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Pau Gasol has new team and new role, mentor to young Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Pau Gasol is already having an impact in Portland without even taking the court: The 7-foot Spaniard has become something of a mentor for the younger Trail Blazers.

What a mentor to have.

He’s a six-time All Star and one of just four players with over 20,000 points, 11,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists and 1,500 blocks in his career, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. He’s got a pair of NBA championship rings from a stint with the Lakers.

About to embark on his 19th NBA season, Gasol is hoping for a fresh start with the Blazers. He came to Portland as a free agent in the offseason but he’s been limited at the start of training camp as he makes his way back from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot.

Gasol played just three games for the Milwaukee Bucks last season before the surgery. The Bucks signed him in March after he reached a buyout agreement with the San Antonio Spurs. In total, he played in just 30 games last season, averaging 3.8 points and 4.6 rebounds.

“I hope to add leadership on and off the court, experience and also quality of play. I’m excited after a difficult health year, frustrating. I’m excited to just work on my body and be healthy so I can do what I do on the floor and just have fun with the guys and compete, and play as hard as I can,” he said.

Zach Collins, a fellow 7-footer heading into his third season with the Blazers, texted Gasol the moment he learned Portland had signed him. Collins told Gasol he was going to be a “sponge” when it comes to the veteran’s knowledge.

“A guy like that, he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s a legend, someone that has gone against the best in the biggest moments and shown out,” Collins said. “He’s an extremely good player, and extremely good dude.”

Skal Labissiere said he’s never been on a team that has had a player as accomplished as Gasol at his position.

“I grew up watching him. I remember being in Haiti, in front of my little TV and just watching Pau Gasol,” said Labissiere, who is in his second season with the Blazers. “I told him already, I’m like, `Man, I want to work with you throughout the year and learn some things.'”

Gasol, who prides himself on his longevity and ability to change with the game, is embracing the new role.

“I’m excited to work with these guys, with Zach, with Skal, and kind of share the mindset and attitude that I’ve had throughout my career as far as getting better, as far as going out there and giving your best, knowing that some nights it’s gonna go better than others, putting in the work, taking it seriously, doing whatever it takes, handling the emotions the ups and downs of the season – which you know sometimes can be challenging,” he said. “So within all that I’m gonna be there.”

Gasol’s addition to the Blazers roster was widely seen as a smart move, based on the team’s recent history with its big men.

The Blazers were hurt last season when Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in a game against Brooklyn on March 25. Fortunately, the team had signed Enes Kanter just before the All-Star break and he was able to help fill in for Nurkic as Portland played its way into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 19 years.

Kanter moved on to the Boston Celtics in the offseason, and Nurkic – now with a steel rod in his leg – is expected to be sidelined by his injury until the new year.

So, the Blazers shored up the position in the offseason, adding not just Gasol, but also Hassan Whiteside. Collins will likely see time at center, too.

Gasol is hopeful he’ll be ready to go on opening night. But he’s also aware it’s a long season, and the finish matters more than the start.

“My mindset and motivation is really to get back on the court and feel well and play well, and play the game that I love to play,” he said. “But, also, with really the goal in mind to help this team have the best possible chance at the end of the year. And that requires being ready from today on. Whatever it is that I need to do, and that I can do, I’m willing to do.”

Do Blazers have chance at Western Conference Finals again this year?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

Portland Trail Blazers have several new wing players, and a new face at center. It’s a time of transition here in Oregon, and last year’s the Western Conference Finals team isn’t even guaranteed a spot back in the postseason in a 2019-20. But after media day on the eastern bank of the Willamette river on Monday, sights are set high in Rip City. Speaking to reporters in the first official media access of the season, Damian Lillard said that the team’s focus is to win a championship.

Meanwhile, the question Lillard should be asking is whether Portland will be able to return to the Western Conference Finals.

