NBA Playoffs

Thunder favored by 71/2 Friday -- and here's a possible reason why

Thunder favored by 71/2 Friday -- and here's a possible reason why

As we get ready for Game 3, a few observations about Portland’s 2-0 series lead over Oklahoma City:

  • The Trail Blazers have looked great so far. The Thunder have not. But please remember this – you look powerful, confident, well-coached and pretty great when the ball goes in frequently and when it doesn’t, you can look weak, ineffective, disorganized and just overall awful. That’s why they call it a “make-or-miss league.”
  • During the regular season the Thunder were not a very good three-point shooting team – but they were nowhere nearly as bad as they’ve been in this series so far. OKC shot 34.8 percent from three over the 82-game regular season. In the first two games of this series, the Thunder have shot a pathetic 16.4 percent – by far the worst of any playoff team.
  • Is that due to great Portland defense? Or is it just poor OKC shooting? As Terry Stotts might say, "It's probably a little bit of both."
  • The Trail Blazers, at 42.1 percent, are the No. 2 three-point shooting team in the playoffs so far, right behind Golden State. What did the Trail Blazers shoot in the regular season? Well, that would be 35.9 percent – just a point higher than Oklahoma City.
  • Two playoff games -- welcome to small-sample-size theater!
  • How long can the Trail Blazers continue to shoot more than 42 percent from three? How long will the Thunder shoot under 20 percent?
  • My guess on both sides would be, “Not much longer.” And do you now understand why OKC has continued to shoot threes in spite of its lack of success in the first two games? The Thunder know who they are.
  • The wise guys who make up the betting lines and point spreads for NBA games seem to think there will be a big turnaround Friday night in Oklahoma City. After losing to Portland by 20 Tuesday night, the Thunder have been installed as seven-and-a-half-point favorites Friday.
  • That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

usatsi_12545564.jpg
USA Today Images

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

The image that sticks is Raymond Felton, hopelessly twisted, flailing as Damian Lillard steps back into cresting three-pointer that beats the third quarter buzzer as the Moda Center erupts.

If not that, it’s the 30-footer Lillard unleashed mid-way through the third period that led to an immediate timeout and prompted the Blazers point guard to flap his wrists high-above his head, a signal that he later explained meant “let it fly.”

But before the flapping, and before walking into a 30-foot, there was a subtler moment that truly explains this series and should define Game 2. It came on the defensive end and was accompanied by an uncommon show of emotion. 

Lillard and the Blazers seized a 2-0 lead in their first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. The three-pointers will dominate the highlight reels, but Portland earned this win with defense, and Lillard’s effort on that end of the floor was at the center of it.

“You know, I really don’t have a choice but to embrace it,” Lillard said. “That team is going to go as far as (Russell Westbrook) and Paul George. We could try to score points and do all that stuff, but if we don’t defend them and they come out there believing and they come after us, we don’t have much of a chance. So our minds are made up that we’re going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line so that’s probably why it looks different than it might look any other time.”

The Blazers have been solid on defense as a group. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have tracked George all over the floor and Rodney Hood and Evan Turner have had their own impressive moments on the defensive end. But Lillard’s individual defense has been key to Portland’s two wins to open the series even as the team has collectively swarmed and harassed the two Thunder stars. 

It’s clear Lillard is relishing the challenge of defending Westbrook, as part of a rivalry that has grown sharper teeth this season.

“I mean the proof is in the pudding,” Evan Turner said of Lillard. ”I think he doesn’t really get enough credit for the type of defender he is.”

Westbrook finished Game 2 with 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting, he dished 11 assists but also coughed up six turnovers. Lillard was up for the challenge all night, hounding him on the perimeter and funneling Westbrook towards waiting teammates when he attacked. 

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard would have spent most of a night like Game 2 shading Terrance Ferguson, a lesser offensive player that would have allowed the Blazers hide their star player on defense. But Lillard has slowly evolved on the defensive end, growing from liability to the player that emerged Tuesday evening when he grabbed three steals, blocked two shots and embraced the challenge of guarding an All-Star.

