Dirk Nowitzki

Game-winners? Carmelo Anthony has more than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade

Game-winners? Carmelo Anthony has more than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade

TORONTO – If you’re going to take a last-second shot to win a game and you’re the Portland Trail Blazers, who do you go to?

Damian Lillard is the obvious choice. But what if the other team double-teams him and makes it impossible to get him the ball?

Then you go to CJ McCollum, right? Well, that’s what the Trail Blazers did Tuesday night against the Raptors, with the scored tied at 99 and the clock ticking down past 10 seconds.

McCollum took an inbound pass and had a lane to the basket. An open lane, he figured. But knowing it wouldn’t be right to take his shot too early on the clock, he held back – a smart move by a mature player.

Suddenly, Carmelo Anthony popped open near the top of the three-point circle and McCollum found him with a pass.

Melo with the ball and a chance to win the game? That’s money, folks. Look it up. It’s not this guy’s first rodeo.

Since 2003-2004, according to STATS Inc., he’s been the best in the NBA at hitting shots in the final 30 seconds of a game to give his team a lead for good. He’s done it 26 times, better than Kobe Bryant (22), LeBron James (20), Dirk Nowitzki (18) and Dwyane Wade (16).

You want it done in the final five seconds? According to ESPN Stats and Information, he's done that 17 times, four more than any other player since he came into the league.
“It was very important for us to come back on the road,” Anthony said. “We were able to get stops and make shots. A big morale booster for us.

“This is something I’ve always embraced, loved those moments. Whenever you get a chance to have those moments you have to take advantage of it. Throughout my career I’ve always been the guy who would take those shots. I’ve made a ton of them and missed a lot of them, as well. You just have to be willing, to want to take them.”

Anthony was able to get to his spot on the floor, a jump shot that was a virtual free throw. It’s a shot you can see him practicing over and over before games.

“I was able to get to my spot and it felt good,” he said. “Very important to get to my spot. Only thing I didn‘t want to do is settle, settle for that three. Once I was able to get to my spot, there was a great chance of that ball going in.”

The Blazers and Raptors – two teams playing without some of their best players – stumbled around a lot in this game but the Blazers really were tested. If there was a night for them to just give up on a game, this would have been it. For most of the first half they couldn’t make shots and couldn’t get defensive stops. It was a frustrating night, given that the Blazers’ first and only lead prior to Anthony’s game-winner lasted 14 seconds and made the score 4-3.

“We gave up 22 in the third and 21 in the fourth and we started to limit their second chances,” Lillard said. “The way we did it is the style we need to play to win us games.”

The Raptors specialize in playing defense that takes the opponent’s best player out of the game and they got it done over the first three quarters, throwing multiple players at Lillard. But in the fourth, he was able to get more room by getting a pick set higher and making his threes from longer distance.

“I just played from further out,” he said. “I didn’t want to force it and play in a crowd. I had to change my pace, get the screen set higher. And we also got stops so we weren’t playing against a set defense.”

Lillard played a key role in forcing a Toronto turnover, as Patrick McCaw threw a pass between Kyle Lowry’s legs and out of bounds.

“Kyle was coming off a pin down and I saw it developing,” Lillard said. “They were trying to catch us off guard. I shot the gap and the guy threw a bounce pass and Kyle was running through it and didn’t have a chance to catch it. A big play.”

Portland had to survive a last-second three from Kyle Lowry but it was a miss and the Blazers had the win.

To be fair, the Raptors were playing without injured Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet, among others. Of course, the Blazers – without Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere – have no sympathy for them.

This trip concludes with a game Thursday night at Minneapolis against the Timberwolves.

Fans give Dirk Nowitzki fitting send off in final game in Portland

USA Today Images

Fans give Dirk Nowitzki fitting send off in final game in Portland

There wasn’t a postgame jersey swap at midcourt. There was no extended walk off to bask in the cheers. There was just a final one-legged fade away and a quick wave.

The Dirk Nowitzki maybe-but-maaaaybe-not retirement tour made a stop in the Moda Center on Wednesday night and fans, plenty of whom came clad in No. 41 Dallas Mavericks jerseys, got to pay respects to an all-time great.

But unlike year long celebrations courted by future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki’s potential final game in Portland didn’t have the manufactured pomp and circumstance.

“Well he hasn’t said he’s going to retire so I’m not going to be sad tonight,” said Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who spent four years with Nowitzki as a Mavericks assistant and was part of the 2011 Dallas championship team.

When Nowitzki and the Mavs came through Portland in December earlier in the season, Nowitzki, 40, sat out. The Mavericks were on the second night of back-to-back games they gave their aging star the night off. So when Stotts saw the former MVP in the back hallway he playfully taunted Nowitzki about needing rest after a grueling 12-minute outing.

The two shared another laugh before tip-off on Wednesday when Stotts found Nowitzki out on the court before his pregame shooting routine and told him that the Blazers were going endlessly hunt him in pick and rolls.

His sense of humor hasn’t faded, but Nowitzki’s game is certainly in a twilight stage. His gait does nothing to hide the miles he’s logged as a 40 year old playing in his 21st season. It certainly looks like it’s his final season, even if he insists he won’t make that decision until the summer. He finished with three points and two rebounds against the Blazers, treating fans to one final one-legged fadeaway while missing his only other two shot attempts in 14 minutes.

