Trail Blazers will go as far as these two bench players take them

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The Portland Trail Blazers started the season slow. Right until the New Year, Terry Stotts’ squad was struggling to keep their heads above .500 in a Western Conference that wasn’t as tough as everyone assumed it would be this past July.

Then, it all changed.

Portland found its footing midway through January, going 7-1 from Jan. 16 to Jan. 31. Shabazz Napier hit a hot streak, and paired with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers had a triumvirate of scoring guards many teams found difficult to stop.

Meanwhile, Ed Davis helped cover for the gaps in the game of rookie Zach Collins, who found his way into the lineup as the second big man off the bench. Everything was clicking, even with former starter Maurice Harkless racking up DNP-CDs.

That’s when something switched for Harkless. The 24-year-old wing saw himself in game tape, riding the pine, with an awful look on his face. He felt like he had let his teammates down, and in doing so had let himself down. Harkless made a vow to change his attitude and his effort. He was back to playing heavy minutes to start February.

The Blazers struggled to start the month against the likes of the Raptors, Pistons, and Celtics, but eventually rallied. We all know what happened next. Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 14, Portland broke off 13-straight victories for their best winning streak of the season.

At the heart of that winning streak? Strong play from both Davis and Harkless.

Harkless, who signed a 4-year $40 million deal with the Blazers in 2016, added a much-needed 3-point shooting option that the Blazers were sorely lacking. While the reputation of the team and Stotts’ Flow offense is as a scoring one, the fact is Portland still only finished 11th in 3-point percentage and 19th in shots taken behind the arc. Al-Farouq Aminu, having an up year beyond-the-line after a disastrous 2016-17 campaign, was simply not enough to draw defenders away from Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a non-factor from 3-point range, didn’t help either.

So when Harkless changed his attitude, it changed the offensive makeup of the team. In February and March, Harkless shot 48% and 56% from deep, respectively. His gravity allowed him confidence in his playmaking, too, as his assist totals went up as defenders stopped packing the lane or trapping Portland’s star guards.

Meanwhile, a fully-healthy Davis had helped the Blazers’ big man rotation all season long. Jusuf Nurkic — who only started to respond to direct and open pleas for aggressiveness from coaches and teammates around the All-Star break — was up and down. Davis, whose shoulder bothered him last season, was back to his normal self. His box score statistics were typically drab; more often than not a nine-rebound, six-point effort belied the importance of his contribution.

Davis helped cover up for some of the rotational mistakes of the youngster Collins, who showed defensive prowess and skill as a screener, adding range on offense where Davis could not. It was not atypical to see a play in which Collins grabbed an offensive rebound and keenly dished to Napier for a quick 3-pointer before the defense could reset, all while Davis engaged and neutralized an opponent’s best glass cleaner.

With both Davis and Harkless operating at full tilt, Portland’s rotation seemed to have fewer valleys between their peaks. Along with Nurkic becoming more aggressive, the Blazers transformed over the winter from one of the most uneven teams in the Western Conference playoff race to one of the deepest.

And thus, how Davis and Harkless go come playoff time will largely dictate how the Blazers move through the postseason.

The unfortunate fact for Portland fans is that Harkless underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the beginning of the month. He could be out for up to six weeks, and a recent status update puts Harkless as up in the air for the first round. Without the young forward, Portland closed the year 3-4, just barely making the third seed as they trumped the Utah Jazz in the final game of the year.

Davis, meanwhile, is at least some kind of consolation. He’s not perfectly healthy either — Davis suffered a turned ankle at the same time as Harkless, and had to sit out four games (it should be added that, in those four games without Davis or Harkless, Portland went 1-3). Yet Davis has powered through, and was a positive impact against the long arms of Rudy Gobert in that final matchup vs. Utah. No surprise here — with Davis back in the lineup against the Jazz, Collins went back to contributing positively after a few games of subpar play.

Portland has many weapons that will likely carry them beyond the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Lillard is playing solid, and McCollum appeared to break out of whatever funk he was in during the last game against the Jazz. Nurkic seems attached, and guys like Aminu and Turner know their roles and can be relied on each game. New Orleans is no easy out, but the series was split between the teams in the regular season and it’s best to pick talent come playoff time.

