Jrue Holiday torches Blazers as Pelicans take Game 2 in Rip City

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Jrue Holiday was on fire in the City of Roses on Tuesday night. The Pelicans guard, seemingly unstoppable and clearly the best player on the court for either team, scored 33 points and added nine assists as the New Orleans Pelicans topped the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-102, to win Game 2 in Oregon on Tuesday.

Now, the series shifts back to New Orleans as the Pelicans get a chance to close out the 3rd seed in the Western Conference on their home court.

Things started much they way they had in Game 1. Portland, whose stars struggled during the first two periods on Saturday, couldn’t find their address on offense, missing with clunky jumpers. Jusuf Nurkic was markedly more aggressive, something he told reporters between games that he needed to commit to. New Orleans didn’t fare much better, although they survived thanks to Anthony Davis and breakout play from Holiday.

Things turned around for Portland come the second period, with the Blazers guards becoming more aggressive to the rack, especially with Davis resting on the bench. Holiday continued to be New Orleans’ main offensive mainstay, although it was all he could do to resist the 3-point barrage from the likes of Al-Farouq Aminu and CJ McCollum. The half finished with Aminu going wild, scoring 12 points and adding nine rebounds while shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc.

As the teams geared up to close the game, again both sides were sloppy on offense. Portland hit an unfortunate stretch midway through the third quarter when Nurkic left for the locker room with 8:31 to go. He was eventually cleared to return, but didn’t see action again. Evan Turner followed 90 seconds later with what the Blazers called a toe contusion. Both failed to return to action, limiting the dynamism of Portland on offense.

Still, the Blazers remained in the game thanks to Holiday picking up his fourth foul with seven minutes left in the third. With the best player on the court sidelined, Damian Lillard seemed reignited and the Blazers battled back.

Much like in Game 1, it was slippery fingers and a failure to return fire at Holiday that doomed Portland. The Pelicans guard was unconscious, able to attack the rack while snaking through the Blazers defense for longer jumpers. Then, in the final two minutes, the Blazers let several long rebounds escape them until finally it was an unlikely hero for New Orleans that sealed Portland’s fate.

Enter Rajon Rondo:

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry was pretty dang pleased with Rondo’s effort, a near triple-double of 16 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. Speaking to reporters after the game, Gentry said he was happy to have a playoff veteran like Rondo take what was perhaps the biggest shot of the game, despite Rondo’s reputation as a poor 3-point shooter.

“In those situations I like his chances, because I know what a competitor he is,” said Gentry.

Meanwhile, Holiday appears to be having a breakout moment — the second or third of his career — as he has played top dog against Portland all series long. Holiday was again helpful against Lillard and McCollum on defense, although the pair of star Blazers guards fared better than they did to start Game 1.

“If you can tell me a better two-way player in the league right now, I’ll listen,” said Gentry.

It’ll be hard to pick against the Pelicans moving forward. Although they were more aggressive this time around, Portland’s guards still looks somewhat out of sorts on offense. Again, it seemed like Lillard and McCollum struggled on the open shots they did get.

Meanwhile, even with an offensive attack that was sometimes sloppy on Tuesday, the Pelicans still managed to post an offensive rating of 116. That’s significant for a team that’s as quick as New Orleans given they also scored just seven points off the break.

Game 3 is in New Orleans on Thursday night at 6:00 PM PST. Portland will be fighting for their confidence, which the Pelicans already have in spades.

Trail Blazers will go as far as these two bench players take them

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The Portland Trail Blazers started the season slow. Right until the New Year, Terry Stotts’ squad was struggling to keep their heads above .500 in a Western Conference that wasn’t as tough as everyone assumed it would be this past July.

Then, it all changed.

Portland found its footing midway through January, going 7-1 from Jan. 16 to Jan. 31. Shabazz Napier hit a hot streak, and paired with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers had a triumvirate of scoring guards many teams found difficult to stop.

Meanwhile, Ed Davis helped cover for the gaps in the game of rookie Zach Collins, who found his way into the lineup as the second big man off the bench. Everything was clicking, even with former starter Maurice Harkless racking up DNP-CDs.

