Posts Tagged ‘Trail Blazers’

Underdog role suits Trail Blazers

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


Video: Spurs-Blazers series preview

PORTLAND, Ore. — So far.

That’s what Damian Lillard said when somebody asked him if that 25-foot, just-before-closing-time, crackling bolt of lightning on Friday was the biggest shot he’d ever made in his life.

It tells you all you need to know about the 23-year-old with the killer grin and assassin’s calm.

It also tells you all you need to know about the Trail Blazers, most of whom have come so far individually to become this team.

“It’s just kinda who were are. I know Damian has talked about being underdogs — Wes (Matthews) being undrafted,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Damian coming from a small school. Some guys feeling like they’ve been a little roughed up in their careers. I don’t think it’s really anything that we foster. I think it’s just grown organically.”

Grown from a chip that they all carry around on their shoulders into a big stick of righteous indignation that the Blazers have used to prod themselves to a different place.

The second round of the playoffs.

“You ask me if I’m counted out?” Matthews said. “Of course. I’m always fueled by being counted out and we’re gonna be counted out of this next series.”

The Spurs have won three of their four franchise championships, been to the The Finals four times and played in the Western Conference finals three on other occasions in the 14 years since Portland last won a playoff series.

Yet the Blazers can hardly wait to take their “nobody-loves-us” burden into San Antonio for Game 1 on Tuesday night.

It is a well-polished routine and they know it by heart:

  • Lillard was under-appreciated and under-recruited coming out of high school and had to play his college ball at Weber State.
  • Matthews was undrafted by the NBA out of Marquette in 2009.
  • Veteran star LaMarcus Aldridge had to fight for respect through five NBA seasons before he was finally selected for an All-Star Game and is still routinely overlooked in the All-NBA voting.
  • Nicolas Batum was just a 19-year-old Frenchman with no more than hope and a light resume when he arrived in Portland in 2008.

When it was mentioned that Robin Lopez isn’t even regarded as the best player in his own family, Batum doubled over laughing.

“Yes, it’s funny,” he said. “Good, not great. It’s who we all are. We all have been through a lot. We have all had our ups and downs to get here. Even L.A. was snubbed for all those All-Star Games. Nobody expects anything from us. Except for the ones in here.”

The Blazers were back on the court at their practice facility after a day to soak in the city’s joy over their accomplishment. Not that many took the plunge.

“I did pretty much the same things I always do,” said a beaming Lillard.

He went home. He relaxed. He watched replays of his shot “maybe 5 or 10 times” and he listened to an almost non-stop string of text messages buzz in on his cell phone.

“I’ve gotten so many videos of it sent to my phone,” Lillard said. “I watch it because every version is different. The thing I enjoyed the most about it was just seeing everybody’s reaction. You got to see how bad our team wanted to win that game.

“It wasn’t about me. You saw the coaches excited that we’re going to be moving on. My teammates running all over the floor. The crowd. I think a couple fans almost ran on the floor. I’m just happy we were able to get that series done. Because the last thing we wanted to do was go back to Houston.”

It was all glorious fun while it lasted. But now there is more serious work ahead against the defending Western Conference champions and the No. 1 seed.

“It’s over with now,” said Lillard. “It’s not like the moment is going to go away. We haven’t gone past the first round in 14 years, so people won’t forget it. But our team, we’ve got to move on from it, and we’ve still got games to play. Our goal wasn’t to make a big shot and be happy with that. I think, if anything, that made us want to get more done.”

The Blazers will continue to wear the underdog role as if it were an expensive fur coat, wrapping themselves up it and preaching that it’s still a cold, disrespecting world out there.

Yet beneath there is a silk lining of self-reliance and growing fearlessness.

“Anytime you win, you’re going to get confidence,” Matthews said. “To win in the fashion that we did, where the games were always tight and nothing was safe, we learned a lot. I think that was a learning process for everybody about how valuable all these possessions were and how fragile it could be and a wrong bounce could send you to a Game 7 that you don’t want to be in. Now, I don’t think there’s a limit.”

Maybe there never has been, at least in their own minds.

“We were up 3-1 on Houston,” Lillard said. “To be honest, after the first game, we felt like we were going to win the series. I think getting it done, we proved more to other people than we proved to ourselves. There’s no reason now to think it can’t go on.”

#BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver!

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard finishes off the Houston Rockets with the buzzer-beating dagger in Game 6

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – This was already the best first round of NBA playoff basketball these eyes have seen.

From the opening tip of the very first game to last night’s Dame of Thrones dagger from Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard that eliminated the would-be-champion Houston Rockets in six games, this first-round whirlwind has been above and beyond anyone’s wildest imagination of what the first step of these 2014 NBA playoffs could be.

We’ve had 21 games decided by five points or less, eight overtime (or multiple overtime) games and a final weekend of the first round like nothing we’ve ever seen. The previous record for Game 7s in the same first round is just two, done several times and most recently in 2012 (the first round didn’t go to Game 7s until 2003).

By the opening tip Sunday this will be the most games we’ve ever seen in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

So this historic two-day finish, a staggering five Game 7s, kicking off today with three winner-take-all contests — making this the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver! — is the happy ending to every hoops lover’s dream scenario.

This is also the first time in NBA history we’ve had the pleasure of watching three Game 7s on the same day. All you have to do is tune in to TNT at 5 p.m. ET and you’ll get roughly eight straight hours of the game’s very best fighting it out for their playoff lives.

If we get five more games anything like what we’ve already seen, you’ll need extra supplies to get through what should be an absolutely wild weekend.

