Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard, from stopped to surging, takes Portland back toward top

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Damian Lillard, prior to an inbound with 0.9 seconds left and the Trail Blazers down two points in a closeout playoff game, stood almost cryptically still.

The Trail Blazers weren’t supposed to be here. They went 33-49 last season, and though they had a solid young core, few thought they could take a major step in only a year. We predicted they’d go .500 and miss the playoffs. An ESPN panel had them 10th in the Western Conference with 39 wins. Yahoo Sports also gave them 39 wins, and Sports Illustrated pegged them 11th in the conference.

Without warning, Lillard took off like a bat out of hell.

The Trail Blazers point guard raced by defenders, received the inbound pass and made a jaw-dropping, buzzer-beating, series-ending, city-inspiring, legacy-defining 3-pointer to give Portland its first playoff win 14 years.

The final score Friday was Trail Blazers 99, Rockets 98 – and the tension of a tight game that was never separated by more than four points for the excruciating final 17 minutes only fueled the celebration afterward.

Lillard ran around a suddenly crowded court and popped his jersey – a gesture The New York Times once said would never reach the NBA because it put too emphasis on the team over the individual. Then, the second-year point guard grabbed the microphone and shouted “Rip Citaaaaayyyyy!!!”

Party on, Portland.

The Trail Blazers and their fans have been through so much – consecutive sweeps by the Lakers, taking the Mavericks to Game 7 before losing, the Jail Blazers, bottoming out at 21-61, drafting Greg Oden, more early playoff exits, losing Brandon Roy, believing they could lose LaMarcus Aldridge – and Lillard’s shot released all their frustration and turned it into jubilation.

Lillard didn’t singlehandedly save the franchise, but he’s breathed life into it like nobody since Roy. First Lillard won Rookie of the Year, and now this. Friday, he finished with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-10 on 3-pointers. He’s quickly earned a place in any discussion about the NBA’s most-clutch players.

Aldridge (30 points and 13 rebounds) was nearly as good, but Houston’s two stars nearly outdid Portland’s and sent this series to a Game 7.

James Harden (34 points on 15 shots) lifted the Rockets late, and Dwight Howard (26 points and 11 rebounds) carried them late. Howard scored 13 straight Houston points, accounting for all the team’s scoring in the final 8:50, until Chandler Parsons made a putback that put the Rockets up two with 0.9 seconds remaining.

Before the final inbound, Parsons, perhaps expecting to switch back on a screen, switched with Patrick Beverley (Houston’s top perimeter defender) onto Lillard. Then, Lillard’s sudden burst toward an inbounding Batum created an easy pass and open, though long, shot.

The basket that sent Portland into delirium also began an offseason of scrutiny for the Rockets.

They signed Howard last summer, ratcheting up expectations to championship level. They have two legitimate stars and arguably the NBA’s best role players. Nothing seemed out of reach.

But a reasonable analysis suggests they needed a year for their new players to jell and another offseason to re-stock the roster after trimming the requisite salary to sign Howard. After all, not even LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won a title their first season with the Heat.

Don’t count on reasonable, though. Howard is the NBA’s easiest scapegoat, and people will line up to criticize him.

Patience is not a virtue in this league. Not in Houston and not in Portland.

No team had gone longer since its last playoff-series win that the Trail Blazers, and the wait was excruciating. And also worth it.

It was only a matter of time until Lillard and his Trail Blazers escaped their malaise, took off and brought Portland to its feet once again.

Check out Top 10 plays from Timberwolves last season

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) celebrates with guard Andrew Wiggins (22) after Towns blocked a shot by Orlando Magic forward Tobias Harris (12) at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime during an NBA basketball game in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. The Magic won 104-101. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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Minnesota is everyone’s team to watch this coming season — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggings, strong supporting cast, now all coached by Tom Thibodeau.

But they already were a lot of fun last season. Check out their Top 10 plays from last season.

Heat owner Tweet to Chris Bosh: “look forward to seeing in camp”

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 26:  Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat looks on against the Brooklyn Nets during their game at the Barclays Center on January 26, 2016 in New York City.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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This is the clearest sign yet that Chris Bosh is going to suit up for the Miami Heat this season.

The past two years Bosh has missed the end of the season with a very serious blood clotting issue. He has been working out, saying this week he’s hooping. He’s been frustrated with how the Heat have handled his health situation, including leaving this season hanging. But it sounds like the owner wants him to be ready to play — and owners get what owners want.

There are questions still to be answered: Will Bosh still be on blood thinners, and will he come off them on game days? Will there be restrictions on his travel? Will there be restrictions on his minutes?

But Bosh wants to play, and it sounds like the Heat owner is down with that.

The Heat are a much better team with Bosh on the court — he averaged 19.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, shot 36.7 percent from three and a true shooting percentage of 57.1, plus he had a PER of 20.2. He was an All-Star, but couldn’t play in the game because of the clotting issue.

With Bosh, the Heat are in the mix for a playoff spot this season. The question is, will they have him for the full season.

Sixers waive both Carl Landry, just acquired Tibor Pleiss

Philadelphia 76ers' Carl Landry smiles after making a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Philadelphia. The 76ers beat the Pelicans 107-93. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
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Carl Landry and Tibor Pleiss are going to get paid this year — they both had fully guaranteed contracts for this season.

But they are not going to be playing for the Philadelphia 76ers this season — both were waived by the team on Thursday. This was not unexpected. Both players salaries will count against the cap for the Sixers (they are still $16 million below the league salary floor).

Once they clear waivers, both players will be unrestricted free agents (Landry likely will latch on with another team for the league minimum, Pleiss may as well or could head overseas).

Landry will still make $6.5 million (fourth highest on the Sixers) but would have been battling for minutes in crowded and young frontcourt with Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor (among other potential players, for example the Sixers are high on Anthony Barber).

Pleiss is in the same boat in terms of minutes, he was acquired from the Jazz along with a couple of second round draft picks just a few days back (the Sixers sent Utah Kendall Marshall, who was promptly waived). That trade was really about getting the picks — a very Sam Hinkie move by Bryan Colangelo.

This didn’t move the needle much on the Sixers season.

Trail Blazers Noah Vonleh out 3-4 weeks following leg surgery

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 17: Noah Vonleh #21 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots over DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center April 17, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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This is a huge season — a contract kind of season of sorts — for Noah Vonleh in Portland. The team has an option on him next season (the third of his rookie deal), and to impress people he is going to have to earn minutes at the four in front of Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, and Ed Davis.

The Blazers have high hopes for Vonleh, he was a central part of the Nicolas Batum trade with Charlotte. However, watching Vonleh at Summer League — 12 points a game on 46.3 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds a game in more than 30 minutes a night — he didn’t show the development anyone had hoped to see. He should have dominated at that level. He didn’t.

Now there another injury setback for him.

He should be good to go around the start of training camp at the end of September.

But he can’t afford a slow start in training camp (that set him back his rookie season). He needs to show what he can do from day one, or Portland is going to move on without him.