Getty Images

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

Leave a comment

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”


Through unpredictable season for Spurs, Popovich remains steady

Getty Images
Leave a comment

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gregg Popovich is not changing how he coaches, not after 22 seasons leading the Spurs.

The NBA’s most tenured steward is always going to focus on defense. He’s always going to dismiss talk of his brilliance because “it’s just basketball.” And he’s not going to overwork his players even though an unprecedented rash of injuries has the Spurs battling for their playoff lives for the first time in two decades.

“At this point, he’s not changing,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s a formula that has worked quite well. They have great veteran leadership and they pass it along to the young guys. You see the young guys are growing. That’s why they’re so good.”

They’re not as good as they have been, but their impressive success this year is a testament to Popovich.

San Antonio has been without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season and Tony Parker, Rudy Gay and Danny Green have all missed significant time with various injuries. In all, the Spurs have missed 165 games as a team while battling everything from sprained MCLs to fractured wrists.

The injuries haven’t dramatically altered how Popovich manages the 82-game regular season.

“I think Pop did a great job overall, it’s not easy,” Parker said. “It was a tough one for him this year. Since I’ve been here, we have never had that many injuries. So, Pop did the best he could and I think overall he did a good job.”

Aside from All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, no Spurs player is averaging more than 28 minutes per game and veterans Parker and Manu Ginobili are averaging 20 minutes per game. Popovich has also been able to sit Aldridge, Ginobili and Pau Gasol for rest during the season.

Popovich was among the first coaches to sit players for rest rather than injury. He opted to keep Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green at home rather than have them play at Miami on Nov. 30, 2012. The action resulted in a $250,000 fine and sharp rebuke from then NBA Commissioner David Stern. The NBA changed its rules to allow teams to rest its players, but only if they listed in a timely manner who would be resting on their injury reports.

Popovich doesn’t have the firepower to repeat that mass seating now.

“It was hard to rest guys, limit guys’ minutes,” Green said. “We had some guys come back from injuries, that’s when he limited some of the guys’ minutes.”

But Popovich still has made sure players received their needed rest.

The 40-year-old Ginobili has provided the Spurs with a needed lift this month after sitting out eight games to rest. In Wednesday’s victory over Washington, Ginobili outran 31-year-old Ramon Sessions to a loose ball and then dove on it to save the possession.

“It just tells you that nobody has an excuse not to do it,” 37-year-old center Pau Gasol said of Ginobili’s hustle. “A 40-year-old does it, what about a 25 or 30 or 35 or 37 year old?”

Parker has not sat out any games for rest, but he did miss the first 19 games of the season after recovering from left quadriceps tendon surgery. Even before he lost his starting position to Dejounte Murray, Parker has spent a lot of time on the bench. Not that Parker has enjoyed the time off the court.

“For me personally, I’m just trying to get back to 100 percent it was almost too much rest,” Parker said. “I wish I had played more games, but it is what it is. Other guys, I hope they feel fresher. We’re going to need it.”

While Parker may not enjoy the rest, it seems to be paying off.

The Spurs have won five straight after losing eight of 11 games to drop into 10th place in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. San Antonio was in sixth place, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

The Spurs recently beat a short-handed Golden State team by 14 points. The Spurs played with energy that they haven’t shown since early in the season when they were third in the West.

That should help then down the stretch, and possibly into the playoffs. Being rested, healthy and playing good defense is a recipe that has yielded five championships in Popovich’s tenure and extended the careers of franchise stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

“Everybody’s bringing the juice,” Murray said. “We’re playing together on offense. I just feel like there’s more juice on defense. As I always say, defense, we’ve all got to be on the same page and be hungry and greedy on `D.’ We’ve got to keep going, we can’t get comfortable.”


Giannis Antetokounmpo to tell his story on 60 Minutes this week (preview clip)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up hocking wares — clothes, sunglasses, whatever — on the streets of Athens, Greece. He easily could still be living there, the tallest salesman in a poor part of a country with high unemployment and real challenges.

Instead, he is a multimillionaire living comfortably in the United States, and is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world — and still improving. In a few years we may well be saying he is the best player on the planet.

Antetokounmpo will be telling his story on the legendary television news magazine 60 Minutes this week, and the show released a clip. Check it out.

This is the best missed free throw to game winner you will ever see

Getty Images
1 Comment

We’ve all seen this situation before at every level of basketball: A team down three points gets fouled in the final seconds and has two free throws, so the shooter aims to make the first free throw then miss the second and create a rebound he or a teammate can grab then throw back in to tie the game. It works about as often as an NFL Hail Mary — either the shooter makes the shot anyway or the defense gets the board — but what other choice is there?

Nobody has ever pulled it off as well as Paulinho Boracini of the Brazilian league team Cearense.

Intentional or not (and I lean not), he banked the second free throw off the rim toward the corner, ran it down himself and hit the game-winning three.

Damn. That’s impressive.

(If Boracini and Cearense sound familiar, you win the award for “watching too much Knicks preseason basketball” because they played New York in a 2015 exhibition.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo doubtful with ankle injury for Bulls game

AP Photo/Morry Gash

MILWAUKEE (AP) The Milwaukee Bucks say Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The All-Star forward got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.