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.

Tyronn Lue: Cavaliers want to push pace against Warriors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes up for a dunk in the first quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Warriors have played 202 games in the last two years. Three of the 11 slowest-paced came against the Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals.

Cleveland successfully dictated the style for much of the series – grinding play to a halt, crashing the glass and relying on LeBron James to score against a set defense.

But the Cavs also lost, including all three of the slowest-games. So they’ll they try something different this year.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, via Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com:

“We just have to play our game,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re not going to slow the ball down and be at ease. We’re going to push the pace, try to get easy baskets early in transition but make sure we’re taking good shots.”

“We want to push the pace!” Lue yelled in jest for everyone to hear. “You know what I’m saying. Put that on record. Push the pace. You think I’m going to walk it down every time?”

“We’re not going to be scared of their small lineup,” Lue said. “We’re going to play our bigs and if the flow of the game calls for something different, then we’ll do something different.”

Cleveland will try to out-Warrior the Warriors? Good luck.

Only the Thunder in the Western Conference finals did that for a decent stretch, and they couldn’t sustain it. Plus, Oklahoma City is much more athletic than the Cavs.

That said, I’m not sure the Cavaliers have a better alternative. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy, the Cavs are a different team from last year. Irving and Love aren’t built to play slow.

And that’s the dilemma. Cleveland can have its top talent or its ideal style for combatting Golden State – but probably not both. The Cavaliers are choosing talent.

Isaiah Thomas recruits Kevin Durant to Celtics, deletes tweet

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 19:  Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics reacts as he walks to the bench in the final minutes of their 89-72 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on April 19, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Isaiah Thomas pledged to put on his recruiting hat for the Celtics this summer.

He didn’t wait long until Boston target Kevin Durant reached his offseason to send a public message.

Thomas deleted the tweet, but not before Adam Kauffman of WBZ News Radio captured it:

This is how free agency works now. It’d be tampering for Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to talk or tweet about Durant until the star’s Thunder contract expires July 1. But the NBA doesn’t enforce tampering rules on inter-player communication. So, general managers deploy players to pitch pending free agents before July.

Thomas just needs to work on his execution.

The Celtics retired No. 35 for Reggie Lewis, who died at age 27 due to a sudden heart issue. So, Durant would have to change his number if he signed in Boston. No. 35 already has a different, and special, meaning there.

Plus, Durant might not take kindly to potential suitors swarming so soon after the Thunder were eliminated. Whatever he does in the summer, Durant wanted to win with Oklahoma City this season.

But don’t expect this to be the last  you hear of the Celtics in the Durant sweepstakes.

Kings’ point guard Darren Collison arrested on domestic violence charge

Darren Collison, Ronnie Price
Associated Press
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Darren Collison, the Kings’ only point guard under contract for next season, has been arrested on charges of domestic violence and driving with a revoked license.

CBS Sacramento broke the story, noting Collison was arrested in Placer County, which is north of Sacramento.

Collison, 28, was booked into Placer County Jail on one count of inflicting corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant and a bench warrant of driving while his license was revoked.

The Kings released this statement:

“We’ve been made aware of the situation. The Sacramento Kings condemn violence of any kind. We are gathering additional information and once all facts are known we will take appropriate steps.”

The NBA, along with other professional sports leagues, has come down harder with fines and suspensions on players found to have committed domestic violence in recent seasons. For example, the Hornets’ Jeff Taylor was suspended 24 games. Both the Kings and the league will let this criminal investigation and process play out longer before jumping in, but Collison likely will get more than just a slap on the wrist if the charges are true.

Collison is under contract for $5.2 million for the Kings next season, and is in line to see more minutes next season (depending upon free agent moves). Sacramento is an organization looking for a fresh start — they have a new coach in Dave Joerger and are moving into a new arena in the heart of the city next season. They want to turn the page on a turbulent, playoff-free past decade. Incidents like this certainly do not help with that perception (even though the team wasn’t involved).

Reggie Jackson tweets smirk emoji after Thunder loss

Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka
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Three minutes after the Thunder lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the Warriors, former Oklahoma City guard Reggie Jackson tweeted:

I’m generally reluctant to interpret vague tweets by a stranger, but it’s hard to believe Jackson was referring to anything but the Thunder losing.

There’s plenty of history here, from Jackson’s ugly Oklahoma City exit to disputes in both Pistons-Thunder games this season. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have shown they aren’t fond of Jackson, and the feeling is clearly mutual.

If Jackson is referring to Oklahoma City’s loss – and I think he is – he’s being petty. But that’s fine. There’s room for pettiness in sports – especially when both sides will face each other on the court.

Durant and Westbrook surely aren’t thinking about regular-season games against the Pistons, but I bet Jackson is ready for the matchup. Considering how much better the Thunder are than Detroit, Jackson probably needs that extra edge to compete – though now Durant and Westbrook can also use this tweet as motivation (at least if Durant returns to Oklahoma City).