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NBA AM: Was Loss to 76ers Good for Blazers?

The Blazers were blown out by the 76ers, but it seems that loss was the wake-up call Portland needed.

Alex Kennedy

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Was Portland’s Loss to Philadelphia Beneficial?

On Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were destroyed by the Philadelphia 76ers, 114-89. For the 76ers, who have an NBA-high 38 losses, it was just their fifth win of the season and by far their best game. In fact, the 25-point win was the Sixers’ largest margin of victory since the 2013-14 season. Five Sixers players scored in double figures and rookie Jahlil Okafor led the way by dominating Portland’s frontcourt with 25 points (on 12-16 shooting from the field) and 10 rebounds.

LillardSmith1A blowout loss to the worst team in the NBA can destroy a team’s confidence, kill all of their momentum and lead to finger-pointing. But rather than fracturing the team, the loss to Philadelphia had the opposite effect on the Blazers. The group took the loss as a wake-up call, coming together as a group, acknowledging that they weren’t doing the things that led to their earlier success and responding well to constructive criticism from their coaches.

In the following game, the team was refocused and locked in against the Washington Wizards. They were determined to get a big bounce-back win on the road to rid the horrible taste of defeat to the NBA’s worst team from their mouths. They executed on Monday and got the much-needed victory over the Wizards, 108-98.

After the win, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts expressed how proud he was of his young team.

“They are high character guys, they are very competitive, they bounce back, they are pretty resilient,” Coach Stotts said. “I have always been pretty proud of how we compete.”

Several Portland players admitted that the Philadelphia loss caused them to take a step back and accept some harsh truths about how they had been playing and approaching games.

“[We were] pretty frustrated with how we played,” Meyers Leonard said of the loss to Philadelphia. “We just really thought about it more, not from a basketball side, but just how you approach the game and how you have to respect each team.”

After the loss to the Sixers, the coaching staff told the players that they had been looking like a completely different team and getting away from the things that made them so successful this season. After the Philly loss, the players were extremely receptive, acknowledged their mistakes and vowed to turn things around.

“[They told us] that we weren’t ourselves,” Damian Lillard said of the coaches’ message. “Everything that we had been doing up to that point, we stopped doing. They weren’t sure why. It wasn’t just one thing or two things. It was so many things. It was just like, ‘We know better and there is no excuse for it.’”

The Blazers’ offense (which is currently ranked eighth in the NBA, scoring 103.3 points per 100 possessions) had been struggling; their 89 points against a dreadful Philadelphia defense made that clear. The team’s defensive intensity was lacking as well, which had been a problem for quite some time but was discussed after Saturday’s loss.

“I thought the staff handled it very well,” Mason Plumlee said. “It wasn’t a situation where they said, ‘Flush it, forget about it.’ We addressed some things and then guys were really locked in coming into this game [against Washington]. We played with energy from the jump and we competed. … Coach made some good points. I thought guys came back really well.”

When asked what changed from the Philadelphia game to the Washington game, Plumlee didn’t hesitate: “The energy. It was just a [different] mindset defensively.”

By putting the Philadelphia loss behind them quickly, Portland can get back to focusing on trying to make the playoffs. They have exceeded all expectations this year and are currently 19-25, which puts them just a half game out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Lillard was happy to see the Blazers move past the previous loss and get an important win over a talented Wizards team.

“It was huge,” Lillard said. “We were playing well. Then we come out against Philadelphia and we stink it up. [Against the Wizards], we had our minds right, guys came in prepared and we locked in on the scouting report.”

No team wants to lose to the tanking Sixers, especially in embarrassing fashion. Some teams faced with Portland’s scenario may have imploded, with blame getting tossed around and tension developing between players. That can be the start of a downward spiral.

Instead, for the Blazers, it seems this particular loss was beneficial and may actually help them in the long run. The embarrassing beat-down at the hands of the league’s worst team snapped them out of a lull they had been in and the coaching staff – realizing that the players were receptive – used it as an opportunity to confront the team about some of the issues that plagued them.

Now, if all goes as planned, the Blazers can return to playing to their full potential.

Oladipo Must Embrace Sixth-Man Role for Magic

Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo recently sprained his knee and missed Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks. But prior to the injury, the 23-year-old was putting up some his best stats of the season.

VictorOladipo_Inside33Over the last five games, he averaged 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.8 steals. After struggling with his shot for some time, he had finally found his stroke – shooting an impressive 53.7 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range.

The problem is that Oladipo’s impressive numbers haven’t translated to wins for Orlando. During that five-game stretch in which he posted those solid numbers, the Magic were 1-4. This season, Orlando is 6-11 with Oladipo in the starting lineup compared to 13-7 when he comes off of the bench.

The offense doesn’t seem to flow as well when Oladipo is on the floor and while his shooting has been better lately, he is still hitting just 40.5 percent of his field goals on the season. Those struggles are part of the reason why head coach Scott Skiles adjusted the starting lineup to include Evan Fournier and Channing Frye, both of whom can spread the floor for fellow starters Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic.

While Oladipo has said all of the right things on the record since being moved to the bench, his body language has been poor and it’s pretty clear he’s upset with the demotion.

He had viewed himself as the Magic’s star player, which was understandable since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft and arguably the best player in the top 10 of that class. After his early success in the NBA, he was anointed by the team as the face and future of the Magic franchise.

The move to the second unit had to come as a surprise to him. He entered this season with All-Star aspirations and now finds himself not even starting, which has to be a humbling experience for him.

It’s also worth noting that this is Oladipo’s first time playing for an NBA coach who doesn’t mince words and isn’t afraid to call out players publicly. Former head coach Jacque Vaughn was very much a players’ coach and would rarely speak negatively about his team. Skiles, on the other hand, has been very critical of his players at times and benched entire lineups if he doesn’t like their effort or level of production. Skiles, a former point guard, demands a lot from his guards and Oladipo is still adjusting to his new coach’s system.

Oladipo has now come off the bench for 20 games and he is averaging 13.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals on the season. He also continues to provide solid perimeter defense for Orlando, which has really helped the Magic. Oladipo’s effort on that end of the floor coupled with Skiles’ defensive schemes have the team playing much better defense this season.

Recent injuries to Payton and Fournier forced Oladipo back into the starting lineup, but it seems like he’ll return to the bench once the team is at full strength. He needs to completely buy in to his new role rather than worrying about starting.

If Oladipo embraces being a reserve and continues to put up solid numbers, he could very well be in the mix for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He has the talent and will get enough touches to be a legitimate candidate for the award. However, he must help Orlando win games and let the game come to him a bit more. Critics point out that he isn’t producing within the flow of the offense and, at times, tries to do too much. But this is likely because he’s trying to win his starting job back, which is understandable for a young player who has never been benched in his career.

At the end of the day, Oladipo needs to do what’s best for the team and accept his role as team’s sixth man as long as Skiles plays him there. Until he fully embraces it, the Magic will likely continue to struggle. They have currently lost three straight games and dropped seven of their last 10 contests. This has caused them to fall out of the playoff picture – to the ninth seed – in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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