Posts Tagged ‘Blazers’

Parker limp cramps Spurs’ victory party

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew looks at Spurs’ potential opponents and Parker’s injury

SAN ANTONIO — In a season the Spurs have spent exorcising ghosts from Miami, it could just be an eerie coincidence.

Or a scary bump in the night.

Tony Parker walked tenderly off the court with 8:46 left in the second quarter and limped to the locker room, followed by the team trainer and general manager R.C. Buford.

Tightness in the left hamstring. Tightness rippling throughout Spurs Nation.

Parker didn’t return in Game 5 against the Blazers. He didn’t have to. Not with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Patty Mills leading the 104-82 closeout win with another tightrope walker’s display of instinctive balance.

In the end, the return flight from Portland for the Blazers was just the biggest waste of fuel since the invention of the Hummer as the Spurs wound up on top by an average margin of 19.5 points in their four wins in the series.

The Spurs now advance to the Western Conference finals for the 13th time in franchise history, ninth time in the Tim Duncan era and for the third season in a row. It is a testament to consistency and excellence.

Yet it will not be enough if the Spurs don’t at least get a chance to return to the NBA Finals to clean up unfinished business that left them ringless.

That’s the Parker question. That’s the haunting flashback to last June. That’s the painful reminder that one small tweak can lead to big consequences.

Long before those ugly last 28 seconds of Game 6 became a lost championship, the Spurs watched Parker limp off the court in Game 3 against Miami with tightness in his right hamstring. He came back to play the rest of the series, but he was never quite at the same crackling level. He often looked tired, worn out and was no longer explosive.

Now Parker will have an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of any damage to his left hamstring and the Spurs will likely, for a night at least, become Clippers fans. It’s all about getting their point guard time to rest and rehab. If L.A. can win Thursday to force a Game 7 against OKC, that would push the start of the West finals back to next Wednesday, giving Parker a full week off.

“We hope for him to be back and healthy,” said Manu Ginobili. “It is too early to tell. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we want to have a chance to make it to The Finals, we need him healthy.”

Because it’s been evident for at least the past two seasons that the baton has been passed and now it’s Parker who sets the tone and the pace for the Spurs and simply confounds defenses.

With the Blazers entering the conference semifinals feeling so confident after winning their first playoff series in 14 years, Parker simply blew them down like a house of grass and twigs.

Coach Gregg Popovich now has the deepest lineup in the league at his disposal and is not at all afraid to use every inch of it. He practically walks around in front of the Spurs bench wearing a tool belt and reaches for another implement when he needs one.

In comes Mills to replace Parker for the second half. Up pops Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Aron Baynes and the Spurs roll over Portland. But this was a Blazers team with a lineup thinner than gruel. They used only two different starting lineups all season long and played the original lineup in 80 of 93 games from start to finish.

The Spurs could wear out and wear down the top-heavy Blazers with sheer numbers. That won’t be the case against the survivor of Thunder-Clippers. Or ultimately in The Finals.

It’s the grind of the playoffs, the minefield that has to be negotiated on tiptoes, knowing that a misstep can blow everything up, ruin a season’s worth of planning and growing together and building something special. One second you’re driving to the hoop to score and the next you’re limping to the locker room.

Minor coincidence? Or a scary bump in the night reminder of what happened in Miami?

Just say Tony Parker isn’t the only one feeling a little sudden tightness in San Antonio.


VIDEO: Spurs push aside Blazers to advance to the Western Conference finals

Batum speaks Blazers’ winning language

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Portland’s Nic Batum breaks down what went right for him and his team in Game 4

PORTLAND, Ore.Pourquoi pas?

Why not?

That was the question that Nicolas Batum floated in the locker room as the rising water reached the Blazers’ chins in the last few days. It didn’t take a French-English translator to read the numbers. No team in NBA playoff history has ever climbed out of an 0-3 hole to advance. It’s just never been done.

Doesn’t mean it can’t.

Pourquoi pas?

“Like we said, ‘Why not us?’ ” Batum said. “We know it’s going to be tough. It won’t be easy. Especially against this team, the San Antonio Spurs. Like we always say, just take one game at a time.”

