Five things that have to happen for Trail Blazers to upset Lakers

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Portland is battle-tested, having just played eight meaningful seeding games at the NBA’s restart in Orlando, followed by a dramatic play-in game win on Saturday. They have the bubble MVP in Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers are as hot a team as the league has right now.

The Lakers looked like a team trying to find reasons to be motivated the past two weeks (leading the silly notion from LeBron James‘ the Lakers had to lock down the No. 1 seed because nobody thought they could do it). The Lakers went 3-5 with the second-worst offense in the bubble and a whole lot of shots clanging off rims.

Does all that mean Portland has a real chance of a historic 1-8 upset in the first round of the playoffs?

Or, does it mean the Lakers need to get punched in the face to wake up, to realize they face a genuine challenge, then start playing like a No. 1 seed again? (Just like the 2014 Spurs, who got pushed to seven games by Dallas in the first round, but by the Finals were playing the most beautiful team basketball the league has ever seen in shredding the Heat.)

“They’re the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason,” Lillard said Saturday after Portland’s win. “They’ve got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed’ and just go out here and get beat up on.”

If the Trail Blazers are going to make this a series — and maybe pull off the upset — here are five things that need to happen.

1) The Lakers have to keep missing shots

Los Angeles looked out of sync during the seeding games — not just a little out of sync, either — but a part of that was they could not knock down shots. The team’s true shooting percentage of 53.7 was second-worst in the bubble (Washington, to answer your question). The Lakers shot 30.3% from three as a team through the seeding games.

Or, look at the Lakers’ shot chart from the bubble.

The Lakers shot okay at the rim, but their three-point shooting in the seeding games was awful: Danny Green 25%, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot 27.5%, Alex Caruso 15.4%, Dion Waiters 23.3%, Anthony Davis 29.2%, and J.R. Smith 9.1%. That’s what a slump looks like.

If the Lakers fall to the Trail Blazers (or even get pushed to a Game 7), some of those wounds will have to be self-inflicted. The Lakers will have to help beat themselves, and shooting like this certainly helps that cause.

2) Portland has to figure out how to slow LeBron James and Anthony Davis

Good luck with that.

Who are the Blazers going to match up on LeBron? Gary Trent Jr.? He’s gritty but undersized for that assignment. Mario Hezonja? Yikes. Carmelo Anthony? Double yikes. This is why Portland players were trying to find a way to get Trevor Ariza into the bubble after it started, he would have helped a lot in this matchup. Portland has no good options to cover LeBron, and even if they did, he is the master of having a pick set to get the matchup he wants. LeBron is poised to have a monster series.

Davis is another matchup nightmare, although Portland fares slightly better here. The combination of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic up front means Portland starts with the physical size to match the Lakers. Collins cannot begin to guard the versatility of Davis, and Nurkic isn’t going to stay in front of AD on the perimeter, but they have the size to make a few plays. Portland also brings the athletic Hassan Whiteside off the bench, and he plays well when challenged and focused — if AD doesn’t get your focus, then who will?

This is the Lakers’ secret weapon in every round, their top two are unstoppable. Portland, however, has to find a way to slow them to have any hope.

3) Damian Lillard has to keep playing like the bubble MVP…

Does anyone doubt Lillard is going to keep up his MVP level of play?

Lillard is a particular problem for the Lakers because they lack the personnel to deal with small, quick guards who can score — Lillard averaged 36 points a game against the Lakers this season. He’s going to have to keep doing that and better, although his performance should not be in question.

4) …And he’s going to need help.

For Portland to have a chance, its bench and role players have to dramatically outplay their Lakers’ counterparts.

Portland has other stars, and we saw that against Memphis in the play-in game. CJ McCollum is better with a fractured back than 95% of the league. How much this team missed Jusuf Nurkic has been evident throughout the restart because he can score, rebound, and pass. The Lakers will at times do what Memphis did — double Lillard out high, take the ball out of his hands, and dare any other Trail Blazer to beat them. McCollum can do that. Nurkic can score and is a strong passer as a big man who can find the open guy. That’s where Trent Jr. and ‘Melo and everyone else needs to knock down their shots.

Portland’s role players will need to win them this series.

It should be noted the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma probably played the best basketball of his career in the bubble. He was hitting threes (44.4%) and was making efforts — and second efforts — in defense we haven’t seen from him consistently. LeBron said he was the third Lakers’ scoring option, he has to live up to that billing.

5) Carmelo Anthony’s defense can’t be an anchor

We need to give ‘Melo credit: He slimmed down, worked harder on defense in the bubble and made more second efforts defensively than we can remember seeing. He played better on that end.

