Damian Lillard and Trail Blazers look to bright future

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard‘s thoughts were already turned toward next season on the flight back to Portland following the Blazers’ final playoff loss to the Warriors. He pondered how the team’s surprising success would impact the tightknit group.

“I started getting worried already. I was sitting on the plane like, we had some success this year, it was unexpected, it was no pressure. People are going to expect a little bit more, and I started to get worried about too many pats on the back,” Lillard said. “But we don’t have those kind of guys. We’ve got hungry guys, we’ve got humble guys that work hard. We had a taste this season as a young group of how well we could do, and what it takes.”

He has added reason for that optimism: Many of the Blazers said Thursday they’d be sticking around this summer to work out together.

The Trail Blazers’ theme this season emerged over time as the team kept surpassing expectations. It wound up on the T-shirts that were left on seats for fans during the playoffs: “Never Doubt Rip City.” They even adopted the hashtag (hash)NeverDoubt.

But the motto could have just as easily been “Band of Brothers.”

“Guys care about winning and we care about each other, and I don’t think that’s very common in the NBA now,” Lillard said.

From a preseason bonding trip to San Diego, where the team hammed for photos on the beach, to Lillard’s team dinners and trips to a roller skating rink, the young Blazers became a cohesive group.

Lillard was the lone starter to return from the 2014-15 Blazers, after LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews departed in the offseason.

The group that was assembled was the third-youngest in the NBA and included players who, for whatever reason, hadn’t really caught on elsewhere. Many never thought the Blazers would win more than 30 games, let alone make the playoffs, but Portland went on to finish 44-38 with the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

The Blazers beat the injury-depleted Clippers in the first round.

Portland had a daunting task in the defending NBA champion Warriors and MVP Stephen Curry in the second round but put up a fight. After dropping the first two in Oakland, Portland claimed the third at home but lost the fourth in overtime – with Curry coming back from a knee injury and scoring 40 points, including 17 in the OT. The Warriors closed out the series with a nail-biter in Oakland on Wednesday night.

Lillard averaged a career-high 25.1 points in the regular season, becoming just the third Portland player to average more than 25. He also averaged 6.8 assists.

CJ McCollum averaged 20.8 points in his first year as a starter, giving the Blazers their first backcourt duo with an average of 20 or more points apiece in a single season.

McCollum was named the league’s Most Improved Player for more than tripling his scoring average from the 2014-15 season.

Those two will almost certainly be back next season, as will fellow starters Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee. Forward Maurice Harkless, who started all 11 postseason games, backup guard Allen Crabbe and reserve forward Meyers Leonard are all restricted free agents.

Gerald Henderson and Chris Kaman and Brian Roberts are unrestricted free agents.

Leonard injured his shoulder late in the season and required surgery. He was still wearing a sling Thursday.

“To be honest, I haven’t had a conversation with my agent about this (free agency),” said Leonard, who said his focus was on rehab. He and Crabbe said they’d like to stay in Portland.

The Blazers have a team option on coach Terry Stotts for the coming season, but the team is looking to quickly firm up a long-term deal. The 58-year-old coach has a 182-146 record in four seasons with the team. He’s led the Blazers to the playoffs in each of the last three years, and to the conference semifinals twice.

Stotts finished second to Golden State’s Steve Kerr in NBA Coach of the Year voting.

“You just look at what he got out of his guys all year,” Plumlee said. “He should have been coach of the year.”

Lillard and McCollum, meanwhile, are already planning the team’s collective offseason getaway.

“Coming into this season we weren’t even expected to be a playoff team. We didn’t accept what everybody expected of us. We had our own goals, we had own plan in mind,” Lillard said. “I think the next step is not accepting, `All right, let’s just get there, let’s get there and compete.’ Now it’s `Let’s get there and let’s go win it.”‘

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.