For a night, the Blazers were not overcome by the Spurs machine on Monday. For a night, the Blazers were themselves again, streaking from end to end up and down the court, attacking the basket, jumping and scrambling for every ball that was on the floor or up for grabs.

When it was over, 103-92 might have meant nothing more than the Blazers avoiding the indignity of suffering a sweep. Or it could have been the type of effort that starts something special.

This was the kind of game and the kind of situation that Batum has been working toward for six NBA seasons. It is, ironically, the kind of game for which the Spurs’ Tony Parker has been helping him prepare.

Parker first saw Batum back in 2007 when he starred at the Nike Hoop Summit for young prospects. He reached out and a relationship began, one that has grown. Like Batum, Parker was a 19-year-old when he entered the NBA and he wanted to pass on his knowledge to his French countryman.

They talked and become close friends. Parker taught. Batum watched and listened.

The knock on the door came late at night on the eve of the EuroBasket finals last summer. Parker came to tell Batum that he needed him to step up for Team France in the championship game against Lithuania. The next day Batum delivered with 18 points, six rebounds and two steals as France won its first title.

The next knock came Monday night with the Blazers at the doorstep of elimination. Parker had dominated the first three games of this series with his shooting, his scoring, his leading of the Spurs. The long and angular Batum drew the assignment of guarding Parker from the opening tip.

Parker didn’t own the first quarter and set the pace, as he did in the first three games. He wasn’t able to turn every corner easily and get to every spot that he wanted. With Batum all over him, Parker finished with a series low 14 points and one assist on 6-for-12 shooting.

“I tried to slow him down,” Batum said. “I was just doing my job.”

Meanwhile Batum scored 14 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, the first playoff double-double of his career. He also dealt out eight assists.

“I’m happy for him. He’s playing great,” Parker said. “He’s trying to do everything he can out there. I have to great him credit for a great game.

“He did a good job. I had the shots that I wanted. But he was great tonight. He was everywhere.”

The plan is for Batum to take over the mantle of leadership on the French national team, a seamless handoff from Parker, who will turn 32 in four days.

“I think he has all the skill-set to become the leader of that team,” Parker told The Oregonian. “He’s been winning everything with the young generation, the junior national team, under-20, they won everything, same thing we did with Boris (Diaw). The main goal for him has been to do the same thing as our generation, me and Boris and Ronny Turiaf. I think when I retire, he’ll be 28, 29, his best years to try to keep winning with the national team. I know he’s looking forward to it and I think the next step is to try to be an All-Star in this league and try to be a leader.”

Parker knocked one night and told Batum he was needed. Now, Batum is answering again.

No team ever has come back from 0-3.

Pourquoi pas?


VIDEO: Spurs-Blazers Game 4 recap, May 12, 2014

Are Blazers too stubborn to survive?

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Spurs-Blazers: Game 4 Preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — By now, everyone knows the definition of insanity.

So the question becomes: Are the Blazers are crazy enough to think they can stop the Spurs without changing the way they defend Tony Parker?

“I think our pick-and-roll [defense] is we like to keep guys on one side and when we keep it on the side our bigs play best,” said guard Damian Lillard. “We have been living all season on guys taking mid-range jump shots and that’s what [Parker] likes, so it’s been working against us.”

Yes, it has.

Parker probably couldn’t do more damage to the Blazers if he took the court swinging a sledgehammer. He comes off screens, gets into the paint and simply breaks them down. If Parker is not pulling up and sticking 16- to 18-foot jumpers right in the faces of the Blazers, then he’s dishing to teammates for easy buckets.

Through the first three games of a shockingly devastating 3-0 blowout, Parker is averaging 29.3 points and 8.5 assists per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field.

Yet the Blazers keep insisting that the solution is just to play harder, not different. It is as if they view change as conceding a weakness.

“It’s not just the pick-and-roll,” said guard Wes Matthews. “It’s everything. It’s us forcing an air ball down 11 in third quarter after being down 20 and Boris Diaw grabs the rebound and makes a layup. It’s those plays. Those are the deflating ones, not so much an All-Star and Finals MVP with pick-and-rolls.”

