Associated Press

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: Up-and-down Blazers were up against Spurs, get key win

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Wether you were filling out your March Madness bracket for the office, or hiding bottles of steak sauce around a library, if you missed the night around the NBA we’ve got you covered with the key takeaways.

1) Damian Lillard, Portland offense overwhelms Spurs in game with playoff implications for both sides. Teams that play poor defense tend to be inconsistent. Enter the Portland Trail Blazers, who are 26th in the NBA giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions on the season, and have been worse in their last 10 games (109.6). That’s how you get a team that can be blown out by the Pelicans by 23 in its previous game then come out Wednesday night and beat the Spurs on their home court.

Damian Lillard had 36 points, C.J. McCollum added 26, and Jusuf Nurkic added 16 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 assists (it was Nurkic who was getting the ball down the stretch, he had 10 points in the fourth quarter). That was enough to get Portland a 110-106 win.

The game was also notable because while the Blazers stumbled a little with execution in the clutch, so did the Spurs. Which almost never happens. Even the rock-solid Manu Ginobili was off in the clutch: he threw away an inbound pass, then at the free throw line late he missed one he intended to make, then made the one he intended to miss.

The win has playoff implications for both sides. The Spurs are now a full game back of the Warriors for the best record in the West (and the NBA) — and possibly a chance to play Portland in the first round (which teams want, Portland is pesky and has offensive talent, but the two seed likely gets a physical, grinding series with Memphis that can wear a team down). For Portland, the win has the Blazers just two games back of Denver for the eighth and final playoff slot in the West (but Denver has a much tougher schedule the rest of the way).

2) Bucks hold on to beat Clippers in Los Angeles in another game with playoff implications for both sides. The Bucks beat the Clippers a couple of weeks ago in Milwaukee when Los Angeles made the cardinal sin of playing the Bucks by turning the ball over 23 times, letting them get out and run (41 points off those turnovers). At home Wednesday the Clippers did better, turning the ball over just 15 times, and that led to a close game where Los Angeles got the ball to Blake Griffin with a chance to win it, but it’s a make or miss league and…

This was a key win for the Bucks, because the fight for spots 6-8 in the East is tight. The sixth-seed Pacers may be in the best spot, two games over .500 after thrashing the Hornets Wednesday, but they are just two games clear of the nine seed. With the win, the Bucks remain the seven seed, but just half a game up on the nine seed. Detroit and Miami are tied for the final playoff spot (eight and nine seeds) after Detroit lost to Utah on Wednesday while Miami won again. On paper that feels like it should be Detroit’s slot, and Miami has a tough stretch of the schedule left, but the Heat just keep finding ways to hustle and win, it’s hard not to see them making it in. One game back of the nine seed is slumping Chicago, which lost again Wednesday (to Memphis) and seems to be falling apart at the wrong time (which is what happens when you trade a glue guy like Taj Gibson at the deadline).

As for the Clippers, they have lost two straight and are not even taking DeAndre Jordan or Griffin on the plane to Denver for a Thursday night game. The Clippers are now three games back of the Jazz for the four seed and they are not going to catch Utah. Los Angeles is going to start the playoffs on the road. Their bigger concern is that Oklahoma City is just 1.5 games back of them — Los Angeles needs some wins to hold on to the five seed.

3) Skal Labissière has 21 points in fourth quarter, 32 for game, leads Kings past Suns. Sacramento may have found something in the rubble of the DeMarcus Cousins trade. Labissière was a very highly ranked high school recruit who stumbled at Kentucky and fell to No. 28 in last June’s draft. Even at Summer League he showed promise, and getting more run after the trade he is showing off his potential.

Labissière had 32 points on 15 shots, scored 21 of those in the fourth quarter, and chipped in 11 boards in he win.

(By the way, best new nickname in the league: Aaron Bruski has taken to calling Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein the “thin towers.” Brilliant.)

There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but Labissière looks like he is a part of whatever the future holds in Sacramento.

Grizzlies snap 19-game skid with 101-94 win vs Nuggets

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 24 points, Tyreke Evans added 20 and the Memphis Grizzlies snapped a 19-game losing streak with a 101-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night.

Wayne Selden scored 16 points for Memphis by hitting 6 of 7 shots, including 4 of 5 from outside the arc. Marc Gasol added 14 points as Memphis won for the first time since Jan. 29.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 17 points and 12 rebounds, while Jamal Murray finished with 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting. Denver shot just 37 percent overall and 27 percent from 3-point range.

Denver entered the night in ninth place in the Western Conference, a game out of the playoff race. Denver played without leading scorer Gary Harris, who is expected to miss the next few games with a right knee sprain suffered against Detroit on Thursday.

