Dan Feldman

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Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic out for rest of regular season

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Jusuf Nurkic is having his moment.

In 20 games since the Nuggets traded him to the Trail Blazers, Nurkic has averaged 15.2 points 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. And Portland has gone 14-6 — winning five straight and eight of nine — to surge into playoff position.

But all that momentum is coming to a crushing halt.

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

The Trail Blazers are still 1.5 games up on Denver for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, and their best players are still Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Those guards can lead Portland into the postseason.

But who will help them? Portland is now extremely short-handed at center with Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli already out for the season. The Trail Blazers have little choice but to lean heavily on Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh and maybe experiment with super-small lineups.

The door is now open much wider for the Nuggets.

Kevin Durant, initially told he’d miss rest of season, ‘just burst out crying’

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Kevin Durant hurt his knee Feb. 28 — an injury that struck fear into the Warriors and his camp.

Durant on The Bill Simmons Podcast:

The first diagnosis we got was that I broke my leg, fractured my tibia. And that’s a four-, five-month recovery.

I just burst out crying.

And I’m like, “Man, not again.” Know what I’m saying? First of all, this is my first year with the team. We’re playing very well at the time. I was playing well individually. It was definitely a good time for our team, you know what I mean? And we were on an East Coast road trip, back home, playing in front of my family.

And then on top of that, I knew that’s what everybody wanted to see, first of all.

Not everybody, but a lot of people.

That timeline would have kept Durant out for the entire postseason. Thankfully for Golden State and Durant, a second look revealed a much shorter recovery period. He might even return in the regular season.

Durant said the belief he’d miss the rest of the season lasted about a half hour. When he and his camp got the updated prognosis, they fist pumped and hugged. Durant:

That emotional roller coaster that hour, it was something out of a movie.

This should be a lesson about the perilousness of a championship chase — that, no matter how talented the team, nothing is guaranteed.

But, if the Warriors win the title, the prevailing narrative will undoubtably be about how signing Durant to a 73-win team preordained the banner.

Lance Stephenson: Pacers missing ‘never-bow-down-to-anyone’ mentality, but I can help

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lance Stephenson realized long ago that it was a mistake to leave the Indiana Pacers.

So when Larry Bird called with an offer to come back and jump-start his career, the tough, 26-year-old guard shed tears of joy.

On Friday, about 24 hours after the Pacers made the signing official and Paul George welcomed him home with a text message, Stephenson returned to his old stomping grounds, looking for ways to help the Pacers make yet another playoff run.

“I was in New York rehabbing. I was like: `Man, I keep getting hurt. I guess I’ll worry about next year,”‘ Stephenson said. “When I got the call, I said: `Are you kidding? The Indiana Pacers? I’m going home.”

Plenty has changed since Stephenson last wore an Indiana uniform in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

George and Lavoy Allen are the only other players still around from that team.

Stephenson’s familiar No. 1 jersey is now being worn by Kevin Seraphin, so Stephenson will switch to No. 6.

And instead of fighting for the top seed, the Pacers are struggling just to make the postseason.

They started Friday tied with Miami for seventh in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of Chicago with seven to play. Indiana was scheduled to visit Toronto Friday night.

The Bulls have an easier schedule over the final stretch, the Heat own the tiebreaker over Indiana and the Pacers are still down two key backups – center Al Jefferson and forward Glenn Robinson III. A sprained left ankle is expected to keep Jefferson out until the final week of the regular season. Robinson could return next week from a strained left calf.

And as Stephenson has watched from afar, he thinks he can help Indiana turn things around with a new attitude.

“I think the thing they’re missing is that energy and that never bow-down-to-anyone (mentality),” he said.

That was certainly a trademark of Stephenson’s first stint in Indy.

The question is how long will it take him to make an impact this time?

He’s fought through injuries all season, and after brief stops in New Orleans and Minnesota, Stephenson figured his fate this season would be measured in 10-day contracts.

Instead, Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations offered him a three-year deal – the first two guaranteed, the third a team option. It was too good to refuse.

“He’s probably the only guy who believed in my game,” Stephenson said. “He always pushed me, he always challenged me. To have that guy behind you is incredible.”

Stephenson insists he has changed since leaving, too.

He’s sporting a beard and the family members that lived with him in Indianapolis before now live in Las Vegas.

And after playing for five teams in less than three seasons, Stephenson said he has learned more about basketball, himself and how to be a better leader. Heck, he even laughed off a question about a possible rematch with LeBron James on Sunday in Cleveland, declining to answer a question that rekindled images of Stephenson blowing in James’ ear during the 2014 conference finals.

But the Pacers brought back the 6-foot-5 guard for one reason: They want Stephenson to play with the same, old passion that made him a fan favorite the first time around.

“I think I can help these guys on the defensive end, and bring that tough edge about bowing down to no one,” he said. “I’ve got this year and next year, so I’ve got a lot of time to prove myself and show that I can get back to where I was.”

Jahlil Okafor, Robert Covington to miss rest of 76ers’ season

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Neither Jahlil Okafor nor Robert Covington travelled to Cleveland for tonight’s game against the Cavaliers.

They won’t be on the court for the 76ers’ following six games, either.

Okafor is out for the year. So is Joel Embiid. Nerlens Noel is in Dallas.

The 76ers have finally cleared their center logjam.

It’s Richaun Holmes time.

Really, keep an eye on Holmes. The 23-year-old looks like a rotation player, even as Philadelphia goes from tanking to winning in coming years.

In the meantime, watch Dario Sarc, who has even more clearance to rack up numbers in his late Rookie of the Year push.

NBA: Thunder got away with shooting foul late in fourth quarter of OT win over Magic

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Down 14 against midway through the fourth quarter, the Thunder needed nearly everything to go their way against the Magic on Wednesday.

And it did, including Russell Westbrook‘s 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, where Oklahoma City emerged with a 114-106 win.

Another thing that worked in the Thunder’s favor: Victor Oladipo getting away with a shooting foul of Evan Fournier with 34.5 seconds left. That should have been whistled, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report

Oladipo (ORL) makes contact to Fournier’s (ORL) arm that affects his driving shot attempt.

Westbrook also got away with a loose-ball foul while trying to rebound Fournier’s miss. But a correct call on the shot would’ve already stopped play and meant two free throws for Fournier, who’s shooting 80%from the line this season and 79% for his career.

We obviously can’t know what would’ve happened from there. But in a game went down to the wire to reach overtime, those attempts very well could have given Orlando the win in regulation.

This missed call also might have wider implications than just Oklahoma City’s position in the playoff race.

Westbrook exited regulation with 50 points, nine rebounds and nine assists — a superb game, to be sure. But he used overtime to reach a triple-double and 57 points — the highest-scoring triple-double of all time. That could be a narrative-shifting performance for MVP.