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NBA Daily: In Battle With Westbrook, Dame Called Game

Jordan Hicks looks into how Damian Lillard dominated Russell Westbrook in their head-to-head playoff matchup and willed the Portland Trail Blazers to the second round.

Jordan Hicks

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The first marquee playoff matchup wrapped up Wednesday night before it even felt like it had started. It featured two All-NBA point guards who, in their own rights, were having phenomenal seasons.

It was as even as you could hope for regarding a three seed versus a six seed – injuries to the former could even start an argument that the latter was better – but after all the smoke cleared, it was one 37-foot, cold-blooded game-winning shot that ended the series much sooner than anyone had expected.

There was plenty of time left for the Trail Blazers to get a much better look. Damian Lillard had almost 10 seconds to get a play set up. But he took matters into his own hands, squared up Paul George and iced the game on one of the longer three-point, game-sealing shots in recent NBA history.

Even with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic, most would have assumed this series would last an easy seven games. Both teams have plenty of talent in their starting five, coupled with solid depth off the bench. So why did it end so abruptly in five games?

The core of the argument can be boiled down to the starting point guards: Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard. One is a freakishly athletic and a triple-double king. The other is a sneaky good ball-handler who can shoot quite well from deep. At the end of the day, the play from each player during the series effectively sealed the fate for their teams moving forward.

Let’s first take a look at Westbrook’s numbers. On one hand, he nearly averaged a triple-double, posting 22.8 points, 9 rebounds and 10.6 assists during the series. He did a great job – for the most part – at feeding the right players at the right time. He funneled plenty of offensive possessions toward Paul George, the better scorer, and Dennis Schroder when they shared the court.

The problem in his game came from primarily two sources – and those issues were so blaring that they ended up being major detractors from some of the other positive things he was doing -Westbrook’s defense and his inefficient shooting.

When on the court, Westbrook was a blaring negative 10.5 net rating (!) – stemming primarily from a horrid rating on the defensive end of 115.4. He shared the court with fellow All-Star Paul George quite a bit, and George was actually a slight positive in net rating. That shows just how poor Russell was on D.

During the season, Russell averaged 1.9 steals per game but averaged just one in the series against Portland. The combined handles of both Lillard and CJ McCollum are likely what led to Westbrook’s drastic decrease in takeaways. That, or the fact that he could never really find himself on defense.

Turning to the offensive end of the court, it actually looked even worse for Westbrook. While he averaged double-digit assists, he committed almost five turnovers per night. His shooting was another terrible story. He shot just 36 percent from the field and did so despite shooting a respectable (for Westbrook) 32.4 percent from three. What’s worse is he took 22.2 shots per game. That’s two shots more per game than George, who is the exponentially better shooter.

Moving on to Damian Lillard, it is very easy to see how his play dictated the pace of four out of the five games. He averaged 33 points on 46.2 percent from the field. He shot almost 11 threes per game and knocked them down at a staggering 48.1 percent. Add six assists and an incredible 2.4 steals per night and you have the recipe for a gentleman’s sweep.

Advanced stats favor Damian, as well. Outside of Raymond Felton who played significantly less, Lillard led the series for both teams in net rating at 11.4. His all-around play was on full display every game, and there wasn’t ever really a point in the series that you’d place him and Westbrook on the same pedestal.

Westbrook is a terrific player – don’t take this article out of context – but he was outplayed significantly during this series. He played really well in Game 3, but other than that outlier he was hypothetically wrestled into submission by Lillard. His issue with this series is he went back to what he knows. When Westbrook is against the ropes, he essentially turns into a chucker, and -apart from the hot nights that are becoming rarer – this is always a bad thing for the Thunder.

Five games is a large enough sample to showcase just how much better Lillard has become than Westbrook. He proved that the game is moving more towards efficient shooters, and he’s taking full advantage of it.

Lillard is definitely on a hot streak, and it would be awesome to see that carry the Trail Blazers through to the Western Conference Finals. They certainly have a shot, being on a more favorable side of the bracket that would have them match up against either the Spurs or the Nuggets.

Lillard’s Mona Lisa of a playoff series was capped off by one of the best game-winning shots in NBA Playoff history.

“It was a great feeling when it left my hands,” Lillard told reporters. “It felt good.”

After the game, Paul George had this to say regarding Lillard’s walk-off winner: “That’s a bad, bad shot. I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story won’t be told that it was a bad shot. We live with that.”

The hot streak continued onto Twitter where Lillard responded to George’s quote with his own reply. It will be interesting to see what happens with Portland moving forward, but regardless of where they end up, one thing is certain.