That’s when something switched for Harkless. The 24-year-old wing saw himself in game tape, riding the pine, with an awful look on his face. He felt like he had let his teammates down, and in doing so had let himself down. Harkless made a vow to change his attitude and his effort. He was back to playing heavy minutes to start February.

The Blazers struggled to start the month against the likes of the Raptors, Pistons, and Celtics, but eventually rallied. We all know what happened next. Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 14, Portland broke off 13-straight victories for their best winning streak of the season.

At the heart of that winning streak? Strong play from both Davis and Harkless.

Harkless, who signed a 4-year $40 million deal with the Blazers in 2016, added a much-needed 3-point shooting option that the Blazers were sorely lacking. While the reputation of the team and Stotts’ Flow offense is as a scoring one, the fact is Portland still only finished 11th in 3-point percentage and 19th in shots taken behind the arc. Al-Farouq Aminu, having an up year beyond-the-line after a disastrous 2016-17 campaign, was simply not enough to draw defenders away from Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a non-factor from 3-point range, didn’t help either.

So when Harkless changed his attitude, it changed the offensive makeup of the team. In February and March, Harkless shot 48% and 56% from deep, respectively. His gravity allowed him confidence in his playmaking, too, as his assist totals went up as defenders stopped packing the lane or trapping Portland’s star guards.

Meanwhile, a fully-healthy Davis had helped the Blazers’ big man rotation all season long. Jusuf Nurkic — who only started to respond to direct and open pleas for aggressiveness from coaches and teammates around the All-Star break — was up and down. Davis, whose shoulder bothered him last season, was back to his normal self. His box score statistics were typically drab; more often than not a nine-rebound, six-point effort belied the importance of his contribution.

Davis helped cover up for some of the rotational mistakes of the youngster Collins, who showed defensive prowess and skill as a screener, adding range on offense where Davis could not. It was not atypical to see a play in which Collins grabbed an offensive rebound and keenly dished to Napier for a quick 3-pointer before the defense could reset, all while Davis engaged and neutralized an opponent’s best glass cleaner.

With both Davis and Harkless operating at full tilt, Portland’s rotation seemed to have fewer valleys between their peaks. Along with Nurkic becoming more aggressive, the Blazers transformed over the winter from one of the most uneven teams in the Western Conference playoff race to one of the deepest.

And thus, how Davis and Harkless go come playoff time will largely dictate how the Blazers move through the postseason.

The unfortunate fact for Portland fans is that Harkless underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the beginning of the month. He could be out for up to six weeks, and a recent status update puts Harkless as up in the air for the first round. Without the young forward, Portland closed the year 3-4, just barely making the third seed as they trumped the Utah Jazz in the final game of the year.

Davis, meanwhile, is at least some kind of consolation. He’s not perfectly healthy either — Davis suffered a turned ankle at the same time as Harkless, and had to sit out four games (it should be added that, in those four games without Davis or Harkless, Portland went 1-3). Yet Davis has powered through, and was a positive impact against the long arms of Rudy Gobert in that final matchup vs. Utah. No surprise here — with Davis back in the lineup against the Jazz, Collins went back to contributing positively after a few games of subpar play.

Portland has many weapons that will likely carry them beyond the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Lillard is playing solid, and McCollum appeared to break out of whatever funk he was in during the last game against the Jazz. Nurkic seems attached, and guys like Aminu and Turner know their roles and can be relied on each game. New Orleans is no easy out, but the series was split between the teams in the regular season and it’s best to pick talent come playoff time.

Even if Anthony Davis is the best player on the floor during times in this upcoming series, Portland’s bench talent is what pushed them to that 13-game win streak earlier in the year. If their other constituent parts perform near their ceiling, it’s players like Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless who will decide how deep the Blazers go in the playoffs.

Now, Rip City just needs New York Moe to get healthy as they try to chase the semifinals for third time in five seasons.

Three Things to Know: Just how vulnerable are Warriors without Stephen Curry?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Just how vulnerable are the Warriors without Stephen Curry? We know how this may well play out because we saw this movie last year. Kevin Durant got injured in Game 60 last season and was not 100 percent going into the playoffs, yet the Warriors went 16-1 through the postseason on their way to the title. This season it’s easy to envision all the Warriors All-Stars getting healthy — Durant and Draymond Green should return this week, Klay Thompson before the playoffs, and Stephen Curry somewhere late in the first round or early in the second — and they all will be rested and healthy. The Warriors will flip the switch and blow everyone out of the water. They have the talent, this could be their reality.

