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.

Devin Harris’ brother dies in car crash

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Just awful news for Devin Harris.

Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News

The brother of Mavericks’ guard Devin Harris died Thursday afternoon after an early-morning crash on Central Expressway, officials said.

According to police, at about 1:40 a.m. Thursday morning Bruce Harris, 38, and a 36-year-old male passenger were in their disabled vehicle in the north bound lane of Central Expressway just south of Walnut Hill. A 23-year-old male driver of an Acura sedan and a 23-year-old male passenger were traveling north bound on Central Expressway and struck the back of the disabled vehicle. The impact caused the gas tank of the disabled vehicle to rupture and catch fire. All occupants were transported to Presbyterian Hospital.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban details his two lottery-reform ideas

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NBA lottery reform passed 28-1-1 with the Thunder opposing and Mavericks abstaining.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wasn’t against changing the system. He just had his own ideas of how to do it.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Cuban pitched other members of the league’s board of governors on a system in which the draft is abolished, with teams getting a pool of money to sign rookies based on their records.

“The team with the worst record gets the most money and the team with the best record gets the least money,” Cuban said. “It’s like a free agency. It makes it a lot harder to tank because you don’t know if you get the best players if you’re horrible all the time. “Nobody liked that at all, not a single person.”

Cuban’s other idea was to lock the team with the worst record into a draft slot — either third or fourth — to force teams to compete to avoid being at the bottom. That idea never got discussed in the board of directors meeting.

“Now all of the sudden, if it’s close at the end, you’re going to see teams play as hard as they can because if they end up with the worst record, they don’t get the best pick,” Cuban said, explaining the logic of his idea.”You basically eliminate them from getting the best player. Everybody else would just be the way it is now.

“Adam didn’t like that. That never got to the board of directors, but that one was my favorite. I brought up [the other proposal], but after that one got shot down, I didn’t bring up the other one. When I got no response on the one, I just dropped the other because it was obvious that what they had proposed was going to pass.”

Strange tactic to introduce the most radical plan first and then not propose a more moderate solution because the first idea gained no traction. It’s almost as if Cuban just wants to be a contrarian

Neither of Cuban’s plans would completely solve the issue, because both still incentivize losing.

In the first, worse teams would still get more money to spend on rookies. There’s also stronger incentive to tank when an established successful franchise is positioned to do so for a single year. Rookies won’t be scared off by an injury-plagued season that devolved into a horrific record. Armed with money to spend and banked credibility, those teams can swoop far down then vault right up.

It’s also important to remember the NBA isn’t simply 30 teams competing against each other. It’s also a single business competing against other forms of entertainment. It’s bad financially for the league to have markets that feel hopeless, even if they’re poorly managed. Giving bad teams a little extra money to spend on rookies might not be enough for them to land young players who instill hope.

In the second idea, teams would still jockey to be second-worst vs. third-worst, third-worst vs. fourth-worst, etc. – just as they do now. Bad teams would have to be more careful, but there’d still be plenty of late-season games where a team is clearly better off losing – the same games that create a perception problem now.

Are either of these plans better than the current system? Maybe. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey believes there’s still time to implement reform better than the just-passed measure.

I’m convinced the league will let several years play out under the new system before even considering an alternative – Cuban’s or otherwise.

GM Bob Myers: Steve Kerr can coach Warriors ‘as long as he wants’

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Rick Carlisle coached 13 seasons, including seven in Dallas, when the Mavericks stated he could coach them as long as he wanted.

Steve Kerr needed just three seasons with the Warriors.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

Kerr has done an amazing job in Golden State, implementing a pace-setting offense predicated on movement and fine-tuning a quality defense.

It helps to have great players like Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and eventually Kevin Durant. But Kerr has maximized them. He has also played a prominent role in establishing a productive culture throughout the entire organization.

Of course, health is the big catch. Kerr has missed significant time the last two years due to complications from back surgery. He’s looking forward to a long career, but those headaches and pains aren’t far in the rearview mirror.

Kerr clearly knows how to win with this super team, not necessarily as easy of a task as it appears. He has more than earned the right to stay on the bench for the Warriors’ next iteration, whenever that comes.

Hotshot coaches can fade quickly, but Kerr has established an unprecedented amount of goodwill so quickly. Hopefully, he stays healthy enough to take up Myers on his pledge.

Report: NBA not headed toward 1-16 playoff seeding

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league would continue look at 1-16 playoff seeding.

Ken Berger of Bleacher Report:

Silver is well-intentioned on this issue, and open-minded, too—as he is on most agenda items that could, in theory, make the league better. But despite his willingness to discuss postseason reformatting, multiple people familiar with league discussions say it’s not anywhere near the top of the agenda.

After its analysis of the issue in ’15, the league concluded that, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t sensible to change the playoff format. The two key factors, according to league sources, were 1) travel; and 2) a belief among league officials that conference imbalance was a temporary trend that would correct itself, as it typically has in the past.

For playoff qualification to truly be fair, teams would have to play a balanced schedule. As is, teams play teams in their own conference 52 times and teams from the other conference 30 times.

More 10 p.m. starts on the East Coast and 4 p.m. starts on the West Coast would hurt TV ratings.

Plus, as relative conference strength exists now and has existed for several years, 1-16 playoff seeding would make it harder for bigger Eastern Conference markets and easier for smaller Western Conference markets to qualify for the postseason.

Quality of competition matters, and there would be value in the NBA building a playoff field of its 16 best teams. But follow the money. There isn’t nearly enough urgency with this issue to overcome the direct financial setbacks reform would cause.