Three things we learned Wednesday: Blazers struggles open door for Kings, Nuggets

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1) Portland is a mess, has lost 8-of-9, falls into a virtual tie with Sacramento, Denver. We’re deep enough into the season to say this: Barring a catastrophic injury, there are seven teams in the West that appear playoff bound. The top four that seem obvious — the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers — but also the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Thunder are all on pace to win 48 games or more and make the postseason.

Notice the Trail Blazers were not on that list. That’s because the team that came into this season with high hopes of building on their 44-win, second round of the playoffs effort a year ago is a mess. Portland played as bad a half of basketball Wednesday night as we have seen in the league this season, and the team has now lost 8-of-9. There seems to be a real chemistry issue — they don’t help each other on defense (which remains the worst in the NBA), and their ball movement has dried up on offense.

The end result of that was a loss at home Wednesday to the Dallas Mavericks. Portland was getting blown out early in this one — they shot 37.6 percent, had 11 turnovers, and were down by 24 at the half — then came back on the strength of Damian Lillard.

It wasn’t enough. Good defense by former Blazer Wesley Matthews on Lillard on the game’s final play caused the missed shot that gave the Mavericks the win, 96-95. No Lillard heroics this time.

Meanwhile, over in Salt Lake City the DeMarcus Cousins show rolled on — no ejections (or unejections) this time around — as he had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Kings to a 94-93 upset win over the Utah Jazz.

The result of all this is that Portland, Sacramento, and Denver are all in a virtual tie for the eighth seed in the West. On paper, the Trail Blazers should pull away from that group and secure the final playoff spot, but they are simply not good enough. Not with that defense. This could be a race that continues on into early April, that goes down to the wire, to see which team gets to be fodder for the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.

One other note from that chase: Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, and owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to do so in the team’s first season in its new building in the heart of the city. Which means, if you’re expecting a Cousins trade during the season, you might as well be expecting “Suicide Squad” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Even moving Rudy Gay seems less likely — despite the fact they will get nothing in return when he walks this summer — because he’s their second-best scorer. As long as the Kings can sniff the playoffs, making it is the goal.

2) Russell Westbrook outduels Anthony Davis on an entertaining showdown. The results were what we expected: Oklahoma City beat New Orleans 121-110. But that’s not why we tuned in. We wanted the scoring showdown between Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. We were not disappointed. Davis had 34 points, but Westbrook had 42 (10 rebounds, 7 assists) as the pair put on a show.

3) Cavaliers pick up the win over Bucks, but they are going to miss J.R. Smith. Not sure why the schedule maker decided the Milwaukee Bucks needed to be involved in all of the league’s home-and-home series (or at least it seems that way), but after an overtime game on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers got an easier win Wednesday at home, 113-102.

It was Cleveland’s first game without J.R. Smith, who will be out indefinitely after needing surgery to repair a broken thumb. Tyronn Lue inserted DeAndre Liggins into the starting lineup — with Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Richard Jefferson, and Tristan Thompson — and that group was +17 in 17 minutes of action. (Kevin Love is out with a bruised knee but is not expected to miss extended time.) The starters shot the ball well (65.2% eFG%), defended will, and owned the offensive glass.

The question is, can they sustain it. Tyronn Lue has leaned heavily on his starting five of Irving, Smith, LeBron, Love, and Thompson — that group has been on the court 300 minutes this season, no other five-man group more than 46 minutes heading into Wednesday night. The Cavaliers are still going to win games — they still have LeBron, Irving, and Love — and they will hold on to the top spot in the East, but it’s going to be an adjustment.

And they’re going to miss Smith in games like Sunday, when the Warriors come to town.

76ers rumored to be looking for new top man in basketball operations

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Two years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers kept Brett Brown as coach and searched for a new top man in basketball operations, someone who could work collaboratively with others. They settled on Elton Brand as GM, just a couple years after the end of his playing career.

That collaboration, that order of hiring — coach and then GM — did not work.

Philadelphia is now looking for a new coach after firing Brown. Still, while a coaching search goes on, the franchise is considering bringing in a new head of basketball operations, reports Keith Pompey of The Inquirer.

League sources have said the Sixers are inquiring about the possibility of hiring a president of basketball operations. One source said that Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations/ general manager Neil Olshey might have some interest in the Sixers, but that’s only if he has total power, as the president and general manager.

Former Atlanta Hawks president of basketball operation/GM Danny Ferry’s name keeps popping up as a possible candidate. But the Sixers keep shooting that down.

A source also believes the Sixers will attempt to inquire about Houston GM Morey and Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard. The source, however, believes it’s unlikely that they would be interested.

As with everything 76ers the past couple of years, things seem a bit confused. The front office could use a shakeup, but the expectation had been Brand would have the power and there would be more voices to consult with him. Maybe a strong No. 2 who could bring a new voice and organizational skills to the table.

The names mentioned in this report — Olshey, Ferry, Morey, Prichard — are established top men who will demand complete authority. And, they will want to hire their own coach.

It’s unclear what direction the 76ers are going with their front office — and, by extension, coaching search — but there is not a lot of time to make a call. The 2020 NBA Draft is in two months and the 76ers will want their front office set well before that.

