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.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

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.