Portland’s bandwagon getting full as Lakers come to town


As you read this, the Portland Trail Blazers are the top seed in the Western Conference. Which after five whole games has all the meaning of a politician’s campaign promise, even in a 66 game season. Few people mention them as title contenders.

But if you were watching the other day they beat Oklahoma City comfortably. A few people took notice. Thursday night they get the Los Angeles Lakers, win that (and the Lakers always struggle in Portland) and that Trail Blazers bandwagon is going to start to fill up.

How did this happen? Portland was a team built for Brandon Roy and Greg Oden to be the stars, but their bodies betrayed them and the Blazers had to go another direction.

They went that direction fast — every season since ’05-06 the Trail Blazers have been one of the three slowest-playing teams in the league. This season they are the fourth fastest (97.4 possessions per game, stats via Hoopdata). With that they have maintained their offensive efficiency, which at 104.7 points per 100 possessions is fifth best in the NBA.

Part of the reason for that success is they are not settling for jumpers any more, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward.

The Blazers took a lot of shots (26) at the rim (against the Thunder), something they have done much more of this season. About28 of Portland’s 83 shots per game – 33.7 percent — have come at the rim; such close shots accounted for just 30.5 percent of its overall attempts last season, and considering how often this team is getting to the line now, those stats undersell the degree to which it is going to the basket. LaMarcus Aldridge is shooting more jumpers, but he hasn’t reduced his close shots or free throws in the process. Gerald Wallace is barely shooting long two-pointers at all so far, preferring to either fly to the rim or shoot threes.

They also have the fifth best defense in the league, 94.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.

That’s’ a 10 point per 100 possessions differential. The only teams with better ones are the Heat, Bulls and Nuggets. (You expect the Heat and Bulls, the Nuggets are another team surprising us early.)

Can they keep it up? That is the big question. Can they continue to defend at this level — they were an average defensive team the last few years, are they just playing well in a hot streak to start the season or are they this good? Will other teams’ threes start to fall? Portland has six players averaging double-digits in scoring per game, can they maintain that kind of balance? Can Aldridge be the go-to guy in the clutch? Jamal Crawford can keep up this pace, but can Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas? Portland has been a great rebounding team this season after being weak at it in years past, will they revert?

I’m not convinced they are contenders, not yet. But I also don’t think all the numbers are flukes. In a Western Conference in transition Portland is going to be a top-four seed in West and come the playoffs they will be a handful for any of the preseason contender

Cavaliers get Nance Jr., Thompson, Hood back from injuries

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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers are closer to being at full strength.

Forwards Larry Nance Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Rodney Hood all returned from injuries on Friday night as Cleveland, which has been riddled with injuries all season, hosted the Phoenix Suns. Acting coach Larry Drew said none of the players will start and all will be on minutes’ restrictions.

Drew, who is filling in while coach Tyronn Lue is on leave to address his own health, plans to keep his starting lineup intact and ease the returning players into the rotation.

LeBron James, Jose Calderon, George Hill, Jeff Green and Kevin Love were scheduled to started against Phoenix, which has lost nine in a row. Drew said he and Lue will talk again Saturday about lineup changes for the upcoming trip to Brooklyn, Miami and Charlotte.

“I really didn’t want to disrupt the starting five that we have out there right now and those guys will be playing limited minutes, so I wanted to get them slowly back and acclimated to what we’re doing,” Drew said. “There’s a chance that there could be some early substitutions to get the guys in there. I’m not ruling that out, but right now I just kind of want to stay with the flow, stay with what we’ve done the last couple of ballgames and then we’ll probably after tonight we’ll see as far as where we stand as far as starters are concerned.”

Thompson missed nine games with a sprained right ankle, Nance Jr. was out four with a hamstring issue and Hood was out the past three games with a bad back.

Drew said he did not know if Lue will accompany the team on its trip.

But while the Cavs are healthier than they’ve been in weeks, the team is still missing Kyle Korver, who is with his family in Iowa following the death of his brother, and rookie Cedi Osman, who is sidelined with a left hip flexor strain.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out for Bucks-Bulls with ankle injury

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss the Milwaukee Bucks’ home game Friday night against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The Bucks ruled out Antetokounmpo earlier Friday.

Antetokounmpo got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.


PBT Extra: What is going on in San Antonio?

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For the last two decades, there was less drama around the San Antonio Spurs than the recent Russian election. The Lakers were the soap opera, the Spurs and Tim Duncan just kept winning titles.

Not this season. Kawhi Leonard has missed all but nine games, his teammates are asking when he’s going to returnTony Parker — who is playing — says his quad tendon injury was far worse, and the Spurs organization is springing leaks like the Titanic.

What does all that mean? I get into it in this latest PBT Extra.

Short term, Leonard’s return or non-return will have a serious impact on the Western Conference playoffs.

Long term, after the Spurs offer Leonard the designated player max extension this summer (as is expected), everything will get back to normal.

The time Chauncey Billups tried to trick teams into believing he’d be a bad teammate

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In 2011, the Knicks amnestied Chauncey Billups. Unlike traditional waivers, amnesty waivers didn’t require claiming teams to pay Billups’ full salary. They could bid a partial amount – New York on the hook for the rest – and the highest bid would get Billups.

So, it was practically a forgone conclusion someone would claim Billups. The only questions were which team and for how much?

But Billups didn’t want to go to the highest bidder. He wanted to become a free agent and choose his destination – even though his contract and the Collective Bargaining Agreement put him on a different course.

So, Billups – a consummate professional throughout his career – threatened to become a problem. Adrian Wojnarowski at the time:

Wojnarowski now:

I remember talking to Chauncey on a Saturday morning one day. He was very determined that no team would put a waiver claim in on him, because he was headed to Miami. He was going to go play with the Heat. He had his bags packed. But he needed a team not to claim him. And he and I were just talking about this. I read this quote back to him recently, and we were laughing.

He went on this two-, three-minute rant about that basically, “I’m just going to be a complete asshole wherever I go if you claim me.” And so, he went on this rant. And he read that, and he kept going. And finally he stopped. I don’t even remember if I asked him a question. He just started when I called him. And at the end, there was like this pause. And he goes, “Do you think anyone is going to buy it?”

The Clippers submitted the highest bid for Billups, and he quickly got on board. Even though they traded for Chris Paul at point guard shortly after, Billups of course was a model teammate and veteran leader. Late in his career, he couldn’t stay healthy enough to contribute much on the court. But the Clippers still valued his presence. He even re-signed with them the following summer.

This was such a readable bluff – which says plenty about Billups’ character.