Blazers lock OKC down on defense to take 2-0 lead

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Damian Lillard could not be stopped. CJ McCollum could not be stopped. Moe Harkless could not be stopped. Most of the Portland Trail Blazers bench could not be stopped. Now, after a Blazers win in Game 2, 114-94, we’re left wondering if the Oklahoma City offense can get going enough to avoid a third consecutive loss down 2-0.

As things got going Tuesday night in Portland, it was looking like it could be a more competitive matchup with Paul George saying his shoulder was feeling much better. George was more confident, and in fact, the Thunder led in the first quarter.

But things quickly went downhill from there.

Portland tied it with a McCollum 3-pointer just as time expired heading into halftime. That seemed to spark the Blazers, who came out hot on both sides of the ball in the third quarter.

Portland put the clamps on the defensive side of the ball to start the third, allowing just 21 points and then 19 points in fourth quarter.

Naturally, things got a little testy as the game wore on. Double technicals were issued to Zach Collins and Markieff Morris earlier in the game, and Lillard and Steven Adams got to jaw jacking after the Thunder big man laid the Blazers guard out on a screen.

This is how it’s gone between the Thunder and Portland this year. Technical fouls have been issued, guys have been in each other’s faces, and emotions have run high. For Blazers fans, Tuesday night’s game was not just a show of their depth, but their willingness to not back down from a fight.

Honestly? It was impressive.

After covering this team for the better part of this decade, it has always been a question whether Blazers good meter out there play when opponents toughened up on them. This version of Portland has played more as a team, but the Thunder are dishing out the shots needed to Test the mettle of the Blazers role players.

Oklahoma City, despite their offensive inequities, pushed the Blazers rotational players to the limit in Game 2. Portland’s best asset all season long outside of Lillard has been its depth, and although guys like Seth Curry, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, and Zach Collins didn’t pop on the box score, their impact was immeasurable.

Like we talked about after Game 1, the Thunder appear to be in trouble. It started with the uneasiness of George’s shoulder. Now with George feeling and playing better, OKC continues to look out matched. And although the Oklahoma City star was more efficient and confident in Game 2, Harkless again got an early block on George.

In short, things don’t look great for the Thunder.

So where does the series go from here? The Blazers took care of business at home at Moda, and things move to Oklahoma City. Still, there is some real questions about whether the Thunder can muster up enough offense to beat this Blazers team.

OKC is shooting just 16.4 percent combined from 3-point range during the series. The Thunder have three times more turnovers than made threes in this series, and it’s not immediately clear where they will be able to make that up.

George leads the team with more than double the made 3-pointers than the next closest teammate in Dennis Schroder. The problem is that George is shooting just 27 percent from deep, and his teammates aren’t helping.

Meanwhile Portland has been outstanding from the 3-point range, shooting 42 percent for the series. Lillard and McCollum combined to go 7-of-15 on Tuesday, and at one point Lillard was daring Westbrook to shoot. After one deep made three over the former MVP, Lillard turned to the crowd and said, “Bombs away!”

In Game 2 it was obvious that Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan had a decided to use pace to disrupt Portland’s defense, running on every made basket. It threw the Blazers off, but only for a quarter. The Thunder are going to need a strategy more dynamic than that as they try to beat the Blazers back at Chesapeake for Game 3 on Friday.

For a team with a player who likes to barrel through opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder found out on Tuesday night that the Blazers aren’t likely to pull back on the reins when they get some momentum going. Lillard looks unstoppable, McCollum was on fire, and Portland’s bench survived every gutpunch.

The Thunder are playing right into Portland’s plan, and they’re flailing as they head home down two games in the first round.

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.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal: ‘Recruiting process is really going alright…I’m trying’

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LeBron James went out of his way to say he was not recruiting guys on his free-agent heavy All-Star Team.

Bradley Beal had no such hesitation, he tried to recruit guys, as he told Chase Huges of NBC Sports Washington.

“The recruiting process is really going alright. It’s going alright. I’m trying,” Beal said. “This is new for me. I’m definitely getting some ears and seeing what guys are looking for.”

Beal was too smart to name names — that would have brought a fine from the league — but he said some guys asked if he was happy where he was, while other guys he talked to about the possibilities in Washington.

The problem is while the Wizards will have some cap space after trading Otto Porter and Markieff Morris (and assuming they don’t pick up the option on Jabari Parker) but they will be nowhere near the max cap space needed to land the elite free agents at the All-Star Game (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, etc.). Even the second-tier All-Star free agents such as Khris Middleton will get max offers. Same with players who just missed the game, such as Tobias Harris.

If the Wizards renounce free agents they can get to $9 million in cap space, stretch and waive Ian Mahinmi and they can get to $18 million. That’s the top end. Meaning the Wizards will have room to make moves for good rotation players, but with John Wall‘s supermax extension kicking in at $38 million next season flexibility is limited. Genuine upgrades will be hard to come by.

Predicting what Washington GM Ernie Grunfeld will do next summer is a fool’s errand, but Beal is doing his part to try and bring more talent into Washington.

Report: Markieff Morris signing with Thunder

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The Lakers didn’t get Enes Kanter.

They’re not getting Markieff Morris, either.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Wizards traded Morris to dodge the luxury tax, and the Pelicans waived him. He has been just OK this year, but maybe getting healthier and escaping the drudgery of Washington will improve his play. Morris certainly brings plenty of talent as a versatile big forward.

He should provide an upgrade over Patrick Patterson as Oklahoma City’s backup power forward. Patterson is having another down season, raising questions about  his long-term health.

Morris projects to cost the Thunder $44,865 daily in salary and luxury tax. They play New Orleans tonight, and I wonder whether they’ll sign Morris in time for that game. Waiting another week – during the All-Star break – would save them a projected $314,057.

But it’d also cost him $85,640. So, he might not be down to wait.

That could be a reason he didn’t pick the Rockets. Though they have two open roster spots, they can’t yet sign two players even to pro-rated minimum contracts without crossing the luxury-tax line. They could have signed Morris and remained below the tax, but that would have meant waiting longer for another addition.

As for the Lakers, Morris is another pursued free agent who wasn’t Carmelo Anthony. If everyone keeps choosing other teams, the Lakers might run out of excuses for not signing Anthony (other than the right one).

Markieff Morris reportedly cleared to return; Rockets, Lakers among teams interested

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Markieff Morris has been sidelined since Dec. 26 after suffering a potentially serious neck injury. That hasn’t kept him out of the news: First the Wizards traded him to New Orleans in the Wesley Johnson deal, and then the Pelicans waived him, making Morris a free agent who would be valued on the open market.

Before talking to teams, Morris wanted to see a specialist and make sure his neck was healthy. He did just that, and his agent told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports that Morris has now been cleared and suitors are lining up.

Free-agent forward Markieff Morris has been cleared to play after recovering from a neck injury and has garnered interest from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers, his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, told Yahoo Sports.

Morris is a stretch four/five (he played 65 percent of his minutes with the Wizards at center this season) averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds a game, and he has shot 33.3 percent from three. He is a solid rotation big man coaches can count on, and that has real value in this league. Especially on teams looking at playoff runs.

The Lakers and Rockets are looking for frontline depth and shooting, and they are not alone, other teams will be interested as well. Morris will have landing spots to choose from, depending on what he prioritizes.