He’s still not a strong defender, and LeBron is merciless —’Melo will get targeted. Memphis did it on Saturday (trying to drag Anthony and Whiteside into pick-and-rolls), the Lakers are better at it.

Portland’s catch-22 is they need Anthony on the floor, he has become an important floor spacer in their offense. He averaged 16.5 points per game and shot 47% from three in the bubble. Coach Terry Stotts needs to keep Anthony on the court without him getting abused from mismatches on the other end.

It’s all a lot to ask, but that’s why eight seeds almost never beat one seeds.

Almost.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”

Suns update: Ayton blames Sarver for contract, Crowder conflict, Johnson to start

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Phoenix went to the NBA Finals two seasons ago and had the most wins in the NBA last season, yet dark clouds seem to be blocking out the Suns heading into this NBA season.

Here’s the latest on three situations with the Suns: Deandre Ayton‘s contract frustration, why Jae Crowder is asking out, and who starts at the four now.

• Ayton ended up signing a four-year, $132.9 max contract and will be back with the Suns to start this season, but the road to get there was rocky. The Suns would not offer Ayton a max five-year contract extension, his name kept coming up in Kevin Durant trade rumors, so Ayton went out and got a four-year max offer from the Pacers — which the Suns instantly matched. Phoenix saved $40 million and a guaranteed year, but the process left Ayton a little bitter.

Ayton blames outgoing owner Robert Sarver — a notorious penny pincher as an owner (among other, much worse things) — Marc Spears and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN discussed on NBA Today (hat tip Real GM).

“That is certainly something that caused the ire of him,” said Marc J. Spears. “I was told that it was Robert Sarver who didn’t want to give him that fifth year, who wanted to save the money.”

“My understanding from talking to people close to Deandre is that he thinks this was Robert Sarver’s decision as well. And Robert Sarver’s not going to be the owner anymore. So there is some healing that can happen there. But I know there were some hurt feelings over that contract and how that played out.

“If they were going to instantly match an offer sheet that he signed, why not just give him the max contract? Yes, it saved them a year and $40 million but as somebody close to Deandre told me ‘There’s a karma to this. Why do that to your No. 1 overall pick?'”

Shelburne hit the nail on the head — the NBA is a business, but it’s a business of relationships. Not only did the Suns sour theirs with Ayton, but you can also be sure every other agent around the league noticed how that was handled. It doesn’t help when recruiting players. The eventual new owner, whoever it ends up being, has a lot of work to change the franchise’s perception.

• Jae Crowder remains away from the Suns during training camp awaiting a trade (which reportedly will not be to Dallas). Crowder started 109 games for the Suns during the past two seasons and was a key part of their run to the NBA Finals, so how did things deteriorate so quickly? Marc Stein lays it out in his latest Substack newsletter.

Entering the final season of his current contract at $10.2 million, Jae Crowder let the Suns know that he was seeking a contract extension. League sources say that the Suns’ messaging, in response, was to let Crowder know that, at 32, he was no longer assured of starting or finishing games ahead of Cam Johnson. That gulf between the parties led Crowder to seek an exit from the desert that has landed him on indefinite mutual leave from the team until Phoenix can find a trade for him.

While Miami gets mentioned as a suitor a lot, it’s next to impossible to put together a trade that works for both sides right now (at the trade deadline, maybe, but Crowder isn’t going to be with the Suns that long). Cleveland is currently the hot name in league circles when talking Crowder trades, and Stein also mentions the Milwaukee Bucks, who have been looking for a P.J. Tucker-like replacement for P.J Tucker. But, do any of these teams want to extend Crowder at age 32?

• Suns coach Monty Williams confirmed what Crowder heard — Cameron Johnson will start at the four for the Suns this season.

Johnson brings better shooting to the table — 42.5% last season on 3-pointers — and is more athletic at this point, but Crowder brings better defense, toughness, and veteran savvy that can be trusted in the playoffs. The Suns may miss that when it matters, but Johnson will get the chance to prove us all wrong.

Blake Griffin agrees to join Boston Celtics on one-year deal

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Blake Griffin has agreed to join the Boston Celtics on a one-year contract which will be fully guaranteed.

The Celtics were desperate for frontcourt depth following injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams, as Luke Kornet was even getting some run with the starting group at training camp.

You do have to wonder just how much the 33-year-old Griffin has left in the tank though. Last season with the Brooklyn Nets, Griffin only managed to play 17.1 minutes per game and his 3-point percentage dropped like a stone to 26%. He was also a major liability on defense, and the Celtics surely know that after Jaylen Brown drove by him with ease time and time again during the postseason.

