FONT

MORE STORIES


BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/After relegation, Portland small forward comes off the bench for career-high 24 points

The Trail Blazers didn't learn much about themselves Thursday night in a 108-86 walkover win against Phoenix at Moda Center.

The Suns, playing without their top two scorers — guard Devin Booker and forward T.J. Warren, both nursing injuries — were easy fodder for a Portland team that had lost three in a row and eight of its last 11.

Even with Booker and Warren, Phoenix (4-21) is clearly the worst team in the Western Conference. Without them, the Suns are the Fort Wayne Mad Ants sporting NBA salaries.

The Blazers (14-11) were taking no chances, however. At least Damian Lillard and Jake Layman weren't.

Lillard knocked down his first six shots from the field — three of them from 3-point range — and scored 15 points, then handed the baton to reserve forward Layman.

Layman exact-copied Lillard — 15 points, 6 for 6, 3 for 3 — in a four-minute flurry after which the Blazers ended the first quarter with a 34-9 lead.

This was nothing new for the Suns, who had fallen into a 36-9 hole after one quarter in a 122-105 loss to Sacramento on Tuesday.

Lillard and Layman made sure there would be no resurrection on Portland's homecourt.

"I wanted to come out and be aggressive," Lillard said. "(The Suns) are struggling as a team, and we've been struggling. This was a game on our home floor that we expected to win, but crazier things have happened in my career."

Lillard finished with 25 points and eight assists in 28 minutes while sitting out the fourth quarter.

Layman went for a career-high 24 points — making 10 of 13 shots from the field, including 3 of 5 on 3-point attempts — while grabbing seven rebounds in a splendid 26-minute display.

Lillard knew he was going to get his minutes Thursday. Layman was only hoping to.

Through Portland's first 19 games, Layman was the starting small forward, playing small minutes but still making contributions at the offensive end, shooting .513 from the field and .385 from 3-point range.

Then coach Terry Stotts inserted Moe Harkless — the starting forward a year ago who missed the first 12 games of this season with a knee injury — into the lineup. Instead of bringing Layman off the bench, Stotts sat him. For five straight games. Reserves Evan Turner, Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas and Meyers Leonard were "doing so well," Stotts said. "Getting Moe into the starting lineup was a priority, and there was a minutes crunch."

The demotion didn't catch Layman by surprise.

"I was ready for that," said the third-year pro from Maryland. "Coach (Stotts) told me this could happen during the year, where I wouldn't play in a stretch, and I had to be ready for it. I was ready, more than I would have been the past couple of years."

Having not played a minute since Nov. 23, Layman stepped onto the floor and gave Stotts four minutes of Larry Bird.

"I was happy for him," Stotts said. One of my assistants said, 'It was good karma.' He came out of the starting lineup, had a good attitude, worked hard, knew he was going to get an opportunity and remained positive while he wasn't playing. Then he took advantage of the opportunity when it came."

"I just tried to be aggressive, to play within the offense, not do anything too crazy," Layman said. "I was getting open shots. The guys were finding me."

Layman took notice of the way former teammate Pat Connaughton handled his bench role the previous two seasons.

"I learned a lot from Pat, how to stay locked in on the bench when you're not playing, how to stay engaged," Layman said.

"Jake started the season getting a lot of minutes, then fell out of the rotation, which happens sometimes," Lillard said. "It wasn't anything he hasn't experienced. It's been like that so far in his career.

"It speaks to the kind of player he is and how committed he is to our team and trusting our coaching staff. It would be easy for a guy to be like, 'I was playing well, I was in the lineup, and now I'm not playing.' But he was prepared. His mind was in the right place. He came in and impacted the game from the start."

Portland had been the worst team in the league the past three weeks defensively, yielding 118.2 points per game over an 11-game stretch. The Suns, who made 4 of 20 shots in the first quarter, ended shooting .385 from the field, including 5 for 27 from 3-point range.

The Blazers' defense "was a little bit better," Lillard said. "(The Suns) weren't the most sharp team out there offensively, but it was more about us.

"We came to the game thinking, 'Let's be disciplined,' instead of thinking it was going to be an easy game. We were pretty solid."

Stotts knows the Blazers haven't righted the ship with a rout of the lowly Suns. Saturday's 7 p.m. home matchup with Minnesota — a team that has won nine of 12 since trading guard Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia — poses a major challenge.

"(The Suns) are a different team without Warren and Booker," he said. "They're having their struggles right now. But I liked the way we played. We have a tough game on Saturday. We have a tough stretch coming up period. But from a mental standpoint, a confidence standpoint, it was good for us."

NOTES: Portland went without its No. 2 scorer, shooting guard CJ McCollum, who rolled his ankle late in Portland's 111-102 loss at Dallas on Tuesday. "I didn't know anything about it until the next day," Stotts said. How long is McCollum expected to be out of action? "Who knows?" Stotts said. "Hopefully, he'll be back soon." ... Seth Curry made his first start as a Blazer in place of McCollum. Curry scored three points on 1-for-6 shooting and had one rebound and one assist in 17 minutes. ... It was Portland's eighth straight win over Phoenix dating to November 2016.

Igor Kokoskov, who turns 47 on Dec. 17, is in his first season as an NBA head coach after 17 years as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers, Detroit, Phoenix, Cleveland, Orlando and Utah. The native Serbian said being a head coach is "completely different. More responsibility. It's quite a challenging thing, but I'm fortunate to be where I am. I wouldn't change this for anything. I'm coaching against the best coaches in the world." ... Who have been Kokoskov's major coaching influences in the U.S.? "(Utah coach) Quin Snyder gave me my first job in America (as an assistant under Snyder at Missouri in 1999-2000)," Kokoskov said. "He's a dear friend of mine and a mentor in many ways. (Orlando GM) John Hammond is a very close friend. I worked with (Pelicans coach) Alvin Gentry for half of my years as an assistant coach. Larry Brown, Flip Saunders — a lot of great coaches I worked with."

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

@kerryeggers