Lakers saw what happened to Jazz, Clippers, say they will not let up vs. Nuggets

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — With one comeback after another in the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets showed themselves to be a team that falls down but doesn’t stay down.

The Los Angeles Lakers noticed.

They watched the Nuggets repeatedly rally from big deficits against Utah and then the Los Angeles Clippers – and, obviously, are aware that the Jazz and the Clippers are no longer in the NBA bubble because of Denver’s comeback abilities.

So the Lakers knew that when it was their turn to face Denver, there would be no letting up no matter what the scoreboard said.

Game 2 is Sunday night. The Lakers know the job is far from over.

“No lead is safe with this team, in the game or in the series,” Lakers star Anthony Davis said. “They have proven that they are a second-half team, where they come out and just destroy teams in the second half and prove that even if they are down a series, they are a team that’s going to be resilient and keep fighting no matter what the score is, what the situation is.

“When we have a lead, we have to lock in even more.”

The Lakers did that in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, turning an 11-point halftime lead into a 27-point bulge in the second half before easing to a 126-114 victory.

“That’s a historic type of resilient team,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve got to understand that, both with the series lead 1-0 right now and wherever it goes, but also within games.”

Denver reached the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009 by becoming the first team in NBA history to erase two 3-1 deficits in one postseason. The Nuggets trailed by 15 points in Game 5 against Utah in their first game facing elimination, then were down 16, 19, and 12 in the final three games against the Clippers.

The Nuggets are the first team with three 15-point comebacks while facing elimination in one postseason since play-by-play began being recorded digitally in 1997.

“This is an opponent we all greatly respect,” Vogel said. “Save for the comebacks, we respect what they are capable of doing on both ends of the floor.”

It won’t matter how resilient the Nuggets are if they don’t make things tougher for the Lakers defensively.

Davis shredded them so easily on his way to 37 points that the Lakers didn’t even need much scoring from LeBron James, who took only 11 shots and had 15 points and 12 assists. Los Angeles got plenty of opportunities in transition and in the paint, which were areas of emphasis for Denver.

“We were giving up layups after we scored baskets ourselves. So that indicates to me that our sense of urgency to get back was not anywhere remotely close to where it needed to be tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game.

When the Nuggets do get back, they need to do a better job of defending without fouling. They sent the Lakers to the line 24 times in the second quarter – Denver shot only 28 for the entire game – and both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had to go to the bench with three fouls in the period.

“We’ve just got to be better,” Murray said. “We’ve just got to be on point. We’ve got to talk more, talk earlier, point, whatever we’ve got to do.”

This is the first time in this postseason the Lakers will take the lead into Game 2, having dropped their opening games against both Portland and Houston. They didn’t lose again in either series.

Going into Sunday, the Lakers will have the second-best record in the postseason at 9-2, trailing only Miami. It’s a big turnaround for the Lakers, who struggled at times during the seeding games in the bubble – but, as James’ teams tend to do in the postseason, are hitting their best stride when the games matter most.

Denver is also used to playing from behind – much further behind. So even though things looked bad Friday, the Nuggets have been in much worse spots in the bubble and found their way out of them.

“We have proven it time and time again that we can learn from our losses and figure out what we need to do better going into the next game and give ourselves a much better chance to win,” Malone said.

Gordon Hayward does not plan to leave bubble for birth of son

Gordon Hayward birth of son
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When Boston first went to the NBA restart bubble in Orlando, Gordon Hayward was upfront: He was leaving the bubble for the birth of his fourth child.

Hayward ended up leaving the bubble for another reason — he severely sprained his ankle and was out for more than a month. During his rehab, Hayward left the bubble and spent time at home, returning a couple of weeks ago. Saturday he played his first game back for Boston, helping it to a win against the Heat.

Hayward’s wife, Robyn, has yet to have their son, but now Hayward does not plan to leave the bubble for the event, something first reported by Rachel Nichols of ESPN during Saturday’s game.

Hayward confirmed this after the game. So did Robyn in a social media post, adding the reports she was in labor already were not true.

I don’t envy the Hayward family having to make this choice. As a parent, I can’t imagine having missed the births of any of my children, but, like everything else in 2020, this is far from a typical decision at a typical time. The Haywards are making the best of it they can. They deserve support no matter what they choose.

LeBron James, Dion Waiters’ son engage in a little trash talk

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“Yeah, right.”

That was Dion Waiters Jr.’s response to pretty much everything LeBron James during the Lakers’ practice on Saturday before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

LeBron was getting up some corner threes and told Waiters Jr. he would make 100 straight.

“Yeah, right.”

When LeBron missed one, “I missed that on purpose.” 

“Yeah, right.”

“I missed that on purpose, so you’d think I’m human,” LeBron joked.

Got to love Dion Waiters Jr. — he’s got some of his dad’s spunk.

Families have been allowed in the bubble for teams for a couple of weeks, although LeBron’s sons are not there, with LeBron saying it’s not a great place for kids (he’s right, for anyone over about 7 or 8, there would be little to do).