Portland’s bandwagon getting full as Lakers come to town

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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

Warriors’ rookie Jordan Bell goes off the backboard to himself for dunk

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The best part of this is the stunned reaction of the Warriors bench.

The Warriors had taken total control of the game against Dallas in the second half, and with a few minutes left Steve Kerr emptied his bench in garbage time. That’s when rookie Jordan Bell made the play of the night: He blocked Dwight Powell‘s shot then leaked out, JaVale McGee batted the ball ahead to him, and Bell threw the ball off the backboard for a self alley-oop. He got an and-one on the play.

The move didn’t sit well with everyone, there is an unwritten rule about showboating in a blowout game. Draymond Green had thoughts on that — he has thoughts on everything and isn’t afraid to share them — and he came to Bell’s defense speaking to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Listen man, when you get on the basketball floor, I don’t care if you get out there with two minutes to go up 25 or with two minutes to go down 25, somebody is evaluating you. So you gotta play the game just like it’s tied up or if you’re up four or if you’re down four. You gotta play the game the same way. Somebody is evaluating you. So if you want to throw it off the backboard, feel free and dunk the ball. He got an And One. It was a great play. So, I got no message for him. Do what you do. Play basketball. That’s what he did. I don’t get all up into the whole ‘Ah man, they’re winning by this much, that’s bad.’ Says who? Dunk the ball. What’s the difference between if he threw it off the backboard and dunked it as opposed to grabbing it and dunking it?”

Or, put another way, if you don’t want a player to throw down the massive alley-oop dunk on you, play better defense in the first place.

Mario Chalmers trips James Harden, Harden shoves him back (VIDEO)

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Memphis came back on an 18-2 run late to in the fourth quarter to knock off the Houston Rockets, a very impressive road win that reminds us Memphis is not a team to be written off.

This is the play everyone will be talking about — James Harden squared up looking for a fight.

Mario Chalmers got knocked down by a Harden screen, and while on the ground tries to trip up Harden, and Harden turns around and shoves him. Harden squared up, but as happens in the NBA everyone stepped in, and nothing actually happened.

Neither man was ejected. The referees called it an offensive foul on Harden for the pick, then there were double technicals. Fines may follow from the league.

Metta World Peace joins Lakers’ G League team as ass’t coach

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — Metta World Peace has joined the Los Angeles Lakers’ NBA G League affiliate as a player development coach.

The veteran NBA forward was added to the South Bay Lakers’ staff Monday.

World Peace played 16 NBA seasons for six franchises, including six years with the Lakers from 2009-10 and 2015-17. He was a standout defensive player who won a championship alongside Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in 2010.

While he hasn’t publicly retired, the forward formerly known as Ron Artest will assist South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl and his staff.

World Peace earned the longest suspension in NBA history for his role in the Indiana Pacers’ infamous brawl in the stands at Detroit in November 2004, but he matured into a valued veteran leader for the Lakers.

LaVar Ball calls out Wizards, Marcin Gortat doesn’t think that was smart

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“I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that, and I let him know after the game… (I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

That was the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley after he tormented Lonzo Ball on opening night, and he speaks for a number of other players I have heard from who said father LaVar wrote checks that Lonzo is going to have to cash, and guys were going to go at him. Not every night, but enough.

Since that rough opener the rookie has had a decent couple of games — averaging 18.5 points, 11 assists, and eight rebounds a night, not efficient but playing better — going against Eric Bledsoe (a capable defender who had checked out mentally in Phoenix) and Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans. Wednesday night John Wall and the Wizards come to town, and that’s another level of competition.

My least favorite thing about this Lakers season is the way the L.A. media sticks a microphone in front of LaVar Ball after every game. I don’t care about LaVar, in the same way I don’t care about the Kardashians.

But what he said has become a thing. After the Lakers loss to the Pelicans LaVar said, “[The Wizards] better beware cause Lonzo ain’t losing again. Not in the same week!”

Wizards’ center Marcin Gortat thought that was funny.

First off, Lonzo is going to lose twice in a week a lot this season — the Lakers are not a good team.

Second, Wall is a top-five NBA point guard by any standard, an All-NBA player who is far more than just quick (although he is that, too). He can shoot, he’s an aggressive defender, and he knows how to set up teammates. He’s going to be more than a handful for Ball. To put it kindly.

Whatever happens Wednesday night (most likely Wall smokes Lonzo) we know one thing for sure: LaVar will say something outlandish. And it will become a thing. The game is secondary for that marketing effort.