67RIEFNS No. 31: Wizards’ small forwards

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The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

Contract-Year Trevor Ariza, by win shares, just posted the best season by a Washington small forward since Greg Ballard led the 1981-82 Bullets in scoring. Not coincidentally, that was the last team in franchise history – before last season – to win a second-round playoff game.

No matter what happened in free agency, the Wizards were going to have a hard time replacing Contract-Year Trevor Ariza. They were going to either keep Ariza on a multi-year deal that resulted in his production slipping to relatively pedestrian levels or lose him in free agency. Ultimately, the latter occurred, with Ariza headed to Houston.

Now, Washington – which has one of the NBA’s best backcourts (John Wall and Bradley Beal) and an identity-creating big-man combo (Nene and Marcin Gortat) – must find a new small forward to bridge the gap in an emerging lineup.

It might take a little while for everything to shake out, because injuries to Beal and Glen Rice Jr. will throw the Wizards’ rotation out of balance. But once they settle in, this is one of the most underrated and intriguing extended position battles in the league. It could take the greater part of the season for Washington to find the answer, but all three candidates bring something to the table.

Paul Pierce

Pierce is an NBA champion and Finals MVP. He’s made 10 All-Star games. He’s a well-respected leader.

He just hasn’t played small forward that effectively in quite a while.

Pierce struggled in the playoffs his last season with the Celtics, and he didn’t take off in Brooklyn until the Nets went small and moved him to power forward. In the 32 games between that 2013 playoff series and before Brooklyn’s transformation, Pierce averaged 13.9 points on 39.3 percent shooting with 3.1 turnovers per game. Sample-size caveats apply, but traditional scouting certainly indicates he’s better suited to be a small-ball four at this stage.

That’s not knocking Pierce’s great career, but he’s 37 now. The bust potential, especially if Washington keeps him at power forward, is higher than most are willing to acknowledge.

Otto Porter

Porter was one of my favorite players in the 2013 draft. He was extremely productive at Georgetown, and he was the third-youngest top-10 pick (behind Nerlens Noel and Alex Len).

But Porter’s rookie year never really got off the ground as he dealt with injury. That’s the optimistic view, at least. When Porter got on the court, he was dreadful.

He’s looked considerably better in summer and the preseason, reliably hitting jumpers. In time, I still think he can do more, but on this team, someone who spreads the floor by making spot-ups is a good fit.

Can that be Porter? Some players just need a little time to transition to the NBA.

Martell Webster

Webster splits the difference between the aging Pierce and young Porter.

It seems Webster has been been in the league nine years – and he has. But he’s just 27, turning pro the last year players could declare for the NBA draft straight from high school.

Webster had a career year in 2012-13, earning a big contract, before backsliding and losing his starting job to Ariza last season. He’s faced a litany of injuries, including a herniated disc in his back that has him sidelined now.

Once Webster gets healthy, as a player theoretically in his prime, he could earn the job over Pierce (maybe too old) and Porter (maybe too young). Webster could be that just-right third bear.

No matter who ultimately becomes the Wizards starting small forward, they have enough talent at the position that finding a good option is likely. None of these three are sure things, leaving the possibility Washington strikes out, but I’m betting on the Wizards identifying at least one quality option – even if these three interesting candidates battle for the job throughout the season.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.