NBA Playoffs

Move over, Wilt Chamberlain -- make room for Damian Lillard in 60-point club

Move over, Wilt Chamberlain -- make room for Damian Lillard in 60-point club

Carmelo Anthony stepped up, but what else would you expect from a guy headed for the Hall of Fame? CJ McCollum, in the throes of a brutal shooting night, while dealing with a broken bone in his back, made two clutch free throws at the end.

But it was all Damian Lillard again. And again, And again.

Sixty-one points, he scored. That was 10 more than he got Sunday in a narrow win over Philadelphia.

Over and over, Lillard kept his Trail Blazers in the game against the Dallas Mavericks, hitting shot after shot -- the tremendous pressure of yet another must-win game seemingly not affecting him in the slightest. The result was a 134-131 win over the Mavericks that put the Trail Blazes in the driver’s seat for the West's No. 8 seed and the prime spot in the play-in game(s).

We’ve seen this Damian Lillard before. In big games. But it doesn’t get older, it gets better.

“He’s showing a lot of resolve,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “Nobody wanted to come into this bubble and make the playoffs more than Dame. We’ve got one more game to go, but his leadership, obviously his game speaks for itself, but he’s bringing the team along with him."
Stotts was asked how this one ranked among Lillard's great performances.

“The magnitude of this game, even though it's in an empty gym, in a bubble, the season was on the line and that makes it up there with the Oklahoma City game.”

Lillard marched into the same rarified air as legendary center Wilt Chamberlain as the only two players to have three 60-point games in the same season.

“First of all, I’m happy to be in that type of company -- that’s an honor,” Lillard said. “I’m also happy that two of the three came in a winning effort. Tonight couldn’t have been better timing for that type of effort.

“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be in the company of Wilt.”

Lillard hit 17 of his 32 shots, 9 of 17 from three-point range and all 18 of his free throws.

Portland struggled through another brutal third quarter, but still managed to take a five-point lead into the fourth period. But the final quarter was a serious slog through missed shots and fouls.

Portland didn’t hit a shot from the field until 6:13 remained in the game and committed 13 fouls in the final quarter. For a while, the only way the Trail Blazers got defensive stops was by fouling -- and that didn’t help because the Mavericks were making their free throws.

Anthony tied the game with 2:23 to go with a three-point shot but Dallas pushed ahead on two free throws. Hassan Whiteside made two foul shots to pull Portland into a two-point lead, but Luka Doncic went one-for-two from the line with 40.2 seconds to go and the Blazers still clung to a one-point lead.

Lillard then missed a jumper, the Mavs gave it back on an offensive foul and McCollum went to the line with 3.9 seconds left and calmly drained two free throws for a three-point lead.

Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a tough fallaway from the left corner and Portland had a huge win.

McCollum has been playing with a serious back injury since last Thursday, but came up big when it counted.

That left Lillard, as emotional as you will see him, to take a tour of the media area courtside, his statement roughly translated as, "Put some respect on my name!"

And after that game, how could you not?

Trail Blazers could go 2-0 or 0-2, but still appear to be the best of the rest

Trail Blazers could go 2-0 or 0-2, but still appear to be the best of the rest

So with two games to go in the seeding round, the Trail Blazers have a very good chance to not only reach the play-in game(s) but to grab the coveted eighth seed.

And they also have a good chance of being the ninth seed.

And, it seems to me, a pretty good chance of being left out entirely.

You see, I just can’t get a handle on this Portland team. Or the rest of the field in Orlando, for that matter.

The Trail Blazers entered the bubble with as much motivation as any team down there. They were burning to prove their lackluster season was a product of missing key players and that getting a second chance at the playoffs wasn’t a “waste of time.”

So far, they have proved that what they did in the part of the season before the pandemic hit, is still part of their DNA. They are still struggling to put lesser teams away, failing to hold onto leads, suffering through rough third quarters and playing just about the worst defense we’ve seen them play in years.

Against some teams that obviously aren’t all that concerned about winning or losing.

