The Portland Trail Blazers held shootaround Wednesday morning in Phoenix in preparation for their regular season opener versus the Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena (tipoff scheduled for 7 p.m. on NBCSNW and 620 AM). Some notes from shootaround…
• When facing the Phoenix Suns, the first issue a team has to address is dealing with their starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker. The duo averaged over 43 points per game last season, making them a difficult matchup for any team playing at full strength.
“They’re very dynamic,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “You’ve got a guy like Bledsoe who can attack off the dribble, push the tempo and a guy with Booker who can score in a variety of ways. They’re a dynamic offensive duo and they both, particularly Bledsoe, can really get into you defensively.”
And of course, the Trail Blazers won’t be playing at full strength Wednesday night as starting guard CJ McCollum serves a one-game suspension for entering the court during at altercation in the second preseason games versus Phoenix on October 11. Regardless of who starts in McCollum’s place — the most recent game notes have Evan Turner starting at shooting guard — the burden of replacing his production will fall to Damian Lillard.
“We’re a better team with CJ out there and we upset that he not playing, but don’t think that’s it gonna affect what’s gonna happen out there,” said Lillard. “It’s still going to be a competitive game and I’m going to come out and put my best foot forward.”
Luckily for the Trail Blazers, Lillard has had a fair amount of success versus the Suns in the last year, as the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State averaged a team-high 33.8 points on 47.1% shooting, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in four games against Phoenix last season.
“I’m gonna be myself,” said Lillard. “I’m sure that they know that I’m going to come out and do whatever I’ve got to do to help win this game. So whatever that means to them, that’s what it’s going to be.”
• In the NBA, being suspended means more than not being able to play. According to league rules, suspended players have to leave the arena no less than two hours before opening tip and are not allowed in the building until the game is over. So in McCollum’s case, he’ll have to find somewhere else to post up for the season opener.
“I texted a couple of my friends who live in Phoenix,” said McCollum. “Maybe watch at the hotel, maybe go to a bar.”
But there will be at least one McCollum in the building Wednesday night, as CJ’s father, Errick, had already planned on traveling to Phoenix to see the first game of his son’s 2017-18 season. But rather than watching the game with CJ at an offsite location, the elder McCollum is forging ahead despite the suspension.
“He doesn’t feel bad for me or anything,” said CJ. “He said what I did was my fault and he’s still going to the game with his five friends. I guess I’ll see him before the game or something? Hopefully he enjoys the show.”
Even though he won’t be able to provide support on the court nor from the bench, McCollum is hopefully his teammates can get the job done in his absence, even if they’re not explicitely trying to “win one for CJ.”
“I think we just need to win this game for us as a team in general, it’s not about me,” said McCollum. “I did what I did, it’s my fault. Hopefully they come out and play hard and understand that this is a very young team that’s going to come out aggressive. Season/home opener, they’ve got a lot of young, skilled players who are trying to prove themselves.”
• While McCollum is unavailable, Shabazz Napier, who missed most of training camp and all of preseason with a hamstring injury, will suit up and is expected to see minutes in Wednesday’s opener versus Phoenix.
“I feel great, had three great practices. It’s just great to actually be able to do something other than practice,” said Napier. “It’s tough not playing in the preseason but unfortunately I couldn’t do it, I was injured. I’m excited. We’ve got a great group of guys and we’re earning from last year what we should have done better and what we’ve done good and continue to do that.”
Napier is expected to assume a larger role this season after averaging just 9.7 minutes per game in 53 appearances last year. While being severely limited in training camp might have set him back a bit in the fight for regular season playing time, having an opportunity to step in and play right away with McCollum sidelined seems like a good way to get back into the race.
“Those are things I can’t control,” said Napier. “I don’t worry about it, I just play ball. At the end of the day, I think my game will determine. I’m excited to actually play again with some reps, just go out there and help my team any way I can.”