NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Trail Blazers trying to change their destiny, up 3-1 on Rockets — Fans in Portland don’t have to rub their eyes. That 3-1 lead they have over the Houston Rockets is real and well-earned. With LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the Trail Blazers are in the midst of changing their destiny, writes John Canzano of the Oregonian, altering the expectations of an entire fan base and lifting the spirits of an entire state in the process:
Well, Portland beat Houston on Sunday 123-120. Goes without saying, the game went overtime. It was another peptic ulcer. And what we now have is a Blazers team that stands on the cusp of breaking all that franchise futility, up three games to one against the Rockets.
“One more,” LaMarcus Aldridge cried out after. “One more.”
The big guy spoke for the state.
Aldridge scored 29 points and had 10 rebounds. Great night. But not better than the fans who stood through most of the fourth quarter and an overtime, legs shaking, arms folded, dining on their fingernails.
I looked up at the 300-level at the beginning of the overtime and saw the silhouette of a man just standing, arms raised over his head for a solid, hopeful, minute. Down on the 200 level, a woman covered her eyes while Aldridge shot free throws later in the period, missing both. Below that, in section 119, a bald woman named Julie and her husband, Bill, held each other close, watching the final seconds melt from the clock.
“Fallopian cancer,” she said to me.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Not well,” she said. “So this is a nice night out.”
No. 2: Warriors-Clippers series overshadowed by controversy — No matter how brilliant he was Sunday, Steph Curry will have to take a backseat to Donald Sterling today. The performance of the Golden State Warriors All-Star point guard, and that of his team in a critical Game 4 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, will be lost for many people today because of the firestorm surrounding the Clippers’ owner. It’s an awful way for two teams to have to conduct business, but it’s their reality for the remainder of this series, writes Tim Kawakami of The Mercury News:
The eyes of the world will follow, but not because of anything the Warriors did or will do.
This is all about the controversy involving purported racist comments by Clippers owner Donald Sterling — released late Friday — and the presidential response and the international furor and demands for investigations and penalties. …
After all that, well, who can say what will happen next?
In the locker room after Game 4, I asked Warriors veteran Jermaine O’Neal if he has any feel for this series yet.
“No, no, no,” O’Neal said with a slow and weary head shake. “There’s so many side things going on.”
More things than are dreamt of in anybody’s philosophy or playoff plans, I’d say.
The Warriors deserved to celebrate this performance because they played wonderfully and because the lineup adjustments made by coach Mark Jackson worked perfectly.
With concurrence from O’Neal, Jackson took him out of the starting lineup in favor of Draymond Green.
Together, Green and David Lee kept the ball moving, ran the court and generally made the Clippers’ big men look sludgy.
That finally opened space this series for Stephen Curry, who made his first five 3-pointers on Sunday, all in the first quarter, and the sprint was on.
“We played with a sense of urgency,” Jackson said, “and I think our superstar basketball player was special.”
Also: The Warriors deserved to celebrate this because the Warriors can’t control what the opponent’s owner thinks or says.
This matter will be decided by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the 29 other owners, possibly very swiftly, maybe even before the start of Game 5.
But the dark cloud hung over Game 4, over everybody involved, and there was no denying that.
“Feel bad for every single player in the NBA,” Warriors forward Andre Iguodala said. “It’s just not the Clippers.”
No. 3: Trevor Ariza delivers a championship reminder for Wizards — For all of the hype, justified as it might be, for the Washington Wizards’ dazzling young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, don’t forget about Trevor Ariza. The veteran swingman is the one player on the Wizards’ roster with the sort of championship experience that is invaluable this time of year. And for an upstart team like the Wizards, a team on the verge of finishing off the Chicago Bulls in their first round series, Ariza’s contributions couldn’t be any more crucial. Jason Reid of The Washington Post explains:
Let’s not forget that Trevor Ariza once played for an NBA championship team. And he wasn’t one of those end-of-the-bench cheerleaders for the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers. Ariza earned his ring on the court.
Considering his history, Ariza seemed like an ideal candidate to provide an inspirational playoff performance for the Washington Wizards, who figured to need one with Nene suspended for Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls. As it turned out, Ariza was the right man for the job.
That was obvious Sunday afternoon as the lanky veteran forward delivered from start to finish in the Wizards’ 98-89 victory. Ariza scored a postseason-best 30 points, grabbed eight rebounds, was typically tenacious on defense and had no turnovers in almost 38 minutes. Ariza’s hot shooting (he made 6 of 10 three-pointers in the game) got the Wizards started along a path that ended with them holding a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. Game 5 is in Chicago on Tuesday.