Your Saturday menu …

Game 1 — Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers, 5:30 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Hawks-Pacers

Will we get a Roy Hibbert sighting in what should easily be the most important game of his career, to date? He’ll be in uniform. And he’ll probably be in the starting lineup, as he has in all six games of this series so far. But will he actually show up? That’s the question that lingers for the Pacers’ flummoxed All-Star center.

The Hawks are not going to change their stripes now. They’re going to stretch the floor and try to make the Pacers defend that 3-point line as best they can, a strategy Mike Budenholzer‘s crew has worked to perfection when they are knocking down their shots. They’ll need another 15-for-27-type effort that helped them win Game 5 in Indy and not the 9-for-35 misery that cost them Game 6 at home. By the way, No. 8 seeds are 0-2 all-time against No. 1 seeds in Game 7s.

Let’s be real. The Pacers should have the edge. Paul George avoided suspension after he and several other players from both teams stepped onto the court during an altercation between Pacers point guard George Hill and Hawks forward Mike Scott in Game 6.

Except, of course, for that little fact that the Hawks have basically owned the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse the past month. “My thing is that three of the last four times we’ve played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “So I don’t think anyone from this team can think we’re going to be OK just because we’re back home.”

***

Game 2 — Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Grizzlies-Thunder

Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph could not avoid the NBA’s disciplinary council, losing his chance to play in Game 7 after jaw-jacking Thunder rookie center Steven Adamswho adds the rugged Randolph to his long list of opposing players that have lost their cool trying to deal with the big fella. Raise your hand if you thought Adams would be the most important player in this series … didn’t think so!

As usual, Thunder coach Scott Brooks is in the crosshairs with his team’s season on the line. His lineup decisions — Caron Butler for Thabo Sefolosha? — with Randolph out will be scrutinized to no end if things go awry. It’ll be his fault regardless of what happens. Brooks has become a convenient scapegoat whenever folks discuss the Thunder.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is ailing, too, giving coach Dave Joerger even more to worry about than just playing without Z-Bo. He’ll have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in full attack mode, not to mention that home crowd that won’t sit down until the game is in hand one way or another. If the Grizzlies really are planning on doing something special tonight, they’ll have to do it with some big-game contributions from someone with experience in these pressure-packed situations (Mike Miller anyone?).

If the Thunder can’t find its way out of this series, they’ll need to take a long and hard look at their personnel … and that’s from Brooks and his staff all the way down to the end of the bench. They don’t have an endless title-chasing window with this group, even with Durant and Westbrook headed into the primes of their careers. Game 7 is huge for all involved but it’s even more critical for the future of this particular Thunder group.

***

Game 3 – Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET


VIDEO: TNT’s Game 7 preview of Warriors-Clippers

You have to give Warriors coach Mark Jackson credit, he’s played the mind game in this series every bit as well as his team has played the actual games on the court. “The pressure’s on them,” Jackson told to the Mercury News Friday. “They earned the right to have home court, and they’ve got some stars — some in uniform, and one in a suit and tie. The pressure’s on them.” There’s plenty of pressure on Jackson, too. His players know it and so does everyone else. They’re fighting for him as much as anyone, per J.A. Adande of ESPN.

Speaking of pressure, that buzz about this being a defining moment for Clippers superstar point Chris Paul is not going anywhere. He’s working on a bad hamstring, but all eyes will be on CP3 tonight. As good as Blake Griffin , Jamal Crawford, DeAndre Jordan and others have been this season, this is still his team to lead to championship glory. His matchup with Steph Curry has been every bit as entertaining as expected, but he needs to finish with a flurry or face the wrath of a growing number of critics who insist he hasn’t come up big in the biggest situations for his team in the postseason.

The Warriors enjoy one of the best home crowds in all of sports. But they’ll have to dial-up a signature performance without the aid of that bunch that keep Oracle Arena rocking every night. That means cold-blooded marksmanship from Curry and Klay Thompson and something extra from Draymond Green, who has become the wild card in this series. If he can work his way under Griffin’s skin and get the Clippers’ All-Star into early foul trouble, the entire complexion of this game changes.

That “star in a suit and tie” that Jackson referenced, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, is doing double and perhaps even triple time on the job these days. The vice president of basketball operations is serving as the resident healer in chief not only for his players but also other employees within the organization in the wake of the Donald Sterling drama. For 48 minutes, and hopefully five or even 10 more tonight, he’ll be locked in strictly on what’s going on between those lines on the Staples Center floor.

***

As they say, you better get your popcorn ready for the #BestNBAPlayoffSaturdayEver!

Oh, and save some for Sunday …

 

Jack Ramsay: A game, a life, a vision

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Whether it was as an octogenarian fitness fanatic skipping rope in a hotel exercise room, those bushy eyebrows dancing above his piercing eyes as he discussed the game he loved or watching one of his teams pass and cut and blend in perfect harmony, the images of Jack Ramsay are all about movement.

The 89-year-old coaching legend who died of cancer Monday morning was relentless in his beliefs about physical training, mental preparation and the correct way to play basketball … and never stopped actively promoting them.

As a native Philadelphian just learning about the game, it was Ramsay’s overachieving St. Joseph’s Hawks teams that swooped up and down the court of the historic Palestra in the early 1960s that first captured my attention and admiration.

In my first year covering the NBA, it was Ramsay’s harmonious vision of the game — move without the ball, make the extra pass, play as one — that made his Trail Blazers of Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Bobby Gross, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik and the rest NBA champions in 1977. They had such style and elegance and were in tune that you could almost close your eyes and hear music.

