Isaiah Thomas has 34 as Celtics beat Trail Blazers 120-111 (VIDEO)

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Isaiah Thomas‘ teammates kept telling him to keep shooting, that the shots would fall.

And they did.

Thomas wound up with 34 points after a slow start, including 15 in the fourth quarter, and the Boston Celtics rebounded from a loss the previous night to beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-111 on Thursday.

Thomas had just a single basket in the first quarter.

“I was missing a lot of easy shots all night long. It was a tough night for me offensively. But I just stay the course,” Thomas said. “The guys keep saying `Keep shooting, just get open.’ I just try to make those shots.”

Marcus Smart added 18 for the Celtics, who had seven scorers in double figures. Thomas, who went into the game as the NBA’s No. 2 scorer behind Russell Westbrook, has scored 20 or more points in 37 straight games. He surpassed the 10.6 points he was averaging in fourth quarters to lead the league.

Damian Lillard had 28 points and seven assists for the Blazers, while Al-Farouq Aminu added a season-high 26 points, including 10 in the final quarter.

The Celtics were playing the second of a back-to-back after losing the opening game of their four-game road trip, 108-92 in Sacramento. The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak.

Thomas’ driving layup gave Boston a 106-102 lead with just under 3 minutes left. Lillard made free throws and it looked like Portland got a break with a stop, but Aminu turned over the ball on the other end and Jaylen Brown made free throws to push Boston’s lead to 108-104. Smart added a layup and Portland couldn’t catch up.

“That’s a really good, hard-nosed, tough win,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said.

Portland was coming off a 114-113 victory at Dallas on Tuesday night. CJ McCollum won it on a runner with 0.9 seconds left.

But the victory was costly for the Blazers. Guard Evan Turner fractured a bone in his right hand during the third quarter and will be out for the next five to six weeks.

Turner is averaging 9.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 50 games, including 10 starts. He had just been promoted to the starting lineup when he was injured.

“That was definitely tough – on top of the position we’re in. We need all the bodies we have. So it’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “I guess one perk is it’s just a bone. It wasn’t anything worse. And then, on top of that, the All-Star break is going to take a week. So hopefully I don’t miss too much.”

The Celtics were without Jae Crowder because of a family issue. Smart started in his place.

The Blazers led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but Lillard thought the Blazers were hurt after letting Boston close to 55-49 at the break after a 15-4 run. Thomas had 14 points in the second quarter.

“I think that was our first mistake, second-best team in the East right now, you give them life and allow them to feel like they’re still in the game and can take it over,” he said. “Then in third, they took the lead and from that point on it was a back-and-fourth game. Both teams competed hard. Then it got down the stretch and they just made those plays that we didn’t make.”


Celtics: Guard Avery Bradley missed his 12th game with a sore right Achilles. … Thomas was handed a technical foul for elbowing Portland’s Meyers Leonard midway through the second quarter.

Trail Blazers: Portland defeated the Celtics 127-123 in overtime on Jan. 21 in Boston. McCollum scored 35 points.

SMART MOVES: Both Thomas and Lillard praised Smart for making the difference in the end.

“He does all the stuff that’s not in the stat sheet. If you want a championship team, you need guys like that on your team,” Thomas said. “He had offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, steals, key baskets. He does it all.”

Lillard chimed in: “I thought Marcus Smart was huge for them. It probably won’t show up on the stat sheet but he did a lot of winning things for them.”


Celtics: Boston plays at Utah on Saturday.

Trail Blazers: The Blazers host the Hawks on Monday, the first of two meetings this season.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.