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Dominant Damian Lillard leads Portland on late-season surge

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Damian Lillard says the Portland Trail Blazers reach out to him before he reaches team milestones, just to give him a heads up.

The only problem? Lillard doesn’t read his emails.

Lillard joked about it after his latest achievement: He surpassed Clifford Robinson on the Blazers’ all-time scoring list, moving into fourth, in Portland’s victory over the Knicks on Tuesday. Lillard, in his sixth NBA season, has 10,433 points.

“The team, I think they send me emails when something’s coming up, but I never check my email,” he said. “I never know unless I happen to see it on Twitter or until after I do it and somebody mentions it.”

Robinson was sure to get Lillard’s attention, sending his sentiments over Twitter.

“Congrats (at)Dame-Lillard! Trust, I know what it takes to put yourself in that position. Keep putting that work in young fella!” Robinson tweeted.

Lillard has certainly been putting in the work over the Blazers’ current winning streak, which has stretched to a season-best eight games. Portland hasn’t won as many consecutive games since 2014 when the team won nine.

The streak has pushed Portland into third place in the Western Conference, a half-game up on New Orleans in a cluster of teams scrambling for playoff position.

Over the course of the streak, which started when the Blazers beat Golden State 123-117 in Portland just before the All-Star break, Lillard has averaged 33.1 points per game.

Lillard had 44 points in that first game against the Warriors, who return to the Moda Center on Friday for a rematch.

“We’ve been on a good run, just playing good basketball on both ends of the floor. Our team has been on a streak, we’ve been really connected,” Lillard said. “It was even before the Golden State game when we got back from that trip and we lost one in Detroit. We had a good stretch and then we lost at home to Utah but then right after that we knocked off Golden State and picked it up.”

Lillard had 37 points in the 111-87 victory Tuesday over the Knicks, including eight 3-pointers.

At that game, and at a few more recently at the Moda Center, fans have taken to chanting “MVP!” when Lillard gets to the free-throw line.

Although Houston’s James Harden is clearly the front-runner for the award, New York coach Jeff Hornacek said Lillard is making a case for himself.

“The guy is playing fantastic. He might be one of those guys you’ve got to start talking about that MVP, too, with the way he’s playing,” Hornacek said.

Lillard has been averaging 26.8 points, 6.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game this season. He made the All-Star team for the third time, scoring 21 points in the annual showcase.

The Lillard-led late-season surge has become something of a trademark for the Blazers. In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break but finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put the Blazers 11 games under .500.

But the Blazers went 13-3 in March, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists. Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

After the Warriors on Friday, the Blazers have 16 games left in this season.

Lillard, known for pointing at his wrist and signaling “Lillard Time” when he hits tough shots late in games, said he feels he’s playing the best stretch of his career. And it’s coming at a good time for the Blazers.

“Damian Lillard is special,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said. “If it’s not obvious, I’ll say it.”

 

Report: LeBron James not planning to sit for elaborate pitch meetings in free agency

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LeBron James held court in Cleveland in 2010, listening to pitch after pitch as teams flew in to recruit the superstar during free agency. That approach became a model, and Kevin Durant followed it in the Hamptons in 2016.

But maybe once is enough.

Durant announced months ago he’d stay with the Warriors. And now LeBron – who could definitely leave Cleveland – is making clear he doesn’t want the hoopla, either.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

sources close to the situation tell ESPN that he has no intention of hearing elaborate pitch meetings from teams.

league sources believe he and his agents Rich Paul and Mark Termini have enough understanding of the stakes and NBA landscape to handle the process without much fanfare.

LeBron is still haunted by The Decision. He’s a great player and philanthropist and does plenty to connect with fans. Yet, people still dislike him purely because of how he changed teams eight years ago.

If I wielded as much power as LeBron, I’d want suitors wining and dining me. He wants to avoid more backlash.

This will probably look similar to 2014 – LeBron’s agents hearing out teams then LeBron meeting with only the most serious options, though the final announcement will likely come via Uninterrupted rather than Sports Illustrated.

The Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets and 76ers are commonly viewed as the favorites for LeBron. This approach makes it less likely for a longshot to emerge – though, for what it’s worth, we don’t know those four teams are his favorites right now.

Report: Nuggets re-signing Nikola Jokic to five-year max after declining team option

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The Nuggets are building around Nikola Jokic.

