No. 1: Durant returns -- The Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant a few weeks back to a knee injury, and while they found their old form in recent weeks, winning 13 in a row, they clearly couldn't wait to get the former MVP back in their rotation. Last night Durant finally returned, and as Carl Steward writes in the Mercury News, KD made his presence felt immediately:
Kevin Durant wasted no time re-introducing himself to the Warriors, Oracle Arena and the rest of the NBA Saturday night. On the team’s first possession, he powered his way to the basket and threw down a thunderous one-handed reverse dunk.
Whoa. Welcome back, K.D.
But for the duration of his somewhat surprising 31-minute stint, it became clear that Durant is not quite back to full Superman status yet. That eye-popping opening slam notwithstanding, the veteran forward showed it may take a little more time to get back into an All-Star rhythm. But at least he got plenty of that time for starters. And yes, that dunk was a sweet opening statement.
“You get a dunk the first play of the game no matter how long you’ve been out, it feels good,” Durant said.
Durant scored 16 points on 6 of 15 shooting and added 10 rebounds and six assists in an otherwise lopsided and forgettable 123-101 victory over a New Orleans Pelicans team playing without its two big stars, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Making it that much more forgettable was Stephen Curry sitting on the bench in street clothes with a left knee contusion and assorted bumps and bruises from a rough night in Phoenix the other night. But he’s fine, and he’s expected back for the next game Monday night against Utah.
For the record, Klay Thompson led seven players in double figures with 20 points as the Warriors won their 14th straight game — the longest winning streak in the league this year — to up their record to 66-14. Hey, it counted, just like all the others.
But in reality, all the absences and total lack of stakes essentially rendered this game the Durant Return Exhibition, to the degree that coach Steve Kerr said beforehand he didn’t even really care about the game’s outcome. He was more concerned with the quality of the Warriors’ play — and specifically, the quality of Durant’s play — than the result.
“Minutes-wise, I felt good, I felt like I could keep playing,” Durant said. “I haven’t played in 20 games, so I definitely wanted to be out there. Coach understands the big picture, though, and 31 minutes is a lot after being out for a month. But I felt great. I just have to get more conditioned to the game each and every day.”
Durant may have been forced into additional minutes when the man who took over many of his minutes while he was out, Matt Barnes, sprained his right ankle with nine minutes to go in the second quarter. It looked like a bad one, but X-rays were negative and Barnes said he was feeling much better after the game.
Another key moment for Durant came early in the fourth quarter when Pelicans backup center Alexis Ajinca clobbered him on a baseline shot attempt and knocked him to the floor. Durant got up smiling, and then calmly went to the line and sank a pair of free throws. He admitted taking that hit made him feel all the way back.
“You appreciate it,” said Draymond Green. “With those types of bumps comes confidence. You could see him thinking, `Oh man, I can take a bump.’ I think all that stuff is good.”
* * *
No. 2: Lillard lifts Blazers -- With just a few days left in the regular season, every game matters more than ever, especially for teams fighting for a playoff spot. The Portland Trail Blazers have been battling the Denver Nuggets for the final postseason spot out West, and have been trying to withstand the loss of big man Jusuf Nurkic, who is out with a broken leg. Last night against Utah, the Blazers got an historic performance from Damian Lillard, who set a franchise record in helping the Blazers stay just ahead of the Nuggets in the race for eight, as Mike Richman writes in The Oregonian:
Damian Lillard didn't score in the second quarter. And he still made history.
Lillard set the Blazers single-game scoring record in a lethal three quarters, leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a 101-86 win over Utah Jazz Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Lillard's onslaught pushed the Blazers a step closer to the playoffs. Portland (39-40) has now won two straight games and needs just one more win in its final two regular season games to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Lillard finished with a franchise-record 59 points, hitting 18 of 34 shots, including 9 of 14 three-pointers. He set the scoring mark on a step-back three-pointer over Shelvin Mack with 2:02 left in the game and came up just shy of a 60-point night when he missed 2 of 3 free throws in the final seconds.
He added six rebounds and five assists and didn't commit a turnover in 42 minutes.
