Kurt Helin

Associated Press

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Damian Lillard trying to will Blazers into the playoffs

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Villanova is out. Duke is out. So how bad does your bracket look now? Time to focus on the NBA again for a few days, here’s what you missed on Sunday while you watched Lonzo Ball go off.

1) Damian Lillard flat-out goes off, drops 49 and gets Blazers key win over Heat. Miami is trying to make a playoff push without Dion Waiters, who has been key to the Heat’s second-half run. It means Goran Dragic is going to have to be at his peak nightly and help carry his team’s offense (especially is Erik Spoelstra continues to start Josh Richardson, Luke Babbitt, and Rodney McGruder). Dragic wasn’t that on Sunday (neither was Hassan Whiteside, who also has to step up).

Damian Lillard was ready to carry his team.

In a matchup of two teams fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, the Blazers had the best player on the floor as Lillard went off for 49, drained nine three-pointers, and as a result the Blazers got the win.

With the win, Portland moves within one game of Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

With the loss, Miami remains in a virtual tie with Detroit for the eighth seed in the East, half a game back of Milwaukee and a full game up on 10 seed and stumbling Chicago. Mark your calendars now, Miami travels to Detroit a week from Tuesday in what will be a critical game in that playoff chase.

2) Tony Parker returns, Spurs getting healthy, win again. The Spurs throttled the Kings on Sunday night, picking up an easy win. Which really isn’t news. Nor is the fact that Gregg Popovich decided to spark his team by starting Davis Bertans at the four, sliding LaMarcus Aldridge to center, and sending Dewayne Dedmon back to the bench.

What was interesting is that Tony Parker was back and had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Spurs are going to need this Parker come the playoffs. He has had postseason struggles the past couple of seasons, but Popovich is going to need him after the first round this season is San Antonio is going to be a real threat to come out of the West.


3) Did Lakers start to find something with Jordan Clarkson/D’Angelo Russell backcourt? Maybe. If they start to defend.
Nick Young was out with the flu, so Lakers’ Luke Walton experimented with youth as his starting backcourt against Cleveland Sunday — Jordan Clarkson at the one, D’Angelo Russell at the two.

It worked. Sort of. Russell had a career-high 40 points and had one of this best games of the season.

Russell was knocking down shots, but also working as a playmaker, and playing off of Clarkson (who finished with 19 points).

“We were looking for each other,” Clarkson said. “I was trying to get in the paint, he was being aggressive knocking down shots. We compliment each other’s game when we’re doing that.”

“Jordan, he’s great, he’s very complimentary toward me on the court,” Russell said. “Whatever the coaching staff does I trust it. I run with it.”

This is not the first time Clarkson and Russell have been paired, but the matchup has been a disaster most of the season — outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes. And that pairing was -14 on Sunday because they struggled defensively at times, particularly down the stretch against Kyrie Irving (to be fair, he makes a lot of defenders look bad).

The Lakers are experimenting for the rest of this season, and this experiment is not over.

“Individually, they’ve both make great growth throughout the season but for whatever reason the two of them on the court together, when we’ve tried it, it hasn’t statistically been very goo for us,” Luke Walton said. “But it was good to see that it worked well tonight. We’ll continue to try that lineup going forward and see if we can make that chemistry between the two of them a normal thing.”

D’Angelo Russell drops 40, young Lakers make rested Cavaliers work for win

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LOS ANGELES — Tyronn Lue was channeling Apollo Creed’s trainer from Rocky: “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

“Sometimes you have to understand it is not a show but a competition,” the Cavaliers’ coach said after his team came from behind to beat the Lakers Sunday night at Staples Center. “When we get to L.A. and play teams like this we consider it a show instead of a competition. When you get down early it hurts your confidence, and now you got to fight and try and win your game.”

The Cavaliers coasted defensively through three quarters, the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell got hot, and it took LeBron James taking over like an MVP for a stretch in the fourth — and Kyrie Irving dropping 46 — for Cleveland to get out of the building with a 125-120 win.

The Cavaliers should have been rested since LeBron, Irving, and Kevin Love all having sat out on Saturday against the Clippers (Irving and Love were coming off injuries, the Cavaliers didn’t want to play them in a back-to-back, so they chose to have them go against the Lakers). This is a game the Cavaliers should have won easily on paper.

They got the win, but it wasn’t easy. Call it treating the game like a show or just a late-season malaise, the Cavaliers weren’t at their peak and the Lakers took full advantage.

