Kurt Helin

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) reacts late in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Damian Lillard listed as probable, likely plays Monday vs. Memphis

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It could have been a lot worse. C.J. McCollum picked up the offense, the Trail Blazers caught a few breaks, and they went 4-3 in seven games without Damian Lillard.

But those days are over starting Monday against Memphis, reports Jason Quick of CSNNW.com.

The Blazers’ offense jumps 6.9 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor because they lack shot creation, and he provides it. That said, the defensive hit means the Blazers have been only +1.4 per 100 with Lillard on the court.

Portland is the current nine seed in the West, just a game-and-a-half out of the playoffs. Tough tests this week, however, with the Grizzlies, Clippers, Warriors, and Thunder. Welcome back to the NBA Lillard, you get Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook to lineup against upon your return.

Still, this is good news for fans of the game; Portland just got better and far more entertaining.

PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Clippers, Bulls climbing ladder

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I was very tempted to move the Spurs into the top spot in these rankings, they have played better the last several weeks and if they faced the Warriors in a seven game series starting tomorrow I might pick them. On the other end, the Suns are setting fast.

source: 1. Warriors (31-2, last week No. 1). Stephen Curry came back from his bruised calf (the Warriors were 1-1 without him) to get kicked in the same place again and he could miss more time. The Warriors are -6.4 per 100 when he sits, but that is just part of the reason they have looked vulnerable of late. The good news for Golden State is it’s entering the soft part of their schedule — Hornets, Lakers, Blazers and Kings this week.

source: 2. Spurs (29-6, LW 2). You can make a case they should have the top spot in the rankings — they are 11.8 points per 100 better than the Warriors over the last 10 games. Tim Duncan had his first scoreless game as an NBA player Saturday, but the Spurs won comfortably over the Rockets, so do you think he cared?

source: 3. Thunder (24-10 LW 3). Oklahoma City has the second best net rating over their last 10 games, trailing only the Spurs and besting the Warriors by 6.1 per 100 possessions. The Thunder have a relatively soft schedule through January, which should help them rack up some wins and still get Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant some rest.

source: 4. Cavaliers (22-9, LW 4). Through the small sample size of five games, the Cavaliers are +11.7 per 100 possessions when Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love share the floor (but they are better with LeBron and Irving, no Love). LeBron seems to have found his jumper the pat couple games, which should scare everyone.

source: 5. Clippers (22-13, LW 8). Winners of six in a row, and they are 5-0 with Blake Griffin out. The Clipper offense has driven the winning streak, without Griffin the Clips use Paul Pierce at the four more and run some Van Gundyesque spread pick-and-roll. It works.

source: 6. Bulls (20-12, LW 13). Winners of five-of-six dating back to Christmas, including a huge comeback against Toronto Sunday — if Jimmy Butler keeps scoring 40 points in a half he can talk all he wants. The Bulls seem to be finding their elusive offensive identity, with different guys (including Derrick Rose) stepping up each night.

source: 7. Heat (20-13, LW 9). Miami spends most of January on the road, which begs the question did they do enough with the softer schedule to start the season. The Heat are 14-7 at home (6-6 on the road). Miami could sink a little in these ratings (and in the standings) the next few weeks.

source: 8. Hawks (20-13, LW 5). Kyle Korver missed 20 consecutive threes before breaking out of his slump this week — that may be one of the seven signs of the apocalypse. That or his elbow is bothering him more than he lets on. Interesting matchup with Chicago Saturday.

source: 9. Raptors (21-14, LW 6). After blowing a lead against the Bulls, the Raptors head out on the road for their next five (starting in Cleveland Monday night). The Raptors need to tighten up their pick-and-roll coverage if they want a winning road trip (let along thinking ahead to advancing in the playoffs).

source: 10. Pacers (19-14, LW 12). Paul George scoring the final 21 points against Detroit Saturday was as impressive a quarter as we have seen from a player this season. Heavy road schedule the next few weeks, and the Pacers are 7-9 away from the Fieldhouse this season.

source: 11. Mavericks (19-15, LW 11). They beat Golden State this week, that’s a good win (and I don’t care who did or didn’t suit up for GSW). But consistency is lacking as evidenced by the loss to the Pelicans over the weekend. Winnable stretch of games (Kings, Pelicans, Bucks, Timberwolves) if the Mavs bring the same focus every night.

source: 12. Celtics (18-15, LW 7). They lost to the Lakers and Nets, that makes this ranking feel too high for this week. Boston fans want those wins over the Nets (they face off again Monday) as the Celtics own the Nets’ first-round pick this coming draft.