The Wizards need one more victory to win their first playoff series in nine seasons. Although many people helped the Wizards reach this point, Ariza took the lead in getting them out of a jam.
After Nene initiated a scuffle with the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler and was ejected in Game 3 on Friday night, it was only a matter of time before the NBA announced his suspension. Sure enough, word emerged late Saturday afternoon that the talented big man had to sit out.
Fans and sports-talk radio hosts had the luxury of debating whether Nene let the Wizards down by failing to keep his cool (he did). Meanwhile, the Wizards had to focus on tinkering with their approach without a player who was vital to their wins in the series’ first two games at Chicago’s United Center.
The plan? Look to Ariza early and often.
The Wizards were several steps quicker than the Bulls to start the game. Ariza made a three-pointer to give the Wizards a 7-0 lead and another to cap a 14-0 run, prompting most in a sellout crowd at Verizon Center to make a whole lot of noise.
“Guys were making the extra pass,” John Wall said. “Trevor did a great job of getting himself going, making shots early on.”
No. 4: Pacers’ anxiety levels high and still rising? — We didn’t need a clinical diagnosis to recognize that the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers are a high-anxiety bunch. All you had to do was watch them from the All-Star break until now. But we got one, a clinical diagnosis, anyway. Local experts in Indianapolis have examined the patient and delivered the not-so-shocking news. The high-strung Pacers are who we thought they were, to borrow a phrase from Dennis Green. Michael Pointer of the Indianapolis Star has more heading into tonight’s Game 5 showdown between the Pacers and Atlanta Hawks:
Anxiety is “a fear or nervousness about what might happen,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. One local expert says he’s seen signs of high levels of that in the Indiana Pacers recently.
“You can be excellent at anything,” said Steve Curtis, a clinical psychologist with IU Health and Sports Performance and a specialist in sports and performance psychology, “and then suddenly, you can’t do it.”
The Pacers struggled during the last two months of the regular season and are tied at two games apiece against the Atlanta Hawks in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, with Game 5 tonight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They showed signs of turning things around with a 91-88 victory over the Hawks on Saturday.
But these difficulties are not what the Pacers and their fans expected when they started 16-1 or stood 46-13 after a 94-91 victory over the Utah Jazz on March 2. Center Roy Hibbert has been criticized nationally for his recent poor play amid suggestions he should be benched, but none of the Pacers have been immune from it.
“We thought he was ascending,” TNT analyst and Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said before Saturday’s game about leading scorer Paul George. “He’s descending.”
Curtis — who has worked with athletes, musicians and even Cirque D Soleil acrobats — said the players still want to do well. But as the team struggles continued, the players’ anxiety level continued to rise. High anxiety is something many people deal with it and its common in high-level athletes and performers, but successful ones develop ways to cope with it.
“It has a mental origination, but the real problem turns into physical issues,” said Curtis, who does not work with the Pacers or any of the players. “When you’re not performing well, there’s a lot of self-judgment and the anxiety level goes up.”
Curtis said studies show people dealing struggling with it can see their IQ decrease 20-30 points. He noted that coaches sometimes will talk about a player being “too tight” or “not being loose enough.”
That often is because one’s body becomes stiffer when dealing with high anxiety – almost like a rigor mortis situation. One can see signs of that in Hibbert, he said.
“When you get anxious, you get closed into your own head and do not connect to your own team,” Curtis said. “An anxious person is not thinking about others. It’s about, ‘How I am doing?” You can become very egocentric. You can’t blend with the other players.
“If you’re a singer, you’re singing out of tune. A basketball player can’t see the basket. They have tunnel vision. They can’t feel the ball in their hands. They have all kinds of problems with mental acuity.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Clippers showed up empty for a reason, according to Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times … The Chicago Bulls have never escaped from this position before, and if history is any indication, that trend won’t change … Nothing like the playoff spotlight to help Kyle Lowry continue his reputation transformation project for the Raptors … Warriors swingman Klay Thompson is more than just a shooter, as he proves to the Clippers’ Glen Davis …
ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: If Quickest hands in the NBA? It’s gotta be John Wall, whose ability to wreak havoc in the passing lanes for a man his size is unrivaled in these playoffs …