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Steadily good Trail Blazers can soon up the ante – in playoffs, with Damian Lillard super-max extension

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No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds had never gotten swept in a best-of-seven first-round series until the third-seeded Trail Blazers by the Pelicans last year. A day after his season ended, Damian Lillard met with the media for an exit interview.

“I’m doing good,” Lillard said. “Things could be worse.

“I don’t want to say I’m over it, but I was just disappointed last night. I got home, held my son, watched the boxing card that happened last night. It was an exciting card. But I think doing both of these things kind of calmed me down.”

Nearly a year later, Lillard sat in the locker room watching boxing on his phone before a game. Evan Turner marveled at how chill his superstar teammate appeared.

The next few months could determine Portland’s course for several years ahead. Or they could leave the franchise in stasis with increased pressure to prove itself next year.

The Trail Blazers can redeem themselves in the playoffs this year, show last year’s loss to the Pelicans was the result of a bad matchup rather than a flawed team getting exposed. But Portland’s postseason chances were undercut by recent injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and C.J. McCollum. This just might not be the Trail Blazers’ year to advance in the playoffs.

Will it be their year to secure Lillard? There was a lot at stake for him to have a big season. If he makes an All-NBA team this year, he’ll be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $199 million over four years.

“Honestly, I never, ever even knew that was the case,” Turner said. “I mean, I hang out with him a lot, and he never talked about it. And I don’t think he’s ever concerned.

“He’s well-grounded, I think spiritually, and comfortable with himself. He knows if he goes and works hard and day-in and day-out does what’s right, good things will happen.”

Lillard has set a tone for the Trail Blazers. His leadership is so respected throughout the league.

But while there’s definitely a sentiment within the team to look forward to the postseason, the only place Portland can truly overcome last year’s playoff setback, Lillard wants more appreciation for the Trail Blazers’ 50-28 regular season.

“After what we went through last year, it would have been easy for us just to come back this year and fold,” Lillard said. “The team we lost to last year, you see what they came back and did. And they had a great postseason.”

New Orleans crumbled under the weight of Anthony Davis‘ potential designated-veteran-player contract extension. Before the Pelicans could even officially offer the deal this summer, he requested a trade. Immediately, New Orleans’ season was shot.

Portland has avoided similar drama despite Lillard inching closer to his own super-max decision.

Lillard is a lock for an All-NBA team, likely second team behind James Harden and Stephen Curry at guard. If he qualifies, Lillard “absolutely” expects the Trail Blazers to offer the super-max extension. And if they do, will he accept?

“We’ll see,” Lillard said.

A complication: Because Lillard also made All-NBA last season, he’d already clinch eligibility for a five-year super-max extension to be signed in 2020. That deal would carry the same terms over the first four years as the extension this summer. It’d just add a fifth year that projects to be worth $59 million – bringing the projected overall value to $258 million over five years.

Lillard has repeatedly touted his loyalty to Portland, and he’s under contract two more seasons. But bypassing a super-max extension this summer, even with the intention of signing a longer extension the following summer, would spark numerous thorny questions: Is Lillard unhappy? Why didn’t he lock in when given the opportunity? Does he want to leave?

Even if he answers all those questions by saying he plans to sign the five-year extension in 2020, so much can change in a year. LaMarcus Aldridge once rejected an extension with the Trail Blazers, saying he did so only to re-sign on a larger deal in free agency. But by the time free agency hit, his relationship with Portland had gone south, and he left for the Spurs.

The Trail Blazers also ought to seriously consider a super-max extension from their side. Paying any player, even one as good as Lillard, $50 million per year in his 30s is risky. It can be difficult to build a strong supporting cast with so much money tied to a single player. However, not making Lillard the mega offer he expects could also damage the team’s relationship with its biggest star.

Unfortunately, Portland and Lillard might have lost a key opportunity to evaluate each other this postseason.

McCollum might return for the playoffs, but Nurkic – out for the year – has been so important for these Trail Blazers. He has improved as a playmaker, helping Portland counter the aggressive traps the Pelicans sent at the Trail Blazers talented guards. Nurkic was also rolling harder to finish stronger inside and, perhaps most importantly, anchoring Portland’s conservative defense with his paint presence. Enes Kanter and Zach Collins can replicate dimensions of Nurkic’s game, but Nurkic was the complete package.

For a team banking on stability, that’s suddenly gone.