source: 13. Magic (19-15, LW 15). We’ve seen more of Mario Hezonja recently, and he’s looked inconsistent. Which is what you expect of a rookie, but Scott Skiles needs to get him some run so he can learn on the job. Tough losses last week (Washington and Cleveland) as the Magic offense went on vacation.

source: 14. Hornets (17-16, LW 10). No Al Jefferson and the Charlotte offense is struggling to find a groove without him. They are 3-7 in their last 10 and have dropped out of the playoff picture in the East for now, they need more consistent scoring to get back in it.

source: 15. Grizzlies (18-17, LW 17). Coach Dave Joerger is searching — moving Zach Randolph and Tony Allen to the bench gave them a short boost, but that has worn off. They Griz have a six-game homestead coming up (starts this weekend) and they are 11-6 at home, maybe that will jumpstart things again.

source: 16. Pistons (18-16, LW 14). For most of the season the Detroit starters were their strength, their bench was the drag. However, the past couple weeks that role has been reversed, and Brandon Jennings is starting to find a groove with the reserves. The offense remains the issue, maybe it’s time to play Jennings and Reggie Jackson together.

source: 17. Wizards (15-16, LW 18). If John Wall’s jumper isn’t falling this team struggles to score, see Sunday’s Miami game for an example. It feels like all the injuries and lineup changes this team has had to play through are catching up with it, and the Cavaliers and Raptors on the schedule this week make bouncing back tough.

source: 18. Jazz (15-17, LW 19). That this team won three of four without Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors is impressive. You know things are going well when Jeff Withey is posting double-doubles. Favors could return later in the week.

source: 19. Rockets (16-19, LW 16). Losses to Spurs and Warriors last week, but they fought hard in those games if you are into moral victories. The Rockets defense remains inconsistent (to put it kindly) and with that you see them drop 5-of-6, the only win being a Christmas Day miracle.

source: 20. Knicks (16-19, LW 21). Derek Fisher called out his team’s commitment this week, doing everything but using the word “soft.” The Knicks played better Sunday beating Atlanta, but can they sustain it? Probably not on the road at Atlanta, Miami and San Antonio.

source: 21. Trail Blazers (15-21, LW 22). C.J. McCollum has played brilliantly to keep the Portland offense afloat and the Blazers have won four-of-five despite Damian Lillard being in street clothes. Keep that up, and with a lot of home games in January, an we could see the Blazers making a push up the standings.

source: 22. Kings (13-20, LW 20). Willie Cauley-Stein is back, which isn’t necessarily great for the Kings trying to rack up wins — he’s a flawed rookie — but it is good for trying to develop him. That loss to the Sixers was ugly last week and a reminder of how bad this team can be when not focused.

source: 23. Pelicans (11-22, LW 25). Completely different team at home and on the road — they are 7-7 at home, 4-15 on the road. Via John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Pelicans faced the toughest schedule in the league so far, but things lighten up considerably in January. Norris Cole is starting to look better after missing time with a high ankle sprain, he put up 15 points in the second half against the Clippers.

source: 24. Bucks (14-21, LW 24). Khris Middleton is starting to find his groove offensively, which has helped the Bucks look better of late (but their defense still isn’t where it needs to be). Tough slate this week with the Spurs, Bulls, Mavericks and Knicks.

source: 25. Timberwolves (12-22,LW 26). Still an entertaining team to watch thanks to Karl-Anthony Towns (PER of 22) and Andrew Wiggins. You can see the bones of a very good team in there trying to figure things out, but their defense isn’t good enough to win many games yet.

source: 26. Nets (10-23, LW 28). Quality win over Boston this weekend, but Brooklyn has had flashes of good play throughout the season. However, consistency — even within games, where they blow leads faster than any team in the league — remains the issue.

source: 27. Nuggets (12-22, LW 23). Good news that Kenneth Faried did not miss time after that scary neck injury. Also good news that the Nuggets got big man Jusuf Nurkic back, they need him to play with Emmanuel Mudiay to see if they can develop some pick-and-roll chemistry. Bad news: 12 of Denver’s next 15 are against teams above .500.

source: 28. Lakers (8-27, LW 29). Los Angeles has won three in a row, and the first one on the road in Boston was impressive. Lou Williams is racking up points and playing well, which you can be sure will spark a lot of trade rumors as we move closer to the deadline in February.