Once the game was decided late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday fans inside the Moda Center started a “We Want Dirk” chant, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t oblige. Nowitzki, who two days earlier had passed Wilt Chamberlain to move into sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, stood and acknowledged the Portland crowd, for what seemed like the final time.

The strange thing about playing two decades in the league is that you up competing against a generation of players that looked up to you in your prime when they were pre-teens with hoop dreams. Damian Lillard said he owned Nowitzki jersey as a 5th grader and Zach Collins reiterated that he had always tried to model his game after the Mavericks star. There was shared appreciation from the stands, the players on the court and the coaches on the sidelines. If this wasn’t a “goodbye” it was a “thanks for the memories.”

Nowitzki is far from a villain in the northwest even if he did usher the Blazers out of the playoffs in 2002 and 2011. There were no boos like Kobe Bryant earned in his final game in Portland. There was no “maybe he’s still got it” moment like when Dwyane Wade carried the Heat to a win in Portland  back in February of this year. There’s certainly no hashtag or uniform swap. Nowitzki plays a little bit. He waves to the fans and then he repeats some version of the explanation he’s uttered at arenas across the country.

“My plan was always play year to year my last couple years,” Nowitzki said. “See how the body feels and make the decision after the season.”

So this summer he’ll take some time and decide whether he is ready for season 22 or to move into some other role with the Mavericks front office or a third option away from the game. One thing he hasn’t ruled out is an encore, running the retirement tour back for another 41 nights of admiration on the road.

“No, I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “If I come back, we’ll do it all over again.”

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

Blazers' fourth-quarter weapon: Damian Lillard and free-throw shooting

In a loaded Western Conference that figures to be filled with knock-down, drag-it-out struggles on a regular basis, the Trail Blazers know they have this going for them:

Damian Lillard and his excellence at the free throw line.

Lillard has made 43 consecutive free throws dating back to the second quarter of the Blazers’ Oct. 30 game against Toronto and is shooting 92.3 percent for the season.

“My dad always made me shoot the ball,’’ Lillard explained about his free throw success. “He wouldn’t let me lower the hoop at home. He made me keep it up and learn how to shoot the ball.’’

This is the fourth streak of at least 40 consecutive free throws in Lillard’s career. He made 54 in a row in March of 2016, falling three short of Damon Stoudamire’s franchise record, and twice had streaks of 48, last accomplished in March of 2017.

The NBA record for consecutive free throws is 97, set over the course of two seasons (1992-1993 and 1993-1994) by Minnesota guard Micheal Williams.

“I don’t pay attention to how many I made in a row,’’ Lillard said. “I just know when I’m shooting it well.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

As the Blazers can attest, free-throw shooting figures to be a huge factor in the loaded West this season as close games figure to increase.  The Blazers have already had a buzzer beating loss against the Clippers, an overtime loss at Utah, a buzzer-beating victory against the Lakers and a nail-biting 103-99 win Sunday against Oklahoma City. The Blazers also lost in Milwaukee in the final 11 seconds.

A factor in the loss against the Clippers was a missed free throw by CJ McCollum – the best free-throw shooter in the NBA last season -- with 5.1 seconds left. Meanwhile, the Blazers helped close out the Thunder by making 7-of-8 in the fourth quarter.

With McCollum, who shot 91.2 percent last season, and Lillard, the Blazers are second in the NBA (behind Utah) in free throws this season at 81.8 percent. The Blazers also attempt the third most per game (21.6) and rank 10th in clutch free throw shooting (82.4 percent), which is measured in the last five minutes.

 “It’s not only Damian,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I’ve been on teams where you have 5 good free-throw shooters out there and you know that down the stretch you can count on them to make their free throws. It’s a real advantage to have those kind of guys at the end of the game.’’

One of those teams was the 2010 Dallas Mavericks, when Stotts was an assistant. That team included Dirk Nowitizki, who made 82 in a row that season, the third longest streak in NBA history. Jose Calderon has the second longest streak, making 87 in a tow with Toronto in the 2008-2009 season.

Interestingly, Lillard says his free-throw streaks often go both ways. Last season, after he made 48 in a row, he lost his touch and went  18-for-28 (64.3 percent) over his next five games.

“In my career typically, I have long streaks where I make a bunch of free throws in a row, and when I miss, I have a five-game streak where I’m just missing,’’ Lillard said last March. “Then, I start another streak. But I shoot free throws all the time, so it’s not like it’s something I’m concerned about.’’

Tonight, the Blazers (6-4) play host to Memphis (6-4) in what figures to be another tough, grind-it-out game. If it is decided at the line, chances are Lillard will have something to do with it. He is 25-of-28 at the line in the fourth quarter this season, which includes 15 in a row. And as a team, the Blazers this season are 63-of-76 in the fourth quarter (82.9 percent).

Today's Blazers' links:

How to watch tonight's Blazers-Grizzlies game.

My Inside the Blazers podcast, with guest Maurice Harkless.

