NBA All-Star Weekend: Waiters, Hardaway light up Rising Stars Challenge with 3-point shootout

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NEW ORLEANS — To be perfectly honest, there are times when the Rising Stars Challenge can feel like a bit of a chore. It can’t match the talent level of the actual All-Star game, but it has all of the lack of defense, intensity, and ball movement that is usually par for the course in Sunday’s main event. Botched alley-oops, cherry-picking, jogging up and down the court, and ill-fated dribble moves are rampant.

So why is this a staple of NBA All-Star Weekend, and why do we watch? To put it plainly, there’s a very good chance that something completely insane will happen during the Rising Stars Challenge. Without so much as the pride of their conferences to play for, let alone the pressure of playing for their actual team, the players are openly out there to put on a show, and the flashes of sheer ridiculousness that come out of that mentality are often enough to make up for the apathy that makes up the rest of the game.

Last year, it was Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight going at each other, which culminated in Irving destroying Knight’s ankles with one of the nastiest crossovers you’re likely to ever see. In 2003, Jason Richardson drilled a 3 after bouncing the ball off of Carlos Boozer’s head. And of course, it was the Rookie/Sophomore game that gave us one of the most audacious moves in the history of the NBA — Jason Williams’ legendary elbow pass.

On Friday, the game started out lackadaisically, even by All-Star Friday standards. When a player wanted to get a layup, he got to the rim with less resistance than a stiff breeze would be able to offer him. 3-pointers were thrown up early in the clock at a high volume, but rarely found their mark. The cherry-picking was even more blatant than usual.

Andre Drummond dominated the game simply by camping under the basket, actually trying to get rebounds, and easily depositing the ball in the hoop time after time. There weren’t even particularly impressive dunks or crossover moves to break up the monotony. It was shaping up to be 40 minutes of a game that only barely resembled basketball, and seemed to only be fun for those playing in it.

Then Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dion Waiters happened. With 8:58 remaining in the game, Hardaway Jr., who had been shooting the ball aggressively all night but struggling to get his shots to go in, drilled a 3. Waiters came right back at him, drove, and got two free throws. Waiters and Hardaway both said they had something of a score to settle before the game, as Hardaway had made a 3 with the clock winding down in a Knicks blowout win over the Cavaliers on TNT earlier in the year, something that Waiters told Hardaway he would “get him back” for.

Hardaway said that Waiters had talked to him before the game and during the game, and that both of them were “trying to do a great job of just getting the fans involved. It was kind of dead in there, and we just wanted to start something, a little one-on-one battle here and there.”

After Waiters made his free throws, the Waiters-Hardaway show had officially begun. Hardaway came right back down the court and drilled a 3. Waiters answered with a fadeaway jumper. Hardaway went to the hole and got free throws. Waiters got fouled and split free throws of his own. The players traded layups, then Hardaway set up his teammate for a layup.

After that, the three-point contest begun, as Waiters drilled a 3 in Hardaway’s face and Hardaway answered with a pull-up 3 of his own — from 33 feet away. The crowd had come alive. Waiters came right back with a 3. Hardaway came back with a 31-footer, and the crowd was fully on its feet. When Hardaway missed a 3 after two Waiters free throws, the two players had combined for 27 points in just under 3 minutes. They weren’t completely done, either, as they went head-to-head again a few minutes later to combine for 14 points in just under a minute.

Ultimately, Waiters got the better of the rookie on Friday, as he needed only 14 shots to get his 31 points and added 7 assists, while Hardaway Jr. needed 23 shots to get his 36 points and only managed to dish out two assists, and Waiters’ team ultimately pulled out the victory. Still, the important thing is that both men combined to give NBA fans the kind of display you simply won’t see often in the games that count, and one that made the Rising Stars Challenge anything but a forgettable affair.

NBA players, fans react to Damian Lillard’s series-ending shot

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Damian Lillard is the best Portland Trail Blazers player of all time. We’ve established that, it’s time to move on.

Lillard hit yet another game-winning, series-ending shot in the playoffs on Tuesday night as the Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 at Moda Center, 118-115.

Lillard hit a step-back 37-foot 3-point shot over Paul George to win the series at the buzzer. It was reminiscent of the shot Lillard hit in 2014 over Chandler Parsons to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland to the second round.

Of course the league was watching as the game went down this track too late into the night on the West coast, and early in the morning on the East.

After Lillard hit the shot, NBA Twitter left into action. NBA players who were awake reacted as well, including Parsons, who was cavalier about the whole thing.

What an incredible night in the NBA.

Damian Lillard did it again

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Damian Lillard did it again.

On Tuesday night when the Portland Trail Blazers needed him most, Lillard came through. Things were tight between Portland the Oklahoma City Thunder late in Game 5 at Moda Center. Both Russell Westbrook and Paul George played with five fouls in the fourth quarter, and after an explosive first half where Lillard scored 34 points, things had slowed for Portland.

In the second half, Westbrook played the part of the bully against CJ McCollum, and George was fantastic, eventually scoring 36 points with nine rebounds and three assists.

But things seemed to turn around when Jusuf Nurkic, out with a broken leg, returned to the Blazers bench with three-and-a-half minutes left and Portland down by eight. Nurkic said he left his house with a few minutes to go in the third quarter, anticipating his team could use his good spirits. Indeed, Nurkic’s presence seemed to fuel Portland. When Nurkic showed up, the home team immediately went on an 8-0 run.

Then, Lillard did what he does best.