Even if Anthony Davis is the best player on the floor during times in this upcoming series, Portland’s bench talent is what pushed them to that 13-game win streak earlier in the year. If their other constituent parts perform near their ceiling, it’s players like Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless who will decide how deep the Blazers go in the playoffs.

Now, Rip City just needs New York Moe to get healthy as they try to chase the semifinals for third time in five seasons.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Report: Grizzlies interviewed Igor Kokoskov for head coach gig

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The Memphis Grizzlies now have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Many believe that Memphis will trade Mike Conley and draft Ja Morant as a means to move the franchise forward.

The only problem? The Grizzlies still don’t have a head coach.

Memphis fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff and demoted general manager Chris Wallace to scout back in April. The Grizzlies are moving forward with some non-traditional front office hirings that include Jason Wexler, Zach Kleiman, Rich Cho, and Glen Grunwald.

According to one report, at least one inquiry has been made about the head coach position: former Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov got a shot to interview with Memphis.

Via Twitter:

Memphis is taking its time selecting their coach, and it’s not necessary that the team has someone in place leading into the draft. Whether the next guy will be “the guy” or simply “the guy who helps them rebuild in the future” we aren’t yet sure.

Kokoskov got a raw deal in Phoenix, with many feeling as though the Suns wasted their hiring of the Slovenian national team’s coach by not drafting Luka Doncic with the No. 1 overall pick last year. It would be nice just to see him back on an NBA bench at the start of next season.

Draymond Green on techs: ‘I was doing more crying than playing’ (VIDEO)

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Draymond Green believes he’s the best defender ever. The Golden State Warriors star was certainly incredible against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night, with the Warriors beating the home team, 110-99.

But one thing that has bothered Green’s detractors over the years is how much he speaks to the referees, particularly to his own detriment. It’s one thing to work referees the way that Chris Paul or Damian Lillard or James Harden does. It’s another to continuously antagonize refs en route to a whole mess of technical fouls, which have been a problem for Green in the playoffs in the past.

But Green has been pretty subdued when it comes to technicals this postseason, and that’s apparently in due to a concerted effort by the Golden State forward to curb his attitude and realize that he’s doing more damage than good.

Via Twitter:

This postseason, and particularly this Western Conference Finals, have been an interesting shift in the narrative around Green. Where before it seemed like haters could glom onto how much Green whined, at this point he’s simply dominating the Trail Blazers from a play standpoint and nothing else.

It’s been impressive to see, and I think all of us are happy to watch Green play the way he has without flapping his gums and putting the Warriors at a disadvantage because he wants to yell at the boys in gray.

Blazers fan gets ejected from game in spectacular fashion (VIDEO)

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The Portland Trail Blazers are down to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, 3-0. It’s not been a pretty matchup thus far, with the Warriors looking like their old selves without Kevin Durant.

The Blazers have struggled, and although Damian Lillard reportedly has separated ribs, their problems have been deeper than that. Portland came out looking particularly flat in the third quarter on offense through no pressure of Golden State. It was embarrassing, and lackluster.

The Blazers lost again on Saturday, 110-99, and emotions are running high in Rip City after the team made it to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years.

Perhaps that’s what led to this Blazers fan getting ejected during Saturday’s game?

Via Twitter:

In videos posted to social media, Trail Blazers security at Moda Center can be seen pushing a rather large gentleman out of the lower bowl as he yells at Golden State fans. The man decided to finish his drink before it being pushed up the steps to the concourse, much to the delight of the fans around him.

We are supposed to admonish behavior it like this, although we don’t know what led to him being ejected by Blazers security. At one point the announcers on ESPN did say that there was a fan who had thrown something on the floor, and perhaps this was related? We haven’t been able to confirm whether these two incidents are linked, but in watching the video it’s clear what the mood is in Portland.

If the Blazers are going to go down playing… well, however it is they have been playing — they certainly don’t look like the Portland team from the regular season — no doubt some folks are going to decide to get rowdy and have a few refreshments.

Game 4 is at Moda on Monday at 6 p.m. and I doubt this guy will be in attendance.