The Trail Blazers started 20-15 last season, heavily relying on their starting lineup. At that point of the season, Portland’s starters played 72 percent of the team’s minutes, tops in the league. That heavy load proved too taxing, as the Trail Blazers faded to a 33-49 finish.
A year later, the starters have changed, but Portland coach Terry Stotts is using the same strategy. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez – the Trail Blazers’ starters in all 10 games – have played 72 percent of the team’s minutes, again No. 1 in the NBA.
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There are encouraging signs for the Trail Blazers, though.
Mo Williams, acquired as a free agent this summer, has played much more (26.9 minutes per game) than any Portland reserve did last season. Dorell Wright (14.4 minutes per game) has shot well and could probably handle more minutes. Thomas Robinson has shown flashes, and maybe he could fill a bigger role, too. C.J. McCollum has been injured, but later in the season, perhaps he carves out a spot in the rotation.
And maybe after doing it last year, Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Aldridge are more equipped to handle big minutes.
It would be extremely presumptuous to assume the Trail Blazers will fade like last season. But, once again, they’re going to have to deal with their starters playing a ton of minutes.
It’s not an insurmountable challenge, but it’s a challenge they didn’t meet last year.
Timberwolves Zach LaVine knows how to finish alley-oop (VIDEO)
The Dunk Contest is not going to be the same this year without Zach LaVine.
The man has the hops to get up and knows how to finish — Tuesday night he took a not-very-good alley-oop pass from Nemanja Bjelica and turned it into an awesome throwdown. LaVine finished the night with 18 points.
However, Kawhi Leonard dropped 34 and sparked the comeback as the Spurs won the game, 122-114.
Three Things We Learned: Chris Paul’s bad luck trouble for Clippers
1) Chris Paul is out six weeks, and the Clippers are about to slide into tough playoff spot. It’s not fair to call Chris Paul “injury prone” — trying to fight through a screen his thumb got caught in the shorts of Russell Westbrook, which led to a torn ligament in his thumb which will require surgery. That is the definition of “fluke injury.” So was the play where he broke his hand in the playoff series against Portland last year (trying to defend a layup by Gerald Henderson). CP3 is much more in a Lemony Snicket place: A series of unfortunate events.
However, the Clippers are going to pay the price for Paul’s latest injury — they are going to slide down the standings in the 6-8 weeks he is out (until early March). Especially with Blake Griffin still out for a week or two (knee surgery). The Clippers lose CP3 as they enter the toughest part of their schedule: After being home to the Timberwolves Thursday, the Clippers have 10-of-11 on the road, heavily against teams over .500, plus Paul will miss three games against the Warriors.
As you read this the Clippers are the four seed in the West, but they are just four games up on being the seven seed — which would mean a long road through San Antonio to get out of the first round of the playoffs (climb back up to the six seed and they could get Houston in the first round). It’s hard to imagine the Clippers holding on to home court in the first round even with Paul back for the last month of the season. Healthy and playing like they did the first month of the season (remember that?), the Clippers might beat the Spurs/Rockets in the first round, but it would be a brutal series. The good news for Los Angeles is the Clippers are not going to slide all the way out of the playoffs — they have an 11-game cushion over the nine seed. They will not fall that far.
2) It’s James Harden’s turn: his triple-double not enough to get Rockets win. The Rockets were one of the best teams in the NBA against teams below .500, starting the season 21-1 against them. Then, in the past week, they have come out flat and dropped two against lesser squads. The first was last week against Minnesota — at least that’s a team loaded with young talent that can put together a good game.
However, Tuesday’s loss to Miami was ugly. Granted, the Heat have not rolled over and have played hard through tough times (especially against good teams, they have seven wins against teams over .500 this season). And they do have Hassan Whiteside (14 points and 15 rebounds Tuesday). Still, this is a game the Rockets need to win. Especially since they got center Clint Capela back in the lineup (but they were missing Ryan Anderson and it showed, their spacing on offense was poor).
Instead, the Rockets wasted an impressive triple-double from James Harden. 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a loss to the Heat 109-103.
3) Kawhi Leonard is quietly having a not so quiet season. Kawhi Leonard is having an MVP-level season… well, most seasons he’d be in the mix, this year Russell Westbrook and James Harden are running away from the pack. But Leonard is right in the middle of the next tier of that award race — with Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and everyone else vying for votes (MVP voters choose five, who gets those last three slots will be interesting). Leonard is averaging 24.8 points per game, shooting 41 percent from three, pulling down 5.7 rebounds a game, plus playing lock-down defense to lead a Spurs team that is 32-9 this season. It’s just that he’s not out there trumpeting his own case for the award. That’s not his style.
You could see it Tuesday night, when Leonard dropped 34 points to spark a come-from-behind Spurs win against the Timberwolves. Don’t sleep on Leonard and the Spurs, this is a dangerous team.
Kawhi Leonard’s 34 points rally Spurs past Timberwolves, 122-114 (VIDEO)
Minnesota’s 41 points in the second were a season high for any period and the most points in a quarter by a San Antonio opponent this season.
The Spurs were more active in the second half, holding the Timberwolves to 43 points.
Timberwolves: LaVine has 29 points, nine rebounds and three assists in two games since returning from a two-game absence caused by a bruised left hip. . Minnesota is 4-22 when allowing 100-plus points. . The Timberwolves’ last win against San Antonio was April 8, 2014, a 110-91 victory at home. . Minnesota’s previous high for a quarter was 39 points in the first against Orlando on Nov. 9. Its previous high for the second period was 35 in that same game against the Magic. . The Timberwolves are 5-15 on the road.
Spurs: Leonard has scored in double figures in 73 straight games, the seventh-longest active streak in the NBA behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins. . Parker collected his 6,500th career assist, joining James as the only two active players with 6,500 assists and 18,000 points. John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton and Oscar Robertson are the only other players to reach those milestones. . San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was assessed his fourth technical foul of the season with 3:41 left in the first quarter for berating Michael Smith over a non-call. After Aldridge appeared to be shoved from behind on an attempted offensive rebound, Popovich walked the sideline screaming and shadowing Smith and had to be restrained near midcourt by Spurs assistant Ettore Messina. . The previous high for free throws attempted by an opponent was 38 by Sacramento on Oct. 27.
Timberwolves: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.
Spurs: Host the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
In salary cap move, Atlanta trades Mo Williams to Denver
But just because he wasn’t playing didn’t lead the Cavaliers to shed his salary. That was dead money that could be useful in a trade — such as landing Kyle Korver. The Hawks landed Mo Williams in that deal (along with Mike Dunleavy Jr. and a pick).
Now the Hawks have moved Williams on to Denver in a salary cap move for both teams, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.
Atlanta is trading guard Mo Williams and cash to Denver, league sources tell @TheVertical. Hawks will sign Gary Neal to a 10-day contract.