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Three Things We Learned Sunday: Damian Lillard trying to will Blazers into the playoffs

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Villanova is out. Duke is out. So how bad does your bracket look now? Time to focus on the NBA again for a few days, here’s what you missed on Sunday while you watched Lonzo Ball go off.

1) Damian Lillard flat-out goes off, drops 49 and gets Blazers key win over Heat. Miami is trying to make a playoff push without Dion Waiters, who has been key to the Heat’s second-half run. It means Goran Dragic is going to have to be at his peak nightly and help carry his team’s offense (especially is Erik Spoelstra continues to start Josh Richardson, Luke Babbitt, and Rodney McGruder). Dragic wasn’t that on Sunday (neither was Hassan Whiteside, who also has to step up).

Damian Lillard was ready to carry his team.

In a matchup of two teams fighting to make the playoffs in their respective conferences, the Blazers had the best player on the floor as Lillard went off for 49, drained nine three-pointers, and as a result the Blazers got the win.

With the win, Portland moves within one game of Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

With the loss, Miami remains in a virtual tie with Detroit for the eighth seed in the East, half a game back of Milwaukee and a full game up on 10 seed and stumbling Chicago. Mark your calendars now, Miami travels to Detroit a week from Tuesday in what will be a critical game in that playoff chase.

2) Tony Parker returns, Spurs getting healthy, win again. The Spurs throttled the Kings on Sunday night, picking up an easy win. Which really isn’t news. Nor is the fact that Gregg Popovich decided to spark his team by starting Davis Bertans at the four, sliding LaMarcus Aldridge to center, and sending Dewayne Dedmon back to the bench.

What was interesting is that Tony Parker was back and had 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Spurs are going to need this Parker come the playoffs. He has had postseason struggles the past couple of seasons, but Popovich is going to need him after the first round this season is San Antonio is going to be a real threat to come out of the West.


3) Did Lakers start to find something with Jordan Clarkson/D’Angelo Russell backcourt? Maybe. If they start to defend.
Nick Young was out with the flu, so Lakers’ Luke Walton experimented with youth as his starting backcourt against Cleveland Sunday — Jordan Clarkson at the one, D’Angelo Russell at the two.

It worked. Sort of. Russell had a career-high 40 points and had one of this best games of the season.

Russell was knocking down shots, but also working as a playmaker, and playing off of Clarkson (who finished with 19 points).

“We were looking for each other,” Clarkson said. “I was trying to get in the paint, he was being aggressive knocking down shots. We compliment each other’s game when we’re doing that.”

“Jordan, he’s great, he’s very complimentary toward me on the court,” Russell said. “Whatever the coaching staff does I trust it. I run with it.”

This is not the first time Clarkson and Russell have been paired, but the matchup has been a disaster most of the season — outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions in 464 minutes. And that pairing was -14 on Sunday because they struggled defensively at times, particularly down the stretch against Kyrie Irving (to be fair, he makes a lot of defenders look bad).

The Lakers are experimenting for the rest of this season, and this experiment is not over.

“Individually, they’ve both make great growth throughout the season but for whatever reason the two of them on the court together, when we’ve tried it, it hasn’t statistically been very goo for us,” Luke Walton said. “But it was good to see that it worked well tonight. We’ll continue to try that lineup going forward and see if we can make that chemistry between the two of them a normal thing.”

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.