Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Collins propel Blazers to Game 7 vs. Nuggets

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Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are headed to Game 7.

On Thursday night, facing elimination on their home court, the Trail Blazers pushed the Denver Nuggets in a way we hadn’t seen in two games. Where before we had seen a dearth of 3-point shooting and rebounding, Portland instead found its way in Game 6. Lillard scored 32 points, going 6-of-13 from beyond the arc, and Rodney Hood added 25 points off the bench including three buckets from deep.

It looked like the Blazers might not recover from traumatic losses in Games 4 and 5, but instead Portland soundly beat Denver, 119-108.

Rebounding, particularly on the offensive end for Portland, has been the story of this series. The Blazers have not been active outside of their big men, and their wings have either been unengaged or caught on the wrong part of the floor.

Guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner have been in varying places on the hardwood during offensive rebounding chances during the past eight quarters — underneath the basket, stuck in the corner, far above the 3-point line — none of them good places to grab the basketball.

That seemed to change on Thursday thanks in part to the Blazers crashing down just enough to grab more rebounds without giving up transition buckets to the Nuggets, something coach Terry Stotts mentioned he was worried about before the game.

Of big help in this area was second-year man Zach Collins, who had 14 points to go with five blocks, four rebounds, one assist, and one steal. One of Portland’s most recent college players, Collins did what college players do — box out.

In addition to Enes Kanter, who has been doing yeoman’s work with a separated shoulder while fasting for Ramadan, Collins soaked up the Denver big men enough so the Blazers wings could get a shot at some loose balls. The Nuggets is still ended up a +5 in offensive rebounding disparity, but the overall change was huge. In Game 5, Denver had 19 more boards than the Blazers.

In Game 6? One.

Lillard dealt with Denver’s trap slightly better, although he still had five turnovers during the game. More important, Lillard’s shot — which has looked short and shaky as of late — was on point, as the Blazers star was once again hitting deep 3-pointers despite Denver contesting heavily.

Not to be outdone, McCollum continued his excellent run of playoff performances, his demeanor steely and reserved as he again punished the Nuggets with floaters and crazy turnarounds.

Hood, who was the receiver of much derision during last season’s playoffs when he was the new father of twin girls, was the bolster off the bench Portland has needed. The Blazers have not been the same as they were in the regular season, particularly with Evan Turner seemingly still afraid to shoot the basketball. Hood did not have that problem on Thursday, and he added four rebounds to his 25-point total, going 8-of-12 from the floor.

Denver’s starting lineup was again very good, and Nikola Jokic finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. Jokic went 10-of-15 from the field, but the entire Nuggets team only shot 38.4 percent from the floor. Paul Millsap, who had been absolutely lights out up until this point, went just 4-of-15 with 17 points.

Still, it was a close game down the stretch until the Blazers finally sealed it with a 1:19 to go in the fourth quarter. McCollum hit a 24-foot 3-point jumper off a Turner assist to make it a double-digit lead, putting the game out of reach for good. Both McCollum and Lillard didn’t change their expressions much during the game, save for the Lehigh guard’s nod to the Denver bench after his game-sealing shot.

This was more the type of game we should have expected over the course of this series. Games 4 and 5 were outliers in how poorly the Blazers shot and rebounded at times. Thursday’s game at Moda Center was within the reach of both teams throughout, and it felt akin to the first couple of matchups we saw.

Stotts adjusted his rebounding game plan just enough to get the Blazers even, and Portland looked as though they were reinvigorated from a team chemistry point. The Blazers can’t win this series without their bench stepping up. Seemingly, the Nuggets can’t beat the Blazers without shooting an excellent percentage from 3-point range and dominating the glass. No doubt Denver Coach Michael Malone will try to find a way to get the Nuggets to do that very thing again on Sunday in Game 7. And of course, Stotts will try to stop him.

We are headed for another seven-game series in these playoffs, and the battle of Lillard and McCollum vs. Jokic and Murray will get top billing. But as we saw in Game 6, the real story could be about the role players.

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.