Blazers beat Denver, advance to first Western Conference Finals since 2000

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Sunday’s Game 7 between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets was not a pretty one.

The Nuggets, who had relied on Portland’s inability to hit a jumper for the entirety of the first quarter, never were able to capitalize on an early 17-point lead. Slowly but surely, it dribbled away from the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs until the Blazers crept back into the game. By halftime, Portland had cut the gap to just nine points.

Then, with 12.1 seconds left on the clock at the end of the third quarter, CJ McCollum hit a floater to briefly put Portland ahead, 71-70.

It was a shot that would foreshadow how the fourth quarter would go.

McCollum, who scored a total of 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting to go with nine rebounds, was Portland’s hero. His face steely and flat, Portland’s “other” guard kept scoring and making impact plays.

A layup with eight minutes left. A rebound with seven minutes left. A chase down block with 4:44, then a recovery four seconds later to contest a Torrey Craig 3-pointer that would have cut the lead to one. Another skying rebound with 4:09. A pull-up 16-footer with 2:57. A second at 1:25.

Then finally, the dagger that sealed the game.

Save for which side of the floor it came from, it was a move that mirrored Michael Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. With Craig guarding, McCollum got Craig to put on skates one more time for the signature bucket with 12.4 seconds left.

For the Nuggets, it was a lesson that perhaps only the young can learn. That is, how to close out in the biggest moments. Jamal Murray went 4-of-18, scoring 17 points. Paul Millsap struggled similarly — a testament to Terry Stotts’ decision to put Zach Collins on him in Game 6 — shooting just 3-of-13. Nikola Jokic scored 29 points to go with 13 rebounds, but had just two assists.

In Portland, as fans rejoiced, it was the payoff the Trail Blazers had been waiting for since their first-round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season. It came in odd fashion, too.

Damian Lillard, who looked timid all game, used Denver’s concentration on him to his advantage in the final quarter. Instead of letting the Nuggets force the ball out of his hands, the Blazers star instead purposefully deferred. To McCollum, to Evan Turner, to Enes Kanter… to anyone who was in position to make the right play.

Turner, who hadn’t had a made field goal since Game 2 and who had just two baskets all series leading into Sunday, came up big. The Blazers’ point-forward guarded Millsap and Jokic while scoring 14 points off the bench for Stotts. Turner was impactful, including six free throws in the fourth quarter. No bigger were the two that Turner sank with eight seconds to go, the last of which pushed Portland’s lead to four.

In their second-straight series ending with a Game 7, Denver played uneven down the stretch. They gave Portland several chances to stop their eventual run, which the Blazers did. Despite the obvious advantage of the Nuggets’ defensive strategy against Portland, it was the visiting team that was able to counterpunch in a way that pushed the more experienced team to the next round.

The Trail Blazers are heading to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. Sunday will be huge in Rip City, as will Monday morning, all the way until Tuesday when they’ll meet the Golden State Warriors in Game 1.

For the Nuggets, it will be a chance to learn from their mistakes, and regroup, and try again next year.

The Blazers beat the Nuggets, 100-96, in Game 7.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.