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Portland makes small tweaks after another year of improvement

Two summers ago, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a state of flux. They hired new head coach Terry Stotts and drafted promising rookie point guard Damian Lillard to guide the offense.

Four other rookies joined Lillard on the roster, and the growing pains were evident as the Blazers won 33 games and finished fourth in the Northwest Division.

Fast forward to 2014 and Portland is a team on the rise in the Western Conference. They earned the No. 5 seed in the West last season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs before falling to the San Antonio Spurs.

As continues its look at what offseason moves each team in Northwest has made since the season ended last spring, today, we examine the Blazers.

Background: Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge have become one of the top inside-outside tandems in the NBA. Both averaged more than 20 points per game during the 2013-14 regular season and increased their production in the playoffs.

The Blazers also benefitted from good health; Aldridge was the only starter to miss a game last season.

Summer moves: After adding center Robin Lopez, guards Earl Watson and Mo Williams and forwards Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright through free agency last summer, the Blazers have been relatively quiet in 2014.

For the first time in 16 years, Portland didn’t have a selection in the NBA Draft, but they signed veteran free agents Steve Blake and Chris Kaman.

Blake will supplant Williams as the backup point guard off the bench, while Kaman provides depth in the middle behind Lopez and Meyers Leonard.

Big picture: The Blazers have improved their record each of the past two seasons, but it will be a challenge to top their 54 wins while competing in the West.

After averaging a career-high 23.2 points, Aldridge is heading into the final year of his contract but says he wants to finish his career in Portland. That would ensure a 1-2 punch with Lillard for several years to come.

In addition to their two stars, the Blazers have stability in the middle with Lopez and sharpshooters on the perimeter in Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. All three are also very good defensively.

If their starters can stay healthy once again, the Blazers have an excellent chance to compete for a top-four seed in the West.

Next Up: Minnesota Timberwolves

Nuggets Injury Report:

Nate Robinson sometimes travels directly from the airport baggage claim to the Pepsi Center weight room.

Danilo Gallinari turns the beaches of Italy into a high-performance training ground.

J.J. Hickson powers through workouts that his trainer wouldn’t attempt.

Denver Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly refers to them as the ACL trio as they simultaneously recover from knee surgery. Nuggets strength-and-conditioning coach Steve Hess simply calls them warriors.

“These dudes are unbelievable,” Hess said. “They’re all busting their butts. They just want to be back on the court.”

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Good luck to all the ladies trying out for Denver Nuggets Dancers this week!

Good luck to all the ladies trying out for Denver Nuggets Dancers this week!

Nuggets get opportunity exhale after first two summer league games
Coaching staff seeking improved defense when play resumes

At times during Gary Harris’ summer debut, it seemed as though the Nuggets shooting guard couldn’t miss.

He hit five 3-pointers, finished with 33 points and created a buzz on the UNLV campus in Las Vegas.

Just over 24 hours later, Harris struggled to find his rhythm and managed just nine points – seven coming from the free-throw line.

Such is life for a 19-year-old rookie trying to find his way in the NBA.

“He had a great first game,” Nuggets assistant coach Patrick Mutombo said. “I would’ve guessed the second game wasn’t going to be as prolific. It’s part of the process. Let’s take a step back and get some perspective. It gives us an opportunity to teach him. This is a great platform to accomplish that.”

After splitting their first two games at the Samsung NBA Summer League, the Nuggets took Monday off as the players attended mandatory league meetings. They resume their schedule Tuesday against the Utah Jazz.

Mutombo, who is sharing coaching duties with fellow assistant Noel Gillespie, wants to see a better defensive effort going forward. He said Denver got away from its defensive principles while surrendering 19 3-pointers in a 27-point loss to the Chicago Bulls.

“Our offensive is predicated on our defense,” Mutombo said. “We claim to be a running team but it’s hard to run if you don’t get stops. When you constantly break down defensively, it also has a psychological impact on you. Guys don’t have energy and excitement about running. When you get stops, you get excited about running.”

Individually, Mutombo said he would like to see third-year forward Quincy Miller continue to improve defensively. Miller scored 49 points in Denver’s first two games; he blocked four shots in the opener but none against Chicago.

“Quincy’s worked hard in the summer,” Mutombo said. “We all know he can score. What’s expected from Quincy is more on the defensive end. We still have more work there. I’m not down on him. We’re going to keep coaching him defensively.”

Miller, Harris and Erick Green have carried the bulk of the scoring load for Denver, but guards Carlon Brown and Chris Wright also have impressed the coaching staff with their contributions.

“Everybody’s giving the effort,” Mutombo said. “I feel bad because there’s so many players and only so many minutes to go around.”

After Tuesday’s game, Denver and the 23 other teams will be seeded based on their records in the first three games (scoring totals form the basis for tiebreakers). The top eight teams will receive byes in a single-elimination tournament.

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