After hitting the two-for-one shot with 32 seconds left, Lillard found himself with the ball, the game tied, and the shot clock off. As time ticked down and with the game on the line, Lillard hit the biggest shot of the night, right as time expired.

It was the shot that won the series.

You wouldn’t be mistaken if you equated Tuesday night’s big shot to the one Lillard hit in 2013 to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland into the second round of the playoffs. In fact, I was at that game and I can tell you it was a defining moment for the franchise over the past half-decade.

But this was so much more.

Lillard’s shot to beat the Thunder solidified several things, both about the team and about the star guard himself. The Blazers have been a squad that have relied on its bench and supporting cast all season long, even more so with Nurkic out with a broken leg. But when the Thunder played perhaps one of their best games of the postseason, it was Lillard’s 50-point performance that moved them forward.

Portland is a team’s team, but in the end, it was their star that they needed.

There’s no doubt that Portland and Lillard have had it their fair share of doubters over the past several years. The idea that they could — or should — have a team built on the backs of Lillard and McCollum has raised the eyebrows of many, including myself. But externally, and particularly after their playoff sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, it appeared most were ready to write off this team altogether.

But this playoff series, and this team, is different. They’ve been different all season long, right down to the rotations and flexibility that head coach Terry Stotts has enabled this season. Stotts has gone deeper into his bench, and altered his Flow offense in a way that is helped Portland stay fresh after years of running the same old song and dance.

Guys like Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Enes Kanter have all stepped up over the course of the season to be able to contribute to a squad that is needed more than just Lillard and McCollum.

To that end, Portland rose again and again to the challenge. Despite some of their losses, the Thunder gave numerous gut punches to the Blazers that would have seen previous iterations of this team fold. But Portland has been stronger, both as a unit and as Lillard has solidified himself as a more complete two-way player.

The idea that Lillard came back stronger and as more of a leader, ready for adversity, is not a supposition. At this point, it’s fact. You can see how the rest of the team has banded behind him in support of his path forward. Hell, Kanter told reporters after the game on Tuesday that he separated his shoulder and had to have an injection at halftime. That’s how bad these Blazers wanted to win, and how much they wanted to push not just for themselves, but for Lillard.

Thanks to Lillard’s shot (and McCollum’s jumpers, and Maurice Harkless’ free throws) Portland beat the Thunder, 118-115. They advance to the second round, and Rip City will be buzzing all week long. They deserve it, and they’ll be real contenders to challenge for a Western Conference Finals berth.

But where does that leave us when we think about Lillard, and these Blazers? If his famous “0.9” shot from 2014 was the thing that put him on the map, Tuesday’s 37-foot step-back jumper over George was the thing that made Lillard a legend.

The impossibility of that jumper — and the sheer gal to take it — is what makes Damian Lillard who he is.

The greatest Blazer of all-time.

Nuggets have figured out Spurs, how to win, dominate Game 5 to take 3-2 lead

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The coach who made the adjustment that changed the series is not the Olympic team coach, not the “why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame already guy. Instead, it’s Michael Malone. He has been the Bobby Fischer.

Malone’s adjustment: Starting Torrey Craig. Exactly the move everyone expected before the series.

Defensively, Craig has used his length to slow DeMar DeRozan (as much as anyone is going to), while Gary Harris could focus on the young Derrick White and Jamal Murray could hide on Bryn Forbes.

Craig was supposed to drag down the Nuggets offense too much to play him, but he was 5-of-7 from three in Game 4, and in Game 5 it didn’t matter because the San Antonio had no answer for the Jamal Murray/Nikola Jokic pick-and-roll.

The result was a 108-90 Denver thumping of the Spurs, giving them a 3-2 series lead. Closing out the Spurs in San Antonio will be a tall order, but a Denver team that came into the series needing to learn how to win at playoff basketball looks like a team that has figured it out.

“They just outplayed us in every facet of the game,” Gregg Popovich said succinctly.

Murray had 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, plus dished out seven assists and was +33 on the night.

Murry and Jokic have developed a tremendous pick-and-roll chemistry that leads to easy buckets off cuts, rolls, or open threes. Jokic is going to be good — 16 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists — but when Murray is hitting shots too the duo is nearly impossible to stop.

More important than the offense has been how Denver has started to defend the Spurs well — something Craig helped bring to the table. The Nuggets were stepping in and blowing up pick-and-rolls, forcing the Spurs into dry stretches of offense that allowed Denver to pull away.

The Spurs at home cannot be written off, but their role players need to make more plays — LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan each had 17 points, but the rest of the Spurs shot 38.7 percent on the night. Against this Denver offense, that’s not going to be good enough. Denver has figured out what it needs to do to win, the ball is in the Spurs court to adapt. And just make shots.

A bunch of players got ejected at the end of Sixers-Nets (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on to the second round. They beat the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, 122-100. They will meet in the Toronto Raptors in the next series after Kawhi Leonard & Co. took care of the Orlando Magic earlier in the evening.

Brooklyn was a spunky team, and they gave the Sixers some headaches. They also exposed some of Philadelphia’s more obvious flaws, which we will no doubt see Toronto try to exploit moving forward.

The Nets are a prideful team, and they weren’t too pleased about getting bumped out of the playoffs by Philadelphia. At the end of the game, a scuffle between Jonah Bolden and Rodions Kurucs resulted in the ejections of several players.

Via Twitter:

Greg Monroe and Dzanan Musa were also ejected.

It’s a bummer of a way to end the year for Brooklyn, but they should hold their heads high given they gave a championship-hopeful team in the Sixers a scare and cast some serious self-doubt in their hearts.