51 Q: Beyond Lillard, who steps up for Blazers?

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ outlook changed in a hurry this summer. They went from a 51-win team that looked like a legitimate contender in the Western Conference before a season-ending Achilles injury to Wesley Matthews, to losing four of five starters (including LaMarcus Aldridge) in the offseason and replacing them with young, mostly unproven players. They’re all but certain to be one of, if not the worst teams in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard is their only dependable, proven scorer, and he’ll have a greater burden than ever on the offensive end. But with the new, lower expectations comes a lot of opportunity for some of the other players to prove themselves.

Lillard will see a lot of time in the backcourt alongside C.J. McCollum. That unit won’t be able to defend anybody, but there’s plenty of scoring potential there. McCollum averaged just 15.7 minutes per game during the regular season but blossomed in the playoffs, scoring 17 points per game and shooting 47.8 percent from three-point range in the Blazers’ first-round loss to Memphis. That’s an extremely small sample size, and it remains to be seen whether McCollum can keep up that level of production playing an expanded role for a full season. His ideal use is probably as a sixth man leading the second-unit offense. But the Blazers are severely lacking in shot creators outside of Lillard, so McCollum will have plenty of opportunities to put up numbers, even though that likely won’t translate into wins.

One of the most intriguing players on the Blazers’ roster is Lilliard’s 2012 draft classmate, Meyers Leonard. Miscast as a center because of his size for the first two years of his career, Leonard found a role last season as a stretch four, shooting 42 percent from three on 112 attempts. As a rookie, he looked completely lost on the defensive end, which made him almost unplayable in the years when Portland was trying to contend. But he’s made strides on that end, to the point where you can at least keep him on the floor. As the longest-tenured Blazer along with Lillard, he’s the most familiar with Stotts’ system, which will be an advantage for him trying to earn playing time against a stable of newcomers.

The rest of the Blazers’ frontcourt rotation sans Aldridge and Robin Lopez will be interesting to figure out, too. Besides Leonard, the players are all new, with varying track records. Noah Vonleh, acquired from Charlotte in the Nicolas Batum trade, is a complete unknown as an NBA player. The former No. 9 overall pick barely played in his rookie season, but looked good in Summer League (whatever that’s worth), displaying a solid midrange game, ballhandling skills and athleticism undiminished by the back surgery that limited him last season. He’s still extremely raw, but he’ll have opportunities to be a contributor. Free-agent signee Ed Davis is more limited but more of a known quantity. He’s a great rebounder and scorer around the basket, and could be an effective pick-and-roll partner for Lillard. His skillset is largely redundant with that of Mason Plumlee, whom the Blazers traded for on draft night and will probably start at center.

Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers’ biggest and most controversial free-agent signing, is going to anchor an otherwise dreadful perimeter defense that’s losing Batum and Matthews. He’s versatile and athletic, capable of playing both forward positions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t give them much in the way of shooting, which will be tricky in Stotts’ movement-heavy offense. He’ll likely start at small forward, since there’s virtually nobody else there on the roster, but he’s been most effective in Dallas and New Orleans as a smallball four.

Stotts is going to have a lot of room to experiment with all of this stuff.. The likeliest starting lineup to kick the season off is a Lillard-Gerald Henderson-Aminu-Leonard-Plumlee unit, with McCollum as the sixth man. But there will be many different lineups. One of the benefits of a season with no expectations outside of a high lottery pick is plenty of space to try stuff. This roster and rotation is not going to look in April like it does in November. The Blazers, with among the lowest payrolls in the league, have plenty of space to make a move at the deadline and should be highly motivated to do so to hit the salary floor. Lillard is poised for an all-time huge-numbers-on-a-bad-team season with the dearth of offensive talent around him. It’s going to be a lot of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Lillard is the only sure thing, and the Blazers locked him up long-term with a five-year extension. That part of the rebuild was easy. Sorting out which of these young pieces are a part of their future will take more time.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.