Kurt Kragthorpe of the Salt Lake Tribune writes that Lillard will become the best NBA player from Utah school.

The Beale Street Bears blog debates whether former Oregon wing Dillon Brooks will remain in Memphis rotation.

Trail Blazers survive Dallas thanks to brilliant Lillard performance

Trail Blazers survive Dallas thanks to brilliant Lillard performance

DALLAS -- The good news for the Trail Blazers is that Damian Lillard has been one of the best players in the NBA to start the season. 

The bad news is the Blazers struggle when he is not on the court. 

In another dominant performance Friday, Lillard rescued a wayward Blazers team with a 42-point performance that helped them stave off a depleted Dallas Mavericks team, 105-95 at American Airlines Arena. 

Portland improved to 3-3 while Dallas fell to 0-5 for the first time in franchise history.

The Blazers needed every bit of Lillard's performance, even though the Mavericks played without starting center Andrew Bogut, who was a late-scratch (personal reasons) and Dirk Nowitzki in the second half (sore Achilles). 

It appeared the Blazers would win comfortably when they took a 16-point lead in the third quarter on a stretch sparked by three consecutive three pointers by Lillard, the last two coming from 31 feet and 34 feet.

But in what is becoming an early-season trend, the Blazers let the lead evaporate after being on the wrong end of a big scoring run. This time it was a 16-1 run by Dallas that brought them within 79-78 less than a minute into the third quarter. 

That's when Lillard re-entered the game and instantly righted the ship, hitting back-to-back jumpers that steadied the team and led to the Blazers ending a two-game losing streak. Lillard was a plus 17 in his 37 minutes on the court. 

Lillard, who entered the game as the NBA's third leading scorer at 32.6 behind DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook, finished 12-for-18 from the field and 5-of-6 from three-point range. It was his fourth game of 30 or more points and his first 40 point game of the season. 

The Blazers led 55-52 at halftime even though they allowed Dallas to score the final seven points of the half. The lead was established by a stretch when Portland scored on 11 consecutive possessions, turning a 35-28 deficit into a 51-45 lead. Lillard was instrumental in the run, scoring nine of his 15 first-half points during the spurt.

Portland forged a 26-26 tie at the end of the first quarter when Shabazz Napier made a running three-pointer at the buzzer after Al-Farouq Aminu popped the ball loose from Mavericks point guard JJ Barea. The Blazers, who have been prone to being on the wrong end of scoring runs, allowed Dallas to go on a 13-0 run in the first quarter, which turned a 19-11 lead into a 24-19 deficit. 

The Mavericks started three guards because center Andrew Bogut was a late scratch for personal reasons. As a result, Plumlee had a field day early as he was checked by smaller players like 6-foot-8 Harrison Barnes, resulting in four dunks for Plumlee in the first half. 

Plumlee finished with 19 points, tying his high as a Blazer and Aminu added 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Former Blazers guard Wesley Matthews had seven points in 29 minutes, finishing 1-for-6 from the field. 

Next up: Blazers at Memphis, 12:30 p.m. Sunday (CSN)


Wesley Matthews looking for first win, not back at Trail Blazers

Wesley Matthews looking for first win, not back at Trail Blazers

DALLAS – By now, Wesley Matthews says he is over his time with the Trail Blazers, the strangeness of going against his former team long ago worn off.

Plus, his mind these days is occupied with trying to right the ship of his current team, the winless Dallas Mavericks.

Dallas (0-4) plays host to the Blazers (2-3) tonight at the American Airlines Center (5:30 p.m., CSN), and both Matthews and coach Rick Carlisle say the Mavericks’ problems are easy to identify.

“We haven’t been playing hard enough, long enough,’’ Matthews said. “We put ourselves in position to be in every game, just not enough to get over the hump.’’

Matthews is the Mavericks’ second leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, but he is shooting 31.3 percent from the field and 9-of-38 from three-point range (23.7 percent).

“I haven’t been shooting it the best, but you can’t question what I have been doing on the other end of the court,’’ Matthews said. “My shooting is going to come. I’m not going to worry about that part.’’

Matthews at the team’s shootaround wanted nothing to do with reminiscing about his five years in Portland -- “I’m pretty sure they don’t miss me” – and he sounded and appeared like he was already in game mode.

“We have to come out with an approach that we are pissed off,’’ Matthews said. “We are not going to roll over. We are a lot better than what our record says. We have talent in the locker room, we have vets, guys who’ve had success, we have champions, we have youth, we have everything. We just have to put it together.’’

Carlisle said he won’t mess with his lineups as he tries to avoid his first 0-5 start. The Mavericks are expected to start Deron Williams, Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut.

“To me, this is less about lineups and more about disposition, presence, execution and doing little things well,’’ Carlisle said. “Not making the untimely, bad play. Margins are slim.’’

Nowitzki, who has missed two games because of illness, is expected to play against the Blazers, but Carlisle said his minutes will be monitored. Williams is also expected to play after saying his groin injury is feeling better.

“(Nowitzki) is working through this,’’ Carlisle said of the illness. “He’s not feeling super great, but he’s going to play. He just has to work through this period of getting his legs back and back to feeling himself.’’