Those Finals were the perhaps the greatest contrast in styles ever, pitting Ramsay’s Blazers against the prodigious one-on-one talents of a 76ers roster that included Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins and Lloyd Free.

During one practice at The Finals, the Sixers, coached by Gene Shue, spent most of an hour jacking up jump shots, exchanging dunks and killing time. McGinnis took time out to smoke a cigarette in the bleachers. A short time later, the Blazers entered the same gym and began running though layup lines and precise drills as if they were in a Marine boot camp. (more…)

Daniels becomes improbable hero for Rockets in Game 3

By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com

VIDEO: Troy Daniels shines with big 3 to save Rockets

Like James Harden, Mr. 32.9 percent from the field in the playoffs, was going to save the Rockets’ night and probably their season. The Rockets weren’t going to throw the ball to Dwight Howard with the clock draining down from 20 seconds to 15 to 12. Chandler Parsons had fouled out with 3:40 left in overtime. They didn’t have many good options.

Enter Troy Daniels.

Not just into the game, either. Into franchise lore, basically. Getting the ball for the shot of his life happened only thanks to a broken play where Harden lost control, and the reason he was out on the court at all in that situation may have only been because Parsons fouled out. What happened, in other words, was never supposed to happen.

An undrafted rookie out of Virginia Commonwealth, Daniels played for the Bobcats in summer league and played five games and 75 minutes for the Rockets. He spent most of the season with their D-League affiliate Rio Grande. And on Friday he saved Houston from a 3-0 deficit in the first round against the Trail Blazers that would have meant almost certain elimination.

It was Daniels who did not hesitate when he got the ball while open on the left side, Daniels who did not flinch as LaMarcus Aldridge ran at him, and Daniels who hit the 27-foot 3-pointer with 11.9 seconds remaining in Portland that gave the visitors a 119-116 lead that became a 121-116 victory to climb back within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

“It’s a dream come true,” Daniels said. “Plain and simple.”

Except that it was anything but plain and simple. The shot itself, maybe — Daniels was known as a 3-point threat. In college, though. In the D-League.

In the NBA? In the playoffs?

He wasn’t known as that. He wasn’t known as anything.

“We needed someone to make a couple 3s,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “Or three 3s.”

Daniels had them covered. He made the three in six tries, with all of his shots coming from behind the arc in 20 minutes of his first playoff game. He was that someone.

Blazers, Stotts plan to stick to Hack-a-Howard strategy

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets’ practice on Monday

HOUSTON — This being the NBA playoffs, there were pre-game fireworks, flames roaring up almost to the ceiling and canned music cranked to absurd levels.

But by far the loudest sounds to come out of the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss to the Blazers in Game 1 were: Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!

Yup, Dwight Howard shooting free throws.

His team down by nine points with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation time, Blazers coach Terry Stotts needed a dramatic shift and there are few things fraught with more raw thrills than the sight of the eight-time All-Star at the foul line in the fourth quarter.

So one of the key subplots to watch as the series continues will be Stotts’ willingness to intentionally hack Howard and he says he won’t be shy.

“If I think it’s in our best interest to do it, we will,” he said. “I had no qualms about using it going into the game, and I feel the same way now.”

Stotts instructed his team to intentionally foul Howard on three consecutive possessions. Howard made the first two free throws to the howling delight of the Toyota Center throng. But then he missed four in a row as Portland went on a 7-0 run that turned around the game and could ultimately turn the series.

Howard was a 54.7 percent foul shooter during the regular season and made 26 of 40 (65 percent) in four games against the Blazers. He managed just 9 of 17 in Game 1.

“That changed (the game) somewhat,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of the strategy. “We missed some free throws. They came just pushing it down and we didn’t defend…then we were kind of back on our heels. They pushed it up on us.”

More important, the Blazers pushed the Rockets over the edge.

Ten years into his career, free-throw woes remain an old, familiar tale with Howard.

The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, just named Coach of the Year for the third time, has often said he hates the “Hack-a-________” tactic and would be in favor of eliminating it with a rule change. But even Popovich readily employs it to help his team.

Stotts is not so dismissive and refuses to buy into the notion that fouling Howard (or any other inept foul shooter) somehow taints the game.

“I was thinking about this because I was kinda anticipating the question,” Stotts said. “There were over 1200 NBA games played this season. How many times was it used in over 1200 games? Ten or 20 times in over 1200 games, 48-minute games?

“So to change the rule for something that isn’t used that very much? I think it adds excitement to the game, to be honest. When he made his first two, the crowd erupted. It adds interest. It adds interest whether we’re going to foul him or not. It adds interest whether he’s going to make them or not.”

Howard at the foul line in the fourth quarter is like seeing a member of the Wallenda family on a tightrope, with so much hanging in the balance.

From Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O’Neal to Howard to any player who has ever stood there with his knees knocking, arm wobbling and tossing up bricks with a game on the line, it has always been a silly debate.

How is hacking Howard any different than intentionally walking Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera? And in the case of baseball, Cabrera doesn’t even get a chance to swing the bat. All Howard has to do is learn to make his free throws and everybody will leave him alone.

The fact is there are prime time players and those who say they are.

Watch Howard at the end of a Rockets’ practice. He’ll stand there and calmly stroke them in eight, nine, 10 in a row without a flinch.

Now watch him the next time the Blazers, or anybody else, puts him on the spot.

“I think it adds a little drama,” said Stotts with a grin.

The loudest noise in the room: Clank!

Sometimes you can hear a win drop.


VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal and the Inside the NBA guys discuss the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy

Morning Shootaround — April 21



VIDEO: Daily Zap: April 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Projected salary cap rise boosts Bulls’ plans for Anthony? | Aldridge and the Trail Blazers seize the day | Game 2 is a must-win for Clippers | Jim Buss says he’ll step down if Lakers don’t turn it around in 3-4 years | Dwight Howard has to lead for Rockets to rebound

No. 1: Salary cap projections to bolster Bulls’ pursuit of ‘Melo: – A projected rise in the NBA’s salary cap numbers could turn out to be a bonanza for the Chicago Bulls, who lose home court advantage in their first round series against Washington Sunday when they couldn’t find a go-to-scorer at crunch time in Game 1. They could have two this time next year in Derrick Rose and perhaps Carmelo Anthony, the soon-to-be Knicks free agent. Marc Stein of ESPN.com explains the connection between those projected cap numbers and the Bulls’ pursuit of ‘Melo:

If the projections hold, several clubs will find themselves with more spending money and financial flexibility than they initially planned.

The Knicks remain unquestioned favorites to re-sign Anthony after the March hiring of the decorated Phil Jackson as team president and given the fact that only New York can offer the 29-year-old a five-year deal — one year longer than any other team — in the $130 million range.

But sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that the Bulls — even before these developments came to light Friday night via noted NBA salary-cap expert Larry Coon — were already feeling increasingly optimistic behind the scenes about their chances of convincing Anthony to leave the Knicks in the wake of New York’s failure to make the playoffs. This is the first season Anthony has failed to reach the playoffs in his 11-year career.

It’s believed that the Bulls would still have to shed some veteran salary in addition to releasing former All-Star forward Carlos Boozer via the amnesty clause this summer to be able to make a competitive offer that could persuade Anthony to leave the new Jackson-led Knicks and the Madison Square Garden stage he loves so dearly. But a higher cap figure than anticipated would naturally make things easier for Chicago.

And Houston has quietly expressed confidence for months that it could make the moves necessary — such as trading center Omer Asik and/or guard Jeremy Lin – to thrust itself into the heart of the Anthony bidding depending on how the forthcoming playoffs play out.

The new cap projection for 2014-15, if it comes to fruition, would represent a 7.7 percent increase over this season. The NBA, according to ESPN.com contributor Coon, typically expects a season-to-season rise of 4.5 percent.

Coon reported in a blog on his NBA Salary Cap FAQ website that this is actually the third time already this season that the league has increased its projections for 2014-15.

Yet another spike would suggest that NBA revenues are rising at record rates, which is a notion Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seemingly echoed earlier this week when he called the $550 million sale of the small-market Milwaukee Bucks “a bargain.”

***

No. 2: Aldridge, Portland find their mark in win over Rockets – The Portland Trail Blazers flexed their muscle in a back-and-forth affair against Houston in Game 1 of their first round series. The Trail Blazers refused to be intimidated and would not allow the Rockets to bully them the way Patrick Beverley intended to rattle Damian Lillard. But it was LaMarcus Aldridge who carried the day for the Blazers. And that’s why they lead the series 1-0 right now, having seized the moment and the initial momentum in this series. John Canzano of The Oregonian has more:

I was going to predict that it would take two games for Portland and Houston to find serious disagreement. But it took just more than two quarters. It got chippy. It got physical. The teams were jawing. Technical fouls were whistled. Fingers were pointed. And I don’t believe Portland has ever been happier than it was in extracting a victory from a pile of wreckage the way it did against Houston in Game 1.

When Lillard took a shot to his leg in the second half, he went to the bench limping. Beverley shadowed him all the way there, you know, just in case. I couldn’t take my eyes off Leonard on the bench. You know, just in case.

LaMarcus Aldridge was a beast. The Blazers scrapped. At times, Portland’s postseason looked suspiciously like its regular season, too reliant on outside shooting and with almost nothing in the way of production coming from the bench players. But in the end, the Blazers pulled it off and a 1-0 lead on paper looks as if they were perfect.

“Every guy fought, every guy took it personal. That was my goal in pregame, I wanted every guy to take their matchup personal,” Aldridge said.

Aldridge had 46 points. Anyone else think a younger Aldridge, say circa 2009, would have carried the Blazers the way he did on Sunday?

When Aldridge fouled out he turned to Lillard, playing in his first playoff game and said, “take it over.” Lillard did.

The hope now is that Portland plays an even better Game 2, and carries a 2-0 lead back to the Moda Center. There’s hope, too, that by withstanding the initial pesterfest that Lillard somehow has the upper hand on Beverley, who left the court under the shoulders of two Rockets assistants. He has a sprained right knee, MRI scheduled for Monday. There’s hope, too, that Howard’s confidence is shaken after being pulled late in regulation because he couldn’t be trusted to make a free throw.

The Blazers are in control of this playoff series. It could have been Beverley sitting in that spot. It could have been Howard or James Harden. But in the end, Portland fought and won.


VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge goes in on the Rockets before fouling out in an overtime win

***

No. 3: Game 2 is a must win for the Los Angeles Clippers – There’s no need to sugar coat things for the Los Angeles Clippers. They’re in a hole after just one game in their first round series against the Golden State Warriors. That makes Game 2, tonight at Staples Center, an absolute must-win for Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the crew. Clippers coach Doc Rivers doesn’t have to belabor the point with his team. They know what they are facing. And so does everyone else in the Southland, as Broderick Turner of The Los Angeles Times details:

Maybe the Clippers could have won Game 1 if the officials had called Draymond Green for a foul on Chris Paul, as the NBA office on Sunday said should have happened Saturday.

But the fact is, the Clippers are down 0-1 in the best-of-seven series.

