Damian Lillard continues to impress at NBA Summer League

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LAS VEGAS — Seven days in Las Vegas is a long time regardless of the occasion, but there are times that it has seemed particularly long this week as four games in a gym watching fringe NBA players play basketball can surprisingly take its toll on a guy. There are always a few moments that make it all worth it, though, and Thursday’s performance from Damian Lillard did just that.

Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers first round draft pick, has been pretty great all week … though he’s somehow slid just a bit under the radar as the game this writer’s been watching has taken place in the other gym. That all changed on Thursday in the Cox Pavilion, however, as the Weber State product didn’t disappoint with yet another impressive performance.

Portland’s new point guard entered the game averaging 26 points while shooting better than 41 percent from beyond the arc through his new team’s first two games and followed that up with an impressive 31 points and seven assists while limiting himself to just three turnovers after committing seven the game prior. It’s tough to tell how much Summer League performances matter, but Lillard’s having one heck of an exhibition season.

The rest of Thursday’s standouts are as follows:

  • Thomas Robinson got the best of Jared Sullinger as the Sacramento Kings beat the Boston Celtics, but since that’s already been written about here, let’s instead single out undrafted free agent Tony Mitchell. The Alabama alumnus scored 13 points off the bench in yet another solid effort as he continues to show that he can put the ball in the bucket at this level.
  • The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in large part thanks to the play of last year’s No. 2 pick Derrick Williams, but Coby Karl’s shooting was probably the more fun aspect to watch (no offense to Derrick’s crazy drives to the bucket, of course). Karl, the son of George made six of his seven 3-point attempts en route to 18 points off the bench — and blocked a shot to boot.
  • Dionte Christmas led the Boston Celtics in scoring on Thursday and, although it happened in a loss, it was a good look for him as continues to be impressive in Summer League. The most surprising part is that his shot is still falling considering the Celtics completed their eight game since last Monday after previously competing in the Orlando Summer League.
  • Ed Davis continued to impress for the Toronto Raptors on Vegas as he helped his team pick up a close victory over the New York Knicks with 15 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots while taking exactly what he was given — a facet most second-year players are struggling with here in Vegas. Aside from rookie Terrence Ross (2-for-8, five points), the whole Raptors team looked pretty good on the offensive end, but Chris Wright — formerly of the Golden State Warriors — stood out most with 15 points, six rebounds and the usual array of powerful dunks in transition.
  • Tobias Harris was good once again in Vegas with 21 points and 12 rebounds against the D-League Select team, but the well-built wing turned the ball over an unsightly seven times. Tarence Kinsey, former member of the Memphis Grizzlies, scored 14 points as he attempts to return to relevance — and took a solid step toward that with a nice defensive effort in extended minutes on Thursday.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers needed five games to get a win in Vegas, but at least it happened. The way it happened was quite intriguing, too, as Christian Eyenga scoring 22 points — quite a few on jump shots, no less — was not what Summer League fans expected. Julian Khazzouh wasn’t bad either as the Australian big man scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds as a pick-and-pop option alongside Robert Sacre.
  • Tyler Zeller came back to earth for the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 1-for-7 shooting performance after looking much better than that earlier in the week and, not surprisingly, it led to a Cleveland loss. Not all was bad for the Cavs, though, as Tristan Thompson scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting while a reformed Samardo Samuels had 14 points and added five assists.
  • It unfortunately came in a loss, but Adam Morrison was once again impressive for the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night. The former third overall pick hit his usual array of difficult shots on the way to 22 points as he tries to earn his way on to an NBA roster. Terrico White was good off the bench, too, finishing the game with 10 points and four rebounds.
  • The D-League Select Team fell behind early and simply couldn’t recover, though it wasn’t due to a lack of effort. Instead the team just couldn’t convert on the offensive end. Kenny Hayes (15 points) and Leo Lyons (nine points, 10 rebounds) were bright spots, but it simply was not enough.
  • The Knicks’ Summer League squad hasn’t looked very good all week aside from Chris Copeland (who has already wrapped up a training camp invite) and, unfortunately, that was the case again on Thursday afternoon. Copeland, despite missing a crucial bucket late, scored a game-high 17 points while the rest of his team struggled … though new addition Sylven Landesberg was a pleasant surprise with 10 points and no turnovers after playing last season in Israel.
  • Mike Scott, the second round pick of the Atlanta Hawks, led an underwhelming effort for the Atlanta Hawks as they finished up their Summer League schedule with 14 points and seven rebounds.

More action continues on Friday with seven games slated to take place. Hopefully the excitement comes in more than just small spurts.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.