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.

Report: NBA opened investigation into free agency tampering

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Summer in the NBA is always the most interesting time in the league. Free agency lets us see where players have not only decided to land, but which have schemed together in order to play with each other.

The term “preagency” has been coined to mark the period in which teams and players work out deals before free agency officially opens, and well before the moratorium ends.

It’s been thought that these rules have been circumvented as part of a gentlemen’s agreement between all teams with equal ability to navigate around the written rules. But according to a new report, several team owners are upset about the way things are going in the player empowerment era.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst reported on the NBA’s Board of Governor’s meeting this week, saying that the league has even opened an investigation into what went on this summer in terms of potential tampering.

Via ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The league has the power to punish teams it finds to be guilty of tampering ahead of June 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time — the first minute that teams are allowed to speak with representatives of free agents. It also might seek information on the timing of negotiations so that any revised free-agency calendar might better align with what is actually happening.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, speaking as the head of the labor committee, discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement, sources said.

I have two thoughts about this.

First, even if something does come of this, the fine has to be puny. Adam Silver has not strayed on the disciplinarian side the way David Stern did — much to his credit — and any reprimand is unlikely to satisfy upset parties.

Second, there will definitely be sweeping changes in the next CBA. So much has changed since the last lockout, and the money has gotten so big it’s inevitable that people want to make things better for their side. The players got themselves in a hole since 2011. They mishandled the cap jump in 2016, and the max contract rules didn’t create a rising tide that floated all boats. Star players benefited, but low-level guys are even more disproportionately compensated.

This stuff seems like the most boring part of the league, but in reality it’s what makes everything tick.

I won’t be surprised if the NBA levies tampering charges against one or even several teams. I’d be surprised if the league did much about it, though.

Wizards owner says John Wall ‘probably won’t play’ in 2019-20

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It was always likely that Washington Wizards star John Wall would be out for much of next year’s regular NBA season. The team has even filed for a disabled player exception for the 2019-20 season.

Now we have confirmation that the team is expecting Wall to miss significant time.

According to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said that they are going to take things slow with Wall, and that he will miss serious time.

Via Twitter:

Washington is still trying to figure out what to do with Bradley Beal, and with Wall’s contract on the books, they don’t really have much of anywhere to go. The Wizards used their No. 9 overall pick on Rui Hachimura, which raised a few eyebrows.

But the team at least does have a GM in Tommy Sheppard, and they’ve made several hirings in the front office to try and out-think their competition. Washington has made a few moves, including trading for Davis Bertans and signing Isaiah Thomas.

Expect to see the Wizards at the bottom of the East next year. Still, that doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.