But it is the pick-and-roll that gets everything started for San Antonio and gives a potent Spurs offense too many easy openings.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts continues to point out that his team has done a much better job of containing the Spurs in the second half of each game. But that’s after the Blazers have fallen behind by 19, 26 and 20 by halftime.

“You can change a little,” Stotts said. “You’re not gonna make drastic changes. You have to do things that fit your personnel, do things that you’ve worked on all year. But we can play zone a little bit, do more switching. There are things that you can tweak here and there, but I think it’s more sustaining what we’re doing.

“Nic [Batum] did a good job on Parker in the second half. We’re not built to be a trapping aggressive, double-teaming team. We haven’t done that all year and you’re not going to do that against the best passing team in the league.”

While it is admirable to have a consistent philosophy, firm beliefs and a resolute will, that can also be mere stubbornness.

“I don’t know if there’s any words for it,” Matthews said with an admiring shake of his head. “They’re playing extremely well. Everybody’s playing at a high level. Everybody on their team is looking like a first option on any other team. They’re playing well together. They’re shooting the ball well. Their conversion rate on our turnovers and our mistakes is off the charts. But they’re beatable. They are beatable.”

Not if they don’t stop Parker from beating them.

Blazers’ pride is left on the line

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Spurs-Blazers Game 4 preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — The holiday was fitting, since it was a situation that only a mother’s hug could make feel better.

They’ll tell themselves to ignore history, that it doesn’t matter that no team has ever climbed out of an 0-3 hole in the NBA playoffs.

But all that’s really left for the Blazers to reclaim is their pride.

“The first thing is I don’t want to be swept,” said guard Damian Lillard. “That’s the first thing. That’s the main thing. If we win one game, that’s momentum. That’s going in the right direction. As a team we can’t look too far ahead. Just gotta go out there and try to get one and go from there.”

Just a week ago, the Blazers were still floating on the high on the emotional wave that came from Lillard’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that crushed the Rockets and gave the franchise its first playoff series win in 14 years.

Now they’re drowning in a Spurs tsunami that won’t let them catch a breath, let alone catch a break.

So how do the Blazers avoid thinking they’re now faced with trying to do, at the very least, the improbable?

“I think just pride,” Lillard said. “You don’t want to just give in. We’ve had such a great season. We’ve worked so hard to be in this position to just say, ‘All right, nobody’s ever done it.’

“Because it’s not impossible and if we count ourselves out that way, then we have no chance. I think you’ve got to look at it to try to be the first more than anything else.”

For now, it’s about winning a possession, winning a quarter and earning back just a little of the respect that might be slipping away if the Blazers surrender in four straight.

“That’s part of it,” said forward LaMarcus Aldridge. “We understand that we haven’t played well, that we have to do a lot of things better.

“Just by take it game by game. We can’t look too far ahead. Right now it’s a one-game season for us. If we can win, there’s one more game. That’s the way we’ve got to look at it. We’ve got to be locked in on that.

It’s not hard to know that you got one game left and if you don’t win, you go home. That’s easy to do.”

The hard part is slowing the Spurs who at the moment are like a huge boulder rolling down the side of a mountain. If it’s not Tony Parker’s offense, then it’s Tiago Splitter’s defense. If it’s not an All-Star starter in Tim Duncan, then it’s Boris Diaw or Patty Mills coming off the bench.

The Blazers contend that their effort has not been the least bit lacking and yet they have managed to lead for a grand total of just 34 seconds through three games. So the question must be asked if there comes a time when you have to simply admit that the other guys are better.

“No. No,” Aldridge said. “When they beat us, maybe. But not right now. We feel like this team is good and we’ve played them well and we’ve beaten them in the regular season.”

The ultimate challenge now is to beat the Spurs four straight times, which would let the Blazers write their names in the history books. But the immediate — if not just as difficult — goal is to force a Game 5 back in San Antonio, which would let the Blazers look themselves in the mirror by avoiding the sweep.

“That’s a terrible feeling,” said guard Wes Matthews. “I’ve been swept before and it’s not cool, it’s not fun. You worked too hard all season. You worked too hard the first series to win the way that we did in the fashion that we did, against the odds that we had to come out and be swept. It’s not like we’re not playing hard. That’s not a question by any means. It’s just a matter getting a win. Get a win and you never know what can happen after that.”

