Trail Blazers beginning to solve the puzzle
There's no doubt the Trail Blazers have an impressive array of talent.
The problem is fitting the pieces into a workable unit that is more punch card than puzzle.
Maybe that's finally beginning to happen as the Blazers hit the quarter mark of the 2019-20 season.
Portland (8-12) heads to Staples Center for Tuesday night's matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers carrying its first three-game win streak of the young season after Friday's 107-103 victory over Chicago at Moda Center.
The Clippers beat the Blazers 107-101 on Nov. 7 at Staples Center.
"I feel like we owe them," said center Hassan Whiteside, who will be coming off his most important performance as a Blazer. "Let's go. I'm ready."
The 7-1 Whiteside, who came over in an off-season trade with Miami, collected 15 rebounds and a franchise-record 10 blocked shots in only 30 minutes against the Bulls (6-14). Whiteside scored only eight points on 4-for-11 shooting, but his tip-in of a Damian Lillard miss in the closing seconds was the game's biggest basket.
"Hassan had a great defensive performance," said Lillard, who scored 28 points and dished out six assists. "It was the difference in the game for us. He came up big for us on the glass, and he blocked 10 shots. If (the Bulls) didn't change things, he'd have probably blocked 15. That's the version of him that we need to be the team we planned on being to start the year."
It's not unreasonable to expect big things from Whiteside, who is making $27.1 million in the final year of his contract. He is averaging 14.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting .583 from the field and .758 from the foul line.
Friday wasn't his best offensive game, though, as he snapped a 12-game streak of scoring in double figures. And he missed his three free-throw attempts.
"I struggled," said Whiteside, a career .593 foul shooter who shot at a .449 clip from the line last season. "I was pretty frustrated at myself with my free throws. I've worked on them for hours and hours.
"I work on my game a lot. I missed a lot of easy shots, but it's like that sometimes. I try to affect the game defensively when my offense isn't going."
Whiteside accomplished that goal against the Bulls, who kept attacking the rim, only to get rejected.
"There are teams that try to stay away from me at all costs, and teams that are going to go at me," he said. "I love it when they do that."
"Hassan had a hell of a game tonight being an anchor at the defensive end, and we fed off that," said Carmelo Anthony, who had his first double-double as a Blazer with 23 points and 11 rebounds to go with four assists and no turnovers. "We're going to need him to do that. We know who's going to handle the ball at the end of the game — that's 'Dame' and CJ (McCollum). Everybody else has to find things to do to help us get wins."
Whiteside wound up one basket short of his first triple-double as a Blazer. He had four while with Miami and has a career high of 12 blocks. Whiteside broke the franchise record of nine co-held by Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson, Theo Ratliff and Joel Przybilla.
"Never saw that before, and I played with some great shot-blockers — Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby, for two," Anthony said. "I never saw a guy get 10 blocks in a game."
It wasn't a one-man show. Lillard hit two late 3's after starting the game 1 for 8 from distance. Anthony had his third straight outstanding game. McCollum chipped in 20 points, and Rodney Hood contributed 19. Portland's reserves combined for only nine points on 3-for-13 shooting, but the starters carried the load to victory.
Hood has stayed beneath the radar in an excellent first full season as a Blazer. The southpaw small forward is averaging 12.2 points while shooting .532 from the field and a remarkable .508 from 3-point range, ranking second in the NBA in the latter category. This from a player who came into the season having shot .367 from 3-point range, including .356 a year ago.
"Rodney would be the first to say that his teammates are doing a good job (setting him up)," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "His 3's have been pretty open weak-side swings, so he has been in good position."
Perhaps, but the other players Stotts has used at the wing positions are shooting poorly from beyond the arc — Kent Bazemore (.324), Mario Hezonja (.345) and Anthony Tolliver (.283). Hood said he put in many hours through the off-season shooting the 3, and continues to work on it as the season wears on.
"I've focused particularly on shooting off the catch," Hood said. "I knew I'd get a lot of chances playing with these guys. The percentages will balance out, but as long as I'm shooting with confidence, it'll be all right."
Even with a putrid beginning to the season, the Blazers are working themselves back into reasonable playoff position. After Friday's game, they were in 10th place in the NBA Western Conference, a game back of No. 8 Phoenix (8-10), with 10 of their next 14 games at Moda Center through the end of December.
The Clippers, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are considered by many the team to beat in the West.
"It's going to be a tough one there," Anthony said. "It's another test for us, especially the way we've been playing. We know what type of team they are."
And, the Blazers are beginning to see what type of team they can be as well.
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