Damian Lillard Continues His Stellar Play
We knew that some deserving star players would be snubbed from this year’s NBA All-Star game. It happens every year and is unfortunate for those deserving players who are excluded. There was perhaps no bigger All-Star snub this season than Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard.
In a league that is littered with star-caliber point guards, Lillard is considered to be one of the best. But that hasn’t kept Lillard from running into his share of snubs, like his exclusion from this year’s Western Conference All-Star team and being cut from the 2014 USA FIBA World Cup Team, in favor of players like Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose. Lillard has never been shy about voicing his displeasure when being snubbed, and now it seems that he is letting his play do all the talking for him.
Since the All-Star break, Lillard is averaging 33.6 points, 4.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three-point range. As a result, Lillard has started getting his fair share of respect and credit since the All-Star break. He essentially forced everyone to recognize his brilliant play when he put up 51 points against the Golden State Warriors in his first game after All-Star weekend. The Trail Blazers won that game 137-105. Lillard shot 18-28 from the field, 9-12 from three-point range, 6-7 from the free throw line and added seven assists.
In his most recent outing, Lillard did everything he could to keep his team in the game in crunch time against the second-best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. In the final five and a half minutes of the game, Lillard did the following: Pulled up for a three-pointer off a screen, pulled up for a two-point jumper at the top of the free-throw arc, hit a pullup midrange jumper and drew the foul for a three-point play, penetrated the defense for a tough layup, hit a deep three-pointer from the wing, and another three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in the game. It wasn’t enough as the Raptors beat the Trail Blazers 117-115. He finished the game with 50 points, five assists and three rebounds, while shooting 16-28 from the field.
His ability to pull up and hit three-pointers off the dribble is second only to Stephen Curry at this point. His range is basically unlimited, and again, it’s second only to Curry. Lillard wasn’t great at attacking the basket early in his career, but now he has worked to improve this part of game and is now a force. Oh, and he also hit this pull up three-pointer from a step inside the half-court line:
“How he isn’t an All-Star in our league, shame on us,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after Lillard put up 50 points in Toronto. “That young man can score any which way he wants to. Talk about [Stephen] Curry coming across halfcourt and shooting it? This young man can come across halfcourt and shoot it also.”
Lillard is also tied for sixth with Eric Bledsoe in points per possession as the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets among players that have handled the ball 100 times or more this season. While Lillard is behind Curry in this category, he is ahead of many notable players, including pick-and-roll savant Chris Paul.
While Lillard looks like Curry-lite at this point, which is a huge compliment in a lot of ways, he shouldn’t be defined by what another player is doing. Especially when that player is playing at historic levels. The focus should instead be on how Lillard is carrying his young, over-achieving team into the playoffs when everyone expected them to be one of the worst teams in the league this season.
Like Paul, who is carrying the Los Angeles Clippers in the absence of Blake Griffin, Lillard is leading the Blazers with his individual brilliance and leadership. The Blazers are currently 33-30 and ranked seventh in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today, Portland would face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. With the Spurs currently 11 games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the loss column and four games back of the Warriors in the loss column, the Blazers will have to jump ahead of the Dallas Mavericks to avoid San Antonio. While Oklahoma City is as talented as any team in the league, they have gone just 4-6 in their last 10 games, have buckled in crunch time situations against the Warriors and Clippers recently and are showing signs of self-doubt, with Kevin Durant stating recently that “we’re fooling ourselves with the way we’re playing.”
But as Lillard and the Blazers have shown recently, they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league on any given night, including the Warriors. Whether the Blazers could beat the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder or even the Clipper in a seven game series is unclear at this point. But when a player like Lillard is playing at this level, anything can happen.
Kevin Martin Agrees to Sign with the San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline last month, but have been busy making moves ever since. Less than a week after signing veteran point guard Andre Miller (who agreed to a buyout with the Minnesota Timberwolves), the San Antonio Spurs are now in line to sign Kevin Martin (who also agreed to a buyout with the Timberwolves).
Martin is having a down season as he averaged just 10.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game for the Timberwolves this season. However, Martin’s numbers are down across the board because he was playing only 21.4 minutes per game (career average is 30.5 minutes) and Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell has focused on giving his younger players bigger roles than some of his veterans, including Martin. In the 2014-15 season, when Martin was averaging 33.4 minutes per game, he produced 20 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists, while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from three-point range.
Martin has been a lethal shooter for years and will likely have more open three-point attempts with the Spurs than he has had at any point in his career. Add in his ability to draw fouls off the dribble, and it’s scary to think how much better he could make the Spurs. Of course, fit and chemistry matter more than just about anything else, especially with a team like the Spurs, so whether Martin can have a major impact is yet to be determined. This is especially true when you consider that he has always been a below-average defensive player. However, the Spurs have as good of a shot as any team to maximize Martin’s strengths while hiding his weaknesses.
With Miller in the fold and Martin on his way, the Spurs have added more experience and more skill to a team that was already playing historically well.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
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