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NBA bubble has ‘an AAU feel,' but it’s high-level basketball as Portland Trail Blazers return to full practice

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 7/12/2020 By Joel Odom, oregonlive.com

After quarantining in his hotel room for nearly 48 hours at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, Damian Lillard emerged Saturday and headed to a Portland Trail Blazers team meeting.

On his way, Lillard ran into former teammate Shabazz Napier, who now plays with the Washington Wizards. Later, when Lillard again left his room to head toward the team bus for practice, he bumped into former teammate Kent Bazemore, who is now with the Sacramento Kings.

“It was like, every time I come down, I keep running into one of my former teammates,” Lillard told reporters Saturday. “It had like an AAU feel to it since we’ve been here.”

Such is the unique nature of the NBA bubble, with 22 teams converging at Disney World as they get set to restart the season later this month.

But the similarities to AAU ended as Lillard stepped into his first full-contact practice in months on Saturday, because he was back alongside his NBA teammates, beginning preparations for top-level competition.

“It felt like training camp because of the excitement at the beginning,” Lillard said. “It was real high energy, a lot of clapping, a lot of talking. Guys were just excited to be back out there. That felt like training camp, but the kind of practice that we had felt more like a practice at the beginning of the season where we’re doing some up and down, doing some halfcourt drills, just kind of mixing it up.”

Two key pieces in that mix are the now fully healthy big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Nurkic had been sidelined since March 2019 with a compound fracture in his left leg and was just days away from returning when the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Collins had been out since October with a left shoulder injury.

Lillard, CJ McCollum and coach Terry Stotts all agreed that Nurkic and Collins looked comfortable in their return.

“They both looked like the way we remembered them,” Stotts said. “I told Nurk that. He’s the Nurk that I remember playing, at both ends of the floor. He made some really good passes, good rebounds. He just made good plays. Zach was full of energy. You couldn’t tell that either one of them had missed any amount of time. It was very encouraging.”

Adding Nurkic and Collins to a frontline that already includes Hassan Whiteside gives Stotts a major boost in length and rim protection. The Blazers spent time Saturday tweaking their offense and defense to play to the strengths of the big men.

“We’ve got three defensive 7-footers, and all three of them are going to play, so we want to take advantage of their help in the paint, whether they’re involved in ball screens,” Stotts said. “If they have to help at the rim, then we’re going to have rotations and how we’re going to rotate out of that.”

“We’ve got a lot of length,” Stotts added, “so devising ways for them to take advantage of their strengths in the paint and at the same time having our perimeter guys understand that, because they’re in the paint, that they have more responsibilities on the perimeter.”

McCollum, one of those perimeter guys, reeled off a bevy of good things he saw from Nurkic and Collins before summing it up this way: “They came back ready.”

Stotts lauded his team’s conditioning, and Lillard said he appreciated all of the Blazers’ efforts to stay in shape to be ready for full speed on Saturday. The Blazers escaped the first practice without any injuries, aside from minor bumps and bruises, Stotts said.

“I think everybody obviously is concerned about doing too much too early, but it’s a credit to the guys,” Stotts said. “They’ve taken care of themselves. We’ve had two months of workouts at our facility and they’ve been working hard to maintain their physical conditioning.”

The ninth-place Blazers (29-37) will need to be ready as they gear up for a July 31 matchup with eighth-place Memphis (32-33) in their first of eight seeding games in the NBA restart.

More practices and scrimmages are ahead first, and Stotts said the next week to 10 days for the Blazers will be about themselves, not the Grizzlies.

“Right now it’s about just tuning in on what we need to do both offensively, defensively, conditioning, shooting,” Stotts said.

Lillard wore a T-shirt with the word “EQUALITY” emblazoned across it as he spoke to reporters. He said the Blazers’ focus in the coming weeks is clear.

“Our goal is to come in here and hit the ground running and give ourselves a chance to get in the mix for the playoffs,” Lillard said. “That’s the only reason we’re here. We’ve got eight games. We don’t want to show up here for a month and go home and waste our time. We’re coming here to make some noise.”

Since arriving in the Orlando area on Thursday, the Blazers have encountered few if any problems in the NBA bubble, Stotts said.

“The bubble, it’s a unique experience, but I’m really impressed with what the NBA has done,” Stotts said. “To have three separate bubbles, all the logistics involved with hotels and testing and food and gyms, there’s security, it’s unbelievable all the planning that went into it. We did our quarantine. Everything went smoothly. Testing. We haven’t had any hitches.”

McCollum said he had everything he needed in his hotel room during his two-day quarantine, from electronic devices to books to video games to wine, and called the time in isolation “therapeutic.” Still, he said the time to himself did put things in perspective.

“You got a better appreciation for life, especially after you spend 48 hours in your hotel,” McCollum said. “You appreciate the little things a lot more. You appreciate the relationships, the situations that you may be in, the friendships. And you also appreciate the outdoors a lot more.”

-- Joel Odom; jodom@oregonian.com

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