ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Portland Trail Blazers

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Last Season: The Blazers spent the first half of the season threatening for a playoff spot, but one of the worst benches in NBA history ultimately sunk the team’s chances. Damian Lillard’s scoring prowess made him the fourth unanimous Rookie of the Year winner in NBA history, and it simulatenously provided hope that Portland’s current core can contend in the near future.

Signature Highlight: It feels dirty not to have a Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge highlight here, but by golly gee, this dunk from J.J. Hickson was one of the best of the year.

Key Player Changes:

IN: Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Earl Watson

OUT: J.J. Hickson (Denver), Eric Maynor (Washington), Luke Babbitt, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavolvic, Ronnie Price

General manager Neil Olshey pulled off some sneaky tanking last year by cobbling together an awful bench with multiple players who won’t even play in the league this season. After hitting on Lillard in the draft, it looked like the Trail Blazers might have stolen another underrated small school grad to slot in as a scoring sixth man. Unfortunately, though, C.J. McCollum’s foot injury will keep him out of action indefinitely.

Adding Thomas Robinson was an incredibly low-risk, high-reward move, as his energy and rebounding should be a welcome sight coming off the bench. Robinson will likely never be a star, but he could carve out a solid role.

If Dorell Wright’s outside shooting returns to form, he could be a steal as a versatile 3 and D guy. Mo Williams is an extremely good shooter and a decent point guard to boot, but he needs to be hidden defensively at all times.

Robin Lopez might be the addition with the biggest impact, as his pure size should help the Blazers control the paint defensively much better than last season.

Losing J.J. Hickson doesn’t hurt nearly as much as his overall numbers would indicate. Hickson was defensive poison as a center last season, and it’s telling that the Blazers were unable to flip him for any asset while he was putting up grossly inflated stats.

Keys to Portland’s Season:

1) Can an improved bench make that much of a difference?

After running his starters into the ground by necessity last season, Terry Stotts can ease off the reins a bit and trust what should be a very capable bench. The on/off ratings for Aldridge (+9.4 points per 100 possessions) and Lillard (+9.1 points per 100 possessions) illustrate just how bad Portland’s reserve unit was last year, and the heavy minutes took a toll late in the season when the defense completely collapsed.

2) Will the defense improve?

Although he’s a plodder, Robin Lopez should plug a few more gaps in this leaky defense. Matthews is still the team’s best defender despite Batum’s reputation, but a lot of the responsibility boils down to Lillard and Aldridge, who need to stop reserving so much energy for offense and start defending pick-and-roll action better.

The Blazers finished 26th in defensive efficiency last season, so there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement here. The starting unit should be explosive, but below-average defensive teams traditionally have a much harder time making the playoffs than below-average offensive teams. The Blazers have to get better here in order to fight for the 8-seed.

3) Which unexpected source can provide the lift?

It’s time for Nic Batum to live up to his potential, as he’s the player who needs to make the biggest leap on both ends for the Blazers to truly be competitive. We know what we’re getting from LaMarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews at this point, and it’s hard to imagine Lillard being significantly better (at least offensively) in his second year.

Perhaps Lopez or Robinson can surprise and add big contributions as well, but Batum is paid too much money to simply be a very good complementary player. The additions of an improved bench and a defensive-minded center can put the Blazers in the playoff conversation alone, but Batum’s continued development as a secondary creator (his assists shot up to 4.9 a game last year) and locked-in defender has to be there.

Why You Should Watch: Damian Lillard is the definition of smooth. Robin Lopez’s hair is the best in the business. LaMarcus Aldridge has three moves he just pairs over and over again, and no one can stop it.  Nic Batum in transition is an adventure. J.J. Hickson and his defense won’t make your eyes bleed anymore.

Prediction: 41-41 and the 9th seed. The Blazers should be able to beat out the other hapless defensive teams vying for the final playoff spot (Mavericks, Lakers), and the talent meshes better in Portland than it likely will in New Orleans. A healthy Minnesota team (oxy-moron?) is my choice for the 8th spot however, as they were much better defensively last year despite massive injuries. I need to see Portland’s defense improve drastically before I can fully believe they are a playoff team.

Kawhi Leonard has 27 as Raptors clinch series over Magic

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TORONTO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points, Pascal Siakam added 24 and the Toronto Raptors used another stifling defensive effort to beat the Orlando Magic 115-96 on Tuesday night, winning their first-round playoff series in five games.

Kyle Lowry scored 14 points as the Raptors finished off the Magic with ease, bouncing back from a Game 1 defeat to win by double-digits in three of the next four. Toronto led by as many as 37 in the clincher, their biggest-ever margin in a playoff game.

It’s the fourth straight year the Raptors have reached the second round.

Leonard made 8 of 11 shots, including 5 of 5 from 3-point range, as the Raptors jumped on Orlando early and never trailed. Leonard also made all six of his free throws. He checked out to cheers of “MVP, MVP” with 8:05 to play and Toronto up 105-75.