<source: 29. Suns (12-24, LW 27). Jeff Hornacek’s lineups seem to be put together using a random number generator. Note to Robert “you millennials get off my lawn” Sarver: Trying to paint an entire generation with one brush is always foolish. Gen X turned out not be be all slackers, and not everyone of Sarver’s generation makes poor decisions in running a professional sports franchise.

source: 30. 76ers (3-33, LW 30). They start a six-game homestead, where maybe they can pick up some more wins. Elton Brand isn’t going to help much on the court, but he brings a veteran presence to the locker room and is a true professional who can lead by example. Him and guys like Ish Smith are the kinds of moves that don’t make the Sixers good but make them respectable.

Lakers GM Kupchak: “We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves”

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Sometimes, the person in the middle of everything is the last to know.

It’s been clear for a while that the long shadow of Kobe Bryant was slowing the Lakers transition to their next iteration. However, the Lakers themselves have strong financial (he packs Staples Center, brings in the sponsors, etc.) and emotional ties to one of their all-time greats. They weren’t ready to move on. So the Lakers brought in a coach with ties to their history and have sold the fleeting visions of past glory while starting the rebuilding process with young stars.

But with Kobe stepping away at the end of the season, Laker GM Mitch Kupchak admitted to season ticket holders the franchise needed Kobe to retire to take the next steps. From Eric Pincus at the Los Angeles Times:

“We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves,” Kupchak said. “Part of that to me is painful because I’ve been here 20 years with Kobe.

“This is a year that’s dedicated to Kobe and his farewell. From my point of view, it gives me complete clarity. … We know what our [salary] cap situation is going to be like…. “We feel in the last two years that we’ve gotten at least five attractive young players,” said Kupchak, listing Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D'Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown.”

The Lakers do have a nice young core to start their rebuild; now they just have to develop them. Kobe helps with that by example, but having him dominate the ball on the court retards the process (already coach Byron Scott is trying to split time between Russell and Kobe). They also need to add to the mix of young talent — which they can do if lottery luck holds and they can keep their 2016 draft pick in the top three (if it falls to fourth or later in the draft, the pick goes to Philly).

The Lakers have the cap space and brand to be players in the free agent market — they can get interviews. However, the pool of game-changing free agents is small this summer, and the Lakers are unlikely to land one of them. Rebuilding going to be a process that requires patience and player development from the organization.

But without Kobe’s shadow, it is something the franchise can better focus on.

Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Jimmy Butler does his best Jordan impression

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The holidays are over, you’re almost recovered from New Year’s Eve and ready to start hitting the gym (that should last three weeks, admit it) — and it’s time to get back into the flow of the NBA as we run up toward the All-Star break. Here is what you need to know from around the league Sunday:

1) Jimmy Butler did his best MJ impression Sunday. Butler’s first reaction when the breaking of a Michael Jordan record came up was the one Chicago fans want to hear: “Don’t compare me to him. That’s exactly what I said. I don’t want to be compared to him.”

Jimmy Butler is no Michael Jordan, but for one half Sunday he did a good imitation of the legend. Butler started slow then had to leave the game to get stitches after an elbow from Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll. When he came back in the second half, he couldn’t miss on his way to 40 second half points. Toronto helped out; Butler was able to drive to the hoop to cleanly or get open looks, he shredded Toronto’s pick-and-roll coverage. Once he started feeling it he did not miss, check out his second half shot chart.

Jimmy Butler shot chart

Butler was scoring, but he was doing it in the flow of the offense, he was sharing the rock off the pick, too. He helped spark a comeback in the fourth quarter — Toronto led by 15 in the third, but the Bulls ended up with the 115-113 victory on the road. For Toronto, it felt like the playoffs two years ago when Joe Johnson destroyed them. I thought Carroll was brought in to defend strong/hot wing players, but he didn’t seem to have the regular assignment (and Butler scored on him, too). And Toronto’s rim protection needs to improve as well.

2) The Phoenix Suns are a mess. The Los Angeles Lakers are tied for the worst defense in the NBA this season (via NBA.com), and the Phoenix Suns put up just 22 points on them in the first half Sunday, shooting 0-of-10 from three. The Suns shot 21 percent in the first half. For the game, the Suns shot 30.2 percent on uncontested looks (and more than half their shots were uncontested). It was ugly Sunday.

A lot of things around the Suns are ugly right now. Coach Jeff Hornacek has run out some, shall we say, interesting lineups all season trying to find combinations that work. It happened Sunday going very big with Alex Len and Tyson Chandler playing together. But nothing worked, on either end of the floor. Turns out the problem wasn’t the assistant coaches. Now, this team is spiraling down, having been outscored by 11.4 points per 100 possessions their last 10 games.