Parker makes it a moveable feast

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Parker, Duncan lead Spurs to 3-0 lead over Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Presumably when it’s over, Tony Parker will have the Trail Blazers over for dinner. With fava beans and a nice Chianti.

This is no longer Parker simply moving all of the Xs and Os around the blackboard as if he’s giving a lecture at a coaching clinic. It’s his own canvas where the imagination and ideas fill up the blank spaces like oils.

We have certainly seen him play at a high level before. He’s won three championships, become a perennial All-Star and was the MVP of the 2007 Finals.

Now, at 31, there is something else.

Command.

It’s knowing when to pour like water through a crack in concrete and get all the way to the basket. When to pull up and take that mid-range jumper that the Portland defense continues to give him. When it’s a bounce pass that will find a cutting Tim Duncan in stride. When what looks like an over-the-shoulder prayer will find a wide-open Kawhi Leonard or Manu Ginobili at the 3-point line.

“Tony has been the engine for us,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich after another throttling of the Blazers, this time 118-103 on Saturday night in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals series.

The kind that takes the checkered flag at Daytona or Indy or LeMans.

The Spurs are a completely different kind of team running a completely different kind of offense from the days when the 19-year-old from France came into the league and was supposed to not screw things up for Duncan and David Robinson.

Now San Antonio has more ball movement than a pool table in an ocean storm and that means more responsibility for the point guard who gets to make it all run.

Before the Blazers knew what hit them in Game 3, Parker had run off four straight jumpers and virtually everyone sitting inside the Moda Center could tell that their team was going to get run off the court again.

“He got us out of the gates,” Duncan said. “He continues to shoot the ball really well. He’s getting to his spots. He’s making great decisions for our offense of our team. When his shot is there, he’s knocking it out.

“He’s doing a great job of coming off the screens and getting to his spot and knocking them out. He’s reading the defense real well. They start closing up on him and he’s doing a great job of getting to the basket as well. He’s matured and doing a much better job of doing exactly what the defense wants to give him.”

Everybody gets older, the Spurs quite evidently with a 38-year-old Duncan and 36-year-old Ginobili having their movements and usage handled as carefully as antique crystal.

Parker, of course, is older, too. But even after 13 years in the league, he’s the one with the twinkle in his eye and the spark that lights the fire in the Spurs’ entire offensive game.

“It’s what he does,” said shooting guard Danny Green. “He reads the situations. He makes the right decisions and he gets us all playing the way we want to play.”

When it comes to reining in Parker, Blazers coach Terry Stotts couldn’t grasp at more straws if he were dropped in a hayloft. Should he switch defenders? Does it matter?

What figured to be a competitive series lasted that way only until the opening tip of Game 1. With Parker lighting the match, the Spurs have had halftime leads of 19, 26 and 20.

Stotts keeps talking about how evenly the Blazers are playing the Spurs in the second half of games, which is like the guy whose parachute didn’t open saying at least he stuck the landing.

The fact is Parker has played this way now for the past two or three seasons, yet rarely gets mentioned in the MVP race, left in the exhaust fumes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. This year he finished tied for 12th in the voting. He never seems to be the hot new name, the slick new model and yet he’s that engine still running strong and late into June.

“He’s just been unbelievable for us and obviously been the driving force of this entire series,” Duncan said. “So we’ll continue to ride him and hopefully he can close this thing out.”

Then pick out the Chianti to wash down the Blazers.

Blazers in hole, need to dig deeper

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: The GameTime guys preview Game 3 between the Spurs and Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Dig deeper.

That’s the answer for the Trail Blazers, even though they’re already standing in an 2-0 hole.

LaMarcus Aldridge says they’ve got to play better. Damian Lillard says they have to play harder.

“Everybody has to play better, starting with me,” Aldridge said.

“It’s going to be tough, but we have confidence in what we can do on our home floor,” said Lillard.

But as the Western Conference semifinal series resumes tonight with Game 3, the Blazers will have to go deeper into their suspect bench with reserve guard Mo Williams sidelined by a groin injury.

