Blazers set to begin stretch grind

One challenge will be filling void of injured Freeland

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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The All-Star weekend for Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge is a feel-good story to cap off a start to the season where the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the league's biggest surprises.

"Once you leave (All-Star weekend), you're back in it," said Aldridge on the mindset of coming back to the grind of the season.

"It" is how to respond after back-to-back losses. "It" is how they respond to losing one of their main rotation pieces for at least a month.

"It" is how they can stay among the elite of the Western Conference.

Filling Freeland void

One of the team's best stories was the rise of big man Joel Freeland from almost unplayable in the NBA to serviceable reserve big man, no small leap.

Freeland's dedication to dirty work and diligence in contesting shots without fouling have been praised by coaches and teammates all season long.

In more than 700 minutes Freeland has been on the court, the Blazers have been 0.5 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions.

Now Freeland is out 4-8 weeks with an MCL sprain in his right knee.

The numbers on Portland's other reserve bigs such as Meyers Leonard and Thomas Robinson is revealing.

Robinson and Leonard aren't even close to the same sample size in minutes compared to Freeland, but the early returns have not been too encouraging.

Leonard produced well against the Clippers last Wednesday in Freeland's place, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds. Robinson has had his exciting and productive moments off the bench as well.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts dusted off a seldom-used small line-up with Dorell Wright at the power forward spot with Robin Lopez in the middle against the Clippers.

Perhaps we could see the recently activated Victor Claver, who started at power forward for the Spanish national team and played some power forward last season.

The other possibility is it could force general manager Neil Olshey's hand to make a deal with the trade deadline approaching at noon on Thursday.

A (Mid) Major jolt

After being passed over by Stotts in Portland's Feb. 5 win against the Knicks in New York, CJ McCollum ended the Pre-All-Star part of the season on a tear.

Following a benching for a lack of consistency and Stotts wanting to give Wright another look, McCollum has been averaging 13.5 points in 20 minutes off the bench in the following four games.

"I'm just getting more comfortable each game," he said. "It's starting to show in my play, I'm starting to play a bit better. Just make plays for guys at times and at times, got to make shots."

An open shot has been nearly automatic over the recent stretch heading into the break.

McCollum has been shooting 54 percent from the field and 59 percent on threes in those games. He has had some turnover problems at times, but overall, the rookie has been a plus for an offense which has fallen off a bit and the NBA's lowest scoring bench.

Defense

The Blazers currently rank 23rd in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com.

They have stretches when they defend above or near the league average, followed by attempts that send them deeper into the depths of the defensive rankings.

"I get back to just being consistent with it," Stotts said. "We've had some very good defensive games. Some excellent defensive halves."

The improvement is going to have to come from within, and the players have learned the abilities and inabilities of their teammates defensively.

The defense continues to be a work in progress and the Blazers are sticking with the process of learning their defensive scheme.

Where that process leads them by season's end will tell us more about what this team can do in 2014.