And with Game 2 Monday night at Staples Center, the Clippers have the opportunity to change the course of the series in which they gave up the home-court advantage to the Warriors.

“We definitely need to win,” Paul said. “When it’s must-win, that means somebody has three wins. We definitely need to win.”

The NBA issued a statement Sunday that said Paul was fouled by Green and should have been awarded two free throws during Game 1.

The Clippers trailed the Warriors, 107-105, when Paul was double-teamed by Steve Blake and Green out near the arc.

Paul lost the ball out of bounds with 18.9 seconds left, turning it over to the Warriors.

“Just prior to the ball going out of bounds, Paul was fouled by Green and Paul should have been granted two free throws,” the NBA statement said. “Contact preceding out-of-bounds calls is not a reviewable matter.”

The officials looked at the replay monitor to make sure the ball went out off Paul, awarding the ball to the Warriors.

“We still had opportunities to win,” said Paul, who also mentioned that his right hamstring, which he grabbed in Game 1, was “OK.” “When the ball went out of bounds, I knew it was off me. It felt like it was a foul, though.”

“That was a big call. Chris Paul goes to the line now with two free throws to tie the game,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “Having said that, there’s nothing we can do about it. A mistake happened on their [officials'] end. But we made our own mistakes, and so we have to take ownership of that.”

Rivers implied Sunday the Warriors were better prepared to handle the tense moments than the Clippers in the first game because of Golden State’s playoff experience.

“They [the Warriors] played with great confidence and focus,” Rivers said. “But more importantly, I thought they played with great calm and we didn’t do that so well.”


VIDEO: The Clippers are gearing up for Game 2 vs. the Warriors tonight

***

No. 4: Jim Buss says he’ll go if Lakers can’t turn it around in next 3-4 years – So this is how it will end. If the Los Angeles Lakers don’t dig out of their current mess and return to their place among the NBA’s elite in the next three to four years, Jim Buss is gone. Those are his words, per Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times. It’s no secret among the Buss clan, whose obligation to the city of Los Angeles goes beyond just running the most high-profile franchise in town but also making sure said franchise competes at the highest level year after year. More from Bresnahan:

The six brothers and sisters, with a gap of 31 years from eldest to youngest, gathered in the winter near the first anniversary of their father’s death to discuss some problems about the family business. It’s also the city’s treasured sports team — the Lakers.

The team was nose-diving in the standings, losing the interest of fans, and grinding toward its worst season since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1960.

So Jeanie Buss posed an elementary question to her siblings: What was going on with the Lakers?

Her older brother Jim Buss, 54, in charge of the Lakers’ basketball operations, spoke up in the boardroom of the team’s El Segundo training facility and pledged to resign in a few years if the suddenly dark fortunes of the franchise weren’t reversed.

“I was laying myself on the line by saying, if this doesn’t work in three to four years, if we’re not back on the top — and the definition of top means contending for the Western Conference, contending for a championship — then I will step down because that means I have failed,” he told The Times about the meeting. “I don’t know if you can fire yourself if you own the team … but what I would say is I’d walk away and you guys figure out who’s going to run basketball operations because I obviously couldn’t do the job.

“There’s no question in my mind we will accomplish success. I’m not worried about putting myself on the line.”

It was an emotional meeting, and the siblings — including Johnny, Janie, Joey and Jesse — agreed that Jim deserved more time on the job.

Their father, Jerry Buss, died in February 2013. He left his six children — each with an equal vote — in charge of a family trust, with a 66% ownership stake in the team. But the results of their first season as co-owners weren’t close to championship caliber.

“We’re watching a very unfortunate thing happen to a beloved team right now,” former Lakers coach Phil Jackson told The Times before taking the job last month as president of the New York Knicks. “Everybody is kind of aghast at it and people that are the best customers that any franchise can possibly hope for are dissatisfied, and rightly so.”

***

No. 5: Will Dwight Howard step up and lead Rockets from Game 1 stumble? – Dwight Howard has been through this before. He’s heard the whispers, listened to his NBA elders question his commitment and work ethic, his ability to lead. The grumbling will be louder than ever now that the Rockets have lost home court advantage to the Portland Trail Blazers. How Dwight responds will tell the tale of his season and, to this point, his time in Houston. Because, as Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports, the Rockets don’t rise from the rubble of Game 1 without their big man leading the way:

Across the seasons, Howard has to come to understand the most important lesson in leadership. The Rockets won’t listen to the franchise star now as much they’ll watch him. In crisis and calm, this is forever the burden of a superstar.

For Howard, this has long been something of a lost cause in his career. Never mind that James Harden played the most prominent part in the Rockets’ Game 1 loss, everyone understands the ultimate blame of an early exit from these playoffs will be thrust onto last summer’s biggest free agent.

“As a leader of this team, I can say whatever I want to these guys, but they’re not going to follow me unless I go out and do it now,” Howard said.

All hell broke loose in Clutch City on Sunday night, Game 1 toppling these Rockets like a tsunami reaching shore. The Rockets lost Game 1 in overtime, a 122-120 defeat that turned out to be a testament to the Blazers’ spirit and staying power, and, yes, their superstar talent.

Houston lost a 10-point lead with four minutes left in regulation, lost home-court advantage in this Western Conference playoff series, and maybe most frightening of all, lost irrepressible point guard Patrick Beverley to a re-aggravation of his knee injury. He gets an MRI on his right knee on Monday morning, and the loss of Beverley could make Blazers point guard Damian Lillard impossible to stop for Houston.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey walked the Toyota Center corridors with an ashen face late Sunday, devastated over the defeat and well aware Howard and Harden hadn’t been brought together to lose a first-round playoff series.