Portland today meets the Dallas Mavericks, who sat Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis -- their two best players -- Monday against Utah and still won, because the Jazz didn’t seem too intent on winning the game.

That’s the problem in Orlando -- it’s difficult to tell who cares about these games and who doesn’t. And the teams that don’t care seem to win more often than they should.

If the Trail Blazers defeat the Mavericks and then Brooklyn on Thursday, they have a great chance to steal the No. 8 seed heading into the play-in.

And I believe whichever team ends up eighth will be in the playoffs, because defeating it twice in two days will be a monumental task for any of these teams.

But honestly, I could see Portland going 0-2 almost as easily as 2-0, with the way it is playing, The Trail Blazers, in spite of all their size up front, aren’t rebounding well and aren’t getting enough scoring in the paint.

And, of course, they have a devil of a time getting stops, particularly in the second half.

They are reliant on the three-point shot and have been fortunate enough to see a lot of those go in. But it’s a tightrope walk at the end of every game, with those three-point shots and that shaky defense being put to the test.

So I will watch and not be surprised by any outcome, yet still -- in spite of all their problems -- thinking the Portland Trail Blazers are the best of the teams with a shot at getting that final Western Conference playoff berth.

But wondering if, in the end, they are going to just be wasting their time.

Hypemaster Chuck -- Charles Barkley -- has always loved him some Trail Blazers

Hypemaster Chuck -- Charles Barkley -- has always loved him some Trail Blazers

Charles Barkley has always been a pretty good hype man for the Trail Blazers. He likes them. Last season he even picked them to get to the NBA Finals.

And he had another very bold prediction about Portland on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” show. Hypemaster Chuck has big plans for the Blazers in Orlando. But first, Shaquille O’Neal weighed in… sort of. 

“Portland will get in the playoffs,” Shaquille O’Neal said, before also saying, “Maybe New Orleans. Maybe Sacramento.”

After listening to Shaq pick Portland as one of three teams that could capture the eighth spot in the West, Barkley doubled down on the Blazers.

“I’m going to take it a step farther," Barkley said. "They gotta get in first. (But) IF… IF the Portland Trail Blazers get in the playoffs, they will beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round.”

He has always been a big fan of the Trail Blazer backcourt. But he now seems to appreciate the frontcourt, too.

“If Nurkic and Zach Collins are healthy -- you know Dame and CJ are going to do their thing, they’re right up there with Steph and Klay as the best backcourt in the NBA,” Barkley said. “Nurkic is terrific. Zach Collins is terrific. Whiteside’s got something to prove, he’s gonna be a free agent.”

And Barkley pointed out injuries to Los Angeles guards Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley as reasons for some vulnerability for the West’s top seed.

“The Lakers, to me, they’ve got a couple of injuries,” Barkley said. “But the Trail Blazers have to get in (the playoffs) first.”

And it won’t be easy. The group on TNT made no mention of the Trail Blazers’ tough schedule -- much more difficult than the one New Orleans will play. And the guys neglected to evaluate the loss of Trevor Ariza to the Blazers, too.

But it’s worth listening to the conversation, even though the panel suffered from the same problem a lot of these discussion shows face in this era of remote television production -- nobody is quite sure whose turn it is to talk.

The result is either everyone talking at once or long moments of awkward silence.

But when Barkley talks, the whole basketball world listens. And he likes the Trail Blazers.

A lot.

Barkley: Trail Blazers will beat LA Lakers if they get into playoffs

Barkley: Trail Blazers will beat LA Lakers if they get into playoffs

Charles Barkley is not one to shy away from bold predictions. 

On Thursday night, Barkley had another one when he and the rest of NBA on TNT crew had a conversation able the current playoff picture. 

There are currently a handful of teams on the outside looking in, vying for a chance to potentially play the Grizzlies in a play-in game.

One of those teams is the Portland Trail Blazers.

On the topic of Rip City's favorite basketball team, both Shaquille O'Neal and Barkley gave Portland fans plenty of hope.

