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.

Iman Shumpert put-back dunk with authority (VIDEO)

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Game 3 of the Hawks vs. Cavaliers series has looked a lot like the first two — the Cavaliers are hitting threes and making plays, and the Hawks are struggling to keep up.

The most impressive of those plays early was Iman Shumpert getting up and throwing down the put-back dunk off LeBron James‘ miss. Check out the reaction of the Cavaliers bench to this play.

Clippers confirm expected: Blake Griffin out for Olympics

USA Basketball Men's National Team Training Camp
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Blake Griffin has a game well suited for what coach Mike Krzyzewski has Team USA running: he’s an absolute beast in transition, a gifted and unselfish passer, and he can knock down his midrange shot well enough that opponents have to respect him at 18 feet.

But he’s not joining Coach K in Rio this summer.

Griffin knew he was risking the Olympics by playing through the quad injury for the playoffs, and he is now paying that price the Clippers announced Friday. They said he has had a bone marrow treatment on his quadricep, but it will not allow him to play with Team USA this summer.

Griffin joins Anthony Davis as fours sidelined by injuries and not playing in Rio.

Team USA should be just fine. Other options at the four this summer are LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, and that’s not including going small and playing LeBron James, Paul George or others at the four.

Team USA will meet in mid-July for a camp in Las Vegas then do a tour of the USA with exhibition games for a few weeks, before heading down to Rio for the Olympics, which have opening ceremonies Aug. 5 (basketball tips off the next day). Of course, you can see it all on NBC, follow the video on NBCOlypics.com, and read all about it here.

Report: Knicks have reached out to Frank Vogel to judge interest

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“So Frank, how do you feel about the triangle?”

Frank Vogel is not going to be unemployed for any longer than he wants. Larry Bird and the Pacers dumped him, but his ability to get teams to defend is going to have suitors lined up for his skills.

That includes the Knicks, reports Marc Berman of the New York Post.

The Knicks have made contact with the agent for Frank Vogel, but have not yet requested an interview, according to a source close to the former Pacers coach.

According to the source, Knicks GM Steve Mills has done his due diligence in contacting Vogel’s reps. He expressed that Phil Jackson has not made a decision on how to proceed. The key to the exploratory phone call was finding out whether Vogel would have interest in the job, and it seems he does.

Kurt Rambis is still considered the front-runner for the Knicks job.

Jackson has said he wants someone he knows, and someone committed to running the triangle offense. The Lakers did employ Vogel as an advanced scout during the Jackson era, but don’t confuse that with any relationship between the two. Also, while Vogel’s Pacers ran some triangle action during his tenure, that was while Brian Shaw was his assistant. And that’s very different than jumping in with both feet full time.

Vogel also reportedly has interest in the Rockets job, a team farther along the path to contending and with a more stable management structure. But the Knicks are at least making the call, it’s a start.

Boris Diaw says sometimes Popovich leaves him in blowouts just to lose weight

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 21:  Boris Diaw #33 of the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 21, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Spurs defeated the Suns 117-89.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Conditioning has never been Boris Diaw‘s strength.

That’s being kind, the man ate his way out of Charlotte. Make no mistake, Diaw is a gifted player who has surprising athleticism plus a court vision and high hoops IQ that make him perfect for the Spurs, but Gregg Popovich gave him incentives to stay thin and Tony Parker joked about Diaw’s weight.

Now Diaw is getting in on the act, speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp.

“Sometimes we’re up 30,” Diaw says, “and (Popovich is) like, ‘I’m just going to leave you on the court so you can lose some weight.’”

If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at. Diaw has a coffee maker in his locker and , he’s not too worried about his image.

Diaw only saw a little more than eight minutes in Game 2 against the Thunder, which was not about conditioning and all about the matchup. Still, expect him to get more run in Game 3, he is one of those guys who makes the ball move for the Spurs and they need to get back to that.