Lillard said that his defensive growth is a natural part of playing seven seasons in the league. But it was also fueled by the criticism Lillard often heard early in his career. So Lillard made a commitment to becoming a better defender, spending hours poring over film and working with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, a dedication that took particular root in the summer of 2017 and has only grown since.

“I’ve always had the effort. I’ve always cared about it and now I’m a few years deeper into the league and I recognize stuff faster,” Lillard said. “I know what’s coming. I know what guys like to do. I’m not watching film to see highlights of myself. I’m watching film to (see) how can I take advantage of the other team? How can I give myself a chance to play better against the other team? And a lot of that is defensively, going over stuff with Coach Vanterpool. And then going out there and taking the challenge, not backing down. I think the last few seasons I’ve been much better defensively. It hasn’t been just one game or nothing like that. I’ve been taking the challenge and I’ve been much smarter about it.”

The Blazers blew the game open in the third quarter, pushing a halftime tie to a 16 point advantage heading into the fourth. In that stretch you could see how much the defensive stops meant to Lillard. 

Midway through the third quarter when Westbrook attacked the paint, Lillard slapped the ball out of his hands cleanly as he tried to rise up near the foul line. The ball was only loose for an instant and Westbrook quickly gathered himself and rose up for a left wing three-pointer.

When he it clanged off the rim, Lillard flexed and emphatically clapped following the hard earned defensive stop. Then he calmly dribbled across mid-court and rose up from 30-feet, drilling the shot over Westbrook. 

The image that sticks is the wrist flapping that followed. But rewind a few frames and you see the defining moment of the game, an improving defender embracing the toughest challenge on the biggest stage. 

Like Lillard said, with the season on the line everything looks different. 

After improbable win, Trail Blazers unlikely journey continues into the playoffs

usatsi_12512496.jpg
USA Today Images

After improbable win, Trail Blazers unlikely journey continues into the playoffs

This was an unlikely ending.

Not just because the Trail Blazers used just six players, and five of them logged at least 41 minutes. And not just because they trailed by 28 points before charging back in the final quarter.

Not even because a 19-year-old rookie went off for 37 points, nine assists and six rebounds or a little used center racked up 29 points and 15 boards against his former team. Not even because just 24 hours earlier a much-maligned small forward scored the Blazers’ final 12 points and capped the night with a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

This was an unlikely ending because of where just as much as how the Blazers finished the season.

Afternee Simons’ 37 points and  Moe Harkless’ buzzer-beater in Los Angeles are just the latest chapters in a regular season story full of unlikely moments. These last two games and countless other moments over the past six months made this finale anything but certain.

The Blazers wrapped up their regular season Wednesday night with an improbable win, snatching the No. 3 seed in the playoffs in a fitting coda to a regular season that was far from expected.

“Being a top three team in the West is an accomplishment,” Damian Lillard said. “It shows that our work has paid off. Especially after last season being able to bounce back and do it again. To me, that’s proving it up. That’s showing that certain amount of girt and desire to get back to this point. We should be proud of ourselves but obviously in our mind this is just the beginning.”

But before looking forward to the potentially harsh realities of the postseason, it’s worth looking back. If 53 wins and a top three seed for this team sounds improbable on the surface, the details make it clear just how implausible Wednesday’s night finish truly was.

Portland hasn’t lost three consecutive games since the first week of December, stubbornly sticking in the middle of the Western Conference with an uncommon steadiness that previous versions of this roster could rarely muster. 

This top three finish started with seeds planted in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Boston when the Blazers came out of the All-Star break straight into a daunting seven-game road trip, and emerged from the other side with a 5-2 record and plenty of well-earned confidence.

The road to Wednesday’s unlikely result was bumpy, but the Blazers managed to navigate the obstacles that met them along the way. They incorporated new players on the fly after adding Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter, and then responded to injuries with victories. Portland went 8-2 without CJ McCollum in the lineup after the All-Star break and has won seven of nine since Jusuf Nurkic’s gruesome leg injury on March 25.