Phoenix owner Robert Sarver said on Sunday the blame for the Suns starts at the top. It certainly does. His impatience with the rebuilding process, the lack of consistency within the organization are at the heart of Phoenix’s issues. And by the way, it’s not the millennials that are the problem, the Warriors seem to be doing okay with them. It’s the older guys, and not just the ones on the roster.

On the other side, that three wins in a row for the Lakers.

3) Lakers’ fan nails half-court shot to win $95,000.
Nobody around the Lakers could miss on Sunday, and that includes the fan taking the half-court shot for big cash. I wouldn’t call his form pretty, but results are what matter.


4) Kenneth Faried back on the court just one day after scary neck injury.
This was good to see. One day after a neck injury that had him being taken off the court on a stretcher, Faried was back on the court and starting for Denver against Portland. He played nearly 28 minutes and had 13 points in the Nuggets’ loss, but what mattered was that he was back out there.

5) Knicks’ Arron Afflalo drops 38 on Hawks. He was 14-of-17 shooting overall and 7-of-8 from three. This was all about Afflalo getting open within the triangle offense then hitting his jumpers (only three of his shots were within eight feet of the rim, he hit two). This was the smoothest the Knicks offense may have looked this season, with fantastic ball movement, and Afflalo benefited (10 of his 17 shots were uncontested, according to NBA.com’s player tracking). That’s a quality win for New York and the kind they need more of if it plans to climb back into the playoff race in the East (the Knicks are currently three games out of the final playoff slot in the East).

Lou Williams scores 30, Lakers beat Suns 97-77 without Kobe

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lou Williams scored a season-high 30 points, and the Los Angeles Lakers sent Phoenix to its ninth straight loss with a 97-77 rout of the cold-shooting Suns on Sunday night.

The Lakers, coming off victories over Boston and Philadelphia, have won three in a row for the first time since Feb. 22-27 against Boston, Utah and Milwaukee. Rookie Larry Nance Jr. had 15 points and tied a season high with his second straight 14-rebound game.

Kobe Bryant sat out his second straight game because of a sore right shoulder, the same one he had surgery on last January to repair a torn rotator cuff.

The league’s third leading career scorer, who turned 37 in August, is averaging 17.2 points in 29 games. Bryant announced on Nov. 29 that this would be his the final season of his 20-year NBA career.

Brandon Knight had 25 points, nine assists and three rebounds for the Suns, who shot 36 percent from the field and trailed by as many as 38 points en route to their 21st loss in 27 games since beating the Lakers at Phoenix on Nov. 16.

Phoenix center Tyson Chandler, who was ejected midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s 142-119 loss at Sacramento, played only 19 minutes in this one and missed his first five shots before finishing with two points on 1 for 6 shooting.

The Suns were playing their fourth game in five nights and looked tired, making only nine of 46 shots in the first half (19.6 percent) and scoring just 10 points in the opening quarter before the Lakers built their lead to 43-22 – the lowest total in Suns history – by intermission.

Williams ended his 11-point second quarter with a buzzer-beating 3 off an inbounds pass after the Lakers took a 20-second timeout with 1.1 seconds on the clock.

The Suns had won nine of their previous 10 meetings with the Lakers. But despite this loss, they still have a three-game lead over Los Angeles in the race to stay out of the Pacific Division cellar.

TIP-INS

Suns: The Suns (12-25) are 0-15 when scoring fewer than 100 points. … C Alex Len, limited to 6 1-2 minutes of playing time on Saturday because of a sore left hand, came off the bench for the third straight game and had six points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. “They’ve taken X-rays and it’s not broken, but it’s really sore and he has a hard time squeezing his hand,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He’s going to continue to play and try to be a presence out there – at least on the defensive end and spell Tyson in some of those minutes. With all the traveling, every time he goes up in an airplane, it swells up again. So it probably won’t calm down until we get back home.” … The Suns are 0-10 when an opposing player has scored 30 or more points against them. … Phoenix is 0-5 since point guard Eric Bledsoe‘s season-ending injury to his left knee and subsequent surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

Lakers: A fan won a $95,000 for hitting a halfcourt shot after the third quarter. … Nance made seven of 10 shots in his first start against the team his dad starred for during his first 6 1-2 NBA seasons. … C Roy Hibbert, the only Laker to start all 35 games, had 13 points and six boards. … Bryant’s highest-scoring game without a 3-point basket was against the Suns, when he scored 48 points on Jan. 10, 2012, at Los Angeles. … The Lakers snapped a nine-game home losing streak against Western Conference teams.