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NBA PM: Lillard Enters Season With Extra Motivation

After Team USA cut, Damian Lillard lived in the gym and changed his diet. That’s bad news for opposition.

Alex Kennedy



Lillard Enters Season With Extra Motivation

After Washington Wizards point guard John Wall was cut from Team USA over the summer, the 24-year-old made headlines when he said that the slight would serve as extra motivation entering the 2014-15 season. Wall said that he was being “overlooked again” and added, “I guess have to prove myself one more time.”

Well, Wall wasn’t the only one who felt that way when his name was left off of the USA Basketball roster. Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard was one of the team’s last cuts prior to the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and he had a similar reaction.

Hearing that he didn’t make the team’s final roster prompted the 24-year-old Lillard to work even harder over the offseason and completely change his diet. Like Wall, Lillard is determined to prove himself this season and silence his doubters.

“My first thought when they told me that I didn’t make the team was, ‘They don’t think I’m good enough,’ or, ‘I’m not good enough,’” Lillard told NBA TV when asked about being cut from Team USA. “Any time that happens, you just have to go back to the drawing board and get back into the gym. I made some changes. I just made sure that I got a lot more rest. I changed my diet up. I started to be smarter with my workouts. I started to focus on certain things, like getting my legs stronger and getting my core stronger, to be prepared for a longer season because I kind of wore down late in the playoffs. It just made me hungrier and reminded me that I still have something to prove.”

Lillard’s diet change could really help him, because he went from eating whatever he wanted (like many young men do) to having a very strict meal plan that’s designed to make him feel much better throughout the course of the season.

“At first, I knew that I worked out a lot so I was just like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna get it in, I can eat whatever I want,’” Lillard said with a smile. “I would go to Benihana. I would go to Wingstop. I would eat pretty much whatever I felt like eating at any time. Now, it’s much more strict. No salt, not much sugar – just what’s in the fruit – you know, beans, corn, baked chicken, tilapia, fish, the simple stuff. It’s really strict. Everything is laid out, I’ve got meal plans so I’m not getting hungry and don’t end up going to McDonald’s or something like that. Everything is more focused and I know what I’m going home to eat and what time I’m eating it.”

Young players often break out in their third season (which Lillard is about to enter) because they start to realize the things they need to do in order to be great. The NBA’s top players are obviously extremely talented, but what often separates them from the pack is their willingness to do everything they can to give them an edge over their peers. The elite players are often the ones who work the hardest, sacrifice the most and make significant life changes that will help them play to their full potential.

By doing things like changing his diet and getting more rest, Lillard seems to understand what it takes to elevate his game to the level and he’s doing everything in his power to make that leap.

Lillard appreciates the opportunity that USA Basketball gave him, and he believes that competing against top guards like Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden was a fantastic experience that he took a lot away from. But that doesn’t mean he was okay with being cut.

”Definitely, [it will motivate me],” Lillard said. “The best part was just being able to compete against top players every day. You don’t get that opportunity a lot of times, so I was thankful for that. … That was the best thing that I could take away from it. You usually don’t get to play against D-Rose, Steph, Kyrie and James Harden every day, but that’s the opportunity I got and I think I got a lot better from it.

“But I also felt like it was them telling me that I wasn’t good enough. I’ve always been one to throw wood on the fire anytime that I got the opportunity and once I was turned away from making the team, I basically took it as, ‘You’re not good enough.’ That was just another reason for me to go back to work and keep trying to improve as a player.”

Last season, Lillard had an incredible sophomore campaign, earning his first All-Star appearance, first All-NBA nod and first playoff berth. He averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds in the regular season, and further elevated his game in the postseason, averaging 22.9 points, 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds and a steal. Not to mention, Lillard hit the series-winning three to defeat the Houston Rockets in the first round, which will be played in NBA highlight reels for years to come.

Lillard has been exceptional since entering the NBA two years ago and he has all of the tools to be a superstar. He can score from anywhere on the court. He is one of the most clutch players in the league. He makes his teammates better, as an elite floor general should. He thrives in the pick-and-roll as well as isolation.

At the end of the day, being cut from Team USA may actually have been the best thing that could’ve happened to Lillard, as it pushed him to get back into the gym and significantly alter his diet so that he could play his absolute best this season.

Lillard has already proven that he’s one of the game’s best point guards, but he’s only been in the NBA for two years so his best basketball is almost certainly ahead of him. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league, especially considering Lillard spent this summer pouring fuel on his fire.

