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.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.