However, this year feels different.

This year the Warriors look vulnerable. We came into this season and went through much of it thinking they would run away with another title, but as the playoffs near it doesn’t look that way at all.

In part because Curry will not be back for the first round of the postseason, according to Steve Kerr. Also, even when he does return he will not be 100 percent — and we saw in the 2016 Finals what it looks like when Curry’s knee is not 100 percent. He was not the same when he doesn’t move as well laterally and can’t lose guys — with a ring on the line he could not shake Kevin Love on the perimeter — and the Warriors fell. Curry has already missed more games this season (22) than he had the past five seasons combined (16).

The Warriors offense is built around Curry and his style — it’s not just his points, it’s his ball movement and movement off the ball. Other teams can’t ignore him, even if he’s 28 feet from the rim on the weak side, and that off-ball gravity pulling defenders toward him opens up everything in the Warriors offense. Golden State’s offense is 14.4 points per 100 possessions better when Curry is on the court this season.

Remove Curry and the Warriors are still dangerous because they have elite scorers in Durant and Thompson, but the style changes some. Durant uses a lot more isolations and post ups, the ball doesn’t move as well. The Warriors are still good, because Durant is an isolation beast and can post up a lot of defenders, but without the ball movement they are a little more predictable, they take more midrange jumpers (29 percent of their shot attempts are midrangers when Curry is on the court, that jumps to 43 percent when he’s is out, stat via Cleaning The Glass).

Put simply, the Warriors without Curry have a point differential in the Portland/Utah/Minnesota range, not NBA champion level.

The questions are, who will the Warriors face in the first round and can that team pull off the upset? Golden State is all but officially locked in as the two seed. The West is still a jumbled mess, but most likely the Warriors will face one of the Pelicans, Spurs, Timberwolves or Jazz, in a 2-7 matchup. There are teams in there that will be tough outs and have, at least, a puncher’s chance at the upset. Utah is a team other West teams talk about wanting to avoid — they are physical, defensive, and with the emergence of Donovan Mitchell have enough offense to win. The Spurs may have Kawhi Leonard back and that would change everything for them. The Timberwolves expect to have Jimmy Butler back, and that makes them much better defensively and far more dangerous.

There are no pushovers in the West (and we’re not even getting into Houston in the potential conference finals matchup, they could beat a healthy Warriors team). Still, the Durant-led Warriors very likely win a tough first-round matchup. Then they will almost certainly face Portland in the second round — and if Curry is not back that would be a tough ask. Portland is a top-10 defensive team in the league this season who can get buckets with that backcourt. Damian Lillard we know is clutch and is having an All-NBA level season. And that brings us to their other guard…

2) C.J. McCollum drops 34 and drains game-winner as Trail Blazers beat Thunder. We are not going to focus on Carmelo Anthony‘s rough night (but when you think about OKC in the playoffs you have to factor that in), but rather on what the Trail Blazers did right to put a lock on the three seed in the West.

One thing they almost always get right — feed the hot hand. Often in recent weeks that has been Lillard, but on Sunday it was McCollum’s turn to put up the numbers, then hit the game-winner against the Thunder.

Portland is legit. There are no easy first-round matchups in the West, nothing is a given. However, with this team’s defense and scoring they should be able to get to that second-round matchup in the playoffs with the Warriors — and if Curry is not right they have a shot. It would take an almost perfect series, with Lillard making big plays late and Jusuf Nurkic being a force in the paint and being able to stay on the floor, not to mention role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, and Ed Davis having to step up, but it could happen. There is a confidence and optimism around this Portland team that it has earned.

They are going to get their shot in the playoffs. We’ll see if that’s enough.

3) Jazz beat Warriors, Clippers win and Spurs lose, so where does the West playoff chase stand? As noted above, the West is a jumbled mess, so let’s break it down quickly with just more than a couple weeks left in the season.

Houston is going to be the top seed, and Golden State second. Lock that in.

