Damian Lillard did it again

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Damian Lillard did it again.

On Tuesday night when the Portland Trail Blazers needed him most, Lillard came through. Things were tight between Portland the Oklahoma City Thunder late in Game 5 at Moda Center. Both Russell Westbrook and Paul George played with five fouls in the fourth quarter, and after an explosive first half where Lillard scored 34 points, things had slowed for Portland.

In the second half, Westbrook played the part of the bully against CJ McCollum, and George was fantastic, eventually scoring 36 points with nine rebounds and three assists.

But things seemed to turn around when Jusuf Nurkic, out with a broken leg, returned to the Blazers bench with three-and-a-half minutes left and Portland down by eight. Nurkic said he left his house with a few minutes to go in the third quarter, anticipating his team could use his good spirits. Indeed, Nurkic’s presence seemed to fuel Portland. When Nurkic showed up, the home team immediately went on an 8-0 run.

Then, Lillard did what he does best.

After hitting the two-for-one shot with 32 seconds left, Lillard found himself with the ball, the game tied, and the shot clock off. As time ticked down and with the game on the line, Lillard hit the biggest shot of the night, right as time expired.

It was the shot that won the series.

You wouldn’t be mistaken if you equated Tuesday night’s big shot to the one Lillard hit in 2014 to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland into the second round of the playoffs. In fact, I was at that game and I can tell you it was a defining moment for the franchise over the past half-decade.

But this was so much more.

Lillard’s shot to beat the Thunder solidified several things, both about the team and about the star guard himself. The Blazers have been a squad that have relied on its bench and supporting cast all season long, even more so with Nurkic out. But when the Thunder played perhaps one of their best games of the postseason, it was Lillard’s 50-point performance that moved them forward.

Portland is a team’s team, but in the end, it was their star that they needed.

Portland and Lillard have had it their fair share of doubters over the past several years. The idea that they could — or should — have a team built on the backs of Lillard and McCollum has raised the eyebrows of many, including myself. But externally, and particularly after their playoff sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, it appeared most were ready to write off this team altogether.

But this playoff series, and this team, is different. They’ve been different all season long, right down to the rotations and flexibility that head coach Terry Stotts has enabled this season. Stotts has gone deeper into his bench, and altered his Flow offense in a way that has helped Portland stay fresh after years of running the same old song and dance.

Guys like Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Enes Kanter have all stepped up over the course of the season to be able to contribute to a squad that is needed more than just Lillard and McCollum.

To that end, Portland rose again and again to the challenge.

Despite some of their losses, the Thunder gave numerous gut punches to the Blazers that would have seen previous iterations of this team fold. But Portland has been stronger, both as a unit and as Lillard has solidified himself as a more complete two-way player.

The idea that Lillard came back stronger and as more of a leader, ready for adversity, is not a supposition. At this point, it’s fact. You can see how the rest of the team has banded behind him in support of his path forward. Hell, Kanter told reporters after the game on Tuesday that he separated his shoulder and had to have an injection at halftime. That’s how bad these Blazers wanted to win, and how much they wanted to push not just for themselves, but for Lillard.

Thanks to Lillard’s shot (and McCollum’s jumpers, and Maurice Harkless’ free throws) Portland beat the Thunder, 118-115. They advance to the second round, and Rip City will be buzzing all week long. They deserve it, and they’ll be real contenders to challenge for a Western Conference Finals berth.

But where does that leave us when we think about Lillard, and these Blazers? If his famous “0.9” shot from 2014 was the thing that put him on the map, Tuesday’s 37-foot step-back jumper over George was the thing that made Lillard a legend.

The impossibility of that jumper — and the sheer gall to take it — is what makes Damian Lillard who he is.

That is, the greatest Blazer of all-time.

Kobe Bryant dies in helicopter crash

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Kobe Bryant, the legendary Laker star who was saluted by LeBron James on Saturday night, has died in a helicopter crash in Southern California, sources have confirmed to NBC Sports.

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe stared as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was active. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. It is unclear at this time if any of his family was on board the helicopter with him.

Kobe had a 20-year NBA career that will send him to the Hall of Fame (once he becomes eligible). He was a five-time NBA Champion, a 15-time All-NBA player, NBA MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, 18-time All-Star, and a player who influenced a generation who came up after him. His work ethic was legendary and was part of what rubbed off on LeBron and many others.

Kobe’s death came just a day after LeBron passed him for third All-Time in NBA scoring, which led LeBron to talk unscripted for more than five minutes about how he had grown up idolizing Kobe and the influence Kobe had on his life. Kobe’s last Tweet was about LeBron and, appropriately, the future of the game.