Make no mistake: The Rockets stars lost to the Blazers’ stars on Sunday night. LaMarcus Aldridge delivered a performance for the ages, 46 points and 18 rebounds until fouling out in overtime. In his professional playoff debut, Lillard had 31 points and closed out the Rockets in the final minutes of regulation and overtime.

Once the Blazers resorted to the Hack-a-Howard strategy, his painful procession of misses on the free-throw line brought Portland back into the game. Once the lead started slipping away, the Rockets’ offense unraveled – with Harden unloading wayward shot upon wayward shot. He missed 20 of 28 shots, including a final chance at the buzzer to end the game.

“Quick shots,” Howard would say later. “We didn’t value possessions.”

History has made Howard understand this truth: No one will care he had 27 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. He’s chasing championships now – chasing playoff victories, for starters – and this was the kind of loss that promised to attach itself to him.

“We played awful – we couldn’t have played any worse – and we still should’ve won the game,” Chandler Parsons told Yahoo Sports. “We’re pissed off. We had it won, and we gave the game away.”

This is a star’s sport, and they’re ultimately judged most harshly in defeat. For those who remember Howard at the end of the San Antonio Spurs’ sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in April a year ago, they remember him getting himself thrown out of Game 4. They remember a most ignoble departure out of Staples Center, out of the Lakers.

Now, Howard has come to Houston for redemption – has come for championship validation – and these Rockets still have a long, long way to go. Nevertheless, this devastating defeat had Howard promising to deliver them out of a dark night and into the light of morning.

“No panic,” Howard said.


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets fall in Game 1

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Al Jefferson will definitely play through his injury against the Heat. … Jim Cleamons doesn’t care who the coach of the Knicks is or will be, he wants in on the party … Oklahoma City’s quality depth showed itself, as planned, in its Game 1 win over the Grizzlies …  The Inside crew delivers their best of #GetWellSager tributes … Steph Curry foiled the Clippers’ plans in Game 1, but can he do it again in Game 2?

ICYMI OF THE NIGHT: That rest at the end of the regular season was exactly what LeBron James needed, because the Heat star looked refreshed in the Game 1 win over the Bobcats … 


VIDEO: LeBron James and the Miami Heat start fresh for the playoffs

Time for 5 players to step up in playoffs

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Everybody feels the pressure in the playoffs. No more long six-month regular seasons to work out the kinks and to solve all the problems. No more roller coaster rides of peaks and valleys.

Each player is expected to bring their full energy, their best effort every night as elimination and another long summer looms.

But for different players and for different reasons, the glare of the spotlight is even brighter as their reputations and the expectations carry a heavier burden.

Here are five players who’ll really feel the heat to step up and deliver big in the playoffs:


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks about his love for the game

Dwight Howard, Rockets — That 800-pound gorilla has been sitting on his back since July when he opted to dump the royal pedigree of the Lakers and move to Texas. Not only was Houston a better fit basketball-wise, with a young All-Star teammate James Harden waiting as a partner, but Houston, for all its heat and humidity, was a place where the media glare is not so hot. That is, until Game 1 of the playoffs when the ball goes up and Howard is expected to be the inside-dominating, rim-protecting workhorse that pulled Orlando’s wagon to the cusp of a championship in 2009. Can it really have been five years? Since that time, the similarly scrutinized LeBron James has been to The Finals three times and won back-to-back titles. While Howard has been happy, content, healthy and has led the Rockets into the top half of the tough Western Conference bracket through the regular season, now the real work begins. Will the happy-go-lucky persona that has resurfaced translate to the grit and grind and intense scrutiny of the playoffs? Will those improved free throws — all things are relative — fall when he’s being fouled intentionally and there’s a series on the line? This is his 10th NBA season, eighth as an All-Star, yet there is so much still to prove.

 


VIDEO: Paul George discusses the Pacers’ struggles

Paul George, Pacers — There’s no better up close witness and authority than James, who had this to say after George went by him like rolling thunder on his way to a slam dunk in Game 2 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals: “He is going to be a great player for a long time.” There has been little reason for anyone to change that opinion during George’s fourth NBA season and second as an All-Star. The question is will he be able to step up and score abundantly and consistently enough to get the Pacers all the way to The Finals? After all, this is an Indiana team that does not exactly pile up points and, having gotten very little out of the midseason acquisitions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, will be challenged to put the ball into the hoop every time out. George forced his way into many of the MVP conversations early in the season with his raised level of play. He is also willing and able to take on the defensive challenge of matching up against the likes of James. But since the All-Star break when the fast-starting Pacers began to at least scrape against — if not run head-on into — the wall, George has not delivered consistently. Maybe it’s the physical toll. Or maybe his concentration drifts. But since the All-Star break, George has shot 50 percent only five times in 26 games and popped in 30 points just twice. Assuming that additional offense is not going to arrive out of thin air in Indy, he’ll have to get back to the production he show during the first half of the season for the Pacers to reach their stated goals.

 


VIDEO: LaMarucs Aldridge explains what Portland has to do down the stretch

LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers – The question over the past several years has been whether the Blazers can put a good enough team around Aldridge to make him want to re-sign and stay to take them to the next level. But then the other side of the coin is whether the high-scoring slick forward is the one who can get them there. It’s been three years now since Brandon Roy was the main cog in the machine, Greg Oden was still a hope and Aldridge was the up-and-comer. While he’s cracked through the ceiling to become a member of the Western Conference All-Star team, it’s also true that he’s done most of his best work in the first half of seasons and faded at the finish, just like the Blazers as a whole. The old knock remains that L.A. is content to shoot turnaround jumpers rather than working to get to the hoop. He usually responds to the criticism for a time when it gets sharpest, then reverts to form and goes back to shooting jumpers. While Damian Lillard, another All-Star in the starting lineup, can hold his own among the class of elite point guards in the West, Nicolas Batum teases with his sporadic nights of all-around brilliance and Robin Lopez provides a solid defensive anchor in the middle, any success in the playoffs will require Aldridge to stand and deliver.