D.J. Augustin scored 15 points, Terrence Ross had 12 and Aaron Gordon 11 for the Magic, who won 104-101 on Augustin’s late 3-pointer in Game 1 but never again topped 96 points against Toronto’s dominant defense, and twice finished with 85 or fewer.

Orlando made 32 of 83 shots, including 9 of 34 from 3-point range.

The Magic hadn’t reached the postseason since 2012. That year, Orlando won its opener on the road against Indiana, then lost four straight. The Magic haven’t advanced past the opening round since 2010, when they lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Lowry scored Toronto’s first nine points and had 12 in the opening quarter. Orlando missed 10 of its first 11 shots and went 0 for 7 from 3-point range in the first. Toronto was up 35-19 after one.

The Magic missed 11 straight from long range before Fournier connected at 7:55 of the second. Toronto answered with a 6-0 spurt, opening a 50-29 lead with 6:48 to go until halftime. Leonard and Siakam each had seven points in the second and the Raptors held a 67-47 lead at the intermission.2

Lowry left at 2:41 of the second and headed to the locker room after appearing to jam a finger on his right hand. He returned to start the second half.

Toronto took a commanding 99-70 lead into the fourth.

TIP-INS

Magic: Vucevic missed his first four shots and had three fouls in a scoreless first quarter, playing only five minutes. Vucevic scored his first basket at 9:54 of the third, when Orlando trailed by 26. He shot 3 for 10 and scored six points. … Khem Birch led Orlando with 11 rebounds.

Raptors: Toronto had 10 assists on 13 made baskets in the first quarter, and 19 on 23 baskets in the first half. The 19 assists set a Raptors record for a single half of a postseason game. … G Fred VanVleet led Toronto with 10 assists while Lowry had nine. … Five games is the quickest Toronto has ever won a seven-game series. … F Chris Boucher (back) was not available.

UP NEXT

Toronto will host Philadelphia or Brooklyn in Game 1 of the second round.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Donovan Mitchell pulled over to assist at the scene of a car wreck (PHOTO)

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A car wreck can be a terrible thing. People get injured, property gets damaged, and it ruins your day. But perhaps folks were a little bit happier when they got out of their car and saw Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell coming over to help.

Mitchell witnessed a car wreck over the weekend and decided to get out of his vehicle and assist those on the scene.

According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, Mitchell saw a woman who needed help and pulled over to lend a hand.

Via Salt Lake Tribune:

“I was driving by, a lady was falling out of her car, the airbags went off, she was grabbing her chest and I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ Like a natural instinct to found out what happened,” Mitchell explained. Mitchell ended up calling 911 to report the accident.

Apparently everybody in the car accident was okay, but imagine getting in a wreck and then an NBA star shows up. That might be a little odd.

Meanwhile Mitchell and the Jazz might be headed for a short postseason. They are struggling against the Houston Rockets, just as many predicted.

Mitchell has not played a great in the series against the Rockets. His per game numbers are similar to what he posted last season, but his advanced metrics tell a different story. The young Jazz point guard is playing near replacement-level, and some of his decision-making has been questionable.

Game 5 is on Wednesday at 5 p.m. PST and the Rockets lead, 3-1.

Blake Griffin shook the hands of every media member after exit interviews (VIDEO)

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The season is over for the Detroit Pistons. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks took care of Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond in quick fashion, sweeping them out of the playoffs on Monday.

Griffin had an incredible regular season in Detroit after being traded by the Los Angeles Clippers back in January of 2018. He notched numbers of 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists. Griffin also shot 36 percent from 3-point land.

The former member of Lob City is apparently embracing his new role as the face of the Pistons, and that included shaking hands with every media member after his exit interview on Tuesday.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but this isn’t something that every NBA superstar would do.

Via Twitter:

On Tuesday Griffin also thanked all of the Pistons fans via Instagram for sticking with him and the rest of the squad through the postseason.

People have lambasted Griffin’s contract up until this point, but if he can stay relatively healthy and play similar to how he did this year, the power forward is at least be a building block for Detroit to improve upon moving forward.

Prepare yourself for ‘Beanie ‘Melo’ because Carmelo Anthony is back (VIDEO)

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Carmelo Anthony is not playing in these playoffs. The former superstar was last seen celebrating with his friends at Dwyane Wade‘s last game.

But now video has surfaced of Anthony working out. However, there’s one thing that’s different.

Anthony was previously seen wearing a hoodie during offseason workouts, enough so that he was dubbed “Hoodie Melo” by Twitter. Now it appears that Anthony has traded in his hoodie for a different kind of chapeau.

Via Twitter:

I’m not sure if Anthony is exactly “ready to go”. The video of him working out shows him shooting 15-foot turnarounds, which is the exact thing that caused NBA teams to wholly pass on him this season.

I’m excited for the bevy of workout videos to start. This one has come early, it’s not even May yet.