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.

Just a reminder, after draft and free agency Wizards have still not named official GM

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When Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM back in April — to the joy of Wizards fans everywhere — it was expected they would have a new head of basketball operations in place by the draft.

Nope.

So by the start of free agency, to guide the Wizards through this tumultuous summer?

Nope.

Tommy Sheppard has been doing the job on an interim basis, and as Jeff Zillgit of the USA Today points out a lot of league talk in Las Vegas was about why Leonsis just hasn’t given Shepard the job.

Team executive after executive had the same question when the Washington Wizards’ unresolved top front-office job opening came up. “Why not just give Tommy the job?”

Tommy is Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ longtime exec, who has been running basketball operations since owner Ted Leonsis decided not to bring Ernie Grunfeld back. Sheppard ran the draft, free agency and the Wizards’ Summer League team, but he doesn’t have the full-time job.

A couple of more prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at points. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

At this point, after Sheppard has built the team for this coming season, is Leonsis really going to bring in someone else?

The Wizards have decisions to make. This is a young roster not ready to be a threat in the East, but with Bradley Beal and the injured John Wall (likely out for the season after tearing his Achilles), they also are capped out. So far they have turned away calls from other teams about a Beal trade (nobody is calling about a Wall trade with his max contract extension just kicking in).

Come July 26 the Wizards can offer Beal a three-year, $111 million extension, both sides are talking and the offer is expected to be made. That’s when the big decision comes — if Beal doesn’t sign that offer the Wizards have to look at trading him. Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards, but there was plenty of informed league speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and may not sign the extension, essentially forcing his way out. It’s something to watch in the coming weeks.

It probably would be nice to have a locked-in head of basketball operations by then, but who knows what Leonsis will do.

Cameron Payne reportedly agrees to partially-guaranteed contract with Toronto

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Cameron Payne was the starting point guard at one point early in the season in Chicago (until Kris Dunn returned), it didn’t last long, and by the middle of the season he was waived. The Cavaliers picked him up in a limited role at the end of the season.

Payne played for Dallas at Summer League and needed to impress there to have a shot a roster spot for next season. He did, averaging 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had one 32-point game.

The Toronto Raptors will bring Payne and let him compete to be the third point guard, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Raptors have Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet at the point, there are not a lot of minutes to be had there. However, both men are in the final year of their contracts. Plus, he brings some pregame dancing that every team needs.

The Raptors now have 16 potential NBA contracts coming into training camp, which means there will be cuts. The fact Payne has a decent guarantee his first year means he’s going to get a real look.

Payne, the No. 14 pick of the Thunder back in 2015, has struggled to find a fit in the NBA. While his skill set should fit the modern game, he doesn’t quite shoot or distribute well enough to earn a coach’s trust. He will try to change that with Nick Nurse.

Enes Kanter trolls (jokingly) Kyrie Irving on why Kanter will wear No. 11 with Boston

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Kyrie Irving is off to Brooklyn, which opened up the No. 11 jersey in Boston.

New Celtics center Enes Kanter will wear it, and his answer as to why is an awesome joke and troll of Irving.

You have to love the smile before he makes the joke, he has planned this out.

If you don’t get the “I want to be the reason no one else will” wear No. 11, you have to remember this Irving/Nike ad from Boston.

Well played Kanter, well played.

Report: Knicks’ Reggie Bullock could miss first month of season with injury

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On Tuesday, the Knicks made it official, they had signed sharpshooter Reggie Bullock to a two-year contract.

It had been a strange negotiation. Bullock had initially agreed to a two-year, $21 million contract with New York but after that (during the physicals) an injury of some nature came to light and the contract was re-negotiated down to two-years, $8.2 million (part of the room exception), money freed up allowed the Knicks to chase and land Marcus Morris.

Now comes a report Bullock will miss the start of the season with an injury. From Ian Begley of SNY.tv

There is no specific timetable for Bullock to be on the court at the moment. But, per SNY sources, Bullock is expected to miss at least a month of the regular season due to his ailment…

The medical issue that caused the hiccup is unclear, but Bullock has dealt with plantar fasciitis in the past.

Plantar fasciitis is something generally healed with rest, which Bullock should be getting plenty of this summer, making it a little unusual for it to extend into the season.

Bullock has a history of injury issues, having played 62 games two seasons ago in Detroit, then 63 last season between the Pistons and Lakers.

Bullock averaged 11.3 points and shot 37.7 percent from three last season. He will provide some much-needed floor spacing in New York, once he gets on the court.