“We anticipate that he will not play,” said coach Terry Stotts.

Portland is a young team, with no starter older than 28, but even young teams can get worn down. The Blazers compensate for a water-thin collection of reserves by playing their starters more, with three of them averaging at least 41 minutes in the playoffs and another logging 39 per night.

Williams suffered the injury in the Game 6 close-out win over Houston in the first round and labored to shoot just 3-for-11 with four turnovers in Game 1 against the Spurs. In Game 2, Williams played just under nine minutes before the injury flared up again and he was forced to the bench.

For a team that is being overwhelmed by San Antonio’s depth — the Spurs regularly use 10 players — and with Lillard already up to 43.3 minutes per game in the playoffs, the loss of Williams is significant.

“I would assume that Earl [Watson] will get some minutes and Will Barton will get some playing time,” Stotts said. “With Mo averaging his 24 minutes, some of them are at point guard and some of them are alongside Damian. His 24 minutes will kind of be spread out among at least two or three other players.

Barton was on the court for less than 90 seconds total in the entire first-round series win over the Rockets, but has played 20 minutes in two games against the Spurs. In Game 2 on Thursday night, he shot 5-for-5 for 13 points in 12 minutes and during the second quarter was the often the only Blazer who was on the attack offensively.

“Will comes in ready,” Stotts said. “He loves to be on the court and I think that showed when he made his first two shots in maybe a minute of being on the court.”

Morning Shootaround — May 8



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Whose house? Russell’s house! | Blazers have to prove they can hang with Spurs | Hibbert feeds off of positive vibes from teammates, mentors | Heat always ready for “lineup Twister”

No. 1: Round 2 of an epic point guard battle goes to Russell Westbrook: Chris Paul fired the first shot in Game 1. Russell Westbrook‘s response … whew! After spending the opener as a guest on his own floor, Westbrook made it clear whose house it was with a wicked Game 2 effort, finishing with a triple-double* that helped lift the Thunder. Before things head for Hollywood for Games 3 and 4, Westbrook took his star turn. Jenni Carlson of the Oklahoman has the details:

Russell Westbrook made it clear early that Game 2 was going to be different.

On the first possession of the night, he snagged a steal, then in the process of gathering the ball and heading up court, he ran counterpart Chris Paul into an official. It was whistled a foul on Paul. Then, Westbrook got an offensive rebound and drew a foul on Blake Griffin. Then, he dished an assist to Kevin Durant.

The game was less than a minute old, but the Thunder point guard was already filling the stat sheet.

Setting the tone, too.

“I think Russell probably played harder than all of us combined,” Paul said. “He was all over the place.”

On a night when the Thunder needed to win on home hardwood and even up this Western Conference semifinal – and did just that with a 112-101 victory — Westbrook made sure that this series turned around. He scored. He rebounded. He assisted. He defended. He hounded.

In the process, Westbrook notched his third triple-double of these playoffs.

No other player has even one triple-double in this postseason.

Roll that around in your head a minute. Westbrook 3, rest of the NBA 0.

His triple-double numbers: 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. He became the fifth player in the last 25 seasons with three or more triple-doubles in one postseason. The others: Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Rajon Rondo.

Westbrook added three steals and plenty of defensive headaches for the Clippers. What’s more, Westbrook contained Paul, who managed only 17 points and 11 assists. Maybe that seems like a lot, but compared to what he did in Game 1, the damage was minimal.

Two nights after Paul dominated this matchup with eight three-pointers, 32 points and a career night, Westbrook showed that he wasn’t going to back down. Yes, Paul is great. Sure, he might be the best point guard on the planet.

Then again, maybe not.

The point guard battle royale is back on.

And it is because Westbrook went right at Paul. He drew that foul on the opening possession. Then, he just kept coming. He crashed the boards. He looked for contact. He drove to the basket. For as good as Paul is, he’s more jitterbug than bruiser, and with Westbrooks height and size advantage, he used that to his advantage.

Less than halfway through the first quarter, Paul picked up foul No. 2 and had to go to the bench.

“It’s tough to guard him as it is,” Paul said, “but you get two bad fouls early in the game … it makes it that much tougher.”