Shaq kept it short and sweet, "Portland will get in the playoffs."

The Blazers currently sit in ninth place, 3.5 games behind the eighth-place Grizzlies, tied with the Pelicans and Kings, and a half-game ahead of the Spurs. 

So, Shaq is confident the Blazers will get in. Barkley, on the other hand, he thinks the Blazers will do much more than that.

Said Barkley, "If the Portland Trail Blazers get in the playoffs, they will beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round."

Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon:

Barkley had a reason for his belief: Team health. Having both Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic back on the court will have a significant impact, especially on the defensive end, for the Trail Blazers. 

If Nurkic and Zach Collins are healthy, you know Dame (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) are gonna do their thing. They're right up there with Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson). Nurkic is terrific. Zach Collins is terrific. Whiteside got something to proves, he's gonna be a free agent... but the Trail Blazers gotta get in first.  - Barkley on the Blazers

This isn't the first time Barkley has put his faith in the Blazers. As a guest on ESPN's Get Up last month, Barkley called the Trail Blazers his dark horse. "The one team in the Western Conference, if they get Nurkic back and Zach Collins, nobody is gonna want to see the Portland Trail Blazers." Barkley went as far as to say the Blazers could win the championship.

A healthy Trail Blazers squad will be dangerous for sure. Barkley sees it. Shaq sees it. We're pretty sure the rest of the NBA sees it as well. 

 

Trail Blazers mum while NBA players opt out of Orlando or test positive for virus

Trail Blazers mum while NBA players opt out of Orlando or test positive for virus

All over the NBA, word is leaking out that some players -- now mostly back at their home bases and working out at practice facilities -- are testing positive for COVID-19.

And other players, as we know by now, are announcing their intent not to go to Orlando for the scheduled resumption of the 2020 season.

But so far, there isn’t much coming from the Trail Blazers. Sure, Trevor Ariza announced he would not be joining the team in Orlando, but that leak to the media apparently came from Ariza’s agent, who presumably wanted to make sure everyone knew the reason his player is not going to attend.

Ariza is staying away in order to enjoy custody of his son, the result of a mandated window for that custody that falls during the NBA’s return to play. I understand the logic in managing the message in that case.

Many teams in the league are leaving it to players and their agents to disclose test results and choices in regard to the return-to-play plan. HIPAA laws have a lot to do with teams’ reluctance to disclose personal medical information not directly related to basketball.

And it also seems that several teams just don’t want to comment or even announce the names of players who will not be with their team for the conclusion of the “season.”

In some cases, a player's decision will be controversial or open to criticism, based on the reasons for not attending. And the players or their agents will often want control of the explanation for the absence -- and they can get it by leaking the story to someone who will relay the message.

The Trail Blazers have remained silent on their roster, even though it is presumed most of their players have been tested by now and the deadline has passed for informing the team of intent to not go to Orlando.

At some point, it’s possible that word will leak out, but the Trail Blazers are one of the most buttoned-up organizations in the league.

When will we know?

It appears that teams need to present their return-to-play rosters in early July and at that point, there should be clarity. There is a good possibility that, since we have heard nothing about it by now, Portland will not lose any other "opt-outs" for Orlando and its players will be virus-free.

No news is good news.

But for now, we wait for the roster announcement -- with all best wishes for the continued good health of players, coaches and staff.

D'Antoni, Popovich or Gentry not coaching in Orlando? That's a huge asterisk

D'Antoni, Popovich or Gentry not coaching in Orlando? That's a huge asterisk

Can you imagine the San Antonio Spurs showing up in Orlando for the NBA’s return-to-play and Gregg Popovich not coaching them? Or what about Mike D’Antoni not heading up the Houston Rockets?

Well, those two coaches, along with New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, are at risk of being barred from the NBA’s “bubble” because of their age, which lands them in a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19.

The National Basketball Coaches Association has spoken out about the possibility of the coaches being barred and so has an agent who represents two of those coaches.

