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C.J. McCollum on how Portland’s defense, and his, became respectable

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LOS ANGELES — Portland’s much-maligned defense has been one of quieter turn-around stories of this NBA season.  It went from bottom 10 the past two seasons — and the reason the team has stalled out in the playoffs — to being 11th in the league this season, 2.8 per 100 possessions better than the season before.

Change doesn’t just happen. It started with work last June and July in the gym and has continued into the film room during the season. 

And it started with Portland’s leaders C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard.

The two elite guards were tired of hearing about their sub-par defense, so they prioritized defensive drills every off-season workout to get better on that end. They focused on their film study to how to get more stops. They made defense a priority and started to better use their experience in the league on that end.

“We work a lot with our strength and conditioning staff, we work with our assistant coaches on breaking down film, figuring out ways to find better angles, figuring out ways to move through screens better,” McCollum told NBC Sports of his improved defense. “But I think defensively understanding offenses a little better helps you be in better positions, understanding schemes, tendencies for certain players allows you to become a better defender. A lot of it is this is the NBA, guys are good and they’re going to score, you just have to make it as difficult as possible. Any advantages you can have make it a little bit easier.”

McCollum has been better this year. While all the defensive analytics metrics are flawed, McCollum’s defensive rating is 2.2 per 100 better than last season. Opponents are shooting 41.2 percent against him this season, down from last season by more than a percentage point. McCollum has become a solid defender, which is a step up, and with Jusuf Nurkic more of his mistakes can be erased.

For McCollum and Portland, the improvement is in part about continuity. One of the strengths of the Blazers is they have kept their core together for years and kept coach Terry Stotts on the sidelines. It leads to a familiarity both with each other and the opponents they face.

“We’ve had the same guys, same staff, the schemes have been the same, our approach has been the same, just our practices have been a little bit different in terms of concepts and what we’re trying to accomplish throughout the season,” McCollum said. “Our shell has been great, a top 10 team defensively (they are currently 11th after a rough stretch before the All-Star break). Obviously, there will be slippage at times, you’re going to give up points here or there, but we’ve been pretty consistent.”

“I just think our shell has been tighter, making them skip the ball across the court a lot of times, and picking it up if they try to hit the roll man or penetrate, making them have to work a little more in the halfcourt and prevent second-chance points.”

McCollum could have easily been an All-Star — the fifth-year guard out of Lehigh University is averaging 21.7 points per game and shooting 42.1 percent from three — but instead was in Los Angeles for the weekend with Verizon Up, the company’s reward program for its mobile customers available through the My Verizon app (of which McCollum said he’s a member). The program offers the chance to redeem points for a lot of experiences, such as being close to Justin Timberlake for a concert. At All-Star weekend members could get premium access to all of the weekend’s events, including the Verizon Up Member’s Lounge – a space to relax, eat and drink, and meet NBA players.

NBA players were looking to relax last weekend, too. McCollum said at this point in the season players (and coaches, and referees, basically everyone) needs the mental and physical break of a few days off. Portland returns to action tonight (Friday) against red-hot Utah, and the Blazers could use the win — they are the current seven seed in the West, but just 1.5 games up on missing the playoffs completely (and just two games up on the Jazz). On the other hand, Portland is just 2.5 games out of the three seed in the bunched up West.

“We go into every game thinking it’s crucial, every game we got to perform, you got to not lose at home, you got to not lose to teams under .500,” McCollum said of the team down the stretch run. “One bad week could have you at 10th, 11th place, one good week could have you at four or five.

“There comes a time (late in the season) when there’s a drop-off. Some teams are going to be a little more inconsistent down the stretch, but you just got to rise above.”

Portland leans on Lillard and McCollum not to let the team be inconsistent down the stretch. Those two have evolved into one of the most dangerous backcourts in the NBA.

“We do a good job of balancing each other out, of figuring out when to attack and when to pass off to the next guy,” McCollum said of him and Lillard. “I think it just comes with continuing to develop a relationship off the court where you have more trust, where you figure out how to communicate more effectively.

“A lot of it is non-verbal stuff on the court because it’s too loud and you can’t hear, or you just notice something and you look to see if he noticed it too then you just kind of play off of that.  A lot of times you learn on the fly. You get in a situation, you see certain things, and five games later it might be the same thing happening again and you kind of look like ‘you remember this?’ And you just kind of figure it out.”

Other team’s game plan against Portland is generally clear — get the ball out of Lillard and McCollum’s hands. Don’t let them get hot and beat us. Just good luck pulling that off, it’s not easy. Also, the improved play of Shabazz Napier has helped, giving Portland another shot creator off the bench.

“He’s been great, really shooting the ball well from the field, a good plus/minus… it helps when you have other guys out there who can handle the ball and create,” McCollum said.

But in the end, Portland’s playoff dreams will rise and fall with McCollum and Lillard, and that improved defense. McCollum and Lillard will get buckets. Will the Blazers get stops?