(more…)

Spurs’ MVP beauty more than skin deep

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Parker leads Spurs to Game 1 rout of Trail Blazers

SAN ANTONIO – They gave out the Kia MVP award earlier in the day.

Kevin Durant over LeBron James in the ultimate 1-on-1 beauty contest.

But the Spurs have never been ones for strutting their stuff down the runway.

Tim Duncan and Tony Parker finished in a tie for 12th place.

“I can’t wait to tell them,” said their coach Gregg Popovich.

There was no need for him to tell the Trail Blazers, who were on the wrong end of a 116-92 clubbing in the opener of the Western Conference semifinal series on Tuesday night.

The Spurs, of course, have been running an entirely different kind of race for years, one that never quite looks right in a bikini.

This is not the way championship teams are supposed to be constructed in the NBA, a league that has always been built on individual stars who are able to hoist entire teams up on their backs.

Mikan. Russell. Kareem. Bird. Magic. Isiah. Michael. Shaq. Kobe. Wade. Dirk. LeBron.

But here are the Spurs winning a league-best 62 in the regular season while trying their damnedest to look a basketball version of the Rockettes, one huge chorus line where it’s the high kick of the collective that most impresses.

“That’s a championship team,” said Blazers guard Damian Lillard, the star of a team celebrated for getting out of the first round for the first time in 14 years. “They came out with more energy than we did. They threw the first punch on both ends of the floor.”

That’s because the Spurs have been throwing punches in these postseason situations since only what seems like the dawn of time. Duncan alone has played more playoff games (219) than the entire Portland franchise.

“They did what championship teams do,” said Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. “Most of the guys on (our) team haven’t even been in the second round and they’ve won championships. They’ve been here. I think they definitely came out and let us know how it’s going to be.”

That is, like playing an octopus armed with a set of butcher knives.

While Parker grabbed the spotlight in Game 1 with 33 points and nine assists, this is not his wagon to pull. Not alone. Not all by himself through the long playoff grind.

Parker is the match, but the fire comes from a Spurs lineup that burns deeper than any other in the league.

Perhaps the only team in NBA history to win a championship without a truly singular star was the 2004 Pistons. Ben Wallace was their highest finisher in MVP voting that year. Wallace was 10th. Yet he, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace took down the mighty Lakers.

The Spurs have taken that approach one step further, spreading the wealth and conserving their energy all season long in order to be fit and ready for this charge.

Not a single player on the Spurs roster averaged 30 minutes this season. Parker was tops at 29.4.

The Spurs had nine different players who averaged at least 8.2 points and nobody higher than 16.7.

No stars? Tell that to the Blazers, who were seeing them before the end of the first quarter.

This was a Portland team that went into Houston to open the first round of the playoffs and arrogantly rearranged the furniture in winning the first two games on the road. On this night, they were lost, befuddled, hopelessly overmatched.

“They play your plays,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “They knew where and what we were going to do. They did what all teams do in the playoffs.”

The Spurs just do it better.

All that angst and worry when they were pushed to seven games in the first round by the No. 8 Mavericks.

Too slow, too old, too tired?

So in the past two games, San Antonio has averaged 117.5 points, won by an average of 23.5, shot 54 percent from the field and 42.5 percent on 3-pointers.

The Spurs’ defense bodied up Lillard and kept him from doing damage in the paint, kept a lid on Aldridge early and never let the Blazers grow an ounce of confidence.

By the second quarter, the little-used Kiwi-by-birth, Australian-by-passport Aron Baynes was tossing around Portland like throw pillows and the Spurs never let the Blazers get closer than 20 at any time in the last 28 minutes of the game.

When Parker capped off his night with one especially dazzling spin drive, drew a foul and stood at the free throw line late in the third quarter, the home crowd rose with the obligatory chant: “MVP! MVP!”

By that time, it had already been given to someone else who doesn’t play for the Spurs.

Don’t bother to tell them.

Rockets left picking up pieces again

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Lillard’s buzzer-beater sends Rockets home, Blazers to next round

PORTLAND, Ore.Damian Lillard’s “Rip Ciiiitttyyy!” shout was still bouncing off the walls and his dagger remained stuck right in their gut when Rockets team owner Leslie Alexander and club president Tad Brown stood in a back hallway of the Moda Center, heads down, eyes searching.

