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Three Things to Know: Has 5-11 Portland fallen too far back to make playoffs?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Have the 5-11 Portland Trail Blazers fallen too far back to make playoffs? We’ve all heard a coach say it: “You can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it.”

That might apply to the Trail Blazers this season. After losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday 137-129, Portland is now 5-11 and the 14 seed in the West, ahead of only the one team possibly more decimated by injuries than themselves (the Warriors). Portland has gone 2-9 in November.

This was a team with Western Conference Finals expectations before the season started, now the question has to be asked:

Has Portland’s slow start to the season dug too big a hole to climb out of and even make the playoffs?

No. But things need to turn around sooner rather than later.

On the positive side, while the Trail Blazers may be six games below .500 they are also only three games back of eight-seed Phoenix and the final playoff spot. They also have a point differential that suggests the Blazers should have at least one more win, maybe two, meaning they are a little better than their record indicates. Get Damian Lillard healthy (he missed the last two games with a back issue but is expected to play Saturday against Cleveland), rack up some wins to change the momentum, and make a late push up the standings once Jusuf Nurkic returns (there is no timeline, but whispers say maybe around the All-Star break)..

Portland is not out of it.

Also on the positive side, Portland has got a run of games at home coming up. And the franchise has some history on their side: The 2007-08 Trail Blazers started 5-10, but went on a 13-game win streak and eventually finished 41-41 and made the playoffs. (The 2017 Jazz and 2016 Wizards both started 6-10 and made the playoffs.)

It’s also not going to be easy to turn things around — there are no nights off in this West, no gimme wins (outside maybe Golden State, until they get healthy again). Also, unlike in 2008, 41 wins will not be enough to make the playoffs. It may not be too big to climb out of, but Portland has dug itself a hole to start the season.

One can’t mention Portland’s struggles without talking injuries, particularly along the front line. Nurkic is out, and the Blazers were counting on Zach Collins to step forward into that role, except he is now out months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol never got healthy from his foot injury and was waived. Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere have both missed time with ailments. That has placed a lot on the shoulders of Hassan Whiteside, who has done what he’s always done — stuffed the stat sheet with empty calories, given inconsistent effort, and not set good picks. The injuries up front are why Carmelo Anthony was brought in. Add in a slow start to the season from CJ McCollum (who has turned it around) and Lillard’s injury, and here we are at 5-11.

Portland’s biggest issues are on the defensive end, where they are currently a bottom 10 team. Teams are running a lot on Portland, and while statistically the team has defended well in transition, teams still get too many easy buckets.

Portland was an average defensive team last season, but a top-three offense covered it up. This season we’ve seen how much Nurkic — as a strong pick setter and short-roll option who could facilitate a little — meant to the Blazers offense. Portland is 13th in offensive rating, basically league average. The Portland offense no longer can hide their defensive flaws.

Time has not yet run out on Portland, it’s still early. However, the Blazers need to find some wins. Fast. The first rule of climbing out of a hole is to stop digging.

2) Carmelo Anthony scores 18, but we need to see him next to Lillard; Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 15 assists, gets triple-double in win. There were some individual games worth discussing in Milwaukee’s 137-129 win over Portland Thursday.

Carmelo Anthony had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and he looked better than his first game back. You can see what you want in his numbers, he took six midrange shots, but is now also 5-of-8 from three in two games in Portland.

Here’s the reality with Anthony: This is Lillard’s team and he missed the two games ‘Melo played. It’s too early to judge the Anthony gamble in Portland because we have not seen him yet next to the guy whose team this is and who runs the offense. Lillard is expected to return from his back issues Saturday against Cleveland, we need to watch Anthony in that and the next few games, then see how this marriage is working.

This is how good Giannis Antetokounmpo has played this season: He struggled against the Blazers shooting 9-of-27 (1-of-7 from three), looking a little worn having to play 37 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.

His numbers on the “off” night: 24 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists.

That would be the first ever 20+ point, 15+ rebound, 15+ assist game in Bucks franchise history — and that history has Oscar Robertson in it. Antetokounmpo looks every bit like an MVP player again to start the season.

Finally, CJ McCollum seems to be out of his slump and had 37 points and 10 assists.

3) J.J. Redick, Brandon Ingram lead New Orleans to win, hand Phoenix it’s third straight loss. Brandon Ingram scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter Thursday, leading the Pelicans to a 124-121 win on the road. Ingram is a restricted free agent this summer and has been putting up “pay the man his money” numbers this season.

J.J. Redick added 26 and was killing it from three.

After a hot start, the Suns have come back to earth losing three in a row and 4-of-5, and now they head out on the road to take on two teams playing well in Minnesota and Denver.

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.

Magic center Mo Bamba had coronavirus

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba has fallen behind Khem Birch as the Magic’s backup center (to Nikola Vucevic). At the NBA’ resumption at Disney World, Bamba has played in only two of Orlando’s four games, receiving just four and six minutes. Magic coach Steve Clifford cited the 22-year-old’s conditioning.

Bamba wants you to know the full story: He had coronavirus.

Josh Robbins of The Athletic:

Bamba received word of his positive test on June 11

The illness temporarily robbed him of his senses of smell and taste, made him unusually fatigued and caused muscle soreness.

“Part of me is reading the temperature of the room and just knowing that there are definitely going to be questions, and sometimes you’ve just got to address them with honesty,” Bamba said. “In this case, I think it’s best for them to have that context and have that understanding of what, exactly, is going on.

“I want people to know that I’m still working as hard as ever, if not even harder, and I’ll get through this.”

Bamba thought he had endured the worst by the time the Magic entered the NBA bubble on July 7. But the false positives required him to have an additional three-day in-room quarantine while his teammates practiced together on July 9, July 10 and July 11.

I appreciate Bamba being so forthcoming. It was easy for people to suspect he didn’t train properly during the hiatus. Though medical privacy should also be valued, transparency often alleviates the worst suspicions.

At least 54 NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus. Does that number already include Bamba? It’s unclear.

After going quiet during most of the shutdown, the league has announced the number of players who’ve tested positive since June 23. Maybe Bamba continued to test positive on June 23 or later. Or perhaps he’s an additional case from the quiet period. There definitely were some cases in that timeframe.

False positives are an issue – an unavoidable one. It’s unfair Bamba was stuck in his hotel room, not training, longer than necessary. But the NBA can’t risk allowing a potentially contagious player into the bubble. Better to err on the side of safety.

The No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Bamba improved steadily from an underwhelming rookie season. He still needs more work to become a quality NBA player. This is a setback, and one that makes him unlikely to contribute much the rest of this season. Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick up next season where he left off when this season got suspended.