Three Stars of the Night: Hello, Damian Lillard

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There’s nothing like a nice three-course NBA meal. The appetizer was fried something or other, as the Hawks burned the Bobcats with 57 percent shooting in a convincing 113-90 victory. The main entree involved the Knicks introducing the Lakers to the benefits of something called “passing” in a 116-107 beatdown. For dessert, Portland’s stud point guard Damian Lillard passed on the crème brûlée and ate up another one of France’s greatest imports instead in a 98-90 win over the Spurs. Here’s hoping you saved some room for the Three Stars of the Night:

Third Star: Tyson Chandler – (18 points, 5-for-5 FG shooting)

Unless you’re playing in MTV’s Rock and Jock basketball where there’s 10-pointers, there’s pretty much no way you should be able to score 18 points on just 5 field goal attempts. That’s the name of the game for Tyson Chandler, though. Chandler rolled hard to the rim and created contact, going to the line a whopping 14 times against a Lakers defense that rotates with the speed of a zombie stuck in quicksand. On the other end, Chandler did a decent job containing Dwight Howard and protecting the rim, but his value really showed after Carmelo Anthony left the game with an ankle injury. Nearly every successful fourth quarter possession for the Knicks generated from Tyson Chandler loosening things up in the high pick-and-roll, and his two back-tap offensive rebounds over Howard in the game’s final minute truly served as the dagger. The numbers weren’t gaudy, but this is the type of performance from Chandler we tend to take for granted.

Second Star: Carmelo Anthony – (30 points on 10-for-15 shooting in 23 minutes)

Anthony was absolutely cookin’ early on against the Lakers, helping the Knicks jump out to a huge 41-point first quarter. Melo dropped an insane 22 points in that first quarter (a career-high) and became the first player to score at least 30 points in 23 minutes or less since 2006. Anthony exited the game with a sprained ankle after a tough fall, but hopefully that won’t discourage him from putting his head down and getting to the rim like he has most of the season. Many hypothesized that the Knicks (and Anthony) would be better if he played at the 4, but I don’t think anyone saw this type of production coming. It’s very early for talks of titles or MVP awards, but it’s hard to argue that the Knicks and Melo aren’t, at the very least, contenders for both.

First Star: Damian Lillard – (29 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists)

How about that for a coming out party? Lillard has easily been the best rookie so far this year (get healthy and we’ll talk, Anthony Davis) and tonight he showed why. Young point guards can sometimes struggle to toe the line between distributing and scoring, but Lillard has a knack for picking his spots. His little step back jumper is a killer move, but Lillard’s control on drives to the rim is breathtaking to watch. The polished shooting stroke will garner most of the attention, but watch Lillard’s footwork sometime. He just utilizes space so well and rarely looks wild or out of control. It helped that Tony Parker had some tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back, but take nothing away from Lillard’s performance — he’s the real deal.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

Meek Mill gets out of jail, takes helicopter to 76ers-Heat, rings bell pregame

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Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid had been one of the most notable NBA players leading the charge for the #FreeMeekMill movement. The rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native and Sixers fan, has been incarcerated for violating the terms of his probation multiple times.

At the heart of the movement to free Meek Mill is the idea of comparative justice, that he has been unfairly targeted because of his race as an absorber of punishment from the penal system despite it being a decade since he committed his crime. People from Embiid to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft have made their voices heard on the subject.

Today, Meek Mill was released from prison and was sent a special gift: the opportunity to fly via helicopter, provided by 76ers minority owner Michael Rubin, to Game 5 between the Sixers and Miami Heat.

When he arrived at the game, the rapper rung the ceremonial bell before tip-off.

Not a couple of hours fresh out of the joint.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.