For what? For whom? Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh? LeBron James?

Will a few more high-dollar free agents finally get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since 1997? Is the idea to buy up every available big name in the NBA so there will be nobody left to do what the Blazers consistently did in the fourth quarter?

That is, perform down the stretch.

Clutch City, indeed. The Rockets routinely treated the fourth quarters like a wad of cash in the pocket of a drunken sailor and wound up with the same kind of what-happened hangover.

“This is the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Chandler Parsons said after he watched Lilllard run away from him in the last 0.9 seconds and into NBA lore.

Parsons, of course, is just 25 and quite likely too young yet to comprehend that if a basketball game is the worst loss you’ve ever suffered, then life has been pretty darned good.

Dwight Howard, on the other hand, just finished his 10th NBA season no closer to a championship than when he left Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

“It hurts,” Howard said. “We can’t grow anymore. We go home.”

The Rockets go home to an offseason of having to wonder if the combination of Howard and James Harden will ever enough to take the franchise back to the glory years of truly contending — and winning — or if they are simply pair of celebrities in search of a lead dog who can pull their wagon to a championship.

Harden is now working on three straight years and three straight series of shrinking in the playoffs. His 34 points in Game 6 was the first time he came close to looking like a front-line star. In his last three playoff series — vs. Miami in 2012, OKC in 2013 and now Portland — the only thing more bedraggled than his beard has been his shooting percentage. Is the playoff air, when teams can scheme against him for seven games and employ elite level defenders, too thin for Harden? He hardly ever shoulders the burden of responsibility or the mantle of leadership.

Howard has worked diligently with Hakeem Olajuwon, with the coaching staff, with anybody offering help, to improve his game and yet the coin toss odds on having him at the free-throw line and his happy-go-lucky persona will always leave questions until or unless he gets it all done.

“We didn’t win, so in my mind having a good regular season is nothing,” Howard said. “You’re sitting at home watching another team hold up a trophy. That’s what we all play for. So it hurts too be going home early. It’s hurts to be watching somebody [else] holding up the trophy. We wanted a chance to get it this season. This should just push us next season.

“I know it’s going to make me continue in the gym, continue to get better and also push these young guys so they can understand that you can’t take these moments for granted. Nothing’s promised. The playoffs aren’t promised. Rings aren’t promised. You gotta go out there and earn it.”

The bashing of coach Kevin McHale will sound like a bass drum throughout the summer and maybe it will be proven that he is not the one to guide them down the championship path. But McHale did not lose Game 6. He did not fail to tell his players not to give up anything but a 3-point shot in the last 0.9 seconds. He cannot turn back the clock and play like the Hall of Famer he was during all those years in Boston.

Sweeping McHale out of the door is not the answer. The team responds to him. They play for him. He has a year left on his contract at the team’s option and so you give it to him with a last chance.

The championing of Jeremy Lin as a creative cross between Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Leonardo Da Vinci by his cult following will persist. Lin is a capable, hard-working player who has proven he belongs in the league. But he is not transcendent and, if the Rockets are going to make a big play in free agency this summer, he and Omer Asik will both be gone to make room under the salary cap.

“It’s a tough loss, but something we’ve got to learn from,” said Howard. “Like I said the whole series, we can’t take any possessions off. We can’t relax. Every bucket counts. Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence.

“We’ve got a great nucleus of guys. Everybody has to come back next season and see the mistakes we made this year as a team and try to learn from them so next year we don’t have situations like this.

“You’ve got to play with confidence. You can’t relax. Some of the guys on our team, including myself at times, we relaxed on the floor. Nothing is easy. I’ve been to the Finals. I’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals. I’ve been to the top and it’s not easy getting there.

“You’ve got to make everything count. I think that’s a big lesson for us all. No matter who we play, no matter what happens in the regular season, you can’t take any team for granted.

“Portland came out and played from the first game. … Those guys played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it was good. It was a seasoned team. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from this series and hopefully come back next year and be a lot better.”

Lillard becomes one for the ages

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard joins Arena Link to discuss the big shot

PORTLAND, Ore. — Teammate Thomas Robinson says you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This was just a start for the kid.

