Five Things to Watch on Playoff Saturday: Will Damian Lillard find his jump shot?

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You can tell we are getting into the serious part of playoff series because the games are starting to get a little chippy. Expect more of that Saturday (and hopefully the referees let them play a little). He’s what to keep your eye on.

1) Back home in Portland, will Damian Lillard find his shot? And C.J. McCollum, too? 
Through the first two games against the Clippers, Lillard has averaged 19 points a game on 33.3 percent shooting, and 21.4 percent from three (down from 25.1 ppg on 41.9 and 37.5 percent in the regular season). Just check out his playoff shot chart.

Lillard shotchart

Add to that, C.J. McCollum is averaging 12.5 points a game on 32.1 percent shooting through two games. The Clippers are trapping and being aggressive, but after Game 2 Lillard owned up to just missing the clean looks they do get.

“Our coaching staff did a great job of watching film and putting myself and C.J. in different positions where they couldn’t really take a lot away from us,” Lillard said. “I just got to make the shots. I think that’s what it comes down to.”

We could talk about Portland’s need to play better defense on the Clippers guards, or pick-and-roll coverages, or a host of other potential adjustments, but unless the Blazers’ guard duo that carried them all season starts to deal better with the aggressive Clippers’ defense and hit their shots, it’s all moot. Lillard had better find his shot in Portland fast, or the Blazers will go down 0-3 and can start making tee times for next week.

2) Can Oklahoma City keep the pace up and run past the Mavericks? In the two Oklahoma City blowout wins in this series, the games averaged 97.9 possessions per game. The one loss it was 94.  In addition to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook knocking down their open looks (and Mavs fans should expect they will), the other determining factor in this series has been pace. Oklahoma City has the better, younger athletes and wants to get out and run. That isn’t brain surgery. If the pace is up again it will be easy buckets for the Thunder and another win, Dallas’ only hope is a slow, grinding game.

3) Can the Hornets overcome the loss of Nicolas Batum? The loss of Batum to a sprained ankle hits the Hornets where it hurts. (Where exactly do you hit a hornet to make it hurt?) They are going to miss his defense as an option to contain Dwyane Wade. They are going to miss his ability to hit the three and be a secondary playmaker on the offensive end. Coach Steve Clifford will either move Frank Kaminsky or Jeremy Lin into the starting lineup, but both are going to have to have big games for the Hornets to have a chance. I expect Courtney Lee will now draw the Wade assignment and he has to have a big game — Wade has averaged 22 points a game so far. Charlotte also has to do better dealing with the size of the Heat (which is why maybe the 7-footer Kaminsky gets the start). Charlotte was a much better team at home than on the road this season, they will need every bit of that — and a huge game from Kemba Walker — to avoid going down 0-3 in this series and it being all but over.

4) Can the Indiana Pacers contain Jonas Valanciunas? In Game 3 you can say that Valanciunas, battling foul trouble, wasn’t as big a factor with nine points and 14 rebounds — but he was +16. For the series, the Raptors are outscoring the Pacers by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when Valanciunas is on the court. Ian Mahinmi did better in Game 3, but the Pacers need to be able to contain him and Luis Scola on the boards (especially offensive) and make the Raptors bigs work harder on the defensive end. I wonder if Frank Vogel will start rookie Myles Turner (as he did in the second half of Game 3). For all his rookie mental lapses, Turner brings some offense and energy the Pacers need if this series is going to head back to Toronto 2-2. The Pacers need to handle the Raptors’ size.

5) Can somebody give Paul George a little help here? DeMarre Carroll had his best game by far these playoffs in Game 3, and it’s no coincidence that George was just 6-of-19 shooting in that game. George is still going to have to do a lot (he had 25 points and six assists in Game 3) but if Carroll is bodying up the Pacers’ No. 1 option then Monta Ellis, George Hill and the rest of them need to step up and knock down more shots. The Pacers could use more minutes and a big night from C.J. Miles. Indiana just needs to find more offense and it can’t all come from George.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.