Lillard is playing at an all-time playoff level, and he will continue to tear through the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Karl-Anthony Towns Confident About What Lies Ahead

David Yapkowitz sits down with Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star big man Karl-Anthony Towns to discuss the injury-filled finish to last season, the moves the organization made this offseason and what lies ahead.

David Yapkowitz

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After making a huge trade for Jimmy Butler one year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves had just broken one of the NBA’s longest playoff droughts when they made the postseason.

Fast forward to the present – Butler was traded, Tom Thibodeau got let go and the Wolves failed to reach the postseason with a 36-46 record.

There is room for optimism, however. Minnesota is still led by Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the top rising stars in the league with the prime of his career ahead of him. He’s arguably the best big man in the NBA at the young age of 23 years old.

The Wolves locked Towns up for the foreseeable future after he signed a Supermax contract extension back in September. He believes his game will definitely expand and grow as head coach Ryan Saunders continues to work with him.

“I feel that I’m going to be able to do a little more,” Towns told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive interview. “I got more freedom, I got a head coach that’s going to use my talents a little better. It’s going to be good.”

The major changes to the Wolves organization didn’t stop with the roster or the coaching staff. Thibodeau had a dual role as head coach and president of basketball operations. To replace his front office duties, the team brought in longtime executive Gersson Rosas, who comes from the Houston Rockets with 16 years of executive duty experience.

After taking over head coaching duties back in January, Saunders will now have a full offseason and training camp with the team to implement his style of play. All of this combined is something that Towns believes will be helpful to the team.

“It’s going to be big,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “I think not just only Ryan [Saunders] but having such a different culture, a different team. I think that’s going to be a big change for us. It’s going to be a very beneficial change.”

The Wolves are hoping part of that change is going to be a healthy roster. The team struggled with key injuries, especially late in the season when they were trying to mount a late playoff push. Robert Covington, who had emerged as a great compliment to Towns, missed a big part of the second half of the season. Jeff Teague was also in and out of the lineup all year.

Minnesota was firmly in the playoff picture for most of the season, even when they were hovering near the bottom, but the key injuries really took a toll as the year came winding down.

“We had a lot of change. That constitutes to that and our season. We didn’t make the playoffs because we just ran into the injury bug. Injuries really hit us and took our spark out of us,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We were in a great spot before the injuries, but it happens. That’s just how the league works. You got to find ways to win, we just came up a little short.”

Luckily, there are some added reinforcements on the way. The Wolves acquired highly touted prospect Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech in a draft-night trade. Culver has the ability to play multiple positions, especially on the defensive end. Although he is being held out of summer league, there’s no denying his potential.

In the second round, the Wolves drafted Jaylen Nowell, a high-scoring guard who shot 44 percent from three-point range last season at Washington. He’s only 19 years old and has plenty of unlocked potential as well for a second-round player.

“I see him [Culver] bringing a lot of versatility. I see him bringing length, I see him bringing a hungriness to the team, he wants to prove himself. We’re going to have a very, very good rookie on our hands,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “And let’s also not forget Jaylen Nowell. He’s a high IQ player and we’re very fortunate he fell to us.”

The draft isn’t the only area where the Wolves improved their roster. They made a couple of solid free agent moves as well, signing a trio of versatile forwards in Jordan Bell, Jake Layman and Noah Vonleh.

Bell has seen sporadic playing time the past few seasons with the Golden State Warriors, but he’s still young and has already shown an ability to switch defensively from guards to bigs. Layman had a solid year as one of Portland’s key contributors off the bench. Vonleh has bounced around the league a bit, but was one of the lone bright spots for the Knicks last season.

“They’re going to bring a lot of experience from great organizations,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “They bring a lot of playoff experience as well, and they’re also going to bring us a lot of talent. They’re all very versatile and they bring a lot to the table.”

And as the 2019 NBA Summer League is now in full swing with free agency winding down, Towns is happy with the steps the Wolves have taken. He’s confident in this team and what lies ahead.

“We’ve already taken the next step, there is no next step, we’ve already taken the next step,” Towns told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve made the changes to our team that we needed to make and we’re ready to go.”

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NBA Daily: Ignas Brazdeikis Plans On Being Himself

Drew Maresca assesses Ignas Brazdeikis’ resume thus far and his potential fit on the Knicks roster.

Drew Maresca

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Most second-round picks are either projects, relatively unknowns or some combination of the two.

Ignas Brazdeikis doesn’t exactly fit any of the above categories.