 


VIDEO: Are the Clippers a serious playoff threat?

Blake Griffin, Clippers — Four years into his NBA career, he’s a four-time All-Star and still only 25 years old. He’s become far less than just the sergeant at arms of Lob City, working on his mid-range jumper and the defense that had been rightly criticized in the past. New coach Doc Rivers has demanded more out of Griffin and he’s delivered, especially during the long stretch when Chris Paul was sidelined by a separated shoulder and the Clippers could have plummeted in the Western Conference playoff race and lost home court advantage in the first round. Now the challenge will be to maintain his level of improved play and concentration into the postseason. In the 2011-12 season, Griffin dropped from 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game to 19.1 and 6.9 in the playoffs. In 2012-13, he went from 18.8 and 8.3 to 13.2 and 5.5. Now even though he’s got a much improved DeAndre Jordan playing with him in the middle and Paul still orchestrating the attack as the game’s best ball handler, it is a raised level of play that’s expected and required to make the Clippers real challengers for the conference crown.

 


VIDEO: Nets poised to make noise in playoffs

Deron Williams, Nets — It’s easy — too easy — to pick on Joe Johnson and what’s left of that insane six-year, $119 million contract that he got from Atlanta and that the Nets are still paying and say he’s got to live up to it. For one, it was never going to happen. For another, Nets owner Mikhail Prokorov can probably find the loose change in his sofa cushions to pay it off and not break a sweat. On the other hand, the Nets forked over $98 million to Williams in the expectation that he would be the centerpiece to the championship construction project in Brooklyn. For all the moves that general manager Billy King did to add Johnson, trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and to sign Andrei Kirilenko, it was all predicated on Williams being the All-Star performer who was considered to be at the very top of the point guard class before everything blew up in Utah. After he started another season underperforming and underachieving due to ankle problems and eventually asking out of the starting lineup, Williams has come back since the All-Star break to lead the Nets back as they’ve made their charge up through the standings. But Prokorov did not endorse the highest payroll in the league to get the No. 5 — or even No. 4 — seed in the Eastern Conference. Williams is the one charged with the task of making sure there isn’t another first-round playoff flameout, especially at the hands of another undermanned Bulls team. There’s much to prove here.

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

Blazers needing a big boost from Aldridge’s return to lineup

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: This all-access look inside the Portland Trail Blazers sheds some light on their season

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Stare at it long enough and you’ll get dizzy.

Those Western Conference standings that saw the Portland Trail Blazers among the best of the best for the better part of this season have suddenly flipped. Instead of tapering their way into the playoffs, the Blazers in the same boat as the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks — sweating out their playoff prospects each night.

Not long ago, the reverse was true. LaMarcus Aldridge was playing at an MVP level. Damian Lillard was dazzling as he avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. Swingmen Wes Matthews and Nic Batum were shooting the lights out as underrated starters. Center Robin Lopez was the surprise pickup of the offseason.

Now, the Blazers are in a pressure-packed race to the finish.

And they know it. The sense of urgency surrounding this team is palpable with just 10 games left. The Blazers are the only team in the Western Conference playoff mix playing sub-.500 basketball (3-7) over their last 10 games. My colleague, Fran Blinebury, was spot on when he insisted that the Blazers are letting their season slip away during this post-All-Star swoon.

They need a lift in the worst way heading into tonight’s game against Atlanta at Philips Arena (7:30 ET, League Pass), losers of three straight games and nine of their last 13. Portland hopes to get a big lift in the form of Aldridge, who missed the past seven games with a lower back injury. The chances of him returning to his MVP form from earlier this season are slim. But at least they’ll have him back as the conduit to an offense that has been among the league’s best all season.

Even that doesn’t guarantee the Blazers will survive a wicked and rugged Western Conference playoff chase that is as good as it’s been in years. There’s no sense in examining the good or bad times now. There’s only these final 10 games and the need to get back into a playoff gear.

“You have to understand it for what it is,” Lillard said. “When you’re hot, you know you’re playing well but you have to stay focused. And when you hit that bump in the road and you lose some games, and we’re struggling right now, you have to stick with it. We have to keep grinding and keep playing. And that’s where we’re at right now. We had that high moment. We knew some adversity was going to come. And it’s come. We just have to keep playing and stick together.”

Aldridge, one of the veteran leaders on this team, was adamant about the tough times coming at some point. He didn’t know that they’d come at his expense, with the injuries. He knew they would be a part of the Blazers’ season, though. They always do.

“I’ve seen it before, we had one of those good teams back in the day and injuries hit,” he said. “You have one guy go down and you have a good team, and one injury to the wrong guy or somebody not being right can definitely change your season. That’s why earlier in the season I was stressing taking care of our business while we were hot and winning as many games as we could so we’d have that cushion when we needed it later in the season and guys were beat up. We’re not a lock for the playoffs now, but if we take care of our business, we should make it.”


VIDEO: Things looked good for the Blazers before the All-Star break

They certainly aren’t acting panicked. Thursday morning’s shootaround concluded with the requisite long-distance shooting contest (which was won by Thomas Robinson), an event you’d expect to see from a team confident it can hold onto the West’s No. 5 spot it occupies.