The grit and desire Lillard referenced in the locker room on Wednesday evening has been a hallmark of this team throughout the season. There have been plenty of events that could have turned this season upside down. Instead the Blazers have cleared nearly every obstacle in front of them, occasionally in the most unlikely ways.

This team wasn’t supposed to beat the Kings on Wednesday night. Not after being down big, not with the comically and intentionally short bench and not with Simons and Skal Labissiere (29 points, 15 rebounds) leading the charge. But they did in a game that transitioned from sham to improbably entertaining in an instant.

Portland probably won’t be a popular pick to win its first round playoff series either, which begins on Sunday at the Moda Center against Oklahoma City. But if this season, and it’s wild final week and even wilder final game, taught us anything it’s that unlikely outcomes should be expected.

Outsiders Blog: OKC or SLC? Blazers look to lockup playoff matchup

usatsi_12082978.jpg
USA TODAY

Outsiders Blog: OKC or SLC? Blazers look to lockup playoff matchup

Will it be the Jazz or will it be the Thunder? We may know by the end of the night on Tuesday.

The Trail Blazers will head to Los Angeles with a chance to lock up home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Blazers' magic number: One. 

One Blazers win or on Utah Jazz loss and the Blazers will finish no worse than fourth. But that's not all. The Houston Rocket's wrap up their regular season with a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday as well. A Rockets loss to OKC, and the Blazers are still alive in the hunt for the three seed. 

The good part about all this is the Blazers tip-off time against the Lakers is 7:30pm, while the Rockets and Jazz tip at 6:30pm and 6:00pm respectively. In theory, the Blazers could be locked into homecourt by halftime. 

But never leave your fate in someone else's hands. If you are Portland your only focus on Tuesday should be to beat the Lakers. Sure, check the scores of the other games at halftime to see what the playoff picture looks like, but make sure you take care of business. Just beat the Lakers.

Why? Because with all this talk of locking up homecourt and who you want to face in the second round (if you get there) we seem to have forgotten that there is still a chance the Blazers can fall to fifth. That's right. If Utah wins out and Portland loses its last two, the Blazers fall to fifth by losing the tiebreaker to Utah. 

So beat the Lakers and leave nothing to chance. 

The odds say the Blazers will likely face the Utah Jazz in the first round, but there is still a chance they end up facing the Thunder. So the question is, who you rather face in the first round?

If Houston loses, leaving the door open for Portland, the Blazers can either go all-out against the Kings to lockup the three and a first-round matchup with the Thunder, or they can rest, have a better chance of losing, and take the four/five matchup against the Jazz. 

If you really look at it, these teams are very similar. Both have big centers that will challenge the Blazers on defense and push Kanter around on offense. Both have guards that can score in bunches (Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell). While OKC has an MVP candidate in Paul George, Utah has a supporting cast of Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, and Derrick Favors that all match up well with the Blazers. 

As we all know the Thunder swept the Blazers in the regular season, while the Jazz split the season series 2-2. But as Westbrook himself said, the outcomes of the games in the regular season don't matter come playoff time. 

Call me crazy, as I am alone on an island here, but I think Portland would fare well against the Thunder. Oklahoma City has struggled as of late, going 8-7 over their last 15 games. Westbrook and George will score, and score in bunches, but if you turn Westbrook into a volume shooter you stand the chance of the team's field goal percentage falling and the door opening for you to take advantage. 

The Thunder are a very beatable team, albeit a very scary beatable team. The Thunder could lose in the first round. They could also make noise in the Western Conference Finals. Take advantage of their off nights and you can pull out a series victory. 

As for Utah, they have been red hot. Winners of 13 of its last 15, Utah has finally started to look like the team we all thought they would be heading into the season. Over his last ten games, Mitchell has averaged 23.2 points while shooting 46.1% from the field and 47.4% from deep. Utah has six different players averaging 10 or more points per game, including all five of the team's normal starters. 

