Trail Blazers Start An Early Exhibition Schedule By Hosting The Suns

by Casey Holdahl
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After just over a week of training camp, the Portland Trail Blazers will begin their six-game preseason schedule with a tilt versus the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at the Moda Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 pm.

In an effort to reduce the number of back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-night stretches, the NBA decided to start the 2017-18 regular season a full week earlier than the 2016-17 season, which also moved up the start of the preseason schedule. But while the start dates for the pre and regular season might have changed, the start of training camp did not, the result of which is teams have had significantly less practice time to prepare for the exhibition schedule, not that anyone is complaining.

“It feels like it just came faster,” said Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard of the start of preseason. “It was like, alright, it’s the first day of training camp, we all excited. Usually it’ll be like a week of practice and we come back the next week and it’s like ‘Alright, we ready to play.’ And we didn’t have that moment, it was like ‘Dang, it’s Fan Fest, now we play on Tuesday.’ It’s here. I guess they wanted to shorten the season, right? They’ve definitely done that.”

Even if there had been the more traditional lead in to preseason, it’s not likely that Terry Stotts would have used that time to prepare for the Phoenix Suns, as the emphasis during training camp is explicitly on improving, particularly on the defensive end, rather than winning exhibition games. To that end, Stotts said his main goal Tuesday night will be an even minutes allocation across the roster, even with Shabazz Napier sitting out the game with a left hamstring injury.

“I think a lot of guys will play, I don’t think anybody will play more than half the game,” said Stotts after Monday’s practice. “With Shabazz out I still want to try and limit Dame and CJ (McCollum’s) minutes, so that will be a little bit of a challenge. Hopefully everybody gets to play since we’ve got guys out with injuries. I think everybody should have a chance to get on the floor.”

Though one could argue getting players off the floor will be just as important for Stotts Tuesday versus Phoenix. Limiting minutes to his rotation players might be the goal, though sometimes the reality of NBA players’ competitive nature can scuttle the best laid plans.

“Usually when we actually start playing I don’t like to stop playing,” said Lillard. “I wouldn’t mind whatever he wanted me to do, but usually when we in the preseason (Stotts) has tried to save me from me, cause he know I’ll go out there and once I start feeling good in a game, in the flow of the game, I’ll be like ‘Hold on, leave me in. Leave me in.’”

Who exactly will be in with Lillard to start the game is still a bit of a mystery. While you can pencil in McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić, who is healthy after missing the end of last season and most of the playoffs with a non-displaced fracture in his right leg, as starters, who will get the call at the forward positions is not yet clear. Noah Vonleh was the odds-on favorite to start at power forward after playing some of the best basketball of his career alongside Nurkić last season, but a shoulder injury that will keep the 22 year-old sidelined for at least the first week of the regular season has opened up opportunities for Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins to crack the starting five.

In the end, who gets the start and a win isn’t all that important during preseason. What is important is using these games to prepare for the start of the regular season, especially with less time to work out the cobwebs than in seasons past.

“I just want to get into actual game shape,” said Lillard of his goal for preseason. “I feel like I’m in pretty good shape, but getting out there, playing against another team, having your mind working, paying attention to what they running, remembering their plays, locking in on coverages, stuff like that, picking their defense a part. That takes mental energy and that can wear on you, I need to get that part down. Control my wind and then also be in control of my mind. It gets tough out there. That’s the part that I’m ready to just get to, get out there and play against somebody else and start getting into that mode.”

Tuesday’s game will be broadcast locally on NBC Sports Northwest with Kevin Calabro, Lamar Hurd and Brooke Olzendam. Brian Wheel and Michael Holton will have the radio call on Rip City Radio 620 AM.