Portland Trail Blazers Sending A Message
It’s taken some longer than others to buy into the Portland Trail Blazers as championship contenders. No matter what pundits or doubters say, however, the Portland Trail Blazers know they have something special going. Last night’s 127-111 victory over the Dallas Mavericks put them in first place in the Western Conference. At 31-9, their first half of the season could not have gone much better.
“We’ve had a good season up to this point,” says Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It’s tough winning in San Antonio; everybody knows that. It was a good game, a well-played game on both sides. I liked the way we defended in the fourth quarter. We made timely shots, but it’s been a season where we try to keep getting better. I think the fact that we’ve been playing with an edge and the fact that we didn’t make the playoffs last year, we continue to go out there and try to prove ourselves every night.”
»In Related: The Portland Trail Blazers team salary
The Blazers still have plenty to prove, of course, and they are quick to point out that they really haven’t accomplished anything yet. They also work hard to tune out the noise from fans and media alike by sticking together as a team and focusing on each other and what’s happening in the locker room and on the court.
“I think we’ve done a good job of staying to ourselves,” says Stotts. “Whatever the noise is out there, we’ve really been unaffected by it one way or the other. I think that one of the things we’ve done very well is stay focused on the next game, we haven’t looked in the past and we haven’t looked ahead. The stage where we are – where our players are and where we were as a group – was our approach at the beginning of the season and we’ve done a good job maintaining that.”
Two things that drive the Blazers day in and day out are a hunger to prove themselves in the playoffs , as well as the special chemistry that has developed among players and coaches alike.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” says Stotts. “We went into the season basically with a feeling like we have something to prove and we haven’t accomplished anything. We don’t have a player on the roster that played in the playoffs last year. Everything was focused on what we needed to do to win games. I think one of our strengths has been our chemistry and how well we get along and play together. The thing about chemistry is you don’t know when that moment is, but over time it just grows. I think that being rewarded with some wins early helps kind of consolidate that feeling. We lost the season opener at Phoenix; didn’t play very well after a very good preseason. I think that got us kind of grounded and shortly thereafter we won 11 in a row. I think that really was good for a team that hadn’t been together to realize how we needed to play.”
One thing that’s been important for Portland is that after years of talking about who was out of the lineup and for how long, they finally have the team intact and focused on developing talent. The driving force behind that has been second-year point guard Damian Lillard, who is emerging as one of the best floor generals in the NBA.
“I like it when you see growth in any player,” says Stotts. “I’ve seen in it in a lot of our players from last year to this year. After a remarkable rookie season – (Lillard) did that on will power and talent – he took what the league gave him and powered through the season and had a remarkable season. This year he’s even more confident, but he’s more driven to be an even better player.”
»In Related: McCollum, Lillard go way back
Another significant factor for Portland is that they have a much-improved bench, and that starts with the arrival of playoff-tested veteran Mo Williams.
“Mo has been terrific,” says Stotts. “He’s the perfect backup point guard for us because he can play with Damian and he allows us to rest Damian more than we rested him last year. He has an impact when he comes into the game. You sense his impact with the speed of the game and the tempo changes; he’s been in big games, he’s been around the league, and he’s been in tight situations. (Friday) night, for example, when things were going the wrong way in the second half in San Antonio, and even in LA, he kind of got the team together and kept our wits about us. He’s been a very important part to what we’ve done so far this year.”
More than anything, the fact that the Blazers have been able to field the same starting unit every night out this season has been a refreshing change from the recent Brandon Roy/Greg Oden era of injuries.
“It’s been extremely important because our starting unit is our starting and closing unit,” says Stotts. “We’ve been good in the fourth quarter, winning games. That unit plays very well together. Health in general, regardless if it’s your starters or guys that you count on, is extremely important and we’ve been very fortunate to be able to be in that position. I think one of the things in some of the situations I’ve been in, when you have that structure where everybody knows their roles; the starters know that they’re going to start and we’ve been able to have a continuity of rhythm to the game without having a lot of wrenches thrown into it. I think it helps the players prepare for their games, both the players starting and the players coming off of the bench.”
The Blazers have plenty left to prove, and they have the second-toughest schedule over the rest of the season, with only the Denver Nuggets playing more teams with good winning percentages. That said, the Blazers are showing they belong among the NBA’s elite teams, particularly with recent wins in both Oklahoma City and San Antonio. The Portland Trail Blazers once again look like a team to be reckoned with in the ever-tougher Western Conference.
