Shootaround (March 20) -- Damian Lillard puts playoff hopes on his shoulders
Plus, some more bad blood between the Thunder and Warriors, LeBron on resting stars and more
No. 1: Lillard keeps Trail Blazers focused on playoff mission — As long as Damian Lillard is uniform and breathing, the Portland Trail Blazers don’t have to worry about their focus down the stretch of this NBA season. The star point guard has one task and one task only on his mind these days, and that’s doing whatever is possible to get his team into playoffs. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has more:
“The playoffs are the most fun part of the season,” Lillard said. “And I’m not trying to miss that. I talked to Tim Quarterman (Saturday) night, I told him, ‘Man, the playoffs are crazy. And I want you to be able to experience that.’ It’s something that we want to be a part of.”
A Blazers season that seemed dead only weeks ago suddenly has a heartbeat, and the idea of a postseason berth suddenly doesn’t seem so crazy.
Lillard is playing like a man possessed. The Blazers look very much like a team on a mission. And the race for the Western Conference playoffs became a heck of a lot more intriguing Sunday night after the Blazers finished a critical five-game trip with an impressive 115-104 victory over the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The Blazers (32-37) ended their eight-day trip 4-1, improved to 8-2 in March and inched ever-so-closer to the Denver Nuggets (33-36) in the Western Conference standings. With 13 games left, the Blazers are within one game of the Nuggets (33-36) for the eighth and final playoff spot.
“I love the edge that we’re playing with,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s more about the sense of urgency with the playoffs at stake and knowing that we have no margin for error. And I think Damian’s leading the charge with that.”
In 13 games since the All-Star break, Lillard is averaging 31.2 points, 5.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 49.3 percent from the field, willing the Blazers to impressive victories over Oklahoma City (twice), San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami. The last three victims came during the final three games of the Blazers’ five-game trip, a stretch that has emboldened their confidence and hardened their resolve.
And while Lillard is well known for his late-game wizardry, Lillard Time has come early in recent games. During the Blazers’ trip, Lillard averaged 12.8 points and shot a blistering 62 percent from the field in the first quarter, astounding numbers that are coming on purpose. Over the years, Lillard has alternated flexing his scoring might with facilitating teammates at the start of games. But with a playoff berth at stake, Lillard hopes his early dominance can be a tone-setter for the Blazers, fostering a “mindset” that says “we’re coming.”
“I’m aware of the situation that our team is in,” Lillard said Saturday after the Blazers beat Atlanta. “Getting going early, not just for me, but for us, feeling good about what we’re doing early in games. I think that makes us confident, makes us sure of what we could accomplish … and I think that’s been really helping.”
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No. 2: Report: Warriors ‘furious’ over Durant’s treatment in OKC — Not that this budding rivalry needed anymore fuel, but could relations get any more strained between the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder in advance of tonight’s matchup (8 ET, TNT) at Chesapeake Arena? The Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook dynamic has dominated the headlines since the summer, when Durant bolted for Oakland in free agency. Now comes reports, via ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes, that the Warriors were upset (to put it mildly) at the lack of respect and attention the Thunder paid to Durant’s first trip back this season:
Kevin Durant will enter Chesapeake Arena as a visitor for the second time Monday, and even though he’ll be sidelined with a knee injury, he most likely still won’t get the welcome back treatment.
The Golden State Warriors organization was furious and bewildered about the inactivity from Oklahoma City Thunder leadership leading up to that first Durant return contest on Feb. 11, league sources told ESPN.
Sources say the Warriors were of the mindset that someone from ownership or management should have addressed the media on Durant’s behalf to help ease the tension upon his return.
The feeling is that Durant should have been acknowledged or thanked, in a news conference setting, for his nine years of excellent service.
The Warriors’ belief, according to sources, is that the Thunder’s silence contributed to the raw emotions, outrage and indignation that created an unsettling, hostile atmosphere for a player many consider to be the franchise’s all-time best.
The Warriors felt, according to sources, that for a player who meant so much to a city — a small-market city at that — a courtesy greeting was in order from top brass, who should have issued their fans a reminder and proper perspective on Durant’s role in elevating the Thunder into a perennial championship-contending team.
There was no mention from the in-game operations staff about Durant’s return.
“We are very appreciative of Kevin’s contributions during the first eight years of the Thunder,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti told ESPN’s Royce Young leading up to the Warriors’ first game in Oklahoma City earlier this season. “As we have said, they’re a big reason for the foundation that we stand on today. He, in partnership with many teammates, invested a great deal in helping to build a culture and identity for a franchise in its infancy stages, one whose accomplishments and identity we should all take great pride in representing.
“When Kevin made the decision to leave and move on from Oklahoma and the Thunder, we responded in a manner that is consistent with how the Thunder tries to conduct itself, and I am incredibly proud of the people across our entire organization and the professionalism they have demonstrated. They have embraced Kevin’s past with the Thunder while sensibly and passionately investing in those that stand with us as we continue our work in Oklahoma with an inspired and positive outlook.
“We are fortunate to have people like Russell, Nick, Steven and Billy in place, individuals who care deeply about the Thunder and what it stands for in our community and who are proud of their contributions to date, yet driven and honored to write our next chapter together.”
