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.

Paul George says he’s healthy as Thunder take on Blazers in Game 2

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — After going through a Monday practice session, Paul George pronounced himself in position — mentally and physically — to take a step forward in Game 2 of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff series with the Portland Trail Blazers.

That was good news to the visiting Thunder, who need their All-Star small forward to lead the way to victory after a 104-99 loss to the Trail Blazers in the series opener.

George — playing with a sore right shoulder that had kept him out of action in the regular-season finale against Milwaukee — collected 26 points and 10 rebounds but made only 8 of 24 shots from the field, including 4 of 15 from 3-point range in Game 1.

“Shoulder’s good,” George said after Monday’s practice. “I’m pain-free. It’s well enough now to throw out any injury problems (as an excuse). It didn’t have an effect on my game. I just hadn’t shot or picked up a ball for four days. It was about rhythm.

“I had a good day out there today. I feel good about it.”

George wasn’t the only OKC player to have shooting problems in the opener. The Thunder shot 39.8 percent as a team and were only 5 for 33 from the 3-point line.

“We didn’t make shots,” George said. “It cost us. I take a lot of that (responsibility) — good looks I had and missed. That’s what today’s practice was for, to get into better rhythm, a better flow.”

George said he was encouraged that the Thunder rallied from a 19-point second-quarter deficit to trail by only one point inside the final three minutes.

“We fought our way back,” he said. “We’re a good team. We’re confident. We’re in a great place. We have to come out (Tuesday) night and take it to (the Blazers), be the aggressors.

“The (Blazers) did what they were supposed to do — win on their home floor. A series is about adjustments. We’ll adjust. We’ll be ready for (Tuesday’s) game.”

The Blazers feel they have much improvement to make over the way they performed in the opener, too. They shot only 41.9 percent from the field and were 4 for 15 from 3-point range over the final three quarters. They committed 19 turnovers and allowed the Thunder 18 offensive rebounds.

“There is a lot of stuff we could have done better, things (the Thunder) could have taken advantage of, but didn’t,” said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who scored a game-high 30 points but also had six turnovers. “Like allowing Paul George to get some open looks at threes that he didn’t make. We let them get into transition, gave them too many second-chance opportunities, lost too many guys on defense. It didn’t cost us the game, but we have to be better in the second game.”

Said reserve center Zach Collins: “It’s a good feeling, being up 1-0 in the series but also knowing how much better we can play.”

The Blazers ended a 10-game playoff losing streak with the victory in Game 1.

“We’ve just won one game,” Lillard said. “It feels good to get back on the winning side, but it’s more about how we can sustain it.

“A series can change quickly. We can’t forget that. That bad taste of failure in the postseason doesn’t go away with one win. It has humbled us, but we’re going to come out with that business attitude again in Game 2.”

Three Things to Know: Jusuf Nurkic’s injury devastating, for him and Trail Blazers

Associated Press
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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) Jusuf Nurkic’s injury devastating, both for him and the Trail Blazers. This was just stomach turning.

With 2:22 in the second overtime between Portland and Brooklyn, Trail Blazers’ big man Jusuf Nurkic went up for an offensive rebound and when he came down he landed awkwardly, his left leg bending in ways legs simply should not ever bend. (We are not running the video in this story, if you want to see it check out our original post on the injury, but be warned this is one you may want to avoid.)

Nurkic has suffered compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula, which will require surgery and not only end this season but also the recovery will bleed into next season as well (there is no timeline for something like this, but as Jeff Stotts of the injury blog In Street Clothes noted, the only thing like this is Paul George‘s Team USA injury, and it took him eight months to get back on the court and much longer to regain his form).

This is devastating for Nurkic personally. The Bosnian big man signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer, then came back better and more motivated. He has averaged a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting, his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was playing at an All-Star level (it’s just making that team in the West is like climbing the Matterhorn because of all the talent in the conference, including at center).

This is also devastating for the Trail Blazers — a year after getting swept out of the playoffs in the first round by New Orleans, there has been real optimism this year’s Blazers were better built to make a postseason run. Nurkic’s improved play was at the heart of that optimism.

On offense, he is the primary screen setter for Damian Lillard — the Lillard/Nurkic pairing is the second most used pick-and-roll combination in the league via NBA tracking data (D’Angelo Russell/Jarrett Allen of Brooklyn is first). Nurkic not only sets a big, solid screen, but he’s also become much better as a playmaker, meaning when teams inevitably trap Lillard to get the ball out of his hands he can dump it off to the rolling Nurkic and the big man can find the open shooter or score himself. Portland’s offense is 5.5 points per 100 possessions better this season than a season ago and Nurkic is at the heart of that improvement.

Defensively, Nurkic drops back off picks and does a good job using his size to clog the lane. When opponents try to drive on him, he’s adept at blocking and altering shots.