Despite the Golden State Warriors losing Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets and Klay Thompson until 2020, the best team out west is still a formidable opponent. Portland’s Western Conference Finals rival from last season packs a powerful punch. Meanwhile, the rest of the conference has bolstered their rosters in anticipation of Golden State’s fall.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are now members of the Los Angeles Clippers, Anthony Davis is finally on the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz have gotten stronger, and the Denver Nuggets are year wiser. Portland, meanwhile, finally swapped out its poorly shooting wing players for… well, we don’t know yet.

Kent Bazemore and Rodney Hood will now fill the bulk of the minutes at the 2 and 3 spots for Terry Stotts. They take over for Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, whose up and down performances have annoyed Blazers fans for years.

The only problem is that both Bazemore and Hood had poor shooting years season, and there’s not much evidence to suggest they can play above the average from where Portland needs them most. Both Hood and Bazemore are not exceptional shooters from above the break, which is where Aminu and Harkless were most needed for the Blazers the past few seasons.

In favor of both of these players is context. With the way clear, Hood gets a shot to be the man with Portland after re-signing. He’ll get a full year in Stotts’ system, and may be aided by additional pace, which Portland has already started practicing. Bazemore, meanwhile, said at media day that the situation with the Atlanta Hawks was not ideal last year. Without being too transparent about it, Bazemore made it known that it wasn’t always easy to give a full effort for the Hawks.

The hope is that with more rangy, athletic wings, Portland will be able to capitalize on what Bazemore and Hood bring to the table. It also might behoove Stotts to place them in the corners more often.

Both players have shown a propensity to shoot from the edges, which might make sense for a Horns-heavy system like the one Stotts runs. Lillard and CJ McCollum are hard-driving guards, and extra passes to the corners might be the best way to utilize both players as shooters. Past data shows each shoot better there than anywhere else on the 3-point line.

But there is still the issue with Hassan Whiteside. Jusuf Nurkic will be out until 2020, and in the meantime Whiteside is his replacement. Portland utilized Nurkic in a high-post passing role last season, one where he excelled. The former Miami Heat big man has talked up his ability to share the rock in practice already, but the numbers are not in his favor. Last season for the heat, Whiteside did not total double-digit assist to any of his Miami teammates through the course of the year. Statistically, Whiteside is one of the worst assist percentage centers in the NBA.

This is without considering Whiteside’s main knock: that he’s a stat-chasing shot blocker and not much else. Much has been made over the past few seasons with the Heat about his on/off numbers, and how his individual defensive presence doesn’t actually translate to team efficacy. That’s a real concern, but counteracting that maybe the fact that Whiteside is in a contract year.

This will be the last season of a 4-year, $98 million deal that Whiteside signed in 2016. He’s still just 30 years old, and looking for at least one more big payout. A season where he proves he can be a team player — and that he’s coachable — is in Whiteside’s best interest. That could very well be the thing that tips the scales in Portland’s favor as they hope for a career performance out of him. That, and he apparently gets along with Lillard quite well.

The Blazers are going to miss Aminu (although not his groan-inducing air balls from beyond the 3-point line). He was Portland’s best individual defender, and a reasonable enough team defender. The Blazers were better with him on the floor than without no matter what. Trying to fill his gap with third-year big man Zach Collins at the four position will be a challenge, particularly because Collins is a natural center. But like many teams in the West, the Blazers’ main issue is that they have a lot of new faces. In times of large change over, the best measure of success is team culture, star leadership, and coaching acumen. Portland has all three in spades.

The question about whether Portland can return to the Western Conference Finals is sort of silly at this juncture. It’s October, and the teams haven’t even played a game yet. But the Blazers’ run to the final conference playoff series of the year in 2019 was extremely unlikely as it was. Who is to say it couldn’t happen again? This team rode Enes Kanter past Nikola Jokic for god’s sake.

Lillard and McCollum are just reaching their peaks, and are two of the most formidable scorers in the NBA. Lillard made real strides on defense last season, particularly in the playoffs. If they can both play above their prior performances, they could make up for what they lost on the wing in Aminu. To that end, Bazemore and Hood are no slouches on defense, either.

