Getty Images

Trail Blazers gambling that youth, shooting can keep them afloat

Leave a comment

On paper, and from a distance, it doesn’t appear that the Portland Trail Blazers have become much better over the summer. The largest contract for a new player that general manager Neil Olshey handed out was to Seth Curry for $2.8 million. Hoping to find a veteran either by trade or with the mid-level exception, the Blazers instead will move forward with young, cheap talent to bolster a roster built around a core that looks awfully familiar.

So the question both in the Pacific Northwest and around the league is this: What is Portland’s plan, exactly?

Assists and creating 3-point shots was Portland’s biggest issue, and in theory this is exactly what the Blazers have tried to address with their limited financial input this offseason.

Coach Terry Stotts saw his team ranked sixth or higher in terms of of 3-point attempts every season under his reign until 2016-17. The past two seasons, Portland has dipped to 10th and then finally 19th this last year. Olshey tried to remedy this shooting issue — caused in part by teams keying on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum but also thanks to inconsistent play by Blazers wings — by bringing in veteran talent.

Olshey has said that he was unable to secure shooting on the wing either via the TPE from the Allen Crabbe trade with his mid-level exception, having targeted six players but being outbid for all of them.

Having struck out, Olshey quickly moved to plan B: duck the tax, and try to get less experienced shooting on the cheap.

With his limited means, the Blazers GM drafted Gary Trent Jr. then signed Curry and Nik Stauskas. They were added to a core of Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jusuf Nurkic, all anchored around Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner will return as a non-shooting ball handler, acting as the primary point guard for the bench.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Gary Trent Jr. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Putting this roster into play assumes a couple of things. First and foremost is that Portland will be able to enact an offensive scheme that allows some of their more limited players to thrive with purpose.

There should be some cause for hope in Rip City given how good Stotts is at doing this sort of thing. Stotts turned Mason Plumlee into a high-post passing genius in 2016, and made Allen Crabbe a valuable shooter despite holes in his developing game.

Let’s also set aside health in this conversation about Portland. I’ve heard a lot about how the Blazers have been the recipients of good health over the past couple of years, but that overlooks significant and untimely injuries to players like Harkless, Nurkic, Lillard, and Turner that have reduced the team’s effectiveness. There is this murmur out west that the Blazers are due for an injury and teams like the Denver Nuggets are finally going to be healthy, and I just don’t buy it.

Portland’s injury concerns are thus: Curry didn’t play all of last season with a leg injury, and Harkless is still recovering from last spring’s knee surgery. Anything outside of that is just anxiety.

The real pitfall for Portland is the idea of having to integrate new, young players to a scheme that desperately needs to breathe in order to maximize its star players. Collins is set for a big new role with Ed Davis gone, and we don’t know if he’s up for the challenge given how well he played with the veteran, particularly on defense. It’s likely that Stotts will need to play Meyers Leonard as a shooter within his scheme, and that opens up the possibility for further defensive inequities.

The Blazers were a good defensive team last season, ranking 8th in defensive rating and notching the second-best mark in that statistic during Stotts’ career in Portland. The Blazers know this, too. Apparently, they spent much of the first practice during Tuesday — up to 75% of it, according to Collins — working on defense.

The reality of the season in Portland is not held in the hands of the rest of the Western Conference getting better. Golden State was always going to top things out, and the Rockets are the most likely pick to finish second. Everything below that is up to chance, health, and chemistry. The Trail Blazers have the benefit of bringing back very good players, and the continued success of the team will rest in the gamble that Olshey has made in moving toward youth while trying to save cap space.

Portland survives against Nets 134-133, advances to play-in; Suns out

Leave a comment

Damian Lillard looked every bit the seeding games MVP — he carried Portland for critical stretches against a scrappy Nets team and was a leader on the biggest night of the Trail Blazers season.

Portland is going on the West play-in games as the eighth seed — win one of two games against Memphis on Saturday or Sunday and the Trail Blazers will face the LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round.

All because Portland held on for a 134-133 win against Brooklyn.

The Portland win means the Phoenix Suns — the darlings of the bubble at 8-0 behind Devin Booker‘s play — are going home. As impressive as the Suns were in the bubble, they could not climb out of the hole they dug the first part of the season, before the coronavirus shut the league down.

Monty Williams — very likely the winner of the “Coach of the Seeding Games” award — deserves credit for getting his team to take advantage of the extra games and practices to get better in a way that Sacramento, New Orleans, and other teams did not.

Thursday night, however, belonged to Lillard.

Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, bringing him up to a 37.5 points per game average in the bubble.

Brooklyn tried, they threw two guys and Lillard and blitzed trying to force the ball out of his hands and anyone else to beat them. Enter CJ McCollum, who did not play like someone with a back injury on his way to 25 points.

Both Lillard and McCollum played every minute of the second half — and Portland might not have won if they didn’t.

Brooklyn’s effort and scrappy style of play has caught teams off-guard all restart long, and it pushed Portland. Caris LeVert added to his “sure we have Kyrie and KD, but I should get some touches too next season” case with 37 points.

Portland came into the restart with the goal of making the playoffs, and it is now just one win away. The first game between Portland and Memphis is on Saturday at 2:30 Eastern. If the Grizzlies win, it forces a second game, Sunday at 4:30 Eastern.

Memphis is an impressive young team, but it’s tough to beat Lillard when he is playing like an MVP.

 

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

Leave a comment

We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

Leave a comment

Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.