Lillard got the party started early, scoring 26 points in the first quarter, setting a career-high for baskets in a quarter with nine while tying his own franchise record for points in a quarter. He outscored the Jazz (20 points) on his own in the opening 12 minutes.
Then after a scoreless second quarter, he poured in 19 points in the third, helping the Blazers blow the game open, stretching a six-point halftime lead to 17 entering the fourth. He added 14 points in the fourth quarter, drilling three-pointers for his final three baskets to seal the victory.
He now holds the franchise record for most 30-point games in a season with 27 while passing Damon Stoudamire (54) for the highest scoring game franchise history and Brandon Roy (52) for most points scored at the Moda Center. Lillard is the only player in franchise history with three 50-point games.
* * *
No. 3: Wade returns, Bulls lose crucial game -- With the battle for a playoff spot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference still raging, the Chicago Bulls got a nice boost yesterday as Dwyane Wade returned from a fractured elbow. But Wade wasn't enough to lift the Bulls from a recent funk, as they lost to the Brooklyn Nets, 107-106. As Nick Friedell writes for ESPN.com, the Bulls control their own destiny:
Wade, who was initially ruled out for the rest of the regular season after suffering the injury in a March 15 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, said he didn't have any pain in the elbow after the game.
"Elbow felt cool," Wade said. "Just my legs, trying to get my legs back. And my wind back. But my elbow felt great."
Wade said after the game he felt his health was "trending up." After a sluggish start to the contest, he ended up playing 25 minutes total, five more than Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg thought he would play pregame.
"I thought as the game went on he got a little more comfortable," Hoiberg said. "Early on, you could tell he had a little rust, as anybody would have coming back after as many games as he missed.
"I wanted to get him in there at the end. I felt it was the best five-man lineup to put out there to finish games for us. Unfortunately, we couldn't get it done."
The positivity from Wade's return didn't last long. With Saturday's loss, the Bulls gave away a chance to lock down one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. They allowed a Nets team that came into the night with just 19 wins to claw back from a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Nets played tougher than the Bulls down the stretch, a fact that frustrated the players and coaches in a quiet Bulls locker room.
The Bulls have proved all year they can beat the best teams in the league and lose to the worst. They have now lost to the New York Knicks and the Nets in the past five days.
* * *
No. 4: Romo to the Mavericks? -- Former Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo officially retired last week, joining the NFL on CBS broadcast team. But before Romo can totally walk away from the active playing field, the Dallas Mavericks are going to pay tribute by signing him to a one-day contract and having him on the bench for their home finale on Tuesday. As Marc Stein writes on ESPN.com:
Sources told ESPN.com that the Mavericks intend to have Romo on the bench and in uniform for their final regular-season home date against the Denver Nuggets as a means of paying tribute.
With starting point guard Seth Curry ailing in recent days and officially out for the rest of the season because of a shoulder ailment, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said on multiple occasions over the past week that the club would be looking to add "a pass-first point guard" before playing out the season's final five days.
People within the organization, sources tell ESPN, say he has been referring to Romo.
In a text message Saturday to reporters who cover the team, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said, "Along with Mark Cuban and the Mavs organization, I very much look forward to honoring one of Dallas' all-time best athletes and people with a very special experience. I can't get into specific details at this time, but encourage fans to be in their seats when warm ups begin at 7:15 p.m.."
Romo, who turns 37 later this month, announced earlier this week that he is moving to the television booth with CBS after 14 seasons with the Cowboys.
The Mavericks plan to treat him like an actual player on the roster for the day, sources said, even though Romo won't actually play in the game. He last played competitive basketball in high school in Wisconsin.
* * *
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Lance Stephenson is back to being Lance Stephenson ... Iman Shumpert is trying to get back into the Cavaliers' rotation ... Joe Johnson reached the 20,000-point plateau ... Otto Porter missed a game with back spasms ... Skal Labissiere is finding a groove in Sacramento ... The Timberwolves are looking for some veteran help ... Willy Hernangomez is excited to play with Marc Gasol this summer ... Tyler Ennis is hoping the Lakers keep him around beyond this season ... The Lakers' D-League team unveiled their new logos for next season