Blazers have no answers for Denver as Nuggets take 3-2 series lead

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It seemed like the answer for the Portland Trail Blazers was fairly straightforward. They needed to find a way to release pressure from the Denver Nuggets’ sideline traps, and get a few offensive rebounds.

On Tuesday night, Denver didn’t allow the visiting Blazers to do either.

The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead, and Portland’s defense wasn’t as sharp as they should have been coming off an embarrassing loss on their home court just a couple of days earlier. A team that was once led by its steely leader, neither Damian Lillard nor his teammates on the Blazers roster appeared as though they had psyched themselves up for Tuesday’s contest back in the Mile High City.

As a result, the Trail Blazers scored 25 points in the first quarter and descended from there. Despite trailing at the half, 65-47, Portland recorded a low of 18 points in the third quarter, the entire time their stars not able to get out of the traps Denver laid for them in Game 4.

That, and Portland just would not box out.

Nikola Jokic, who led all scorers with 25 points, also grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with six assists. Denver out-rebounded the Blazers, 62-44, and again it appeared that Portland simply couldn’t grab anything inside of eight feet. Just as had been the case in the prior games, the Blazers didn’t seem to be able to grab a basketball as much as they would tip it until a Nugget eventually got their hands on it. Much of that was due to Jokic and his stature.

It was impressive stat line for the Denver center, but the real star of the game for the Nuggets was Paul Millsap. The veteran NBA forward has put on a bit of a show against the Blazers in the second round, a renaissance of contested turn around jumpers that has glided gently into the net. Millsap finished with 24 points and eight rebounds, going 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

The play of Jokic and Millsap allowed for the slow start of Jamal Murray, who had 34 points in Game 4. Murray finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, but was integral in helping to build the lead the Nuggets eventually used to coast to victory.

Denver beat the Blazers, 124-98, in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Portland on Thursday.

Now the question is what we can we expect from here?

The Nuggets should feel confident in the way they played so far, not just with how their coaching staff has adjusted to Portland but also in the fortitude of their young players. After an uneven series with the San Antonio Spurs in round one, it wasn’t clear if Denver was going to be able to withstand a barrage from an opponent like Portland.

The fact that the Nuggets have come from down 2-1 to take a series lead is a testament to their character

For the Blazers, suddenly the series has become a question of faith. Several key players, including Evan Turner and even Lillard, have had minimal impact recently compared to their regular season. With as much as I’ve watched this team this year, and having seen every minute of this playoff series, it’s not really clear why the Blazers are playing so poorly.

Yes, the Nuggets have confidence. But Portland is also playing remarkably poorly — missing open shots, clanging 3-pointers they would normally make, and getting into volleyball contests with Jokic rather than putting a body on him as a means to stop the rebounding onslaught.

That’s without mentioning that Lillard has looked uncharacteristically timid. He even shot 40 percent from the free-throw line in Game 5. Lillard is one of the best free-throw shooters in the game, but his odd jitters from the charity stripe from the end of Game 4 continued into Tuesday night. Portland’s star point guard scored 22 points but went 2-of-9 from the 3-point line.

Equally disappointing for Portland was the contribution it got from three of its starters in Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, and Moe Harkless. They combined for 15 points on 25 percent shooting.

The series heads back to Moda Center on the east bank of the Willamette river on Thursday. Michael Malone has made better coaching adaptations then Terry Stotts over the past couple of games, and the Blazers suddenly look like a team that can no longer rely on either of its most valuable assets in Lillard or its bench.

The Nuggets have a chance to close out the series and head to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008-09. For Portland, Thursday will be a chance to prove to themselves they’re still the team they were all season long.

Or at least, the team they were at the end of April.

Indiana’s Victor Oladipo: “There’s a strong possibility I might play”

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There are about three million reasons Victor Oladipo wants to play for the Pacers in the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

He told reporters on Wednesday he’s “definitely here trying to play” and not thinking about the money reasons. He says just wants to lace them up. Via J. Michael of the Indy Star.

There has been a dispute about Oladipo’s health and salary. After sitting out about a year with a ruptured quadriceps tendon above his right knee, Oladepo returned to play 13 games before the NBA season was shut down. When it came time to make a decision on playing in the restart, Oladipo announced he was sitting out due to increased injury risk during a quick ramp-up to play. However, the league saw the games played — and the fact Oladipo traveled with the team to Orlando and is practicing full speed, leading to increasing optimism he’ll play — and said he would be counted as a player not out due to injury. Which means Oladipo would not get paid for the games in Orlando — that’s $2.8 million if the Pacers got swept in the first round, and $3.2 million if they play at least six games.

After working out down in Orlando without restrictions, Victor Oladipo sounds like a guy ready to play.

Him feeling healthy no doubt factors into that decision, but in the NBA always follow the money. And there are $3 million reasons for Oladipo to lace them up.

Thunder’s Dennis Schroder will leave bubble next month for birth of child

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Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroderjust like Boston’s Gordon Hayward and Utah’s Mike Conley — has a pregnant wife due to give birth to his child while he is in the bubble.

Just like those guys, Schroder said he is leaving the bubble to put family first when it is time. Via Joe Mussatto of The Oklahoman:

“I’m not gonna leave my wife by herself while she’s having a second baby,” Schroder said. “(Dennis) Jr. is still 17 months old, so I’m for sure gonna go there and support her and try as much as I can to be there for my family…

“For me it’s tough,” Schroder said. “I love my teammates, I love basketball, but family comes first all the time. I’ll try to make something happen with the organization. I sacrifice a lot for my team, but like I said, we still gotta get on the same page that I can see my family maybe when the baby is coming. We’re going to make it work.”

The baby is due in “3-4 weeks,” which is mid-August.

