Al-Farouq Aminu

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.

Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Collins propel Blazers to Game 7 vs. Nuggets

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Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are headed to Game 7.

On Thursday night, facing elimination on their home court, the Trail Blazers pushed the Denver Nuggets in a way we hadn’t seen in two games. Where before we had seen a dearth of 3-point shooting and rebounding, Portland instead found its way in Game 6. Lillard scored 32 points, going 6-of-13 from beyond the arc, and Rodney Hood added 25 points off the bench including three buckets from deep.

It looked like the Blazers might not recover from traumatic losses in Games 4 and 5, but instead Portland soundly beat Denver, 119-108.

Rebounding, particularly on the offensive end for Portland, has been the story of this series. The Blazers have not been active outside of their big men, and their wings have either been unengaged or caught on the wrong part of the floor.

Guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner have been in varying places on the hardwood during offensive rebounding chances during the past eight quarters — underneath the basket, stuck in the corner, far above the 3-point line — none of them good places to grab the basketball.

That seemed to change on Thursday thanks in part to the Blazers crashing down just enough to grab more rebounds without giving up transition buckets to the Nuggets, something coach Terry Stotts mentioned he was worried about before the game.

Of big help in this area was second-year man Zach Collins, who had 14 points to go with five blocks, four rebounds, one assist, and one steal. One of Portland’s most recent college players, Collins did what college players do — box out.

In addition to Enes Kanter, who has been doing yeoman’s work with a separated shoulder while fasting for Ramadan, Collins soaked up the Denver big men enough so the Blazers wings could get a shot at some loose balls. The Nuggets is still ended up a +5 in offensive rebounding disparity, but the overall change was huge. In Game 5, Denver had 19 more boards than the Blazers.

In Game 6? One.

Lillard dealt with Denver’s trap slightly better, although he still had five turnovers during the game. More important, Lillard’s shot — which has looked short and shaky as of late — was on point, as the Blazers star was once again hitting deep 3-pointers despite Denver contesting heavily.

Not to be outdone, McCollum continued his excellent run of playoff performances, his demeanor steely and reserved as he again punished the Nuggets with floaters and crazy turnarounds.

Hood, who was the receiver of much derision during last season’s playoffs when he was the new father of twin girls, was the bolster off the bench Portland has needed. The Blazers have not been the same as they were in the regular season, particularly with Evan Turner seemingly still afraid to shoot the basketball. Hood did not have that problem on Thursday, and he added four rebounds to his 25-point total, going 8-of-12 from the floor.

Denver’s starting lineup was again very good, and Nikola Jokic finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. Jokic went 10-of-15 from the field, but the entire Nuggets team only shot 38.4 percent from the floor. Paul Millsap, who had been absolutely lights out up until this point, went just 4-of-15 with 17 points.

Still, it was a close game down the stretch until the Blazers finally sealed it with a 1:19 to go in the fourth quarter. McCollum hit a 24-foot 3-point jumper off a Turner assist to make it a double-digit lead, putting the game out of reach for good. Both McCollum and Lillard didn’t change their expressions much during the game, save for the Lehigh guard’s nod to the Denver bench after his game-sealing shot.

This was more the type of game we should have expected over the course of this series. Games 4 and 5 were outliers in how poorly the Blazers shot and rebounded at times. Thursday’s game at Moda Center was within the reach of both teams throughout, and it felt akin to the first couple of matchups we saw.

Stotts adjusted his rebounding game plan just enough to get the Blazers even, and Portland looked as though they were reinvigorated from a team chemistry point. The Blazers can’t win this series without their bench stepping up. Seemingly, the Nuggets can’t beat the Blazers without shooting an excellent percentage from 3-point range and dominating the glass. No doubt Denver Coach Michael Malone will try to find a way to get the Nuggets to do that very thing again on Sunday in Game 7. And of course, Stotts will try to stop him.

We are headed for another seven-game series in these playoffs, and the battle of Lillard and McCollum vs. Jokic and Murray will get top billing. But as we saw in Game 6, the real story could be about the role players.

