PORTLAND — Lingering for an extra long time after a game when the Blazers had to shove aside their pride to get a win they needed over Philadelphia, a song emerged.
Damian Lillard and Maurice Harkless, who has been known to bring anything from classic Jay-Z to Kanye West’s latest “Ultralight Beam” into the locker room after a game, were harmonizing in the corner. Well, trying at least, as much to distract themselves from their brush with disaster as to make a nice tune.
CJ McCollum did not appreciate the effort, though he did crack a smile when he told Lillard to keep it down.
Locker room camaraderie has been around for much of the season. But lately, Harkless, Lillard and the starting lineup look just as good, if not more comfortable as when they are singing Mariah Carey’s classics. As a combination, the new, unofficial, starting lineup has proven that they do indeed belong together.
The third consecutive start for Harkless was another success for the team and individually.
Harkless has scored in double figures in each of the last three games since he got the start and has provided proper relief for Lillard and McCollum with his off-ball cutting and offensive rebounding.
As a team, the Blazers have recently had two wins and one loss on a buzzer-beating jumper.
Now their starting lineup with Harkless is outscoring opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
But the key to making all of this work is Al-Farouq Aminu, who scored a season-high 20 points on Saturday night.
Despite starting the majority of his games this season at small forward, Aminu has been Portland’s best power forward all season.
The Blazers most-used lineup in the fourth quarter is one with Aminu at the “4,” or power forward, and Allen Crabbe at the “3,” or small forward.
Going small with Aminu at 4 is not new. The only difference now is that he is starting there.
According to website Nylon Calculus, Aminu has the best net-rating (+5.0) when playing power forward of anybody else on the Blazers who has played the position — and that was last updated three weeks ago.
If the recent performances of the starting lineup are any indication, those numbers should be even better now.
Is the game easier for Aminu at the 4?
“Sometimes. You know what I mean?” he said. “You only have to run to the corner. Just set a screen and do different things like that. You get involved in the ball screens and things like that. It’s a little bit of a learning curve. It’s not a new game that you’re playing.”
Head coach Terry Stotts has not committed to a lineup publicly or in private, but he is not secretive about why he likes that look.
“First of all, defensively, he’s very good at the 4. He defends the post well. He rebounds well,” Stotts said. “It allows us to switch with a spacing 4 man. Defensively, we’ve been very solid with him. Offensively, he’s enough of a 3-point threat that he does space the court. That threat makes it easier for everybody.”
Aminu has functioned more as a screener in pick and roll situations and although he hasn’t done them in the same volume as their other bigs, he’s still rates well coming in the 63rd percentile as a roll man, according to Synergy Sports.
Without Leonard, probably their best option as a screen and roll big man, Aminu will likely be seen there more.
“It just opens up a lot of stuff,” Allen Crabbe said. “Coach wants us to still run our offense and sets even with the 4 guards out there. He’s always telling us whoever gets it just look up because we have advantages if they want to leave two bigs out there. That’s for sure an advantage.”
The Blazers will still need Noah Vonleh, the starting power forward for most of the season, to provide rebounding and solid defense. Stotts has also given Harkless more time at power forward when Aminu sits.
The Meyers Leonard injury may have forced the Blazers into a new identity three weeks away from the playoffs.
Small ball has taken them to another level and was their most relied upon look in the fourth quarter, so it only makes sense that they are turning to it during the fourth quarter of their season.