Schroder is absolutely doing the right thing prioritizing his family. Nobody should criticize his decision.

That said, if he is gone for some of the first round of the playoffs, which start Aug. 17, it would be a blow to the Thunder, who almost certainly will be in a difficult matchup in the middle of a crowded West (currently they would face Utah in a 4/5 matchup, but with the middle of the conference bunched together the seeding games likely change that).

Schroder is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate averaging 19 points per game while shooting 38.1% from three. The Thunder are at their most dangerous with a three-guard lineup where Schroder is paired with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a rotation that can’t happen with Schroeder gone.

Schroder can return to the team. He has to get tested every day he is outside the bubble, but because this is an excused absence and the league has been notified, upon his return Schroeder will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). Players who leave the bubble without notifying teams face a 10-day quarantine.

Oklahoma City is going to need Schroder and his crafty game if they are going to be a playoff threat that moves beyond the first round in Orlando.

 

Orlando’s James Ennis admits he had COVID-19, is now recovered and practicing

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Add James Ennis — who has started most games at the three for Orlando since being traded there at the deadline — to the list of players who had COVID-19.

Ennis is recovered and Wednesday returned to practice but admitted to reporters in a zoom he was one of the players who had tested positive for the disease. From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

James Ennis is an example of why the NBA started its testing in the home markets of teams back on June 23: find the players who had the virus, get them treatment as needed, help them recover, and keep the virus itself out of the NBA campus/bubble in Orlando. How well that ultimately works remains an unanswered question, but the Ennis is an example of the concept working.

Ennis’ move into the starting lineup in Orlando not-so-coincidentally timed out with when the Magic offense took off (a 117.8 offensive rating after the All-Star break, best in the NBA). Ennis, the lone Long Beach State player in the NBA now, provides shooting to space the floor on the wing (career 35.4% from three), and that opened up driving lanes for Aaron Gordon and room for others to operate. He quickly became a critical piece of the Magic offense. Ennis was traded to Orlando from Philadephia at the deadline for a second-round pick.

Orlando enters the NBA restart as the eighth seed in the East, but with a realistic shot to pass a depleted Brooklyn team for the seven seed. Healthy, with an explosive offense and balanced roster, the Magic will not be an easy out in the first round of the playoffs.

Coaches, players compare NBA Orlando restart to USA Basketball experience

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Formulating a plan to get a team ready for the restart of the NBA season wasn’t as difficult as one might expect for Indiana coach Nate McMillan.

Turns out, he’s been through something similar to this before.

Spending an extended stretch away from home during the summer, while unprecedented as part of an NBA season, isn’t exactly a foreign concept for those with USA Basketball experience like the Olympics and the World Cup. Plenty of players and coaches at Walt Disney World see parallels between those experiences and this challenge.

“I had that opportunity to work with the Olympic team and preparation was very similar to what we’re going through here,” said McMillan, who was an assistant under Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski on the USA Basketball staff from 2006 through 2012. “Having a training camp, basically, at a hotel and getting ready for a 45- to 60-day season. … We’re going to have three scrimmage games, eight so-called regular season games and then we’re in the playoffs so it’s very similar to preparing to play for the gold medal.”

Players who have been through the World Cup or Olympic grinds agree that there’s a level of familiarity with this sort of schedule and situation.

“It helps tremendously,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who was part of the U.S. gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in 2016. “In Rio it was a lot more strict and tighter because we were living on a boat. That experience was pretty awesome. … But living on a boat, to be in a smaller room and not have as many amenities it really kind of prepared me for this.”

Even players who have been part of USA Basketball’s events for younger players, like Under-18 or Under-19 tournaments internationally, know the drill when it comes to living in a hotel for a few weeks and not having a lot of latitude when it comes to being free to roam. Players at Disney cannot leave the campus because of coronavirus protocols, though the league has made plenty of entertainment options — fishing, golf, boating, table tennis and more — available to them.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said he would follow much of the same policies that the U.S. program used when he was an assistant on those national-team staffs, such as a heavy reliance on medical personnel to determine what days to have a hard practice and what days to take it a bit easier. Phoenix coach Monty Williams said he also refreshed his memory on national-team days when putting together a plan for his team’s stay at Disney.

“It has forced me to dig into the archives of that time with USA Basketball,” said Williams, another former national team assistant under Krzyzewski. “I’ve heard a lot of the players say that it reminds them of AAU, but for me it reminds me so much of my time in Spain at the World Cup. It’s a bit longer than the Olympics … and you have a lot of free time.”

Pacers center Myles Turner was with the U.S. team that competed in China last summer at the World Cup, a group that spent more than seven weeks together between training camp, exhibition games in the U.S. and Australia, and then the tournament itself.

The Pacers have clinched a playoff spot, so they’re assured of spending at least seven weeks at Disney this summer. It’s another long summer for Turner, and he’s not complaining.

“There is a lot of similarity in how it’s set up, but for me personally, I just think that it’s a great time for everybody to kind of stay focused,” Turner said. “There’s no distractions. Everybody’s locked in and focused. So, there’s really not a lot that can go wrong in a basketball sense.”

One difference at Disney is that nobody has family members with them until at least the second round of the playoffs. At an Olympics, it’s typical for family and friends to make the trip — and at last year’s World Cup, a small number of players also made arrangements for family to join them in China.

“This is a little bit different than that, but certainly the timing is similar and the timing for us as far as preparation is probably more like a FIBA-type schedule than it is like a training camp,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “You’re practicing for a couple weeks and then you’re playing a few games and then it really, really counts.”

NOTES: San Antonio assistant Tim Duncan is not with the Spurs at Disney; the team said he has remained home to help LaMarcus Aldridge with his rehab from season-ending shoulder surgery. … Of the 22 teams in the restart, eight opted to take Tuesday off from practice.