Portland can get a few mismatches against the Thunder, especially against the second unit. But the Jazz pose matchup nightmares at every position. It would be one tough series for the Blazers, even if Jusuf Nurkic were playing.

Even if you take all the matchups and stats out of the equation we can look at two simple things. The Jazz are peaking at the right time, while the Thunder are up and down. For me, I would try to avoid the team that is red hot and rollin'.

But, the Blazers may not have a choice. If Houston wins on Tuesday night the Utah versus Portland matchup is locked in. At that point, rest the starters, rest the bench. Give me a healthy dose of Skal Labissiere, Gary Trent Jr., and Anfernee Simons, and let the Blazers core get rested up for a heavyweight matchup against the team from Salt Lake City. 

Because honestly, SLC or OKC, I think this team has what it takes to get out of the first round and I want them to be as rested as possible before the showdown.  

Portland Trail Blazers 'very secure' in tight playoff race

Portland Trail Blazers 'very secure' in tight playoff race

The Portland Trail Blazers have just 10 games remaining before the conclusion of the regular season. With Portland winning seven of its last 10 and three-straight heading into Monday, the Blazers are now in prime position to lock down their spot in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. 

The Blazers could clinch their playoff spot for the sixth-straight season as early as tonight, when the Blazers host the Brooklyn Nets in Portland. 

Trail Blazers Insider Dwight Jaynes joined Dan Sheldon and Curtis Long on Rip City Mornings to share his thoughts on Portland's playoff seeding and what team he doesn't want to see the Blazers play in the first round.

Take a listen to the clip above. 

I'm getting very tired of the NBA's "Cult of personality"

I'm getting very tired of the NBA's "Cult of personality"

Well, here we go again. Cleveland vs. Golden State. And if you're not fired up about this matchup, well... join the club. It's likely to be a very short series and more of what we've been watching for the past several weeks in the playoffs, including:

  • The thing that's bothered me about the league for several years now: The total glorification of its star players unlike any other major sport. It's what's called a "Cult of personality." Webster's Dictionary defines that as "a situation in which a public figure (such as a political leader) is deliberately presented to the people of a country as a great person who should be admired and loved." For example, LeBron James -- whom the ESPN announcers just can't seem to find enough adjectives to describe. They are fawning all over him. He couldn't be more celebrated if he cured cancer. Yeah, OK, I've got LeBron Fatigue -- I admit it. But this has been going on for years in a league that has for decades celebrated individuals over teams.
  • Scott Foster. This referee is seemingly in hot pursuit of the impossible -- making the fans of every team in the league believe he's out to get their team. And it looks sometimes as if they might be correct.
  • Speaking of referees, there is no way in the world they should be paid in full for working playoff games. They simply don't do their job. They overlook fouls to the degree that when they call one, the reaction is always, "Wait a minute, you just let worse than that go at the other end!"
  • If I never see James Harden take another dive after a three-point field goal attempt I will be a happy man. And I would love not to watch him travel on his step=back move. And it's not fun to see him dribble endlessly between his legs without using it to go anywhere. Actually, overall, I have Harden Fatigue, too.
  • I fully understand the value of three-point field goals and why teams are hoisting them by the dozen. And really, it's only going to get worse. But what I don't get is why a team with a double-digit halftime lead doesn't try first to get easy two-point shots. When you have a solid lead, it's going to take a lot of three-point makes to overcome your two-point makes. And I'm talking about YOU, Houston. And by the way, if you just stood back and let Harden take it to the basket, he'd have been at the foul line all night and you wouldn't have lost.
  • I heard the jokesters on the TNT panel talking about Kevin Love missing a Game 7 because of a concussion and they, of course, bragged about how they would have played no matter what. You know, take a couple of Advil and go get 'em. And for all the things they make TV guys apologize for these days, this should have been one of them. My goodness -- concussion protocol is there for a very good reason and it's to protect players from their own stupidity. But here we are again with the macho garbage about playing with an injury that could lead to some serious brain damage.
  • That said, I cannot understand why ESPN can't come up with a halftime/pregame panel even remotely as good as the one on TNT.
  • Oh well, there's still the Finals to come. Let's all sit back and watch Lebron and Scott Foster do their thing. Enjoy!

