Morning shootaround — April 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING


VIDEO: The Fast Break — April 23

Poise, passion pay for Portland | Curry back in body, but in spirit? | Nowitzki chooses to keep fighting | Celtics’ Thomas bonds with Boston’s best

No. 1: Poise, passion pay for Portland — Things were slipping away for the Portland Trail Blazers late in their game Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, which meant their first-round Western Conference series also was slipping from their grasp. The Blazers couldn’t afford to dig their hole 3-0 deep and maintain any realistic hopes of coming back, and they knew it. That’s when desperation kicked in, in the form of a feisty point guard and follow-the-leader resilience of his teammates. Jason Quick of CSNNorthwest.com detailed Portland’s late-game resolve and push:

It’s when some of the Clippers’ warts became exposed – DeAndre Jordan’s free throw shooting, Blake Griffin’s rust among them – and when some of the Blazers’ uncanny ability to play above-and-beyond what conventional wisdom says a team of this experience and payroll should.

It’s when Portland closed on a 15-3 run to secure a 96-88 win to draw within 2-1 of the Clippers in this best-of-seven series.

It was the Blazers’ most important 3:52 of the season and that frenetic finish included a speech, a three-pointer, a steal and a dunk. And ultimately, it included a message.

“It says we want it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “ We aren’t here for fake just to say ‘We weren’t supposed to make the playoffs and we made it.’ We are here to compete. We are here to win. It said a lot about our team. We really showed some fight and some heart.’’

The crowd was buzzing. National television was watching. And a season still had a pulse, even though months ago some players admitted they figured by late April it would be forgotten in a three-margarita-haze somewhere in Mexico.

Soaking up that atmosphere, Lillard asked his teammates a question.

“I huddled the guys up and said ‘Are you all ready to go home? … We are going to finish this out,’’’ Lillard recalled later.

It wasn’t so much of a motivating, rallying cry as much as it was a crystalizing moment for the team, a now-or-never type of awakening.

“He basically came in there and said ‘I don’t want my season to be over,’’’ [Moe] Harkless said. “I felt the same way, so I was right there with him. Just to know everybody on the court had the same mindset … I mean, that’s big time.’’

[C.J.] McCollum made one of his two free throws. And after [DeAndre] Jordan split his free throws, Harkless darted from the baseline to rebound and dunk a miss from McCollum with 55 seconds left to give the Blazers a 91-86 lead.
“That play by Moe sealed the deal for us,’’ Davis said.

Who knows how much Lillard’s now-or-never speech had to do with the Blazers’ strong close to the game? Or whether it was more the Clippers’ undoing in the clutch rather than the Blazers’ rising to the occasion?

Doesn’t matter. Inside the locker room, this team looks to and listens to Lillard, and he usually delivers with something that resonates.

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 No. 2: Curry back in body, but in spirit? — Stephen Curry on paper is pretty impressive, from his historical 3-point numbers and the efficiency with which he plays the NBA game to his anticipated overwhelming support at the ballot box to win his second consecutive Most Valuable Player award in the coming days. But Curry in the flesh and blood is what really matters to the Golden State Warriors and their quest to repeat as NBA champs. And it’s an even higher level of Curry, something ethereal, maybe conceptual, that truly drives the Warriors to their claim on NBA all-timeness. So the quality of Curry they get in Houston Sunday in Game 4 of their Western Conference playoff series, with his pledged return from an ankle injury, is what matters most, according to Sam Amick of USA Today:
The ailing right ankle, for all intents and purposes, is back to normal.

But now, after the Warriors have given a seemingly-lifeless Rockets bunch some hope with a Game 3 loss that cut their series edge to 2-1, the real crux of the Curry issue is this: will he really be back? It’s one thing to be back in body alone. But

Curry, who has admitted that the endless ankle issues of yesteryear crept into his psyche this week as he recovered from this injury, will need to be there with a free spirit as well.

It is, and always has been, the key to his playing style

“The only thing I need to be sure about (on Sunday) is the stability of (the ankle) – when I need to call on a certain move, or a certain pivot, or plant, change of direction, change of speeds, that my ankle will be underneath me,” said Curry, who suffered the injury in Game 1 on April 16. “And I feel that I’m at that point right now. I can deal with a little bit of pain and discomfort – not pain, (but) discomfort – that comes along with it as long as I can feel stable. I don’t foresee that being an issue.

“It’s not pain. It’s like soreness that comes along with all that my ankle has been through. It’s kind of to be expected, and I see it as this is kind of my playoff thing now. Everybody has something that they’re dealing with in some way, shape or form. It’s stable, there’s no swelling or anything so I can do everything I need to do.”

But he doesn’t truly know if that’s the case because, well, there’s simply no way he could. The mere presence of pain – or discomfort, as Curry tried to qualify it – means there will be an unwelcome mental component to his performance. And for the overmatched Rockets, who could apply so much pressure to the defending champions if they win at home again to tie up the series, that shred of uncertainty is enough to give them a chance.

From the surreal shooting to the playmaking and every other skill-set he has mastered, none of it works if he’s stuck in his own head. Curry liked what he heard from those voices between his ears during the battery of tests, from the 3-on-3 work he completed successfully on Friday to the 5-on-5 scrimmage he took part in a day later. But what matters most, of course, is what they’re saying in those opening minutes of play on Sunday.

“You’ve kind of got to force yourself (into playing freely) at this point,” Curry continued. “I don’t know how it will be tomorrow, when I get out there in a game situation and I don’t know where my mind will be. I know I have confidence with what I’ve been doing the last couple of days to kind of prove I can do what I need to do, whatever move I need to try to do execute.

