Three things we learned Wednesday: Blazers struggles open door for Kings, Nuggets

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1) Portland is a mess, has lost 8-of-9, falls into a virtual tie with Sacramento, Denver. We’re deep enough into the season to say this: Barring a catastrophic injury, there are seven teams in the West that appear playoff bound. The top four that seem obvious — the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers — but also the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Thunder are all on pace to win 48 games or more and make the postseason.

Notice the Trail Blazers were not on that list. That’s because the team that came into this season with high hopes of building on their 44-win, second round of the playoffs effort a year ago is a mess. Portland played as bad a half of basketball Wednesday night as we have seen in the league this season, and the team has now lost 8-of-9. There seems to be a real chemistry issue — they don’t help each other on defense (which remains the worst in the NBA), and their ball movement has dried up on offense.

The end result of that was a loss at home Wednesday to the Dallas Mavericks. Portland was getting blown out early in this one — they shot 37.6 percent, had 11 turnovers, and were down by 24 at the half — then came back on the strength of Damian Lillard.

It wasn’t enough. Good defense by former Blazer Wesley Matthews on Lillard on the game’s final play caused the missed shot that gave the Mavericks the win, 96-95. No Lillard heroics this time.

Meanwhile, over in Salt Lake City the DeMarcus Cousins show rolled on — no ejections (or unejections) this time around — as he had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Kings to a 94-93 upset win over the Utah Jazz.

The result of all this is that Portland, Sacramento, and Denver are all in a virtual tie for the eighth seed in the West. On paper, the Trail Blazers should pull away from that group and secure the final playoff spot, but they are simply not good enough. Not with that defense. This could be a race that continues on into early April, that goes down to the wire, to see which team gets to be fodder for the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

One other note from that chase: Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to do so in the team’s first season in its new building in the heart of the city. Which means, if you’re expecting a Cousins trade during the season, you might as well be expecting “Suicide Squad” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Even moving Rudy Gay seems less likely — despite the fact they will get nothing in return when he walks this summer — because he’s their second-best scorer. As long as the Kings can sniff the playoffs, making it is the goal.

2) Russell Westbrook outduels Anthony Davis on an entertaining showdown. The results were what we expected: Oklahoma City beat New Orleans 121-110. But that’s not why we tuned in. We wanted the scoring showdown between Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. We were not disappointed. Davis had 34 points, but Westbrook had 42 (10 rebounds, 7 assists) as the pair put on a show.

3) Cavaliers pick up the win over Bucks, but they are going to miss J.R. Smith. Not sure why the schedule maker decided the Milwaukee Bucks needed to be involved in all of the league’s home-and-home series (or at least it seems that way), but after an overtime game on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers got an easier win Wednesday at home, 113-102.

It was Cleveland’s first game without J.R. Smith, who will be out indefinitely after needing surgery to repair a broken thumb. Tyronn Lue inserted DeAndre Liggins into the starting lineup — with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, and Tristan Thompson — and that group was +17 in 17 minutes of action. (Kevin Love is out with a bruised knee but is not expected to miss extended time.) The starters shot the ball well (65.2% eFG%), defended will, and owned the offensive glass.

The question is, can they sustain it. Tyronn Lue has leaned heavily on his starting five of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Thompson — that group has been on the court 300 minutes this season, no other five-man group more than 46 minutes heading into Wednesday night. The Cavaliers are still going to win games — they still have LeBron, Irving, and Love — and they will hold on to the top spot in the East, but it’s going to be an adjustment.

And they’re going to miss Smith in games like Sunday, when the Warriors come to town.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.