It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

It was a night when Trail Blazer fans brought it and their team didn't

On a night when the only thing in Moda Center representing Portland that was NBA playoff quality was Storm Large's rendition of the National Anthem, a few things should be pointed out about the Trail Blazers' 97-95 playoff-opening loss to the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night:

  • I heard a lot of fans complaining loudly about two things after the game: The presence of Pat Connaughton and Meyers Leonard on the floor over the final 12.4 seconds of the game. Let me deal with those issues separately.
  • Connaughton's plus-7 tied with Ed Davis for the best plus-minus in a Portland uniform during the game. He played well and was part of a couple of his team's comeback efforts. Yes, he got a shot blocked late but the real problem with that play was his team was down by 3 and it was just too late to be inbounding to him for a two-point shot. The Trail Blazers are built around making threes and at that point of the game it's too late to play the quick-two-and-foul-game. It was either a faulty play or a poor decision by the inbounder to make that pass.
  • Leonard is a great screen-setter and a solid three-point shooter. The question in his case was this: If he's worthy of being on the court in the waning seconds of the team's first playoff game with the team down by three, why wasn't he on the court in similar situations during the regular season? I believe he should have been. And I believe to throw a guy on the court in a situation like that who has played minimal minutes all season and tell him, in a sense, "Go win us a playoff game for us," is absurd. And unfair.
  • The atmosphere in the arena was terrific. The Portland game-ops staff did a terrific job with the gimmicks and the place was wild. Too bad the patrons went home unhappy.
  • Nobody seemed to be talking about two fateful possessions prior to those last fwe seconds. With 44 seconds left and Portland bum-rushing the Pels to the finish with all the momentum the Moda Madhouse could provide, CJ McCollum turned the ball over in the lane with his team trailing by just a point. And then Damian Lillard, with the same score, misfired on an ill-advised "shot" wth 15.3 seconds to play. Lillard appeared to be trying to draw a foul from Jrue Holiday on that shot and it might have been better for him to find a real shot with his feet under him and squared up to the basket. A made basket on either of those attempts by Portland's two marquee players would have thrown the burden of pressure back on New Orleans after blowing a double-digit lead.
  • Lillard and McCollum were 1-15 from the field in the first half, which shocked me. I expected more from them. But at the same time, for the Trail Blazers to get an overall 13-41 shooting night from them and still lose by just a bucket could bode well.
  • But if I hear "We just couldn't make shots" or "We got the shots we wanted and just didn't make them," one more time I'm going to laugh. It's been the familiar refrain over this team's offensive struggles ever since the 14-game winning streak ended. And really, when that happens repeatedly you better examine those shots or the people shooting them. The law of averages won't work for you if the wrong people are taking the shots or the shots aren't good ones.
  • Losing the first game of a playoff series doesn't mean a team will lose a series. There are a lot of games left to be played. The Trail Blazers surely must have more to give than what we saw Saturday night. It was a terrific atmosphere, though -- a night when the fans brought it and their team didn't.

After win over Utah, Blazers draw Pelicans in playoffs

usatsi_10782168_147386290_lowres.jpg
NBCSNW

After win over Utah, Blazers draw Pelicans in playoffs

Before tipoff of tonight’s game against the Jazz, the Blazers found out who they would be playing in the first round of the playoffs: The New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans beat the Spurs, and Oklahoma City beat Memphis, meaning that no matter the outcome against Utah, Portland would matchup with New Orleans.

According the Trail Blazers Twitter account this is the first time since 2009 that the Blazers have had homecourt advantage in the first round.

The Blazers took care of their own business and defeated the Utah Jazz to claim the third seed in the Western Conference. Check out the schedule (Games on NBCS NW!) here. 

