Portland looks tired, overmatched defensively in Game 1 loss to Warriors

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Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals didn’t go how the Portland Trail Blazers wanted. The Golden State Warriors trapped its two stars, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, while Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry feasted from 3-point range. In the end, Portland looked tired, perhaps overwhelmed by their Game 7 theatrics against the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers fell to Golden State, 116-94, and there’s many questions to be answered.

The first among them was about that Game 7. Portland had just 48 hours to prepare for the reigning NBA champions, and it was revealed during the broadcast that they hadn’t had practice or shootaround. Meanwhile Golden State had been resting since May 10 after beating the Houston Rockets in six games.

The Blazers flagged noticeably. McCollum and Lillard looked worn out after battling around the Warriors’ traps, but so too did the likes of Moe Harkless and Rodney Hood. It certainly didn’t help Portland that all the WCF games start at 6 p.m. Both Al-Farouq Aminu and Enes Kanter are Muslim, and aren’t allowed to drink water, take medicine, or eat during sunlight. The sun didn’t set until 8:11 p.m. on Tuesday, leaving just six minutes of game clock in the fourth quarter for each to get hydrated and get some food.

But much of that will get tossed aside as excuses. More puzzling was Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his decision to play the Warriors in a low ICE defense in the pick-and-roll. On high screens involving Thompson and Curry, Kanter and backup Zach Collins were often standing at the free-throw line — sometimes just inside of it. The result, thanks to Golden State’s screens, was a lot of breathing room for the Warriors shooters.

Still, it’s not clear what Portland is supposed to do in that situation. Its big men are not as switchable and of fleet of foot as Golden State’s, and so any high pressure will be a trick. Plus, the Blazers just don’t play that way. Portland hasn’t consistently hedged or showed on the high pick-and-roll since 2012-13, Stotts’ first season in Oregon.

An intrepid reporter asked Stotts after the game about why his defense was so soft against the best shooter of all-time, citing the Rockets’ strategy of trapping Curry. His response was that Houston also allowed Curry to score 33 points in the second half of Game 6, intimating Stotts could be sticking to his plan. Still, reason stands that the Blazers will at least move their forwards higher in Game 2.

There were also some other head-scratchers from Stotts, including extended periods of time with McCollum guarding Thompson in bench lineups where Evan Turner would have been the better choice. Aminu looked nearly unplayable, and his 19 minutes felt like a stretch given his production.

Offensively, many of the same questions that haunted Portland fans during the Denver series remain after Tuesday night in Oakland. Turner, one of the heroes on Sunday, laid a goose egg on the scoreboard. McCollum shot just 7-of-19 from the field, and posted a game-low -20.

Lillard struggled again, scoring 19 points but going 4-of-12 from the field with seven turnovers. Taking on the Warriors in Game 1, Lillard continued a curious trend. The best way to put it is he’s looked reticent to enter the paint to score for himself. In fact, according to play-by-play charts from ESPN, Lillard has made just five shots inside the restricted area over the past four playoff games.

On Tuesday, Lillard took to a strategy of getting within six feet of the basket, jumping, then dumping off to a cutter with a mid-air bounce pass or a wraparound dish to his big men. Golden State had that sniffed out by the third quarter, and it’s what led to Lillard’s game high in lost possessions.

The Blazers have been training for years to try to get around the kind of traps the Warriors sent at them to open the Western Conference Finals. Turner was signed all the way back in 2016 as a kind of release valve for that, which hasn’t worked and didn’t against Golden State. But there was something else missing for Portland, even if their dedication to getting tips in passing lanes and their general defensive dedication kept them within single digits all night.

Call them tired, call them weak, call them emotionally drained. Whatever wasn’t in the tank for the Blazers against the Warriors will need to be refilled by the time Thursday’s Game 2 rolls around. Curry went 12-of-13, knocking down nine 3-pointers en route to a 36-point performance in Game 1. That might happen again, but if the Blazers want to continue this Cinderella run in the playoffs, they’ll need to find a solution on offense that gives them a kick in the pants.

That, and they’ll need to take a step above the free-throw line on those Warriors threes.

Game 2 is at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Oracle Arena.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.