Portland will look much different as they take the floor this season. But there has been perhaps too much negative talk about the individual parts that they added over this summer. Those who watch the Blazers know that this organization is one that coagulates around its superstar in Lillard. Everything outside of that is secondary.

And with how last season went — including Lillard’s wave goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder organization as we know it — who are we to doubt his leadership?

The Trail Blazers may not be a Western Conference Finals team this year. But nobody knows how this new West is going to shake out, and a team with the kind of consistency and starpower that they have in Portland has as good a shot as anyone.

Pau Gasol reportedly agrees to one-year deal with Trail Blazers

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Portland has tried to lure Pau Gasol to the Northwest before. In the summer of 2016, the Blazers reportedly put two-years, $40 million on the table, but Gasol chose the Spurs.

In a summer where the Trail Blazers have flirted with some old dalliances again, they are bringing Gasol into the mix. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news of an agreement.

Gasol, at age 39, is a shell of the All-NBA big man who joined forces with Kobe Bryant to win the Lakers a couple of titles. Injuries limited him to 30 games last season, he doesn’t move like he once did, and he averaged a career-low 3.9 points per game last season.

However, for a Portland team dreaming big heading into the season, Gasol is the kind of veteran big that is a solid pickup at the veteran minimum. With Jusuf Nurkic out to start the season, Gasol will join Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins in trying to soak up the minutes at the five and give the team some production. Plus, Gasol gives them a good locker room presence that will blend in on a veteran team.

It’s not a pickup that moves the needle for Portland, but it is a solid one.

Portland looks tired, overmatched defensively in Game 1 loss to Warriors

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Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals didn’t go how the Portland Trail Blazers wanted. The Golden State Warriors trapped its two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry feasted from 3-point range. In the end, Portland looked tired, perhaps overwhelmed by their Game 7 theatrics against the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers fell to Golden State, 116-94, and there’s many questions to be answered.

The first among them was about that Game 7. Portland had just 48 hours to prepare for the reigning NBA champions, and it was revealed during the broadcast that they hadn’t had practice or shootaround. Meanwhile Golden State had been resting since May 10 after beating the Houston Rockets in six games.

The Blazers flagged noticeably. McCollum and Lillard looked worn out after battling around the Warriors’ traps, but so too did the likes of Moe Harkless and Rodney Hood. It certainly didn’t help Portland that all the WCF games start at 6 p.m. Both Al-Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter are Muslim, and aren’t allowed to drink water, take medicine, or eat during sunlight. The sun didn’t set until 8:11 p.m. on Tuesday, leaving just six minutes of game clock in the fourth quarter for each to get hydrated and get some food.

But much of that will get tossed aside as excuses. More puzzling was Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his decision to play the Warriors in a low ICE defense in the pick-and-roll. On high screens involving Thompson and Curry, Kanter and backup Zach Collins were often standing at the free-throw line — sometimes just inside of it. The result, thanks to Golden State’s screens, was a lot of breathing room for the Warriors shooters.

Still, it’s not clear what Portland is supposed to do in that situation. Its big men are not as switchable and of fleet of foot as Golden State’s, and so any high pressure will be a trick. Plus, the Blazers just don’t play that way. Portland hasn’t consistently hedged or showed on the high pick-and-roll since 2012-13, Stotts’ first season in Oregon.

An intrepid reporter asked Stotts after the game about why his defense was so soft against the best shooter of all-time, citing the Rockets’ strategy of trapping Curry. His response was that Houston also allowed Curry to score 33 points in the second half of Game 6, intimating Stotts could be sticking to his plan. Still, reason stands that the Blazers will at least move their forwards higher in Game 2.

There were also some other head-scratchers from Stotts, including extended periods of time with McCollum guarding Thompson in bench lineups where Evan Turner would have been the better choice. Aminu looked nearly unplayable, and his 19 minutes felt like a stretch given his production.