New-Look Cavaliers Starting to Jell

It’s obviously going to take time for the Cleveland Cavaliers to get everyone on the same page. That’s a given when a team adds two new focal points (LeBron James and Kevin Love) as well as a new head coach (David Blatt) and many new role players to their supporting cast (Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood, James Jones, etc.).

There’s no disputing that Cleveland is stacked on paper. But that doesn’t guarantee a title, just ask the 2010-11 Miami HEAT or the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.

With that said, this team could be the best team in the NBA if all of their pieces come together. They could also be a perennial contender for years to come, since James is in his prime while Irving (22 years old), Love (26), Tristan Thompson (23) and Dion Waiters (22) should only continue to get better.

For now, the Cavs are just trying to jell and get through this adjustment period. They recently played their first preseason game against Blatt’s former team – Maccabi Tel Aviv – and won, 107-80. There were certainly positives to take away from the game, but all of the Cavs said that they still have a lot of work to do.

“We were looking forward to getting on the floor together for the first time,” Love said. “Guys, 1-15, are going to get a chance to play here in the preseason. We’re going to have to clean some stuff up, some of the rust, and just continue to keep growing. It’s a process, like anything else. But we know we’re talented and we just all have to get on the same page and we plan on doing that. … We were happy to be out on the floor. We were happy to finally put on that jersey in front of the home crowd. There was a lot of things we have to clean up, but we’ll go over film. We mention all along, every day is a chance to get better. It’s going to be a long haul for us, but we’ll be okay.”

“Honestly, I wanted to see us play against someone other than ourselves,” Blatt said. “We’ve been going at it for eight days and guys are a little tired of beating each other up and facing guys that are on the same side. I wanted to see how we would react and respond to playing in a game where there was a real opponent on the other side. I had hoped that we would share the ball. We did. I had hoped that we rebound the ball well. We did. I wanted to see us defend better in the first half. We didn’t but we did make very significant adjustments at halftime and recognized where the problem was. We addressed it, we came out, we executed and we obviously played much, much better defense in the second half.”

“It’s still a work in progress,” James said. “We still haven’t put in everything defensively. But I think for the most part, for 48 minutes, we played the type of basketball we want to play. We moved the ball, we shared the ball, guys got open looks, defensively we tried to cover for one another… It’s a good start.”

One thing that is becoming clear is that the Cavs are a very unselfish team, with a lot of playmakers who look to make the right play and do what’s best for the team. As the San Antonio Spurs have showed, ball movement is crucial in the NBA and it seems the Cavaliers will be excellent at spreading the ball around.

“When you have unselfish guys, it’s going to automatically translate to everybody,” James said. “Myself and K-Love and Kyrie are natural passers and so many other guys, it just trickles down to everybody else. You’ll pass up a good shot for a great shot and that’s what we can get because we have so many guys that can put the ball on the ground, so many guys that can attract double-teams or just multiple eyes.”

“It’s great [to play with James],” Love said. “He’s a great player, distributes the ball well. He does many things out there on the floor, scores for us when he needs to and he’s already been here so we’re looking to him and several other players to be out there and make plays. We know what he’s capable of, but we all have to step up and help the team in any way that we can.”

Rebounding should also be a strength for Cleveland. Love is obviously one of the best rebounders the league has seen in years, and Thompson and Anderson Varejao will help on the glass as well. In the first preseason game, the trio combined for 39 rebounds.

“I think we can be a great rebounding team,” Love said. “You saw it tonight. We kept a lot of plays alive. Tristan and Andy did a spectacular job on both defensive and offensive rebounds. It’s something that we’ll definitely pride ourselves on and that’s going to help us on both ends of the floor for many different situations. I’ve played against those guys in the past and they’re tough guys to go against.”

James received an amazing ovation from the home fans, and he’s enjoying being back in Cleveland.

“It feels great,” James said. “It’s going to feel great for a long time. For me to run back on the floor with these fans and my new teammates, I’m excited. It’s great to always leave victorious, it doesn’t matter if it’s preseason or not.”

All eyes will be on the Cavaliers throughout this season, to see if they can reach their full potential.


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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NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson

Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.

Ben Nadeau



Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?

Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.

“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”

Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.

While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.

Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.

“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”

Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.

“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.

Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.

Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.

But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.

“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”

When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.

And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.

“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”

One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.

“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”

And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.

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Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?

Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.

Shane Rhodes



The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.

With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.

It couldn’t get worse, could it?

Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.

In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.

The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.

Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.

The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.

Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.

Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?

If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.

Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.

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NBA Daily: Houston Has It All

Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.

Lang Greene



It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.

So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.

Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.

One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.

Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.

Floor Generalship

Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.

This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.

Small Ball Ready

Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.

At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.


When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.

Shooting, Versatility and Experience

All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.

Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.


Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.

With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.

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