Looks, however, can sometimes be deceiving. Aldridge and Lillard know exactly what’s at stake as the leaders of this team. Portland coach Terry Stotts does, too. Adding extra pressure, though, makes no sense.

While Aldridge prides himself on analyzing every detail, Stotts has kept an even keel all season, digesting the highs and lows the same way.

But even he recognized there would be some upheaval at the All-Star break, when injuries set in and the rotation had to be tweaked accordingly.

“We’ve had to change how we’ve been playing,” he said. “LaMarcus has been in and out of the lineup. Joel Freeland, who was a big part of the rotation, got hurt right before the All-Star game. That was part of it. Integrating some other guys, C.J. McCollum got healthy right around then, so we had to integrate him. A big part of our success was how well we’d been playing offensively. We’ve improved defensively the last 25 games. Our defensive numbers have improved but offensively, for whatever reason … players are so good in this league that offensively, you have to trust that will work out for you. But right now, getting LA back, there was a little bit of a transition period getting back and we have to go through that. Time’s getting short, everybody knows that we have 10 games left, and we have to take care of business.”

No one knows that better than Aldridge, who has watched the Blazers bog down in his absence from the rotation.

“I definitely had a chance to watch,” he said. “But it’s not the same when you’re not out there. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just doesn’t flow the same when I’m not out there. It flows a little bit different when I’m out there. It’s hard to assess it when I’m not out there. I think everybody is looking in the mirror right now trying to figure out what the can do better.”

Lillard, who has endured an education on being opponents’ No. 1 defensive target in Aldridge’s absence, is convinced that the Blazers aren’t rattled.

“The confidence definitely is not shattered,” he said. “There’s just a different pressure in the West. You can’t just be good, you have to be outstanding. We’ve got 45 wins and the Clippers have 50 wins and the Thunder 52 and they’re top three in the West. They have five more wins, seven more wins than we do and we could drop out of the playoffs mix if we don’t handle our business. I think that speaks for itself. Six through nine in the West would all be third in the East. That says it all. We just can’t get caught up in what everybody else is saying about us. What matters is if we’re going to stay locked in and take care of our business until the very end.”

At this rate, it could take until the very end for the Blazers to lock down the playoff spot that looked like a sure thing just months ago.


VIDEO: Terry Stotts talks about his team’s struggles after a loss to Orlando

Blazers letting season slip away

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron, Bosh come up big against the Blazers

So it’s come to this for the Trail Blazers.

“It was a fine line,” said Terry Stotts.

When coaches and players start talking about fine lines, we usually know what side they’re standing on.

This time it was Chris Bosh getting a piece of Damian Lillard’s layup that resulted in a 93-91 loss at Miami on Monday night. It was the second straight defeat to open another critical five-game road trip for the Blazers. It was their eighth loss in the last 10 games. It was one more black mark on an awful road record — 6-13 — since Jan. 1.

Yes, the Blazers are playing without injured All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss his seventh straight game with a back contusion Tuesday night in Orlando ( 7 ET, League Pass) with no word yet on a return. Just as important, the Blazers have been playing without a sense of urgency or purpose, especially at the defensive end for more than a month, collectively shrugging their shoulders and figuring they’ll be able to shoot themselves out of their funk with the next barrage of 3-balls. Whenever that happens.

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

Wesley Matthews (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE)

“There’s no reason to panic or start to worry about the season getting away from us,” Wesley Matthews said a couple of weeks ago after the Blazers lost in Houston. “We all know what we’re capable of doing. We all know how to play. It’s just a matter of us playing our game.”

That would seem to be the biggest part of the problem. While the Blazers have the No. 1 rated offense, they rely far too much on outscoring their opponents rather than trying to stop them. They’re careless with the basketball, slinging around difficult or careless passes and telling themselves that somebody will make a shot when they need it.

The Blazers were the surprise of the first month of the season. Nobody, even the Blazers, expected that to hold up in the face of the consistent play of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Yet on March 1, after beating the Nuggets at home, Portland was 41-18 and firmly in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Now the Blazers, as the fifth seed, are only a game up on Golden State at No. 6 and only three games from dropping all the way behind Dallas and out of the playoffs completely.

Portland’s last extended road trip was a 1-4 disaster, bottoming out when Aldridge crashed to the floor in San Antonio, landing hard on his back. Then the Blazers flew to Charlotte to open another five-game set — and it looked like the entire roster had simply missed the flight. They lost in to the Bobcats 124-94 on Saturday before Monday’s loss to Miami.

With a schedule that is fast getting late — 11 games left — and a season of goodwill that is slipping rapidly through their hands, there is a combination of denial about what’s happening and a refusal to change. Nic Batum continues to ride the roller coaster offensively, even in the absence of Aldridge and the need for him to step up. Matthews and Dorell Wright are careless handling the ball. And when the bombs-away approach isn’t working, they’re in deep, deep trouble.

“I don’t think it’s a larger issue,” Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the disaster in Charlotte. “We played bad. They played well.

“If you kill us, you’re gonna look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.”

Yes, write it down. Portland went into Miami on Monday night and took the Heat to the edge. But LeBron James made the bucket to win the game, Lillard didn’t and the Blazers came out living in that gray area of relativism.

In and out. Make or miss. A fine line where teams in trouble seem to spend too much time tip-toeing on the wrong side.

“We’re tired of losing close games,” Stotts said. “But you can’t help but be proud of the way we competed.”

It’s come to this for the Blazers. Moral victories instead of real ones.