Box Score: Portland 102, Utah 93

Quick Hit:

Podcast:

 

"Pop" is engaging in some situational ethics with his rant about Pachulia

"Pop" is engaging in some situational ethics with his rant about Pachulia

I've always kind of liked Gregg Popovich. But I've respected him even more than I liked him. He is one heck of a coach who has been able to adjust to changing times and players.

But he's been getting on my nerves lately.

I'm not a fan of the way he treats sideline reporters during games, seemingly turning ridicule into his favorite sport. And is it just me or does he seem to pick on the women more than the men? Either way, every other coach in the league has to put up with those in-game interviews and I'm not sure why he thinks he's so special that he shouldn't have to do them. And he seems to treat the people doing the interviews as if they were the ones compelling him to do the chats. Trust me, Coach, they are no more excited to talk to you than you are to them.

But Popovich's rant about Za Za Pachulia stepping under the airborne feet of Kawhi Leonard, which resulted in a Leonard ankle sprain, bothered me. Popovich, of course, is trying to intimidate officials into giving him a few more calls during Game 2 of the series against Golden State and intimidating officials is something the Spurs' coach does better than anyone in the league.

But he's also engaging in some situational ethics.

Bruce Bowen used to play for Popovich in San Antonio and he slid under so many sneakers that the ploy used to be called "the Bowen." But Popovich, when he heard the league had called Bowen and threatened his player with a suspension for such actions, sprung to Bowen's defense:

“So why did they call Bruce? Because it’s happened to him twice? Bruce guards an All-Star every night. If he was doing what they’re accusing him of doing, wouldn’t it have happened a higher percentage of times?”

And:

“The league is just trying to cover its ass,” Popovich said. “I told Bruce, ‘You be Bruce Bowen. You’re the best (expletive) defender in this league. You will NOT change the way you play defense.’

In other words, keep doing it Bruce. If they don't like it, too bad.

Now I will say that I've seen more incidents of this thing happening in recent seasons than I ever did in the old days. But is it intentional? Probably not, in most cases. But I would go along with Popovich that it doesn't matter if there is intent or not, players should not be allowed to slide under jump-shooting players.

Not that Popovich felt that way when his own player did it.

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

History tells us Rockets' margin of victory means nothing

Not many people picked the Houston Rockets to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in their second-round playoff matchup that began last night in San Antonio. But I did. So you would think I'd be feeling pretty good about the Rockets after their 126-99 thrashing of the Spurs Monday night.

And even though San Antonio appeared to be way overmatched in Game 1 of the series, I feel worse about my prediction than you might think. That's because I was in the old Boston Garden on May 27, 1985 for the first game of that season's Finals when the Celtics ran the Los Angeles Lakers out of the gym with a humiliating 148-114 defeat. They called it the Memorial Day Massacre.

I was one of many people after that game to write about how washed up the Lakers -- and 38-year-old center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- looked in that game. Abdul-Jabbar finished with 12 points and three rebounds and just didn't look as if he could keep up with Boston's talented front line. I thought the series was over right then and there.

And I was very wrong. The Lakers won four of the next five games and closed out the Celts in Boston in Game 6 -- behind Abdul-Jabbar, who won the MVP award for the series. It was the only time the Celtics ever lost an NBA championship in that arena.

So that whipping Houston put on San Antonio didn't make me feel all that much better about its chances. It was just one game and next one doesn't start with the Rockets holding a 27-point lead.

I'd say the series hinges on the play of LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just four points Monday night. When Aldridge left Portland for the Spurs, I'm sure he was satisfied with the salary he'd be making and the winning tradition of his new team. But I'm wondering now if he understood the sort of responsibility he'd be having to shoulder as the Spurs moved through the playoffs. Tim Duncan isn't going to be walking through that locker room door during this series.

There were times in Portland when I thought Aldridge wanted very much to be a superstar but didn't always respond like one. He had the talent... but did he have the heart?

He better find his way in a hurry for the Spurs because Kawhi Leonard can't be expected to carry that team by himself.