“We was out of sync a little bit, but they shot the ball extremely well,” LeBron said.

Russell got the start with Nick Young battling the flu, and he was knocking down threes and dropped a career-high 40 points.

“Honestly, I feel like I was aggressive from the jump,” Russell said. “Usually when I get myself in trouble turning the ball over it’s because I’m not being aggressive.”

“(Russell is) a great young player, I’ve been playing against him for a few years in the league and I understand what he means to the Lakers,” Irving said.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton started Russell and Clarkson in the backcourt together, a pairing that had been a disaster most of the season — outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes coming into the game — but it worked for three quarters this time.

The Clarkson/Russell pairing was also -14 Sunday because in the end they don’t defend well and no answer for Irving.

Cleveland’s big three combined to score 101 points, they carried the day for the Cavs, who in the end get the road win they wanted and a split in Los Angeles. It wasn’t pretty, but on the road late in the season a win is a win.

 

Doc Rivers shoots down rumor he could head to Orlando as coach and/or GM

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Speculation about what the Clippers will do this summer if/when they exit the playoffs in the first couple of rounds again is an NBA pastime right now. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick will all be free agents. Will the Clippers just pay them all and run it back again with the same core lineup? Trade for Carmelo Anthony?

One of the questions is will coach and team president Doc Rivers be back in the same role? There are rumors he could be bound for Orlando, a team expected to have a front office shakeup of its own.

Saturday night, Rivers shot that idea down. From Jovan Buha of ESPN.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers shot down a question about him possibly retiring from coaching and moving to the front office full time. Rivers said his goal in Los Angeles is “pride of place,” and admitted he still has a ways to go to reach it.

That move was never likely this summer, but there is a little heat to the idea of Rivers eventually taking on some role with the team. This wasn’t a random rumor. Rivers has got a couple years left on his Clippers deal, but after that, who knows.

Stephen Curry looks like vintage self dropping 28 on Bucks (VIDEO)

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When Stephen Curry is knocking down shots, the Warriors look like the Warriors.

Which is exactly what happened Saturday night.

The Warriors stumbled out of the gate and trailed by 14, but then in the second quarter Golden State started knocking down threes. Matt Barnes ignited the fire, but then Curry took over and started draining everything. Video game Curry was back. And with that the Milwaukee Bucks were doomed.

Curry finished with 28 points and the Warriors won handily, 117-92. The win put them 2.5 games ahead of San Antonio for the top seed in the West.

NBA league office called Cavaliers GM “not happy” about three stars sitting out

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A week ago, Warriors coach Steve Kerr created controversy when he decided to rest Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala against the Spurs in a nationally televised game. All were healthy, but the Warriors had played seven games in 12 days leading up to it, so Kerr chose a game the league had on in prime time to rest his guys.

This Saturday, the Cleveland Cavaliers decided to rest LeBron James and also sit Kyrie Irving (who sprained his ankle in the previous game) and Kevin Love (coming off knee surgery) against the Clippers on another nationally televised game. All three are expected to play against the Lakers on Sunday.

Needless to say, the NBA league office was pissed off and let Cleveland GM David Griffin know about it, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

If the NBA is unhappy about guys being rested in nationally televised games it is hyping, then it needs to start by looking in the mirror. If the league wants to promote these games like playoff previews, it needs to treat them that way, not have one team be on a back-to-back or in a rough stretch of the schedule. Have both teams rested and ready to go.

That said, there is a tipping point where the NBA’s broadcast partners and fans will start to push back against player rest in key games — and they will do it with dollars. There is no doubt — and studies bear it out — that players play better and are less likely to be injured when rested. The trend toward sitting players is about player health, and that should come first.

However, the NBA is an entertainment business and it’s putting out an inferior product on a big stage because of it. ABC/Disney is shelling out a lot of money to broadcast NBA games and for two showcase Saturdays in a row it has gotten a star-less blowout to put on the air. Fans are frustrated that buying a ticket to see LeBron James or Stephen Curry or other big stars can be like the purchase of a lottery ticket — will you get lucky and see them play? It’s become a talking point for fans and an embarrassment to the league.

This summer the league office, players union, and some team representatives need to sit down in a room and start hashing out how to avoid this in the future, especially for nationally broadcast games. Part of that is scheduling from the league, but it is more than that. The league needs to take some action before fans and broadcast partners do.