The Knicks traded up eight picks in the 2019 NBA Draft to select Brazdeikis, who was projected by many as a late first-round pick. In return, the Knicks sent the Kings the 55th pick (used to select Kyle Guy) and cash considerations.

Brazdeikis is a 6-foot-7 forward who posted 14.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game with a 21.4 PER while at the University of Michigan.

The 20-year-old forward features a toughness and willingness to compete unlike most rookies, but the former Wolverine is also a natural scorer who was praised leading up to the draft for his ability to create his own shot. He led his college team in scoring and is averaging 14.6 points per game through three summer league games. His full skill set was on display in Sunday’s game, posting a strong and encouraging 30 points in 32 minutes.

“I really appreciated that (confidence in me),” Brazdeikis told Basketball Insiders. “With that kind of freedom, I felt like I had the ability to do what I did tonight.”

While second-rounders making headlines in summer league isn’t overly unusual, Knicks head coach David Fizdale is already encouraging Brazdeikis to continue doing what he does.

“Just be myself,“ Brazdeikis said of Fizdale’s advice. “Coach Fiz talked to me and said you just have to be yourself and no one else. Be aggressive, don’t be afraid to make your plays and do what you do.”

In addition to creating his own shot, Brazdeikis also shoots the long ball at an above-average clip. He shot 39.2 percent from three-point range in his lone collegiate season. And he demonstrated his hot hand on Sunday as well, when he made three of his six three-point attempts against the Suns – including a game-game tying triple in the closing seconds.

“I was like ‘Damn, there’s a lot more space than I’m usually used to,’” Brazdeikis said. “I came into this game thinking to trust your instincts and trust who you are. And that’s what I did.”

Brazdeikis was also praised for his ability to move without the ball leading up to the 2019 NBA Draft, and he should be able to continue leveraging that in the NBA, as well, given the increased spacing.

“The spacing is a lot different,” he said. “The three-second rule, too. In college basketball, it’s so compact and everyone is in the paint. It’s hard to get in there. Here it’s a lot different.”

But he did slip to the 47thpick for a reason. Brazdeikis is far from the prototypical, modern wing able to switch on most other players on the court and initiate pick-and-rolls – mostly due to a lack of perimeter quickness. His average speed and leaping ability, and his 6-foot-9 wingspan will make it more difficult for him to cover NBA forwards.

Additionally, Brazdeikis will have to continue developing his ball-handling and playmaking abilities – Brazdeikis averaged only 0.8 assists per game last season at Michigan while totaling 1.2 turnovers per game.

But what Iggy lacks in athleticism and natural ability, he makes up for in confidence and grit.

“I’m a guy who always believes in myself fully,” he said. “Every time I step on the court I feel I’m the best player. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

And while Brazdeikis might not be a key piece in the Knicks lineup immediately, there is ample time for patience and development. The Knicks locked Brazdeikis up on a three-year, $5.7 million deal with a third-year team option.

New York is a tough market for rookies to develop in. There will probably be moments of doubt, especially considering that Knicks fans are a knowledgeable and engaged bunch who still demand and appreciate effort and fearlessness. But they will boo feverishly if they feel it’s necessary.

Fortunately, Brazdeikis claims to have the requisite thick skin and desire – a mentality tailor-made for New York.

“I’ve always had this kind of mentality where I don’t care what people think about me and I just got to be myself,” he said. “And I just want to win.”

It has been six years since the Knicks made the NBA Playoffs, 20 years since they made the NBA Finals and 46 years since they won a championship.

If he is a part of a winner of any sort, Brazdeikis won’t have to worry about what Knicks fans think of him – because he will be universally loved by them across the globe.

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NBA Daily: Jarrell Brantley’s Motor Is Next Level

Jordan Hicks writes about Utah Jazz second-round talent Jarrell Brantley, his play throughout the summer and what is yet to come for the athletic forward.

Jordan Hicks

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Jarrell Brantley was Utah Jazz’s first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. No, he wasn’t selected in the first round, as the team forfeited that pick to the Memphis Grizzlies via trade in exchange for the services of Mike Conley Jr. Brantley was selected 50th overall in the second round by the Indiana Pacers, but ended up with the Jazz thanks in part to another trade.

Historically, second-round picks don’t fare well in the NBA. For one, there are 30-59 players selected ahead of them – all of which are assumed to be better. Secondly, roster spots are already limited. Second-round picks are not only battling first-rounders, but they are also battling former draft picks – or undrafted players for that matter – for 15 slots (17 counting two-way contracts).