 

Love from former teammates, players pours in as LeBron James passes Kobe

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With a running layup across the lane Saturday night, LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant, moving up to third on the NBA’s All-Time scoring list.

After that, the love started to pour in for LeBron.

First it came from his teammates, then from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, smart basketball fans who appreciate greatness when they see it.

Next Kobe Bryant Tweeted his congratulations.

Then the love flowed in from across the spectrum, including former teammates and other players. Here is just a taste.

LeBron trails only Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the scoring list, with LeBron 4,733 points back of Kareem. The scoring champ was on SiriusXM NBA Radio this past week and he also showed his appreciation for LeBron — and added LeBron could pass him.

“I think it is up to LeBron. If he wants to do it, he’ll do it. He has the talent. He has the opportunity. So it’s just up to him as to how he wants to end his career. I certainly cannot be upset about it. The reason that they keep these records is so that we learn how we are improving. And we learn how to teach the game, taking note of the accomplishments of the great players. So, hey, it’s a natural progression. I don’t have any problem with it.”

Rumor: J.R. Smith to get workout with Los Angeles Lakers

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This is probably nothing.

The Lakers head into the trade deadline — where they have limited players and picks to make a move — and the buyout market looking for a secondary playmaker to come off the bench, plus some more shooting.

J.R. Smith doesn’t fit either of those needs at this point in his career, but he is going to get a workout with the Lakers, reports Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson at Heavy.com.

According to a Lakers source close to the situation, Smith will get a workout with the Los Angeles Lakers next week.

“There are no guarantees,” said the source. “They want to see what he can do and if it is a fit, we’ll take it from there.”

Smith and LeBron James have a history together going back to AAU ball, and Smith was on LeBron’s 2016 title team in Cleveland. Smith also made the blunder in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals that cost the Cavaliers any hope in that series.

However, if the Lakers wanted Smith, they could have signed him at any point this summer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

Smith evolved into a gunner off the bench, a high volume shooter and scorer who creates shots for himself, which won his Sixth Man of the Year back in 2013 but does not fit what the Lakers are looking for right now.

Also, Smith’s skills have been in decline. Last season, Smith, 34, played just 11 games for the Cavaliers — none after November — and struggled with his shot, hitting 30.8 percent from three and he had a dreadful true shooting percentage of 44.4 (he is a career 37.3 percent shooter from three). Smith did not want to be part of a rebuild in Cleveland and asked to be traded, but the team could not find a taker that wanted Smith’s contract and would send a pick back for him. Cleveland waived Smith in July and, while he met with the Bucks, he has been without a contract since.

Don’t read much into Smith getting a workout, there could be a lot of reasons for this. Maybe this gets him on another team’s radar, but it’s hard to see how he helps the Lakers take a step forward right now.

Once again Zach LaVine has huge game against Cavaliers, scores 44 in win (VIDEO)

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Zach LaVine scored 44 points for another dominating performance against Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls defeated the Cavaliers 118-106 on Saturday night.

LaVine made 16 of 30 shots and had 27 points at halftime. The 6-foot-5 guard also finished with 10 rebounds and eight assists, falling just short of his first career triple-double.

It was LaVine’s second big game against Cleveland in eight days. He scored 42 points on Jan. 20, including 21 in the fourth quarter when the Bulls rallied from a 15-point deficit to win.

Cleveland, which has lost seven straight and 12 of 14, had no better success stopping LaVine this time. He drove past his defender for clear looks at the basket, scored when he was double teamed in the lane, hit five 3-pointers and was 7 of 8 from the line.

LaVine was held to 16 points when the Cavaliers beat the Bulls in Cleveland on Oct. 30. The teams play for the fourth and final time this season in Chicago on March 10.

Tomas Satoransky had 19 points for the Bulls, who were coming off a home loss to Sacramento on Friday and arrived in around 1:30 a.m.

Kevin Love scored 20 points and had 11 rebounds for Cleveland. Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman each had 18 points.

The game was tied at 69 midway through the third quarter before the Bulls went on a 30-7 run to go ahead 99-76. Chicago outscored Cleveland 40-19 in the period.

Cleveland cut a 24-point deficit to 112-103 with two minutes to play, but got no closer. The Cavaliers had lopsided home losses to New York and Washington this week.

Chicago didn’t play like a team that’s been plagued by injuries. Forward Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ second-leading scorer, will miss four to six weeks because of an injured right hip. The 7-footer had an MRI on Thursday after experiencing soreness in the hip for about a week.