Ricky Rubio Hype Unwarranted?
Since the long-anticipated arrival of Ricky Rubio in Minnesota the Timberwolves have been a team apparently on the cusp of being back in the playoffs long-term.
On paper, anyway.
Until this season it was hard to get a feel for just how good the Timberwolves might be with Rubio and Kevin Love as their franchise cornerstones. They just couldn’t seem to get enough players healthy to establish much of anything on the basketball court. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Kevin Love appeared in 55 of the team’s 66 games, and that was above average for the injury-riddled Timberwolves. Rubio and new addition JJ Barea appeared in just 41 games and starting center Nikola Pekovic was in the lineup just 47 times. It was surprising that they managed to pull off the 26 wins they notched.
The following season wasn’t any better, with Love out of the lineup for all but 18 games, Rubio missing 35 games and Pekovic out for 20. Head coach Rick Adelman established a reputation for being able to make something out of nothing when he coached the Houston Rockets to the playoffs despite being without Yao Ming much of the time, but even Adelman’s magic couldn’t get the Timberwolves past 31 wins.
This season was going to be different. They spent the money to keep Pekovic in town, got everyone healthy over the offseason, and they came into training camp looking to prove to the rest of the NBA that they could make their mark and ascend to the ranks of the perennial playoff teams. The only problem is that they aren’t much better this season than they were last, though their stars have stayed healthy and even have the vast majority of their second unit healthy. They’re still below .500, and they’re still out of the playoff picture.
The offensive end of the floor is definitely not the problem. The Timberwolves are second only to the Portland Trail Blazers when it comes to scoring, averaging 106.6 points per game and shooting 52.7 percent from the field. That’s despite the inefficiency of Rubio, who shoots a paltry 34.6 percent from the field. Kevin Martin has been everything the Timberwolves hoped he would be and more, pouring in 19.1 points per game as the team’s second-leading scorer behind Love. The only thing missing from Minnesota’s attack was a top-notch starting shooting guard, and Martin has answered the call.
Rebounding also hasn’t been an issue, with one of the best front lines in the NBA in Love and Pekovic corralling 22.1 boards per game between them and the rest of the squad chipping in to help Minnesota average 45.8 rebounds per game. That ranks them fifth in the NBA, but just one rebound per game behind league-leading Oklahoma City. Only the Detroit Pistons are better on the offensive glass, where Love and company grab 13.6 per game to Detroit’s 14.6.
No, where things start to get messy is on the defensive end, an area where Adelman’s teams have often been among the best in the business. The Timberwolves are 15th in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference, the Indiana Pacers own the category, yielding just 92.6 points per 100 possessions. Despite their big front line, the Timberwolves are also dead last in blocked shots per game, averaging a lackluster 3.2 as a team.
Stats don’t lie, and Minnesota’s defensive ratings tell quite a story. But there’s something else that jumps out at you when you’re watching the Timberwolves play that you don’t often hear people talk about.
What, exactly was all the hype about concerning Ricky Rubio? It caused such a stir when he was drafted, and the way everyone talked about him during the two-year wait between the 2009 draft and his NBA debut in 2011 made it sound like Minnesota was getting the next All-Star point guard. The Timberwolves were so sure that Rubio was the real deal that they didn’t lock up Kevin Love as long as they could have because they were concerned about being able to keep their young point guard.
This season a finally healthy Rubio is averaging 8.6 points and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 34.6 percent from the field. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but they aren’t nearly impressive enough to warrant the kind of hype that Rubio’s arrival in the NBA sparked.
Rubio’s sub-par play is not the only reason why the Timberwolves are struggling to play .500 ball despite boasting one of the league’s most potent offenses. To his credit, he’s saying the right things and taking the credit for his team’s shortcomings, but the reality is that in the modern NBA point guard play often dictates how well a team will fare.
It would certainly help Minnesota’s chances if they added a player or two who could help instill a defensive mindset, but what would help more than anything else would be for Rubio to finally live up to the hype. If he doesn’t, the Timberwolves could very well lose Kevin Love to free agency (he can opt out in 2015) and be stuck rebuilding with a player who never found a way to translate superb Euroleague play into NBA stardom.
NBA Chat with Bill Ingram
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Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.