The problem is the drop off in talent after Nurkic at the center spot for Portland. Enes Kanter was brought in and has played the most backup minutes recently, and he is a good scorer on offense but not the playmaker that Nurkic is. However, the bigger issue with Kanter (and Meyers Leonard) is he struggles mightily to defend the pick-and-roll, something any opponent will attack in the playoffs. We may see more Zach Collins thrust into the backup five spot (he has played more four lately), he’s more mobile as a defender and can both roll or pick-and-pop on offense, but there’s a reason he’s fallen back in the Portland rotation, he is young and inconsistent.

Portland clinched a playoff spot by still getting the win over Brooklyn on Monday night, however, what seed they can hold on to is up in the air. Portland is currently the four seed in the West, 2.5 games up on the Jazz and Clippers (the Blazers are three games up in the loss column on both). Without Nurkic and C.J. McCollum as they head out on a four-game road trip (McCollum could be out much if not all of the rest of the regular season with a knee injury), the Blazers could stumble and lose out on home court in the first round.

Wherever they start the playoffs, advancing past that just got a whole lot tougher on Monday night.

2) Devin Booker puts on a show scoring 59, but Jazz dunk their way to win anyway. There were two very different offensive shows going on in Salt Lake City on Monday night. On one end, Devin Booker was just hitting everything on his way to 59 points.

On the other end of the court, the Jazz exploited the Suns’ nonexistent rim protection to put on their own dunk contest — and in the process Rudy Gobert set the NBA’s single-season record for dunks at 270 (he’s now at 275 after this game).

Utah got the win handily, 125-92. They even fouled Booker at the end of the game so he couldn’t get to 60 points (Jimmer Fredette helped with that, the new Suns’ guard jacked up some shots even when Booker was put back in the game late just to get to 60).

3) Oklahoma City’s struggles continue, this time in a loss to Memphis. A couple of months ago, Oklahoma City looked like the second-best team in the Western Conference, a team poised to make a deep playoff run — they have two elite players in Paul George (an MVP candidate) and Russell Westbrook, a stout defense led by Steven Adams, and they create matchup problems.

Or they used to. OKC has lost 5-of-6, the latest to Memphis — without Mike Conley — on Monday night. The Thunder have fallen all the way back to the eight seed (tied with San Antonio for 7/8) and could well get their nightmare scenario of facing Golden State in the first round.

The problem has been on the offensive end, where Paul George has gone into a slump, Westbrook is still putting up numbers but is not efficient, and at least Dennis Schroder seems to have gotten out of his funk. That was the case in Memphis: George had 30 points but needed 29 shots, Westbrook had 16 points on 20 shots, and Schroder was the man with 25 points on 14 shots.

Meanwhile, the star of the game was Bruno Caboclo with a career-high 24-points.

This is the second season is a row George has struggled after the All-Star break. Last season he shot 38.5 percent overall (32.4 percent from three) after the break. This season it’s 38.6 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from three.

George and the Thunder have eight games to get this figured out or it may not matter who OKC faces in the first round of the playoffs.

D’Angelo Russell on Most Improved Player: ‘I’m gonna win that s—. Watch. Put it on record. I’m gonna win it’

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
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Raptors forward Pascal Siakam is favored to win Most Improved Player. Kings guard De'Aaron Fox should be leading the race for Most Improved Player.

But nobody is more confident about winning the award than Nets guard D'Angelo Russell.

Russell, via Anthony Pucci of SNY:

“I’m gonna win that s–t. Watch. Put it on record. I’m gonna win it.”

“I’m telling you, I’m winning it!”

Russell has definitely improved a lot. He has taken large role leading the surprisingly solid Nets. His shooting and playmaking are more reliable than ever. He even became a first-time All-Star this season (though as an injury replacement).

Fox’s win shares (4.0, from 1.3) and box plus-minus (+2.8, from -0.4) are up significantly this season from previous career highs.

But he’s not the only one.

Fox, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Thomas Bryant have made bigger increases in win shares. Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic, Beasley, Zach Collins and Noah Vonleh have made bigger increases in box plus-minus.

Russell will likely get MIP votes. His campaigning will help, as will his All-Star appearance.

He should get more credit for rising from average-ish into near-stardom than another player who makes a similar jump from poor to average. Taking the same number of steps gets more difficult the higher a player climbs.

But Russell isn’t on track to make my theoretical three-player MIP ballot, let alone win the award. I doubt enough actual voters will see him as worthy, either.

Several Trail Blazers stuck in Boston elevator for 30 minutes

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The ghost of Red Auerbach strikes again.

The Portland Trail Blazers are in Boston ahead of a Wednesday game against the Celtics, and on Tuesday a number of players — including Damian Lillard, Rodney Hood, and Zach Collins — got stuck in an elevator for about half an hour.

Enes Kanter posted a video of the players, who were in “survival mode.” Which apparently is a lot of standing around, because what else can they do.

Meyers Leonard had a video of the players getting out of the elevator once the crews figured out how to get them near a floor and open the doors.

Well, it’s a good team bonding experience. Although next time I’d recommend bowling.