Offensively, many of the same questions that haunted Portland fans during the Denver series remain after Tuesday night in Oakland. Turner, one of the heroes on Sunday, laid a goose egg on the scoreboard. McCollum shot just 7-of-19 from the field, and posted a game-low -20.

Lillard struggled again, scoring 19 points but going 4-of-12 from the field with seven turnovers. Taking on the Warriors in Game 1, Lillard continued a curious trend. The best way to put it is he’s looked reticent to enter the paint to score for himself. In fact, according to play-by-play charts from ESPN, Lillard has made just five shots inside the restricted area over the past four playoff games.

On Tuesday, Lillard took to a strategy of getting within six feet of the basket, jumping, then dumping off to a cutter with a mid-air bounce pass or a wraparound dish to his big men. Golden State had that sniffed out by the third quarter, and it’s what led to Lillard’s game high in lost possessions.

The Blazers have been training for years to try to get around the kind of traps the Warriors sent at them to open the Western Conference Finals. Turner was signed all the way back in 2016 as a kind of release valve for that, which hasn’t worked and didn’t against Golden State. But there was something else missing for Portland, even if their dedication to getting tips in passing lanes and their general defensive dedication kept them within single digits all night.

Call them tired, call them weak, call them emotionally drained. Whatever wasn’t in the tank for the Blazers against the Warriors will need to be refilled by the time Thursday’s Game 2 rolls around. Curry went 12-of-13, knocking down nine 3-pointers en route to a 36-point performance in Game 1. That might happen again, but if the Blazers want to continue this Cinderella run in the playoffs, they’ll need to find a solution on offense that gives them a kick in the pants.

That, and they’ll need to take a step above the free-throw line on those Warriors threes.

Game 2 is at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Oracle Arena.

Portland vs. Golden State: Five things to watch in the Western Conference Finals

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This Western Conference Finals matchup has some great storylines:

• Is Damian Lillard the real representative of Oakland? Lillard grew up not far from Oracle Arena — the place the Warriors are abandoning next year to move into a glitzy new building in San Francisco — and the Portland guard brings the kind of grit and toughness you’d expect from the city that also gave us Gary Payton. You can make the case Lillard is more Oakland that Curry/Thompson and their flashy game. He’s going to rep the city.

Stephen Curry vs. Seth Curry. Brother vs. brother for the first time in the Western Conference Finals will have Dell Curry flipping a coin.

The Western Conference Finals may feature more good storylines than close basketball. Give Portland credit, the team is not here by mistake — it just won Game 7 on the road in Denver. That’s impressive, and the Blazers have been the three seed in the West for two seasons in a row now. This is an outstanding basketball team.

This is also a terrible matchup for Portland.

Check out the latest ProBasketballTalk podcast where we break down this series in more detail, but here are five things to watch on the court when Portland travels to Golden State for Game 1.

1) Can Portland steal a game on the road before Kevin Durant returns? Stopping the Warriors offense when they don’t have Durant — which will be the case for at least Game 1 and likely Game 2 — is hard. They move the ball, cut hard off the ball, run a crafty pick-and-roll game, and just tear teams apart with Curry’s gravity as a shooter leading the way. Just ask the Rockets.

It gets even harder to stop them when they add the best player in the world to their rotation.

The Warriors offense is more predictable and runs a little slower with Durant, but knowing what is coming and being able to stop it are two different things. Durant will get his against anyone, and Klay Thompson or Curry can get going at any point as the defensive attention focuses on KD.

Lillard needs to go off in one of these first two and help Portland steal a game on the road in Oracle — get the work done early because things will only get harder. Lillard will have a slight advantage early in the series because Andre Iguodala likely will still start for Durant, and that gives Lillard a place to hide on defense and not work as hard (expect Moe Harkless to start on Curry). Warriors coach Steve Kerr will even want to cut back on Iguodala’s workload after the last series.

The Warriors will not play Durant in the first two games, and when he returns may depend on how threatened they feel in this series. If the Warriors hold home court in the first two, why play him and risk anything in Game 3?