Blazers have no answers for Denver as Nuggets take 3-2 series lead

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It seemed like the answer for the Portland Trail Blazers was fairly straightforward. They needed to find a way to release pressure from the Denver Nuggets’ sideline traps, and get a few offensive rebounds.

On Tuesday night, Denver didn’t allow the visiting Blazers to do either.

The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead, and Portland’s defense wasn’t as sharp as they should have been coming off an embarrassing loss on their home court just a couple of days earlier. A team that was once led by its steely leader, neither Damian Lillard nor his teammates on the Blazers roster appeared as though they had psyched themselves up for Tuesday’s contest back in the Mile High City.

As a result, the Trail Blazers scored 25 points in the first quarter and descended from there. Despite trailing at the half, 65-47, Portland recorded a low of 18 points in the third quarter, the entire time their stars not able to get out of the traps Denver laid for them in Game 4.

That, and Portland just would not box out.

Nikola Jokic, who led all scorers with 25 points, also grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with six assists. Denver out-rebounded the Blazers, 62-44, and again it appeared that Portland simply couldn’t grab anything inside of eight feet. Just as had been the case in the prior games, the Blazers didn’t seem to be able to grab a basketball as much as they would tip it until a Nugget eventually got their hands on it. Much of that was due to Jokic and his stature.

It was impressive stat line for the Denver center, but the real star of the game for the Nuggets was Paul Millsap. The veteran NBA forward has put on a bit of a show against the Blazers in the second round, a renaissance of contested turn around jumpers that has glided gently into the net. Millsap finished with 24 points and eight rebounds, going 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

The play of Jokic and Millsap allowed for the slow start of Jamal Murray, who had 34 points in Game 4. Murray finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, but was integral in helping to build the lead the Nuggets eventually used to coast to victory.

Denver beat the Blazers, 124-98, in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Portland on Thursday.

Now the question is what we can we expect from here?

The Nuggets should feel confident in the way they played so far, not just with how their coaching staff has adjusted to Portland but also in the fortitude of their young players. After an uneven series with the San Antonio Spurs in round one, it wasn’t clear if Denver was going to be able to withstand a barrage from an opponent like Portland.

The fact that the Nuggets have come from down 2-1 to take a series lead is a testament to their character

For the Blazers, suddenly the series has become a question of faith. Several key players, including Evan Turner and even Lillard, have had minimal impact recently compared to their regular season. With as much as I’ve watched this team this year, and having seen every minute of this playoff series, it’s not really clear why the Blazers are playing so poorly.

Yes, the Nuggets have confidence. But Portland is also playing remarkably poorly — missing open shots, clanging 3-pointers they would normally make, and getting into volleyball contests with Jokic rather than putting a body on him as a means to stop the rebounding onslaught.

That’s without mentioning that Lillard has looked uncharacteristically timid. He even shot 40 percent from the free-throw line in Game 5. Lillard is one of the best free-throw shooters in the game, but his odd jitters from the charity stripe from the end of Game 4 continued into Tuesday night. Portland’s star point guard scored 22 points but went 2-of-9 from the 3-point line.

Equally disappointing for Portland was the contribution it got from three of its starters in Al-Farouq Aminu, Enes Kanter, and Moe Harkless. They combined for 15 points on 25 percent shooting.

The series heads back to Moda Center on the east bank of the Willamette river on Thursday. Michael Malone has made better coaching adaptations then Terry Stotts over the past couple of games, and the Blazers suddenly look like a team that can no longer rely on either of its most valuable assets in Lillard or its bench.

The Nuggets have a chance to close out the series and head to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008-09. For Portland, Thursday will be a chance to prove to themselves they’re still the team they were all season long.

Or at least, the team they were at the end of April.

