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.

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”