NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Blazers look to close out series tonight — Months ago, when the 2015-16 season began, who would have thought the young, mostly-untested roster of the Portland Trail Blazers would be one win from the Western Conference semifinals? Granted, injuries to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul made life a little easier on Portland in their series with L.A. But nonetheless, the Blazers are on the cusp of their first Western Conference semifinals trip in two years and as John Canzano of The Oregonian writes, want to seal the deal in tonight’s Game 6 in Portland (10:30 ET, ESPN):
The Blazers defeated the Clippers 108-98 Wednesday night in Game 5 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, snatching a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. A Blazers win Friday night at the Moda Center would improbably secure them a second-round date with the Golden State Warriors and add a stunning twist to a surreal season.
As Griffin scooted off toward uncertainty, the Blazers pushed ahead toward inevitability. Doesn’t it feel like this series is over? Doesn’t it seem like the shorthanded Clippers need a miracle?
Fighting without injured stars Chris Paul and Griffin, the Clippers played inspiring basketball Wednesday, pushing the Blazers to the brink before Lillard went nuts in the fourth quarter. But the Blazers won their third consecutive game in the series and left Los Angeles fueled by momentum, optimism and purpose. They return to Portland aware they’re on the cusp of doing what was once unthinkable, saying they remain the underdogs but sounding very much like the favorites.
“We want to close the series out,” CJ McCollum said. “We’ve got a unique opportunity here to play an elimination game at home, and we want to make sure we take full advantage of it.”
About 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday, Clippers coach Doc Rivers spent nearly eight minutes answering questions about his injured stars, his team’s bleak outlook and his long-term hopes for his hard-luck franchise. Near the end, a reporter asked Rivers who he leaned on during such trying moments, when it was hard to stop from growing discouraged.
This series was supposed to be emotional, as two budding rivals went toe-to-toe in what was expected to be the most competitive and alluring series of the first round in the West. But it wasn’t supposed to feature this kind of emotion.
A couple hours after tearing up, Rivers, who had said he was contemplating 10 different lineups, was forced to start Austin Rivers, JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce and DeAndre Jordan. The group had played just four minutes together all season.
Now the Blazers come home, leading 3-2, owning the unlikely opportunity to close out their series and continue their improbable season.
“Obviously we want to finish it off,” Ed Davis said. “We don’t want to come back (to Los Angeles). We’ve got to watch film, focus on us, stay in the moment and just be ready to play.”
No. 2: George willing to play full 48 minutes in Game 6 — The comeback story Indiana Pacers star Paul George has written this season has been nothing short of remarkable. That said, the story of his season ends tonight if his Pacers can’t win Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors (7:30 ET, NBA TV) to stave off playoff elimination. George isn’t about to leave anything on the table (as he thought he may have done in Game 5) and would be open to playing every second of tonight’s game, writes Nick Friedell of ESPN.com:
Pacers star Paul George said he is willing to play 48 minutes in Friday night’s Game 6 against the Toronto Raptors if needed.
“If that’s the direction that the game is going, I’m all for it,” George said after Thursday’s practice. “Whatever we got to do to win, I’m doing it.”
George scored 39 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and dished out 8 assists in 41 minutes during Game 5, but it wasn’t enough, as the Raptors came back from a 17-point deficit to take a 3-2 series lead. George admitted Thursday that he’s “still not over” the end of Game 5, in which the Pacers blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel was noncommittal about George playing all 48 minutes, saying only that it could happen “if necessary.”
Vogel acknowledged after Game 5 that George seemed a little tired at the end of the third quarter when the coach pulled him out of the game for a few minutes. He offered no doubts, at least outwardly, in the way he handled George’s minutes.
George has not played all 48 minutes of a regulation game in his career. He averaged 41.1 minutes a game during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 postseasons. The five games in this series are the first postseason action he has had since a gruesome broken leg suffered while training with Team USA in advance of the 2014 World Cup of Basketball. George is averaging 37.8 minutes a game in this series heading into Game 6.
For his part, George feels confident he can play at a high level for an entire game.
George said that if he does play all 48 minutes Friday, the conversation about his playing time would happen during the game, not before it.
“I wouldn’t do that today,” he said. “That will probably be something that’s within the game. I’ll go over and tell [Vogel]. It just depends on how the game is going. I’ll go over and talk to him.”
George was frustrated after Game 5 but said he didn’t want to call out his teammates for failing to protect the large lead. He stood behind Vogel’s decision again Thursday.
“Coach is getting a lot of criticism for taking me out,” George said. “Both times he took me out we were in the driver’s seat looking comfortable. Up 15 [to start the second quarter] and up 13 [to start the fourth] both times. We’re supposed to do our job, maintain that lead, extend that lead. We didn’t know the game was going to go that direction.”
No. 3: Warriors’ depth delivers in opening round — One of the Golden State Warriors’ biggest strengths throughout their record-setting regular season was their roster — a complement of superstars and reserves who always seem to play well together. Once star guard Stephen Curry went down in the opening-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets with knee and ankle injuries, there were some concerns about how the Warriors’ roster would fare. After a 4-1 series win against the Rockets, there’s little doubt the Warriors’ in-season strength has carried over to the playoffs, writes Ron Kroichick of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Curry played a grand total of 38 minutes and 24 seconds in Golden State’s five-game dismissal of Houston in the first round. He made precisely one three-point shot in the final 4½ games of the series, reduced to exuberant cheerleader by ankle and knee injuries.