Portland is currently the three seed with a two-game lead over the Thunder — and now three games in the loss column over the four seed Oklahoma City. Don’t use ink yet, but you can pencil in the Trail Blazers as the three seed.

Then anything can happen. Just 1.5 games separate fourth-seeded Oklahoma City and eighth-seeded Utah — and all five of those teams are within one game of each other in the loss column (Minnesota, San Antonio, and New Orleans are the other three). Things will change. Minnesota is currently the seven seed but they have the easiest schedule the rest of the way — a game against Utah is the only one they have against a playoff-bound team, but they play the Grizzlies twice, and the Hawks and Mavericks once. On the other hand, Oklahoma City and San Antonio still have relatively tough schedules the rest of the way and could pick up a few more losses, sliding them down the standings.

Denver is currently the nine seed, and even with an upset win over Toronto the L.A. Clippers are the 10 seed.  Those teams will need help — and a lot of wins. The Nuggets are 1.5 games back of the Jazz (just one game back in the loss column) and the Clippers two games. The Nuggets have one of the toughest schedules in the league the rest of the way and will need wins against Portland, Oklahoma City and Minnesota to climb back in. For the Nuggets and Clippers, the playoffs have started and they can’t afford many more losses.

Watch C.J. McCollum drop 34 points, hit game winner as Trail Blazers beat Thunder

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Thunder could regret this missed opportunity.

CJ McCollum scored 34 points to help the Portland Trail Blazers beat Oklahoma City 108-105 on Sunday night. Portland doubled its lead to two games over the Thunder for third place in the Western Conference.

The Thunder had several chances to win. Oklahoma City got possession trailing by two with 18.5 seconds remaining. Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony got trapped in the corner and forced his way through before turning the ball over. Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook then fouled Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu with 7 seconds to play and fouled out. Aminu made the first free throw and missed the second to give the Thunder a chance to force overtime, but Anthony missed a 3-pointer as time expired.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan felt Anthony was the right person to take the final shot with Westbrook out, despite the fact that he had made just 3 of 12 shots before taking that last jumper.

“Carmelo is a proven scorer in this league and has made shots – big shots – for a large portion of his career,” Donovan said. “I’ve got confidence in him. So we’ll go with him in that situation. That’s just how I felt.”

The arena had the energy of a playoff game, especially in the second half. McCollum liked the way the Trail Blazers had to scrape and claw to get the win in a hostile environment.

“Being down and having to compete, going on runs, coming back and just having to get stops down the stretch,” he said. “They are a good team and made the game very difficult. We executed well on offense to come away with a win.”

Damian Lillard scored 24 points, and Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Trail Blazers, who swept all four games with the Thunder this season.

Westbrook led the Thunder with 23 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Steven Adams had 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Jerami Grant added 17 points.

Oklahoma City trailed 44-29 in the second quarter before going on a 16-0 run to take the lead. Portland regrouped and led 57-52 at halftime.

In the third quarter, Portland’s Ed Davis came down on Oklahoma City guard Terrance Ferguson‘s back, and Davis shoved him as the two fell toward the ground. Ferguson got up quickly and went after Davis, and a skirmish followed. Four technical fouls were issued – to Evan Turner and Davis for Portland and to Ferguson and Westbrook for the Thunder. Shortly after that, Oklahoma City’s Paul George hit a 3 to give the Thunder a 75-74 lead. Portland’s Maurice Harkless made a 3-pointer as the third quarter expired to put the Trail Blazers up 82-80.

“I thought it was a hell of a basketball game,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “You can tell this meant a lot to both teams. I thought we made a lot of good plays defensively. We were very good when we needed to be.”

 

For more NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

LeBron James throws down huge poster dunk over Nets (VIDEO)

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LeBron James has given us a few good dunks this season, at at age 33 no less.

Perhaps the best dunk of the year came from the Cleveland Cavaliers star earlier in March when LeBron dunked over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic.

But was that better than the high-rising slam James threw down on the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday?

I’ll let you be the judge of that:

I mean, that’s pretty good. Joe Harris did the best he could do in that scenario.

Meanwhile, the most important thing to remember here is that LeBron is 33. That’s just nuts.