blazers still in a groove
The Trail Blazers don't look invincible, but there is no denying they're in a groove right now.
With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the way and the supporting cast lending a solid hand, Portland disposed of the Los Angeles Clippers 116-105 Thursday night at Moda Center.
It was the third straight win and sixth in seven outings for the Blazers (9-3), who are on the heels of Golden State (10-2) and Denver (9-2) for the best record in the NBA's Western Conference.
Before the game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers pinpointed continuity as a major factor in Portland's quick early start. Portland general manager Neil Olshey — admittedly hamstrung by salary-cap restrictions — kept his core pieces together in the offseason, adding only reserve guards Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry to bolster 3-point shooting. Such a move pays off in particular during the early season, when other teams are still incorporating major pieces into their lineups.
"They've been together," Rivers said. "They run their stuff as well as anybody all the time, but early in the season, it gives them a huge advantage."
Lillard seconded Rivers' theory that keeping the core group together was a sound plan.
"Our time together, how good we get along together, our understanding of what our coaches want us to do is all coming together. ... the time spent is really counting for us right now," Lillard said.
Lillard and McCollum combined for 48 points on a night when the shots weren't falling with regularity. Lillard was 11 for 25 from the field and McCollum 8 for 20. But the backcourt pair got help from their teammates, and the Blazers had an answer for every challenge by the Clippers (6-5).
"It was one of those games where we weren't getting the cushion we'd like to have," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "But I liked the way we were able to finish. Even though we led most of the game, it didn't ever feel like we were in control, but we made good plays at the end."
The Clippers hung around for a long time. They led 54-52 late in the second quarter and trailed only 84-81 heading into the final period. The Blazers — with five reserves on the court — opened the final period on a 14-4 run to go ahead, 98-85. The Clippers never got closer than seven points the rest of the way.
"Our bench once again came through and gave us a spark in the end of the third and beginning of the fourth," Lillard said. "They left it there for (the starters) to close it out. Another team effort."
Zach Collins (10 points, nine rebounds), Evan Turner (seven points, seven assists) and guards Stauskas and Curry have been the staples of the Portland second unit. Stotts used Caleb Swanigan in the first half, but it was Meyers Leonard who got 12 minutes in the second half and provided a lift for the second straight game, contributing seven points, five rebounds and some solid defense.
Portland's reserves "play well together," Stotts said. "They're very skilled, and their skill sets mesh well together. They've done it many times this year — not only maintain the lead, but sometimes extend it."
The Blazers improved to 4-1 on their six-game homestand, which ends Sunday with a 6 p.m. date with Boston. Lillard said it has helped that the players haven't looked ahead.
"We haven't focused on, 'Let's do this for the homestand,'" he said. "It's been one game at a time. In the past, it's been like, 'We have this team next, then we have that team.' This entire time has been asking each other, 'Who's the next (opponent)?' It's paying off for us."
Boston (7-4) trailed Phoenix by 17 points with seven minutes remaining before winning 116-109 in overtime Thursday night on the third stop of a four-game road trip. The Celtics, adding a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the cast that reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, are a legitimate threat to reach the NBA Finals this season.
Sunday's game in Portland "will be the last game of their trip," Lillard said. "They're a really good team. Last year, dealing with injuries and guys having to step up, they showed how deep and talented they are.
"They have a lot of guys who can come in and impact the game. Having Hayward and Kyrie back, they're one of those teams that can have a huge night on you. Our job is to continue to focus on the things we've been doing, be mentally prepared, be together and do the things on the offensive end that are going to give us the best chance of winning. If we continue to have that type of mentality, we should be fine."
"They're another good team that presents challenges to us," McCollum said. "But we have the advantage of being at home. We'll try to get one more win before we go out on the road."
NOTES: McCollum didn't shoot well but had seven rebounds and no turnovers in his 35-minute stint. He also tipped in a lob pass from Turner through plenty of traffic. "I would have dunked it," McCollum quipped, "but I ran out of talent. ... Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams each scored 20 points for the Clippers. Montrezl Harrell and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both chipped in 19 points and Tobias Harris had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the losers. ... For the second straight game, Lillard did not attempt a free throw. ... Stotts on the development of rookie guards Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr.: "They're young guys, 19-year-old kids, working hard to get better at practice. We play a lot of one-on-one and four-on-four and do individual skill development. They're working on their body and the strength in the weight room. They're doing the same thing CJ and Allen Crabbe and Will Barton did. That's part of what we do here." ... Stotts on Collins: "I was with Joel Przybilla his rookie season in Milwaukee. Zach is a more skilled offensive player, but he reminds me to some degree of Joel as far as his length, his timing, his aggressiveness, his fearlessness. Joel had really good defensive instincts coming in as a 19-year-old."
In the offseason, the Clippers traded Rivers' son, Austin, to Washington. Was it hard for Doc to coach his son through 3 1/2 seasons in L.A.? "It wasn't hard at all," he said. "It presented problems, no doubt, but presented some really good things, too — not just team-wise, but father/son. For me, it was far more positive than negative. The problem is, we didn't win the title. We didn't do anything. Easy one to blame in some ways. But he gets that. He's had that for most of his life. I don't think it's an issue for him." ... Rivers on Lillard and McCollum playing more minutes together this season: "Lillard's numbers are better with McCollum on the floor. There's a reason — there's more than one guy to worry about." ... Rivers, on the Blazers: "They added more shooting to their team. Collins is really coming on. He's going to be a heck of a player, and that helps them." ... Rivers said the emphasis on calling defenders for hand-checking and grabbing has made it really hard for the officials. "We've made the officials' job as hard as any sport," he said. "We've doubled (the difficulty). It's a hard game to call. Now each (referee) has to try to judge what's a hold, what's a grab, what's freedom of movement. It makes it a little uneven. We'll catch up to it, but I wouldn't want to be them right now. It's an extremely hard game now for them."