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.

LeBron says Wembanyama is an ‘alien’ and a ‘generational talent’

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There was a time when LeBron James was the “it” kid coming for the NBA — a freakish athlete like nobody in the league had seen. A player the size of Karl Malone with the quickness and skills of an elite point guard.

Now the “it” guy is Victor Wembanyama, the 7’4″ mold-breaking big out of France — and LeBron is impressed.

“Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, well he’s more like an alien,” LeBron said after the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Suns in Las Vegas. “I’ve never seen, no one’s ever seen anyone as tall as he is, but it’s fluid and as graceful as on the floor…

“His ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot step-back jumpers on the post, step-back 3s, catch-and-shoot 3s, block shots. He’s for sure a generational talent. And hopefully he continues to stay healthy, that’s the most important for him personally, and as you could tell he loves the game. He was smiling a lot while playing the game last night. I think it was the two best players in the draft on the floor last night and they both did their thing.”

Wembanyama is projected to be the No.1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, just ahead of point guard Scoot Henerson, who scored 28 points with nine assists of his own leading his G-League Ignite to a win over Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92. Wembanyama scored 37 points in the game, hit 7-of-11 shots from 3, had five blocks and a few other shots changed because of his length (7’11” wingspan) and the threat of his block.

Wembanyama and Henderson face off again tonight in a second game between the Ignite and Metropolitans 92 just outside Las Vegas in Henderson (9:30 p.m. ET on NBATV).

Wembanyama will play, with his agent telling ESPN there are no plans to shut the No.1 pick down to avoid injury and protect his draft status. “He’ll never agree to that. He wants to compete and get better,” Bouna Ndiaye said.

LeBron looked back on his time as the “it” player and said simply, “thank got there wasn’t social media” at the time. It’s a different world now, but game still recognizes game.

And LeBron recognizes it in Wembanyama.

LeBron tells Adam Silver he wants to own expansion team in Vegas

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
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The odds are good that Las Vegas will get an NBA expansion team. Eventually.

But when it happens, LeBron James wants to be in the Vegas ownership group — and he made that pitch directly to Adam Silver after the Lakers exhibition game in Sin City against the Suns on Wednesday.

“I know Adam is in Abu Dhabi right now, I believe. But he probably sees every single interview and transcript that comes through from NBA players,” James said, via the Associated Press. “So, I want the team here, Adam. Thank you.”

Silver is in the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting an exhibition game between the Bucks and Hawks this week. But LeBron doesn’t need to worry about Silver seeing this request. He probably already has.

The widely held belief around the league is that the NBA owners will not entertain expansion until a new CBA and a new television/streaming rights deal are locked in (driving up the franchise prices), things that will take a couple of years. Expansion talk may come after that, and maybe there will be two new NBA teams by the end of the decade.

“We are not discussing that at this time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of expansion last June. “As I said before, at some point, this league invariably will expand, but it’s not at this moment that we are discussing it.”

If and when expansion happens, Las Vegas, along with Seattle, are the clear frontrunners to land teams. Most importantly, both cities have NBA-ready stadiums and fan bases to support the franchises, and their mayors are on board.

LeBron would be the face of an ownership group. While LeBron himself is a billionaire, Silver had called reports of a $2.5 billion expansion fee per team “low.” And that’s not including all the other start-up costs that come with a team.

But if the NBA is coming to Las Vegas, don’t be shocked if LeBron is involved.

Zion and more: Five must-watch intriguing NBA players this season

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At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.

The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.

Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.

Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?

The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.

If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.

We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.

Ben Simmons, Nets

Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.

What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way  — and will Steve Nash ask him to?

No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.

Precious Achiuwa, Raptors

Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).

Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.

After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.

Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks

Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?

Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.

Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.

De'Aaron Fox, Kings

If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.

How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?

“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.

Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.

The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.

DeMarcus Cousins looking for NBA return: ‘I just want a fair shot’

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins can still help a team. He did it last season, first in Milwaukee because they needed depth (Brook Lopez was out following back surgery) and he gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. Then, the Bucks let him go for financial reasons and the Nuggets picked him up to play behind Nikola Jokic and he was again a solid reserve, with 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Cousins, however, has not landed with a team heading into this season, with teams more concerned about his character and influence than his game. Cousins told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports he has learned from his past mistakes and wants another chance.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player…

“I think the misperception of me is that I’m this angry monster that just goes around bullying people, beating people up, uncoachable, and a cancer in the locker room,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s all false. I played for coach [John] Calipari, a legendary coach. I was more than coachable. Steve Kerr would attest to that and coach Malone. Obviously, you can always go back to my time in Sacramento. I was a young kid. I was still figuring this business out. I was ignorant to a lot of things. I handled a lot of things the incorrect way, but I’ve also learned from those mistakes…

“So, to hold my time in Sac over my head, I think that’s unfair. I believe we all should have a chance to grow and change and actually have that change be embraced. I just want a fair shot.”

Cousins also said he is working out daily to be ready when the phone rings and understands he is now a role player.

It will ring. At some point an injury will happen and a team will turn to Cousins to be that solid backup big they can give 15 minutes a night (or, a team will realize they need more size than they currently have on their roster). Center has become a bit of a mercenary position in the NBA, one where teams often look to fill roles on the cheap so money can be spent on perimeter players, and teams think low-risk with those spots. Fair or not, Cousins is not seen as low risk.

But his stint with the Warriors before the bubble (and before he tore his ACL) and last season with the Bucks and Nuggets show he can fit in on an established team and contribute. Eventually, he should get that chance.