But a second-round pick turning into a franchise player so quickly creates complications. Denver is resolving one by declining Jokic’s team option, which will send him into restricted free agency (as opposed to unrestricted free agency next year) and paying him.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

This ought to please Jokic. He would have earned just $1,600,520 next season if Denver exercised his team option.

Jokic is one of the best-passing full-time centers ever. He also shoots and rebounds well, though he must improve his defense to become worthy of this contract. At just 23, he’s worth betting on.

That said, I’m surprised the Nuggets didn’t get him on a slight discount. Though they clearly didn’t want to risk him testing unrestricted free agency next year, they gave him a MASSIVE raise (about $24 million) next season when they didn’t have to.

Jokic’s exact max salary won’t be determined until the salary cap and luxury-tax line are set this month. But this clearly puts Denver in cost-cutting mode now.

As constructed, the Nuggets are in line for about $24 million in luxury-tax payments. That’s without considering Will Barton, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Expect Denver to look to unload Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler and/or Mason Plumlee.

Jokic was always going to be in Denver next season. The Nuggets have now secured him far longer. It will cost them next year – an important season to them – but they also clearly value a future with Jokic.

With momentum gone and interest down, NBA finally will give out awards tonight

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When the NBA season ended, there was a passionate debate to be had about the end-of-season awards.

Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year? James Harden was the MVP favorite, but what about LeBron James and his monster season? Did Rudy Gobert play enough games to win Defensive Player of the Year? Not only was picking the Coach of the Year hard, narrowing the list down to three for the ballot out of the seven or eight candidates was brutal.

NBA fans — and NBA Twitter — had roiling debates over all those topics. Fans backed their man and defended their positions and media members who announced their votes — as we did — had to defend those choices. As they should.

That was mid-April.

Now, the NBA fandom has moved on — the Finals are over, the draft just happened, and everyone’s focus is on free agency and the possibility of a Kawhi Leonard trade and where he might land.

So now, finally, more than two months after the regular season ended, the NBA will get around to giving out its awards at its second annual awards banquet Monday night (televised on TNT, starting at 9 p.m. ET). The league will hand out the official awards for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved, Sixth Man of the Year, Executive of the Year (voted on by other executives), and a series of fan-voted awards (Best Style, Dunk of the Year, Block of the Year, Clutch Shot of the Year, Assist of the Year and Handle of the Year).

The league needs to do something about the timing of the awards show, they have lost all momentum getting around to it now.

I get it, the NBA wants a big awards event and broadcast that can be televised (the league just used to announce them during the playoffs via press release, with the recipients getting the award at a playoff game in their home arena, if there was still one). The NFL does a great awards show, but they have a natural (if too long) two-week break between the AFC/NFC finals and the Super Bowl, which allows them to have their event at the peak of interest for the sport.

The problem for the NBA these are regular season awards now given out 10 weeks after the regular season ended.

The NBA is entering the phase of the calendar that is its most popular — free agency. The draft draws interest as the unofficial start of this off-season, as teams start to reshape their roster. Trades and player movement — and the rumors and breakdowns around them — draw more interest than the NBA Finals or the games themselves (just check the traffic at any NBA website, including ours). Fans of all 30 teams are invested in playing armchair GM and, along with the media, second guessing every move they make to build that roster. (By the way, that second guessing is just part of the job for a GM, they can’t have family members on burner Twitter accounts trying to defend them.)

There’s no easy answer here for the NBA as to the timing of the awards show. There isn’t much of a gap between the end of the regular season and the playoffs and pretty much every player or coach who will win an award is prepping for the postseason at that point, they don’t want to fly to Los Angeles (this year) or New York (last year) for chummy banquet with their soon-to-be rivals. As this year showed, when the conference finals run seven games there isn’t much of a gap there before the Finals start (and again, key players will be involved in the Finals every year).

Where the league has it is the most convenient place on the calendar.

It’s just too late. The momentum of the regular season is gone, the attention of fans has turned to free agency, and this just feels like an odd break.

But Monday night the NBA is getting around to it. And we can try to revive old debates, they will just die out fast in the wake of free agency talk.

LeBron James’s son Bronny Jr. just misses breakaway dunk. At 13.

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LeBron James is spending his summer like a lot of fathers of children who play AAU basketball (or other travel team sports) — going to gyms, local and sometimes not so local, to watch his son play.

And Bronny Jr. can ball.

At age 13, he can almost dunk.

Gotta love LeBron’s reaction.