Despite the fact that second-rounders’ odds are considerably less than anyone drafted inside the first round to make it in the league, there have been plenty of players to carve out a nice role. Some players have even turned into All-NBA athletes and Hall of Famers. Dennis Rodman, Manu Ginobli – and more recently Paul Millsap and Draymond Green – are all solid players that come to mind.

Brantley looks to join the long list of talent that the second round has produced in the NBA, and recent moves made by the Jazz front office give him about as good a chance as possible. The Jazz sent three players to Memphis as part of the Conley deal and also had quite a few expiring contracts from last year’s roster. All-in-all, there are still quite a few roster spots available, even after the slew of free agency signings Utah had during the first few days of the free agency period.

It’s clear the Jazz saw something in Brantley. They traded up to draft him.

When asked about his diverse skillset, Jarrell stated, “I’m grateful that Utah was able to pick that out of me and still allow me to use that, especially in summer league, even if I’m not able to use it during the season because of the guys they have on the team. But I’m grateful that they see it in me and they are allowing me to use it.”

You see by size, Brantley is a traditional four. He stands 6-foot-7 but weighs a stout 250 pounds. He’s stocky, incredibly strong and quite agile for his size. Thanks in part to the modern NBA, Brantley can easily play the three. He does have decent ball-handling ability, and he’s able to guard multiple positions defensively, so Utah certainly picked him up thanks in part to his unique toolbox.

Brantley played all four years for the College of Charleston. He garnered CAA Rookie of the Year as a freshman and was First Team All-CAA as a senior where he averaged 19.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 51.7 percent from the field.

It wasn’t just the numbers that impressed, it was Brantley’s high motor. Utah’s summer league coach Lamar Skeeter was asked about it recently and said, “He’s good, he competes. You can tell he’s got that competitive fire in him which is great.”

That motor got Brantley in trouble in his first-ever NBA game where he accumulated eight fouls. Luckily for him, summer league rules didn’t force him out after six.

To that, Skeeter said, “Really it’s just understanding how the game is called. This NBA game is different than college. He’s aggressive, he’s physical, he likes to use his hands. But understanding when those situations are that he can use his hands [or] when he’s got to show them [is important]. The more we play and the more everybody gets comfortable [he’ll] understand how to defend without fouling.”

Jarrell has had a pretty solid showing thus far in summer league. He had 11 points, four rebounds, two assists, and a steal and block in his first game – and 16 and 6 in his second. Both games were played in Salt Lake.

He hasn’t had quite the same success in Las Vegas, at least as far as numbers go, but his motor really is next level. His sheer presence on the court – thanks in part to his size and athleticism – are more than enough to get him significant minutes in a Jazz uniform this year.

Basketball Insiders asked Brantley what he’s trying to prove to the Jazz organization and he had quite a thoughtful response.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily anything I want to prove because I know that if I go out there and be who I am I think I’ll have a good shot,” Brantley told Basketball Insiders. “They’ll see I can be placed here somewhere. That’s not my place to say. I think I’ll be okay if I just continue to prove who I am and go out day by day and just be consistent and love what I do. That’s all I can control.”

Brantley’s closing sentence there was a great take. He alone can control his effort. If the Jazz end up not needing what he brings to the table, so be it. But he essentially controls the level of intensity he gives on a nightly basis.

“It’s amazing. As soon as I got out there I smiled because it could be overwhelming but at the same time, these are all the things I’ve prayed for over the years,” said Brantley when asked about the almost 11,000 in attendance at Salt Lake City Summer League, “People calling my name, we don’t got Donovan [Mitchell] out there, we don’t got Rudy [Gobert], so right now we get the opportunity to be the stars in a sense so it’s fun and I’m grateful for it like I keep saying.”

Whatever happens with Brantley, it’s clear he has the attitude to be successful. Whether it be a two-way player for the Jazz, stud in the G League, or even a full-time player on Utah’s roster, Jarrell will surely give all he’s got. He is the type of basketball player that can find success in today’s NBA. And if the Jazz truly did their homework, they may have gotten yet another steal via the draft.

Only time will tell what type of career Brantley will have. But whatever happens in the future, you can’t take away the fact that Brantley has already had the chance to play an NBA game.

“It was fun. It was a blessing to be out there and be on TV,” said Jarrell regarding his first official match.

As the summer league leads into camp which then leads into preseason, pay attention to Brantley.

If his motor is any indication of how his first NBA season will play out, there is a high chance he’ll find himself suiting up for the Utah Jazz.

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