All six Trail Blazers to start against New Orleans last year – Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic, Evan Turner and Maurice Harkless – returned. So did Terry Stotts, who became the first coach in the shot-clock era to get swept in his opening playoff series consecutive years and keep his job.

Stotts has guided Portland to the playoffs six straight seasons, and he knows what’s at stake this year.

“When you’ve made the playoffs six years in a row, the playoffs end up defining your season,” Stotts said.

Maybe that’s unfair. The Trail Blazers were good last year. They’re good this year. A bad matchup or poorly timed injuries can derail everything.

But Portland isn’t giving up on this season.

Led by Lillard, the Trail Blazers are still fighting.

Potential No. 1 pick James Wiseman suspended by NCAA 11 more games

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Starting on Jan. 12, James Wiseman can return to playing for the University of Memphis.

The NCAA — the self-appointed arbiters protecting the myth of amateurism — have investigated the fact that then high school coach Penny Hardaway, paid $11,500 to help Wiseman’s family move to Memphis. Hardaway, a graduate of Memphis, has since become the coach of the Tigers, and before that was considered a booster. That made helping Wiseman move an illegal benefit, and the NCAA has made its ruling to punish Wiseman for this.

Memphis reportedly plans to appeal the ruling. Wiseman had this reaction to the decision:

Here’s why fans of certain teams near the bottom of the standings — and the front offices of those teams — care: Wiseman has the potential to be elite.

He could be the top pick in next June’s draft and is a lock top-three selection. He is by far the best big man in a guard-heavy draft class coming up.

Wiseman was ranked 37th by the basketball writers here at NBC in our “50 Best Players in Five Years” project this past summer. Here is what College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster wrote about Wiseman for that project:

Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens…

If Wiseman embraces the fact that he can be a top five center in the NBA doing the four things I listed above at an elite level, then he’ll make himself a lot of money while making some NBA GM very, very happy.

Wiseman also has worked on a face-up game and wants to add some Greek Freak like skills to his game. We’ll see how that goes, but his floor seems to be a very good NBA big man. A lot of teams could use that.

Rob Gronkowski, Venus Williams dance with Laker Girls (video)

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Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said he doesn’t plan to play football this season.

How is he spending his time?

Dancing with the Laker Girls cheerleaders along with tennis legend Venus Williams. They put on quite a show. I’m sure comedians James Corden and Ian Karmel, mostly off camera, were also great.

But the most-impressive stoppage entertainment in Los Angeles last night? That might be Maxx.

Portland waives Pau Gasol as he tries to recover from foot surgery

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Portland signed Pau Gasol to a one-year contract this summer, hoping the aging Spaniard could help the team stay afloat while Jusuf Nurkic recovers from surgery on his leg.

It didn’t work out that way. Gasol suffered a foot injury that required surgery and he has yet to recover enough to get back on the court. Meanwhile, an injury to Zach Collins left Portland even more shorthanded up front. Wednesday, the Trail Blazers waived Gasol, something the player confirmed.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news and had more details.

Is this the end of Gasol’s Hall of Fame career? He’s 39 years old, and last season with the Bucks he looked like a shell of the All-NBA big man who joined forces with Kobe Bryant to win the Lakers a couple of titles. Injuries limited him to 30 games last season, he doesn’t move like he once did, and he averaged a career-low 3.9 points per game.

If so, one of the good guys of the NBA will be missed.

If not, if he can get healthy, some teams certainly would be interested in having him for depth and his locker room presence during a playoff run.

Report: Kawhi Leonard, Paul George to play first game together on Wednesday

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The way they tell it, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard wanted to play together on the Spurs in 2017.

They’ll finally share the court as teammates tonight.

The Clippers signed Leonard and traded for George this summer. But alternating injuries have prevented the forwards from playing together. That’ll change against the Celtics tonight.

Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

George dominated three games without Leonard, scoring like crazy and hitting a game-winner against the Thunder. Leonard excelled before his knee injury.

It’s scary to imagine how Leonard and George will perform together.

Boston could provide a stiff first test. The Celtics have plenty of wings – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Semi Ojeleye – to throw at the Clippers stars.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an adjustment period for Leonard and George. They have similar styles, and that can create complications. But Leonard and George are so versatile and talented. I expect them to thrive together in the long run.

There’s certainly excitement surrounding tonight’s game, but it’s only one night in what should be a long season in L.A.