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No. 3: Porzingis pans Knicks’ team chemistry — Give Kristaps Porzingis credit for recognizing the obvious, he sees the same things the rest of the world sees where the Knicks are concerned. They’re not very good this season, nowhere near the team they assumed they’d be heading into tonight’s matchup (10:30 ET, TNT) against the LA Clippers at Staples Center. Porzingis, however, has identified the culprit for what ails the Knicks this season. He blames faulty team chemistry for their struggles. Frank Isola of the New York Daily News explains:
In fact, Porzingis repeated on Sunday what he said in early January, at a time when the Knicks had every reason to believe they’d qualify for the playoffs. Porzingis felt something was wrong with the team then and his instincts were spot on.
“I think it was pretty easy to tell from the inside that we’re not that good of a team,” Porzingis said at the team’s hotel here. “We can win games based off of our talent but that’s not going to last long and that’s exactly what happened.”
The Knicks are 27-42 entering Monday’s game against the Clippers. They lost twice to the lowly Nets over five days last week to clinch their fourth straight losing season. Derrick Rose said on Sunday it will take a “miracle” for the Knicks to finish eighth.
Porzingis, who is expected to play Monday after missing the Nets game with a thigh injury, was brutally honest in his assessment of the Knicks. He said the two losses to the Nets “shows where we are right now” and he admitted that at the start of the season, while everyone was optimistic about the team’s potential, he sensed trouble.
“Of course, we all expected big things out of this year,” he added. “But from the beginning it didn’t feel like…I felt like we would make good runs but we weren’t there at that level yet where we wanted to be. And you can see it now we’re not where we wanted to be.”
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No. 4: LeBron: Pursuing championships is coach’s top job — Leave it up to LeBron James to provide his own unique take on the resting phenomenon that has stirred so much controversy around the NBA these days. You knew he’d have an opinion and surely you knew it would be right out of the LeBron playbook of explaining, in no uncertain terms, who has the ultimate responsibility in these situations. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com provides some details:
Does the NBA have a problem with featured games becoming prime-time flops when star players sit out for rest? LeBron James doesn’t think so.
A day after Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue decided to rest James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in his team’s 108-78 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on ABC, the four-time MVP scoffed at the idea that player rest is hurting the league’s appeal, and framed it as a simple reality of the sport.
“I don’t think the NBA can do anything about it,” James said following the Cavs’ 125-120 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. “At the end of the day, it sucks at times where certain guys have to rest, but certain guys need rest.
“And it’s a long, strenuous season and the NBA does a great job of putting the schedule together as best as they can. You’re going to have back-to-backs. You’re going to have certain games where certain things fall on certain nights, but a coach’s job is to figure out a way for their team to compete for a championship, not compete for a game.”
There were extenuating circumstances behind Lue’s decision, namely the health of Love and Irving, who were both recovering from knee ailments. Love was one game removed from making his return from arthroscopic knee surgery that kept him out a month and still on a minutes restriction. The Cavs’ medical staff preferred he get two to three days of rest before his next game.
Irving sat out the entire fourth quarter of Cleveland’s win over the Utah Jazz on Thursday because of tightness in his left knee, the same knee that required surgery after he hurt it in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals.
“Obviously it sucks at times because certain games you only play in certain cities once, or you play certain teams once on their home floor, but for me personally, I want to play in every game,” said James, who has played in 63 of the Cavs’ 69 games this season. “I wanted to play last night but my coach felt like it was best that I didn’t play last night, so I’m going to go with my coach and he’s never steered me wrong.”
The league apparently found some fault in Lue, however, as Cavs general manager David Griffin told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne he received a call from the league office shortly after Lue’s decision to hold his players out was announced.
“I mean, it’s stupid,” Lue said Sunday when asked about the league’s reaction. “Kyrie didn’t come back the game before, knee soreness, Kevin just had his first game back, we needed two days in between each game. It’s OK, though, whatever. It’s stupid.”
Irving pointed to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s experience with the tactic normalizing the practice for the rest of the league.
“Honestly this has been a topic probably for the entire season,” Irving said. “It’s coming into light more or less when Pop did it for four years running resting his guys. I can’t stress enough how important rest is. You’ve got veterans who have come before us who play 82 games that have their opinions and we’re just in a different time now. The smart way of taking care of your body and understanding what the important goal is at the end of the season — it’s at the forefront of our minds. We’re playing for a championship run, playoff run.”
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The New Orleans Pelicans have taken some time to get used to the big man pairing of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, but it’s taking hold just in time to ruin the playoff hopes of some other Western Conference hopefuls … The Toronto Raptors simply overpowered the Indiana Pacers in what turned out to be a telling game for both teams … Rookie mistakes, no matter how painful, are going to be a part of the process for the Denver Nuggets down the stretch of this season … Washington Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall is not feeling the love from officials this season … Nicolas Batum’s ongoing battle with severe migraine headaches has become an issue for the Charlotte Hornets’ star … It took a visit from a depleted Phoenix Suns team, but the Detroit Pistons finally shook out of their ugly slump …