If that’s the case, Damian Lillard‘s next trick will likely be a re-creation of that old McDonald’s commercial with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan: “Over the freeway, through the window, off the scoreboard…”

It wasn’t just a dagger through the heart of the Rockets. It was the kind of shot that defines a career, creates a legend and trails you like a permanent ray of sunshine long after the sneakers and jersey come off and the hair has turned gray.

The official play-by-play sheet called it a “25-foot, 3-point jump shot.”

And Moby Dick was just another whale.

“I’ve seen him do that kind stuff, make shots like that for the past two years,” said Wes Matthews. “From the first day you saw him out on the practice court, you could tell from the way he carried himself. He’s just, well, different.”

It’s the difference that allows a neurosurgeon to poke around inside somebody’s brain with with the sheer confidence, maybe the utter arrogance, that he just won’t slip with the scalpel.

It’s the difference that diamond cutter has when he knows that he won’t turn that big, expensive bauble into cheap rock with a bad tap on the chisel.

“I mean, I got a pretty good look,” said the 23 year old who might as well be an ageless Yoda doing tricks with a light saber. “Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”

It came after Chandler Parson‘s out-of-the-blue put-back had given the Rockets a 98-96 lead with 0.9 seconds left.

“The first thing I did when I saw Parson’s shot go in was look at the clock,” Lillard said. “I saw there was time. I knew we would have a shot. I just didn’t know what kind.”

It was the kind of shot that will replayed on the giant video screen at the Moda Center or whatever new-fangled arena comes next for as long as they play basketball in Portland. The biggest last-second shot in Blazers’ history.

It came fittingly on a night when the franchise honored the legendary coach Jack Ramsay, who led the Blazers to their only NBA championship in 1977 and died on Monday.

Rip City — R.I.P. City — indeed.

Up on the screen, there was grainy old color film of Dr. Jack in his wild ’70s disco era plaid pants and wide collars jumping for joy as his share-the-ball Blazers clinched the title.

Down there on the court, just an hour or so later, there were the linear descendants of those Blazers — who move without the ball, do all the little things and play unselfishly — leaping into each other’s arm.

“When he made the shot, I didn’t let him go for the next three minutes,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, the workhorse who carried the Blazers, averaging 29.8 points in the series.

It was not just a Portland moment, but an NBA moment, the kind that should be frozen in Jurassic amber.

Lillard’s was the first buzzer-beating shot to clinch a playoff series since John Stockton did it to the Rockets’ ancestors in the 1997 Western Conference finals.

Put it a gold frame and hang it behind a velvet rope with:

Ralph Sampson‘s rim-rattling prayer that beat the Lakers and sent the Rockets to the 1986 Western Conference Finals.

Garfield Heard‘s heave for the Suns that forced triple overtime at Boston Garden In the 1976 Finals.

Derek Fisher‘s running miracle with 0.4 seconds in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals that beat the Spurs.

– And yes, even Michael Jordan‘s hanging, leaning, drifting to the side jumper over a helpless Craig Ehlo in the Bulls’ Game 5 clincher of the first round in 1989.

That last one started a legend. To hear the Blazers tell it, their second-year guard is already writing the first few chapters of his own.

“Oh, he’s doing things all the time in practice and all season long in games that you just don’t expect and maybe don’t think are possible,” said center Robin Lopez.

“I’ve been around the NBA for 10 years and played a lot of games with a lot of players and seen a lot of things,” said guard Mo Williams. “I’ve seen shots, yeah. Have I seen a shot like that? Noooooo.”

It ended a series that had three overtime games, only one margin of victory that was by more than single figures. The only double digit lead of the night lasted just 16 seconds. The biggest lead of the second half by either team was four. The cumulative score of the entire series had the Rockets ahead by two points.

Just like they led by two with 0.9 seconds left and when Lillard zipped away from the defender Parson and came zooming wide open right toward the inbounding Nicolas Batum.

“I clapped my hands at Nico,” Lillard said. “He threw it to me and I turned. The rim was right there.”

And Lillard let it fly.

If we ain’t seen nothing yet, that next chapter will be a doozy.