The Nuggets struggled through a miserable first half of shooting, connecting on 22 percent in the first quarter. Memphis stretched its lead to 21 early in the second quarter before Denver cut it to 53-48 at halftime.

Brooks hit four 3-pointers to start the second half and keep Memphis ahead.

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LaMarcus Aldridge’s 39 points lead Spurs past Wolves, 117-101

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) – LaMarcus Aldridge had 39 points and 10 rebounds, and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a sluggish start to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 117-101 on Saturday night.

San Antonio won its third straight to move into fifth in the Western Conference five days after dropping to 10th and out of playoff position.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 23 points and nine rebounds for Minnesota, which dropped to sixth in the West.

The Spurs had lost three straight and nine of 11 but are now unbeaten halfway through a six-game homestand.

San Antonio shot 84 percent in the second quarter, their best shooting quarter since 2010.

Two nights after battling New Orleans’ Anthony Davis on both ends, Aldridge had to take on another All-Star in Towns. Aldridge responded by leading the Spurs in scoring for the 49th time this season while helping keep Towns in check.

Aldridge scored 18 of 21 points during a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, including 12 straight. He capped the run by coming from the weak side to swat Towns’ floater deep into the seats.

Minnesota started quickly, shooting 78 percent from the floor in the first 5 1/2 minutes while San Antonio floundered at 17 percent. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called timeout, only to watch the Timberwolves’ Jeff Teague steal the ball once play resumed.

The Spurs responded behind veteran reserves Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay. San Antonio went on a 16-4 run bridging the first and second quarters to take a 29-26 lead.

Andrew Wiggins scored 21 points for Minnesota and Teague had 16.


Stan Van Gundy goes off on officials: “We got absolutely screwed all night”

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The Pistons were likely to lose to the red-hot Trail Blazers on the road, and that came to be Saturday night 100-87, Portland 12th straight win. The Pistons shot 38.8 percent for the game and had a dreadful offensive rating of 93.8 (points per 100 possessions).

Portland is one the top five defensive teams in the NBA this season, but that’s not what Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy thought was the problem — he laid the blame on the officiating.

That’s going to be a fine.

Van Gundy is frustrated — with this game and with this season. So are Pistons fans, and seemingly so is Detroit owner Tom Gores after his lukewarm vote of confidence in Van Gundy recently. They should be, this team is a disappointment and the Blake Griffin trade was a big swing that has yet to work out. The Pistons are going to miss the playoffs. Around the league, the sense is that Van Gundy will lose his GM job to former super agent Arn Tellem, who was brought in to guide the Pistons into their new building but now whose talents would better serve the basketball side of the operation. The only question is will Van Gundy still be coaching in Detroit next season — just coaching, like Doc Rivers with the Clippers — or of the change will be more sweeping than that.

Hornets’ coach gives savage, frank assessment of Willy Hernangomez

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When Willy Hernangomez was not getting much run with the Knicks this season, especially as injuries opened up space in the front line rotation, there were questions as to why. Then the #freeWillyHernangomez movement popped up.

Eventually, Hernangomez was traded to the Hornets where… he barely plays. He’s gotten more than 10 minutes just once since coming to Charlotte.

What gives? Hornet’s coach Steve Clifford didn’t hold back when answering that question to Marc Berman of the New York Post.

“If you were in one place and didn’t play much, if you want to play more in the next place, I’d say work harder and kill myself,” Clifford said at the Hornets shootaround at the Players Association’s midtown headquarters. “The reality is he wasn’t playing here for a reason. He’s got to change things…

“He’s not up to speed on what we’re doing to play a lot,” Clifford said. “It’s been a little bit of a struggle for him. He’s smart, but he’s not this high-flier, phenomenal, natural athlete able to make up ground. He’s got to be on top of things, especially on the defensive end. If he’s not detailed defensively, he’s not that [athletic] guy…

“To be an every-night player, and I’ve told him this, he’s got to improve his shooting,” Clifford said. “He is right now, in my opinion, a back-to-the-basket player who can pass. But the reality is his passing doesn’t come into play until they have to get close to him and know he’s not going to knock down a shot. And he’s not a knockdown shooter.”

Well then.

Just to be clear he’s got to put in a lot more effort, become smarter on the defensive end, and improve his shooting. That’s a healthy off-season checklist.

Hernangomez has another year on his contract at a very reasonable $1.5 million before the Hornets have to make any kind of decision on him, which means whoever is the new GM in Charlotte he will choose to keep Hernangomez around. For now. He flashed potential his rookie season with the Knicks, when asked to play strictly to his strengths, but Clifford and the Hornets — and basically every other team in the NBA — is going to ask more of him.

Clifford was clear, as no doubt he has been clear to Hernangomez (Clifford is as straight a shooter as the league has). The ball is in Hernangomez’s court.