“Like you say, play free with that creativity. I feel like I can do that in this setting, and hopefully that translates to a clear mind and confidence in myself tomorrow.”

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No. 3:  Nowitzki chooses to keep fighting — Kobe Bryant was able to get out without the humbling of four defeats in seven games against a single, superior opponent whose goals are unaligned with anybody’s farewell tour. He dodged what Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki is going through now, setback after setback against a merciless-to-the-point-of-unsporting Oklahoma City team. This isn’t necessarily Nowitzki’s final season but it might be his final postseason – there are no guarantees about that – and the Mavericks’ next home game might be the last one playoff contest he ever plays in Dallas. So factor all the emotions and harsh realizations into what Nowitzki and the Mavs went through in their slip to 3-1 against the Thunder, as chronicled by Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com:

That’s all Nowitzki is thinking at this point in his career: Make one more push, make one more push. The odds, once again, are stacked against him.

Since the summit of Nowitzki’s spectacular career, the 2011 title run when he was the world’s best player for two magical months, the Mavs have failed to get out of the first round. Barring a miracle with a MASH unit — now Deron Williams looks like he’s done for the season, and center Salah Mejri was added to the Mavs’ lengthy injury list on Saturday night — that certainly isn’t changing this season.

Nowitzki has left tens of millions of dollars on the table with the hope that the Mavs could spend that money on core pieces that could put him in position to compete for another title. Mark Cuban and the Mavs’ front office couldn’t execute that plan when the Mavs were one of the few teams with ample salary-cap space, so it’s hard to see that changing when most of the league will have room to sign a max free agent this summer.

Maybe the Mavs can get significantly better this summer after having to scrap just to make the playoffs, when they needed a surprising six-game winning streak late in the season. But it’s just as easy to envision talented young teams, such as the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans, bumping Dallas down a few pegs in the West pecking order for the rest of Nowitzki’s career, whether that’s a year or two or three.

This wasn’t just a gutsy outing by the big German, who suffered a bone bruise in his right knee in the opening seconds of Game 2 and joked a day later that it’s not like he moves much anyway after 18 NBA seasons. This was a vintage Dirk performance: 27 points on 12-of-21 shooting and eight rebounds in 40 minutes.

“Hey, we’ve all got to enjoy it while we can,” [Dallas coach Rick] Carlisle said. “We’re seeing one of the most special athletes in sports history and doing it at an amazingly high level at really an advanced stage in his career.”

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No. 4: Celtics’ Thomas bonds with Boston’s best — Never touted as a big free-agent destination market, it could be that the basketball folks in Boston were too busy polishing trophies to properly wine and dine out-of-towners. The current Celtics team that will try Sunday to even its first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against Atlanta at 2-2 is considered to be a swell supporting cast in search of a leading man on the floor. Based on some emotions recently shared in a published essay, though, point guard Isaiah Thomas thinks NBA players who don’t seriously considering relocating to Boston missing out. Longtime NBA writer Harvey Araton of the New York Times wrote about Thomas’ commitment to the Green:

Typically given to fits of full-ranged emotion on the subject of his beloved Boston Celtics, Tommy Heinsohn, after reading a recent article published under the byline of Isaiah Thomas, said: “It made you want to cry.”

He meant himself, of course. Heinsohn, the team’s tape-measure homer of a television analyst, was born in Jersey City but has been boisterously bleeding Celtics green since his playing days in the 1950s and ’60s.

Thomas, a mercurial 5-foot-9 point guard, has become the most identifiable player among an otherwise star-challenged but overachieving cast of Celtics, who won 48 regular-season games under Coach Brad Stevens and were the first of two teams late this season to defeat the record-setting Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland.

But what made Heinsohn joyfully weepy was Thomas’s journalism debut — an unbridled declaration of love for Boston, still the N.B.A.’s most championship-credentialed city with 17, though seldom speculated about breathlessly as a potential place for the league’s most gifted and talented to take their talents.

Writing in The Players’ Tribune on the eve of the Celtics’ first-round playoff series, which produced two deflating losses and key injuries in Atlanta before Thomas erupted for a career-high 42 points in a 111-103 Game 3 victory on Friday night in Boston. He raved: “Playing in Boston is just one of those things you can’t prepare yourself for. You can’t understand it until you experience it.”

Interestingly enough, he had been advised of that likelihood by his Hall of Fame point guard namesake.

In his Players’ Tribune account, he wrote that Isiah Thomas had texted him after last season’s trade from Phoenix, and wrote, “This is the best thing that will ever happen to your career.”

The younger Thomas wasn’t sure why that would be, “so,” he wrote, “I called him up, and he broke it down for me.” Isiah the elder told him: “Now you’re gonna experience what real basketball is like, what real fans are like, what a real organization is like. And they’re gonna fall in love with you more than any place you’ve ever been.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Who was Steve Clifford to butt heads with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing? So when they suggested he use Charlotte Hornets rookie big man Frank Kaminsky in a different way, the head coach complied. And was happy he did. … Looks like Dallas point guard Deron Williams‘ abdominal strain will shut him down for Game 4 and anything else that follows this spring for the Mavericks. … George Hill stepped up when the Pacers and teammate Paul George needed his help most … Kevin Durant didn’t dispute his Flagrant-2 foul and apologized to DallasJustin Anderson afterward, so there’s that. … Give Tyronn Lue some credit for his in-game adjustments and after-timeout craftwork. … So it’s not looking good for former Cavaliers coach David Blatt as a candidate with the New York Knicks’ vacancy, according to one report.

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