Damian Lillard did it again

14 Comments

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.

Mike Tirico hosts new NBC Sports’ daily talk show ‘Lunch Talk Live’

NBC Sports
Leave a comment

We’re all missing our connection to sports right now.

A new show on the NBC Sports Network is here to help restore some of that connection. Today “Lunch Talk Live” hosted by Mike Tirico launches at noon ET on NBCSN, or you can stream it by following this link or on the NBC Sports app.

Lunch Talk Live focuses on the current state of the sports world and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

“In these challenging times, we are all missing sports and the people who make sports memories,” said Tirico. “Hopefully, we can bring a midday connection with some of them to help fill the void.”

“We’re excited to bring viewers fresh programming every day with unique, topical conversations from prominent individuals in all corners of sports,” said Sam Flood, NBC Sports Executive Producer & President of Production. “This will be a daily lunch date to share sports and stories we miss during these unique times.”

Guests on the first show Monday will include Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Peter King, Cris Collinsworth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and more. Later in the week the guests will include NASCAR drivers Denny Hamlin, Kyle Petty, and Dale Jarrett, announcers Al Michaels and Doc Emrick, plus many more.

The hour-long show — hosted remotely — debuts today and will be on five days a week in that time slot.

For updates on guests and to keep up with the show, you can follow along on Twitter.

 

Another pessimistic report that this NBA season may be lost

NBA
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nobody knows what happens next, because nobody knows where we will be as a nation in fighting the coronavirus in six weeks, 10 weeks, or even September. Not Adam Silver, not Dr. Anthony Fauci, and certainly not politicians or pundits. As Fauci puts it well, the virus determines the timeline.

That said, there is a real hunger from the NBA league office, its owners and players, to find a way to finish off this season.

There’s also a growing pessimism that is going to happen. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski went on SportsCenter Sunday and echoed that idea but using the term “realism,” reports Adam Zagoria of Forbes.

“There’s still hope around the league and there’s a tremendous amount of planning and contingencies and brain-storming going on with the league office, with teams, executives, sports science, medical staffs for the league and for teams, as well as the Players Association.

“But there’s also a level of realism that is starting to sink in it, that it’s going to be difficult to return to play this season, that a runway for how many days it would actually have to be able to have a representative rest of the season, a few regular-season games at minimum and then a playoffs that would crown a legitimate champion, that would have a playoff structure, that would be enough to have someone to wear that crown and do it without an asterisk, that’s the challenge around the league right now. And they know they’re up against it, they’re up against the clock and there’s certainly a lot of concern about whether this league will be able to return to play or not.”

The sense I get talking to people around the league is the regular season is all but dead. As much as the league wants to play even a few regular-season games, getting 14 teams to go through everything it would take — getting the players and staffs to self-quarantine for a couple of weeks, get tested, then go through a three-week training camp — to play five or so games that will not change the standings much at all is asking a lot.

There is still discussion of trying to create a “bubble” somewhere and doing a condensed playoffs, but as Wojnarowski notes that would come with an implied asterisk, something the league doesn’t want. Even if the league only brings in 16 playoff teams — or 12, or 8 — the logistics of creating a bubble in Las Vegas (or wherever) are daunting. There would have to be COVID-19 tests for everyone involved (not just players but coaches, trainers, equipment managers, cooks and cleaning staff at the hotel, and many more), and there is a big concern about false negatives in existing tests. Would player families be allowed in the bubble or are you going to separate players from their families for at least a month, likely longer? There would need to be medical staff on-site for these games, is that a good use of medical resources?

Those questions are just the tip of the iceberg, and yet that model is a much faster way to get games going again — who knows when we can have games in front of 18,000 fans again?

We all want to see basketball back as soon as possible, but it’s hard to keep the optimism about this season up right now.

Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans declares for NBA Draft

(Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

University of Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans has declared for the 2020 NBA Draft.

Hagans has started at point guard for the Wildcats for the majority of two seasons. He started 30 of 37 games as a freshman and 29 of 30 games as a sophomore.

The six-foot-three guard struggled some when asked to carry a larger offensive load as a sophomore. He scored 11.5 points per game, but shot just over 40% from the field. Hagans also averaged 3.4 turnovers per game.

On the plus side, Hagans is a solid rebounder for his position and dished out 6.4 assists per game. Hagans has also shown the ability to be a good defender. He’s quick enough to stay in front of most opposing guards, while also possessing the ability to switch onto bigger players. Hagans also has good instincts for when to jump passing lanes.

Most draft analysts have Hagans pegged as a mid-to-late second round pick. Players have until Sunday, April 26 to declare for the 2020 draft as Early Entry candidates.

Jalen Rose in touch with Chris Webber to end well-publicized feud

(Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Leave a comment

In a wide-ranging interview with Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe, Jalen Rose says he and Chris Webber are in touch and plan to privately settle their differences.

“We’re in contact currently and we’re brothers,” Rose said of Webber. “So I always feel like anything that we need to say needs to be face to face, eyeball to eyeball, without any distractions, without any hype, without any camera. That’s the big-boy way to do that. That’s my brother.”

Rose and Webber started to make amends after former University of Michigan teammate Juwan Howard was named head coach of the Wolverines.

Rose said the only change he’d make to the 2011 “Fab Five” documentary he directed for ESPN is that he’d love to have an interview with Webber in there. “The only change would be to get a 2011 interview from C-Webb,” Rose said. “Other than that, it was the bible.”

Rose also touched on his desire for Michigan to honor the “Fab Five” in some way. The team’s two Final Four banners from that era were removed because of NCAA violations. Rose feels that the school should still honor those teams.

“None of our jerseys are retired, but one of us is the coach of the team,” Rose said. “I watch a lot of college basketball, I see their numbers get retired, and I’m happy for them. I did three years at Michigan, they have to do one black banner, put the maize and blue on the outside of it, and put the five numbers up there and still let the people wear the numbers. Make it a Fab Five banner. I hope it doesn’t take something to happen to one of us in order for it to take place. And the Basketball Hall of Fame, too, we can’t get a plaque in there? Give us our flowers while we’re still here.”