Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.

Bulls’ Zach LaVine on again missing playoffs: ‘It wears on you’

Bulls guard Zach LaVine
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The Bulls are having their best season since Zach LaVine arrived in Chicago.

They’re 22-43.

LaVine didn’t experience much more success with the Timberwolves, either. He missed the playoffs all three seasons in Minnesota and will almost certainly miss the postseason for the third straight season with the Bulls.

Lavine, via Sam Smith of Bulls.com:

“To be blunt, I’m upset,” LaVine admitted. “We had high expectations coming into the season and it didn’t go our way anyway we could have thought of. We played through some adversity, but we didn’t go out there and do what we were supposed to do as a team.

“I’ve been in the NBA six years now and it just gets frustrating,” LaVine said. “I want to be in the playoffs. We really (believed). I haven’t played in a playoff game and it wears on you. That’s what you work so hard for and continue to play for.”

LaVine has averaged 17.7 points per game. That’s incredibly high for someone who has gone so long without making the playoffs.

Here’s everyone to average 15 points per game through their first six seasons without playing a playoff game in that span:

Bulls guard Zach LaVine

T.J. Warren has a career scoring average of 15.2 points per game. But the sixth-year forward is on track to make the playoffs this season with the Pacers. So, he wasn’t included.

Furthering LaVine’s woe, he hasn’t even made an All-Star game. With the exception of Jim Jackson, everyone else above him on that chart – Geoff Petrie, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, DeMarcus Cousins, Elton Brand, Kevin Love and Bob Rule – at least made an All-Star team during their first six seasons. LaVine hasn’t even gotten that recognition.

The big question: How will LaVine channel his frustration?

Will he be even more driven to win? Or will he become a malcontent? Will he use his growing professional experience to lead? Or will he focus on individual achievements?

LaVine is a notoriously poor defender, often unfocused on that end. He’s a very good scorer, but he hasn’t shown he can propel a quality team offense with optimal balance of ball dominance and distribution.

The offensive problems aren’t all LaVine’s fault. His teammates are underwhelming. His coach is deficient. But Lavine could be better offensively, and he could be WAY better defensively.

Ideally, these hardships will push LaVine to address his own flaws and do even more to lift the Bulls to the playoffs. We’ve seen these types of situations go the other way, though.

LaVine clearly isn’t good enough to singlehandedly carry a team into the postseason. He might never reach that high level. If he doesn’t, he’ll need more help from the Bulls.

But he at least controls how he handles this predicament.

Al Horford ($500K), C.J. McCollum ($170K) donate to coronavirus relief

76ers big Al Horford
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Al Horford (four-year, $97 million-$107 million contract with 76ers) and C.J. McCollum (three-year, $100 million extension with Trail Blazers) received big deals last offseason.

Now, both are stepping up amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Portland Trail Blazers star CJ McCollum will be donating $170,000 total to the communities of Portland, Oregon, and Canton, Ohio, for COVID-19 relief, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Portland Metro Area will receive a $70,000 donation and the Akron-Canton Food Bank will receive a donation of $100,000.

This is great.

Report: LaMelo Ball buys his Australian team

LaMelo Ball
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LaMelo Ball signed in Australia under the National Basketball League’s Next Stars program and built himself into a high-end draft pick. But he suffered a season-ending foot injury then left his team under criticism from Illawarra Hawks owner Simon Stratford.

What a powerful rebuttal.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

Potential No. 1 NBA draft pick LaMelo Ball and his manager, Jermaine Jackson, have purchased his Australian NBL team, the Illawarra Hawks, Jackson told ESPN on Thursday.

“When Melo wants to do stuff in the summertime, we’ll be there,” Jackson said. “We’ll take a tour with his family all over Australia, doing basketball camps and connecting with the youth. He wants to inspire the next generation.

“That’s how he was raised by his family. People have a perception of his father, but he has a heart of gold and it trickles down to his kids. His father didn’t take him on a traditional route. He started his own sneaker company, Big Baller Brand. We’ve always talked about ownership. Melo wants kids to think big, especially in times like this.”

This is a heck of a headline for an 18-year-old.

I’m curious about the details. What share of the franchise do Ball and Jackson now own? How much did it cost? Did they assume debt to complete the deal? How profitable are NBL teams, especially considering coronavirus-caused uncertainty?

But with Lonzo Ball‘s Pelicans season on hold and LaVar Ball losing influence, this at least puts the spotlight back on a Ball.

Report: 76ers happy with GM Elton Brand, who’s drawing Knicks interest

76ers owner Josh Harris and general manager Elton Brand
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The Knicks are reportedly interested in hiring 76ers general manager Elton Brand.

In New York, Brand would work under new Knicks president Leon Rose. Brand holds the top position in Philadelphia’s front office. So, Brand would likely go to New York only if fired by the 76ers.

Paul Hudrick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

A team source on Wednesday confirmed Brand is under contract beyond this season and said the organization is very happy with his work since being named GM in 2018. The source cited Brand’s leadership and strong working relationships with players, agents, and executives around the league.

The 76ers are so pleased with Brand… someone said so without under the cloak of anonymity. If he wants to back Brand, 76ers owner Josh Harris can do so publicly. Otherwise, this is so weak.

Teams generally express support toward employees while the employees are still working for the team – whether or not the employees actually hold approval. A key way to tell whether the support is genuine? Check the source. Harris doesn’t want to look like a hypocrite. If he endorses Brand now then fires him soon, Harris would look silly. With this sourcing, nobody would get egg on his or her face if Brand gets ousted, because we don’t know the source.

I bet Brand does have good relationships with everyone. He has long connected well with others.

But his roster-building has fallen flat.

Inertia will probably keep him in his job. Philadelphia overachieving in the playoffs (whatever form they take) – certainly possible – would make that an easier call. It’s just difficult to build an affirmative case for Brand as a team’s lead executive.