Damian Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

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Three Things to Know: Westbrook-Nurkic beef ends up giving Thunder OT win

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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) Russell Westbrook/Jusuf Nurkic beef ends up leading to Thunder win (with some help from refs). To understand what happened in the final minute of regulation between the Raptors and Trail Blazers on Thursday night, you have to go back to January. It was then, after an Oklahoma City win over Portland, that Russell Westbrook was asked about fighting over Jusuf Nurkic’s massive screens to chase down Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum. Westbrook responded he didn’t want to talk about “that clown,” which led Nurkic to post this on Twitter.

The beef is real, which leads to this in the second quarter.

Westbrook got a Flagrant 1 for that, seems about right to me. Nurkic got a technical for… getting knocked over? The referees said that upon review Nurkic intentionally tripped Westbrook as they ran up the court, which started the entire thing. First, it looks like incidental contact to me, nothing intentional by Nurkic that deserved a tech. Second, the play is not even reviewed if Westbrook does not decide to retaliate and pick up the Flagrant.

Nurkic was feeling knocked around all night and not getting the calls, even in the final minute.

Nurkic was on edge, so when he got into it with George again seconds later he earned a technical going head-to-head — headbutt light, if you will — with the Thunder forward after a foul.

That’s two technicals, and Nurkic was ejected, right before his free throws would have tied the game. Thunder coach Billy Donovan then gets to choose the shooter and wisely picked Skal Labissiere to take the shots he missed the first, then intentionally missed the second — and that’s where Markieff Morris fouled Al-Farouq Aminu (it was a foul, just one the referees usually don’t call at that point in the game, leading to makeup speculation). Aminu drained both, and after a Westbrook turnover we were headed to overtime.

There, without Nurkic, Portland was in trouble, and the Thunder pulled away for the win. Westbrook ends the night with 37 points, including eight in overtime, while Paul George pitched in 32 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Damian Lillard led the way for Portland with a season-high 51.

Why this game matters is these teams came into the night tied — along with Houston — for the three/four/five seeds in the West. As you read this the Thunder are the three seed, the Rockets four, and the Trail Blazers five. Playoff seeding is going to matter a lot in the West, both in terms of matchups and staying out of the Warriors side of the bracket. (If you’re calculating West playoff seedings, know that Utah is just a couple of games back of these three and has the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they will be right in the middle of that group by the end.)

2) Don’t make Giannis Antetokounmpo angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. As has been the story in a number of games recently, the Pacers were overmatched against the Bucks Thursday night but they are good enough and feisty enough to make a game of it. The Pacers had come from 14 down at one point to make a game of it in the third, cutting the Bucks lead to six.

That’s when Defensive Player of the Year candidate Myles Turner shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim.

No foul. Antetokounmpo wanted one, laid there on the floor for a minute, then ran straight to referee Nick Buchert to complain. The Greek Freak got a technical.

At that point he was just pissed off — and the Pacers were doomed.

The Bucks went on a 13-0 run to essentially put the game away.

Then to cap it all off, Giannis did this.

Pick against Milwaukee in the playoffs at your own peril.

3) Lakers throw in the towel, will limit LeBron James’ minutes the rest of the way. This should not be a surprise. The Lakers needed to go on a run to make the playoffs back at the All-Star Game, and when asked about it LeBron James said he was activating playoff mode early to get his team there. The Lakers have gone 2-6 since. Laker players can book their hotel rooms in Cabo for April 10, they aren’t going to be busy after that.

LeBron has not looked 100 percent since missing 17 games with a groin injury. At one point against the Clippers Monday, LeBron grabbed his groin area and asked out for a minute, clearly in pain. After that loss (which all but sealed the Lakers’ playoff fate) he was asked about scaling back his minutes after playing 42 and said:

“Well, I mean, that’s a conversation that would probably be had between me and Luke [Walton]… We didn’t take care of business, so you kind of look at the rest of the games, and the percentages of what’s going on there in the future, and see what makes more sense not only for me but the team itself as well.”

What makes sense is fewer minutes. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reports he will play 28-32 a night (the upper end of that might have been a good target number for the season average for LeBron) and may sit out back-to-backs. At this point, the Lakers need to think about preserving LeBron and how they are going to win this summer, too. Because the pressure is on Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to have a big summer again.