When we see KD — and how much of the Hamptons’ five lineup we see — will tell you how concerned the Warriors are in this series.

2) It’s going to be a long series for Enes Kanter. For a guy who entered the playoffs with a terrible defensive reputation — especially in space against the pick-and-roll — Kanter has held up well on that end of the court. Give the man credit, his post and paint defense have improved and he has put them to good use.

He’s also gone against two teams that did not exploit his weaknesses enough. Oklahoma City just did not have the personnel to run a spread pick-and-roll. Denver did a better job and ran some Nikola Jokic/Jamal Murray pick-and-roll at Kanter, enough that Kanter was -28 in that series (in 245 minutes).

The Warriors will hunt Kanter. Relentlessly. Expect Kerr to go back to Andrew Bogut or Kevon Looney as the starting center (with the other getting minutes), and those guys will set high screens for Curry and force Kanter out into space to defend it. The Warriors will show all the mercy of Daenerys Targaryen at Kings’ Landing. The Warriors will work to play Kanter off the floor.

This likely will mean a lot more Zach Collins for Portland. Collins is a good and improving player, but this will be a big ask in a tough series, especially when the Warriors go small.

3) Can Portland slow the Warriors offense? This ties into the Kanter note above, and this is where going against Golden State is just a bad matchup for Portland.

The Trail Blazers’ base defense is a drop pick-and-roll coverage — where the center stays back to protect the paint rather than come out and challenge the ball handler coming off a pick — and doing it without switches. With the right personnel, that defense can be effective, it’s what Milwaukee did this year, the difference being the Bucks are loaded with long, athletic defenders all over the court.

Portland is not. Give Curry and Thompson a little space off those picks and things get ugly fast. And the Warriors’ guards will have space.

Portland also does not generate turnovers with their defense, they were 26th in the NBA scoring 15 points a game during the season off opponent turnovers, which is down to 13 a game in the playoffs. If you don’t get easy buckets against the Warriors things get harder.

Portland isn’t a bad defensive team (16th in the NBA during the season, middle of the pack) but this is just a tough matchup for them in terms of style and personnel. Things could get ugly.

4) Klay Thompson will try to make life difficult for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Unlike their opponents, when matchup up the Warriors have the advantage of a tall, smart, NBA All-Defensive Team level player in Thompson to throw at the great Portland guards.

Not that Thompson can stop Lillard or McCollum, whichever one he is lined up across from (expect him to start on Lillard but spend time on both). However, Thompson can make them work, make them a little less efficient. And the Warriors have the players to throw strong traps at Lillard to get the ball out of his hands while still having a good defender on McCollum. Especially once Durant returns to the lineup.

Portland will get buckets against the Warriors, they are too good not to — this is the third best offense in the NBA this past season. The concern for Portland is Thompson and Golden State can slow them down just enough they will not keep up with the Warriors’ offense.

5) How focused is Golden State? In the ultimate sign of respect, Kerr had the Warriors start the last series with the “Hamptons’ Five” on the floor. No messing around with a traditional center, the Warriors went straight to their best lineup because they realized the level of test in front of them. Houston had Golden State’s attention and respect from the opening tip and the Warriors’ rotations (and minutes load) showed that.

Golden State vs. Houston was seen as the real Western Conference Finals, the two best teams. The Warriors recognized the threat.

When the Warriors relax, when they don’t feel threatened, they can take their foot off the gas, not defend with energy, and get sloppy with the ball. They lose games because of a lack of focus. It happened early in the first round against a feisty Clippers team.

It could happen again against Portland, and the Trail Blazers are good enough to take advantage. The Warriors want to end this series and get as much rest as possible before the Finals start (on the road for them in Toronto or Milwaukee). The Warriors know they want to take care of business.

But will they? Or will the Warriors open the door just a little for the Trail Blazers and watch Lillard and company bust on through it?

It’s just one more thing to watch in this series.