"The health and safety of all NBA coaches is our main concern," the NBCA told ESPN in a statement. "However, we are also concerned with a coach's opportunity to work and to not have their ability to secure future jobs be severely jeopardized. The league assured us that a coach will not be excluded solely because of age.

"We feel the medical review process is designed to flag only those individuals who pose significant threats of substantial harm to themselves that cannot be reduced or eliminated by the NBA's considerable steps to create a healthy and safe atmosphere in Orlando.

"Adam (Silver) and the NBA have created a situation in Orlando that is likely far safer than in our coaches' home markets. Absent a significant threat, we believe a coach should be able to understand and assume their individual risks, waive liability, and coach in Orlando."

Popovich is 71, D’Antoni 69 and Gentry 65.

Warren LeGarie is the agent for D’Antoni and Gentry and his statement about the situation probably qualifies as a threat to file legal action against the league:

"I hope there is a basketball solution to this issue rather than a legal one."

I would assume that the deciding factor in allowing the coaches to be able to work in Orlando will be the opinions of medical professionals. If a doctor clears a coach and he signs a waiver, it would be assumed the coach could participate.

It's hard for me to imagine any of these coaches being kept from their duties, unless a severe health condition is found during an examination.

If that coach couldn’t? Having someone else run their teams during a playoff series would certainly put a unique, very large, asterisk on whatever happens in Orlando.

NBA return-to-play plan faces uphill battle as Florida fights off COVID-19

NBA return-to-play plan faces uphill battle as Florida fights off COVID-19

(Corrected with new information)

The NBA is headed for Florida for its return-to-play, but it’s going to have to be very careful in Orlando.

According to a since-corrected report, “nearly 500” people who work at the Orlando airport have been tested for COVID-19 and 260 of them have tested positive. That report, issued by the state's governor, was in error.

In reality, the total number of positive tests were from mid-March through June and during that time there have been 132 cases of the virus among the 25,000 workers at the airport. The other 128 cases were people who had associated with airport workers but were not employees. But that doesn't mean Florida isn't dealing with a large volume of infection.

More than 2,780 new cases were reported Tuesday in Florida and it’s obvious the NBA is going to be facing a very difficult task to keep its teams sequestered from the virus when they begin to report to Disney World July 7-9.

More than 80,000 have tested positive for the virus in the state and it’s going to be incumbent upon the NBA to make sure that anyone who comes into contact with league personnel has been tested and cleared.

Can the league pull it off?

I think there’s a reasonable chance this could work. There are a lot of very smart people making decisions and they are going to need to have a vigilant staff watching over this very big group, particularly when family begins showing up for playoff games.

There is even going to be a “snitch” line where people can report players or staff violating the quarantine rules.

But it’s impossible to predict how this will turn out. In a month, Florida could turn out to be the most virus-infected state in the country -- or not.

But the thing I like most about what the NBA has done is take small steps forward with caution. Each move seems to have come after careful study and consideration.

I would worry, moving forward, the biggest problem could become people -- inside or outside the NBA’s bubble -- who become bored or complacent about the presence and seriousness of the virus. That leads to carelessness that could destroy the entire project.

It’s going to be a gigantic undertaking and there is certainly no guarantee that it will progress to the point that NBA teams will even get to Orlando.

But I admire those who have worked so hard to attempt to work things out. And I appreciate the players and associated staff who have (or will) agree to give it a try.

NBA playoffs, Finals dates revealed and other key dates

NBA playoffs, Finals dates revealed and other key dates

If everything goes according to plan for the NBA’s return to play at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the league’s proposed play-in tournament would tip-off in mid-August.

Monday, the National Basketball Players Association held a conference call, which revealed several dates for the league’s plan to resume the 2019-20 season.

The regular season, which will include approximately eight games for the 22-teams, is scheduled to start on July 31.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the tentative postseason dates are as follows: 

  • Aug. 16-17: Play-in tourney
  • Aug. 18: First round begins 
  • Sept. 1: Second round tips off
  • Sept. 15: Conference Finals start 
  • Sept. 30: Finals Game 1

The 2019-20 postseason would’ve tipped off on Sunday, April 18 and end on June 21 had play not been suspended in the second week of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the NBA’s Board of Governors and the Player’s Association approved the proposed plan to restart the season with 22 teams. The Trail Blazers will be one of those teams heading to Orlando’s Disney World Resort.

Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix and Washington – are currently not in the NBA’s 16-team playoff bracket, but will all report to Orlando in addition to the playoff teams.

Each team is set to play eight ‘regular season’ games, (roughly half the number of games they had still slated on their 2019-20 schedules). The Top 7 teams from each conference will automatically qualify for the postseason. In an effort to make it fair to the teams that were not in the playoffs at the time the league was suspended, a "play-in tournament" will be held if needed.

Portland, Sacramento and New Orleans all currently sit three and a half games behind No. 8 Memphis in the West.

Teams will reportedly begin training at their own practice facilities in early July and then hold full training camps in Orlando later in the month.

Be sure to check out the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon.

The NBA's return to play format could be rife with schedule inequities

The NBA's return to play format could be rife with schedule inequities

The NBA has announced dates and teams for the resumption of its 2020 season, but there is still one big important factor that hasn’t been revealed, at least to the public:

The schedules for those six teams hoping to play their way into the 16-team playoff bracket.

Keep in mind, teams with schedules that featured games vs. non-playoff teams late in the interrupted season will lose their opportunity to play those teams. Any games included in their final eight scheduled for Orlando will have to be against the 22 teams that are there in the bubble.

Some of the six teams trying to play their way into the playoffs have already had the benefit of playing those softer teams. Some were awaiting the chance, but won’t get it because those teams won’t be in Orlando.

And some of the six may end up getting Washington or Phoenix on their eight-game schedule and others may not. This sets up serious inequities in the format.

I believe what should have happened is that the eight teams in contention for the two playoff berths should have played a round robin. Same schedule, same chances for advancement. Instead, the league has reportedly chosen to try to stick to original schedules as much as possible, even though eight games won't be enough to complete that full 82-game schedule.

It isn't going to make much sense. And in fact, Phoenix and Washington, the two unexpected teams added, did not have a realistic chance to climb into the 16-team field had the season not been halted. Nobody has explained why they were included.

An interesting question now will be answered when the eight-game schedule is revealed -- who gets to play Phoenix and Washington? Who gets to play Orlando, which wasn’t expected to have to protect its No. 8 spot in the weak Eastern Conference?

And the teams that do play them will most certainly prefer those games over contests versus some of the league powerhouses.

And that, in itself, could have been enough reason for a franchise to vote against 22 teams, rather than 20, playing in Orlando.

NBA teams may get a month of practices before resuming season in Orlando

NBA teams may get a month of practices before resuming season in Orlando

As the basketball world awaits an official announcement possibly as early as today about the NBA's return, there has been a lot of speculation about why the NBA is reportedly waiting until July 31 to begin the resumption of the 2020 season.

Why not sooner?

A lot of it has to do with the welfare of the league’s players. There are still many health protocols to be decided, game schedules to be finalized and arrangements to be made in Orlando, where the teams plan to gather in their “bubble” to finish the season and playoffs.

Also, sources are saying that an effort will be made to give players plenty of time to get back into game shape after three months off.

One scenario that is being talked about is giving teams two weeks of practice at home in their own practice facilities before heading for Florida. These two weeks would not include contact work -- mainly just conditioning and basketball drills.

After those two weeks, all teams would move on to Orlando for two more weeks of practice, but this time with contact.

The idea would be that contact drills would not happen until players are cleared through testing and then ensconced in the “bubble.” That way, players can be frequently tested for the presence of COVID-19 when they are in the position of being most vulnerable to contracting the virus through contact with other players.

This scenario would mean teams would not get together for formal practice until late June or early July, Until then, players would continue their solitary workouts in their team’s practice facility -- but soon with a target date on when they would need to be ready to report for sanctioned team workouts.