Griffin was still an effective playmaker and that may make him a good fit with the second unit alongside the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White and Grant Williams with all of these capable of handling the ball. Injuries and Father Time have zapped Griffin’s athleticism, but if anyone can squeeze the last bit of value out of him, I’d bet on Brad Stevens and the Celtics.

Highlights from Japan Game: Hachimura and Wiseman put on show, plus Suga and Curry

Golden State Warriors v Washington Wizards - NBA Japan Games
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The NBA preseason is officially here — and it started in Japan. The Golden State Warriors faced the Washington Wizards in front of a sold-out crowd at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. In case you didn’t wake up at 6 am Eastern to watch a meaningless preseason NBA game (and if you did, we’re worried about you), here are a few highlights and notes from the night.

• The Wizards were there because they have the biggest Japanese star in the NBA, Rui Hachimura, and he was given a chance to shine. The crowd erupted when he did anything.

• The leading scorer on the night was the Warriors James Wiseman with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus nine boards.

• Dunk of the game goes to Kyle Kuzma.

Stephen Curry was doing Stephen Curry things.

• Stephen Curry also met Suga of BTS and gave him some game-worn kicks. This will win Twitter for the day.

• Oh, by the way, the Warriors won 96-87. As for the level of basketball, it looked like the first preseason game after a flight halfway around the world. The teams combined to shoot 11-of-47 in the first quarter (23.4%) and both were under 40% for the game.

Klay Thompson is sitting out both Warriors games in Japan.

TRIVIA TIME: Can you name the other two players currently in the NBA born in Japan?

Cam Thomas (Yokosuka) and Yuta Watanabe (Yokohama), both of the Brooklyn Nets (Watanabe is on a training camp deal and is not expected to make the roster). Both were raised much of their lives and went to high school and college in the United States.

Thunder rookie Holmgren trying to focus on learning NBA during rehab

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is experiencing the rehab process for the first time.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft suffered a right foot injury during a pro-am game in August while defending as LeBron James drove to the basket on a fast break. He had surgery, and the Thunder declared him out for the season.

“I’ve never had a serious injury in my life, so I didn’t really know, I had nothing to base it off of and compare to,” Holmgren said Thursday. “So when it happened, I had to get it looked at and see how serious it was. I didn’t imagine anything like this.”

Holmgren, a versatile 7-footer who had great moments during summer league, is dealing with being sidelined as the Thunder start training camp this week.

“Definitely something that I really had to put my mind to and spend some time to think on,” he said. “And kind of come to some conclusions on things and really settle my mind so I could kind of stop focusing on what happened and focus in on what’s going to happen, what I’ve got to do to get where I need to be.”

Even without practicing, he has already left an impression on his teammates.

“He’s a great guy,” guard Lu Dort said. “I can already feel a connection with me and the rest of the team. He’s a pretty vocal guy, too. He talks a lot, and that’s good for the team.”

Holmgren said his only workout limitation is that he can’t put weight on the injured foot. So, that forces him to focus on other aspects of the game. Coach Mark Daigneault said Holmgren has been working hard on film study.

“It just comes down to putting my mental energy towards it, learning how to really be a professional in areas off the court,” Holmgren said. “I’ve dedicated so much time to really hustling at my craft on the court. Now, this event is making me step back and kind of rework how how I do things. And one of those ways is to become professional with watching film and speaking with coaches, trying to learn, watching what’s happening and really being engaged, in trying to get better with different avenues.”

Holmgren has spoken with Joel Embiid about his injury. Embiid, the reigning NBA scoring champion, was the No. 3 pick in 2014 before missing his first two seasons with foot issues.

Holmgren hopes he can recover as well as Embiid.

“What I’m trying to do right now is just kind of soak up all the knowledge of how things are done around here, how they’re going to be done going forward,” Holmgren said. “So when I’m ready to get get back in there, I can just kind of seamlessly plug myself in.”

Holmgren is expected to be ready for the start of next season. He said he’s trying to keep his thoughts positive.

“It all comes down to keeping a level head because there’s so many ups and downs,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a down. But I’ve got to keep my head level and focus on getting better. And no matter what the circumstances are, that’s the goal.”

Daigneault believes Holmgren’s mindset will net positive results.

“We’d like him to be out here,” Daigneault said. “But since he’s not, we’re certainly going to make a lot of investments, and the thing that makes me the most optimistic about that is the approach that he takes.”