But as the Warriors await the winner of the Portland-L.A. Clippers series — the Trail Blazers can advance by winning Game 6 at home Friday night — they find reassurance in the way they eliminated Houston. Five players other than Curry averaged in double figures, including two reserves (Andre Iguodala at 11.0 and Marreese Speights at 10.8) and another player who typically comes off the bench (Shaun Livingston at 13.2).
“The gratifying thing about this win is everybody chipped in,” Draymond Green said after Wednesday night’s 114-81 rout of the Rockets, “and that’s what it’s got to be about when Steph’s not out there.”
The Warriors adapted with Curry sidelined, small forward Harrison Barnes a nonfactor offensively — he shot 29 percent from the field for the series — and backup center Festus Ezeli also struggling. That’s the reigning MVP, one other starter and one key reserve.
And it hardly mattered.
Granted, the Rockets — disjointed and dysfunctional as they are — do not offer the best barometer. The Warriors will face a stiffer challenge in the second round, but it sure helps to have one of the league’s deepest rosters.
“Going into the next series, which will be more difficult, it’s good to have a few games under our belts without Steph, so we get a feel for it,” Kerr said. “The rotation is much different, obviously, and the way we play is a little bit different. We just don’t have the fireworks Steph provides.
“So we’ve got to make sure we’re more solid, which we have been the last couple of games in particular. But it’s good for our guys’ confidence. I think what pleases me the most is literally every single guy on our roster contributed during this series.”
Several players spoke of the confidence they gained in beating Houston three times essentially without Curry (Game 2 and Game 5, plus the second half of Game 4). That didn’t stop some salty fans from sending tweets to Green, saying he’s “nothing without Steph.”
Green, though insisting he blocked out the noise, also found fire in those words.
“Steph makes me better when he’s on the court, and I’ll never be afraid to say that,” Green said. “ … I mean, he’s incredible. If he don’t make you better, you suck.”
The Warriors obviously are better with Curry — but they also don’t suck without him.
And there is some additional good news in Warriors land, it seems:
No. 4: Drummond ‘open’ to shooting free throws underhanded — Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal had his struggles at the free throw line throughout his career. Hall of Famer rRick Barry, who was a free throw maven thanks to his unique underhanded shooting technique, once offered to help Shaq learn to shoot that way. O’Neal never seriously entertained the Barry style of shooting, but a star center in today’s NBA — Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons — says he’ll think about doing it if it helps his abysmal free throw percentage going forward. Rod Beard of The Detroit News has more:
Drummond, who had a horrific season at the line — making just 36 percent — potentially could be changing his style to underhand free throws next season.
There’s no guarantee, but Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said the unorthodox style popularized in the 1970s by Barry — who shot 89 percent from the line in his career, including 90 percent or higher in his last eight seasons — could be on the horizon for Drummond.
It was a topic of discussion this week in the Pistons’ players exit interviews with Van Gundy.
“As far as shooting underhand or anything else, it’s fair to say my discussion with Andre yesterday and the discussions Jeff and I have had and staff — everything is on the table,” Van Gundy said Thursday during the season wrap-up at The Palace.
“It won’t be a unilateral decision; we’ll do some research on some things and come up with what we think is a good approach, talk to Andre and see what he thinks and develop an approach going forward.
“We all know it’s an important thing — Andre more than any of us – he’s pretty open to anything. There’s a lot of ways to attack this problem and we’ll all have a hand in it.”
The Pistons brought in a shooting expert, Dave Hopla, to work with Drummond on his mechanics and to improve his free-throw stroke, but to no avail. Drummond’s numbers dropped from 39 percent before Hopla to 36 percent this year; Drummond switched during the season to working with assistant coach Malik Allen — and actually shot 13 points better (.364) after the All-Star break.
“There’s a lot more to Andre’s free-throw shooting than mechanics. Dave is a guy who focuses on free-throw mechanics,” Van Gundy said. “We have an issue which Andre’s really clear about: translating from the practice gym to the playing court — and that’s not a mechanical issue.
“We have to learn to deal with this a little bit differently. The mechanics will always be part of it, but we have to find some different approaches.”
While Van Gundy acknowledged that Drummond’s troubles are mostly mental — but still some mechanical — the path forward will not be the typical method of just going in the gym and taking thousands of free throws to try to get better.
“The one thing we do know is the traditional approach and nothing else, of simply trying to correct mechanics and go in the gym and shoot a lot of free throws has not worked,” Van Gundy said, “so we’ve got to (try something) else. We’ve got to be a little more creative in how we approach it.
“That’s all I can say right now.”
Van Gundy believes that some of the changes can take place with a summer concentrated on improving at the line, citing the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson going through a similar overhaul.
Although there is a possibility that the rule about intentional fouling could be changed — as commissioner Adam Silver has alluded that it will be reviewed in the offseason — Van Gundy isn’t counting on that to be the only elixir.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: In Game 6 of their first-round series, the Atlanta Hawks’ experience proved to be the deciding factor against the Boston Celtics … Speaking of the Celtics — did they really make progress this season? … Jeremy Lin‘s drive-heavy game has become a nightmare for the Miami Heat to defend … Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins has some advice for Carmelo Anthony on how to be a superstar … Great read on Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter and his relationship with the team … How OKC’s late-game offense stacks up against other title contenders … The Portland Trail Blazers are reportedly one of four favorites to sign free agent Dwight Howard this summer …