That’s where the offseason work, the continuity, and the experience all need to come together for Portland.

“(The improved defense) comes with experience, playing in big games, playing in certain environments where you get a better understanding of the play calling,” McCollum said. “We’ve played the Warriors like 16 times the last two years, so you start to understand certain tendencies (the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors just before the All-Star break). You know what guys like to do, certain plays they do out of timeouts, and just different options throughout the game, and as you play in the league more you play against certain players more and you get to figure out their tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations.”

Why Stephen Curry’s new low-top shoes don’t mean more danger to his ankles

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Stephen Curry‘s new shoes, the Under Armour Curry 5 low, will see the floor underneath the Golden State Warriors star for the first time. According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, Curry isn’t worried about ankle support.

“It is kind of ironic that I made the switch this season considering my ankle issues, but this shoe is stable and engineered to maximize my performance,” Curry told ESPN. “I will still wear my ankle braces, but I have total comfort and security in my new shoe.”

Well there you have it. Curry is confident, but no doubt some fans will be wondering whether wearing low tops are the right move for a player with a history of ankle injuries. Especially when that player is a 2-time MVP and perhaps the most important guy on the Warriors roster.

So, should you be worried about those low-top shoes affecting Curry’s ankle? In short: no.

There’s been several medical studies released over the years regarding the benefit of high tops vs. low tops when it comes to ankle support. Long before Kobe Bryant made it popular to have a low-top signature shoe, the question of high and low was being raised.

The issue at hand is what the studies call “ankle inversion” — strains of the outer ligaments of the foot. One study published in 2000 by researchers at BYU in the Journal of Athletic Training suggested that high tops were more effective in limiting inversion, but that susceptibility to injuries also depended on the type of load exerted, among other factors. In short, it wasn’t definitively conclusive.

Other studies have actually contradicted the BYU findings. In 1994 a study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that, “There is no strong relationship between shoe type and ankle sprains.”

Likewise, the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists (UK) published a paper in 2008 saying that high-top shoes may actually hurt your ability to keep your ankle healthy and may have a, “Detrimental effect on establishing and maintaining functional ankle joint stability.”

Over at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Sara Lyn Miniaci-Coxhead says the best way to prevent ankle inversion is, “Strong muscles on the outside of the foot.” Dr. Miniaci-Coxhead adds that, “Wearing high-top shoes can cause these muscles to activate later and be less effective.”

So, there you have it. Clear as mud. While common sense might tell you that firm ankle support can lead to fewer turned ankles, the actual medical and university studies on the matter aren’t so sure. There’s certainly not a consensus.

That brings us back to Curry. It’s hard to say that Curry needs to wear high-top shoes, and not only because medical science can’t quite seem to agree that it’s the best preventative measure. That’s because at the time of his last injury, Curry was already wearing high-top shoes with ankle braces.

Those braces, by the way, are what Curry will continue to wear. And if we can take his prior routines as evidence, there seems to be some context to suggest that Curry has done and will continue to do all he can along his kinetic chain to prevent further injury. Curry famously does band warm-ups before a game, and that type of muscle activation from my admittedly untrained eye seems to suggest he works on strengthening and loosening many muscles in his legs rather than relying on staunch support of braces.

Ankle injuries are what they are: accidents. Curry wearing low-top shoes isn’t going to make him more likely to have another ankle injury — his injury history and aching soft tissues will do that.

It’s still possible that Curry rolls his ankle again, not just because of this history but because we don’t know the dynamics of the new shoe. A lot goes into making a shoe safe for play, including traction, stability, and materials. But the sole fact the Curry 5s are low tops doesn’t necessarily mean more danger to the former MVP.

Honestly, my only problem with Steph wearing a low-top shoe? It looks like a damn sock.


A post shared by SneakerJamz (@sneakerjamz) on

Oh well. Better than the Chefs, I guess.

Feel better, champ. The Warriors need you.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s dunk get blocked by Anthony Davis (VIDEO)


Lonzo Ball isn’t known for dunking. Heck, he’s not even known for being that aggressive toward the rim. But Thursday night against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Lakers rookie got a little gutsy.

Early in the second quarter, Ball found his way to the right side of the lane on a pick-and-roll. LA’s screener slipped early, and the rest of the Lakers were spread out across the 3-point line.

That left Ball driving toward the basket with nobody standing in the paint. Seeing an opportunity, Ball went up securely with two hands to flush the bucket.

However, Anthony Davis had other ideas.

Via Twitter:

I’m actually all for this decision-making. Ball can sometimes be too deferential to his teammates. Going up against Davis, however, is not a good way to end the play. Isaiah Thomas was sprinting to the far corner, and a pass to him would have been the correct choice.

Fun block, though.

Through unpredictable season for Spurs, Popovich remains steady

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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)

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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.