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NBA Sunday: Driven Trail Blazers Sending A Message

Chemistry, underdog status have the Portland Trail Blazers playing like contenders … Ricky Rubio hype proving to be unwarranted?

Bill Ingram

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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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NBA Daily: Jonas Valanciunas Spearheading Grizzlies’ Growth

Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut last night after missing the first 56 games of the season. Still, the Memphis Grizzlies have stockpiled wins without their second-best player, thanks in large part to the strong play of Jonas Valanciunas.

Chad Smith

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With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the playoff races are heating up. The new play-in tournament will allow more teams into the thick of things as the season winds down. One team looking to make a return to postseason play is the Memphis Grizzlies, led by dynamic point guard Ja Morant. Memphis currently owns the eighth spot in the Western Conference, thanks to excellent team basketball.

Morant may be the face of the franchise, but he has had a minor sophomore slump this season. His shooting percentages are down across the board, which include 74 percent from the free-throw line and 27 percent from behind the three-point line. Like most everyone in the league this year, he has missed a handful of games that have prevented him from getting into the type of rhythm that he would like.

Memphis is the true definition of the word “team” as they have collected wins with a well-balanced attack. They don’t have one or two superstar players that carry them on a nightly basis. They don’t rely on that which either, which makes things difficult for the opponent as they prepare their defensive strategies. The Grizzlies are difficult to game plan for, which is a credit to their unselfish play.

Contributions have come from everyone on the roster, from top to bottom. Kyle Anderson has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Dillon Brooks is seemingly unstoppable when he gets going. Brandon Clarke continues to impress and Grayson Allen has been a revelation for this team. It doesn’t stop there either. De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman have been excellent additions by the front office and the continued development of Tyus Jones has been crucial to lessening the load on Morant.

The real surprise has come at the center position. Memphis was supposed to be a two-headed monster with the young duo of Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The fourth-overall pick in the 2018 draft finally made his season debut last night against the Los Angeles Clippers, which makes what Memphis is doing even more impressive.

With Jackson sidelined for essentially the entire season, the only other center on the roster is Jonas Valanciunas. Memphis was concerned about having the veteran big man shoulder too much of the load, but he has delivered on a nightly basis. The nine-year vet is having a career year in Memphis. Unfortunately, the team announced on Sunday that he would miss some time due to a concussion.

Not only has the Lithuanian produced some incredible numbers so far this season, but he has also been a key cog to the Grizzlies’ winning ways. Valanciunas has a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 24.13 which ranks 18th in the league among all players. That is a remarkable accomplishment for a center in today’s game.

The rebounding numbers alone are quite impressive. Valanciunas has essentially led the team in that department each game and has done it by a wide margin. He currently ranks third in the league in rebounds, behind only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.

Valanciunas has 40 double-doubles this season in his 50 games played. As of last week, the only players with more double-doubles this season were MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

Valanciunas has been getting better as the season progresses. He averaged 15.0 rebounds per game in March. His numbers in April are a reflection of how well Memphis has been playing. He is averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game this month. He is shooting 68 percent from the floor, 46 percent from three-point range and 86.2 percent from the free-throw line. His best game this month came against the Indiana Pacers when he poured in 34 points and grabbed 22 rebounds.

Before Valanciunas went out with a concussion, the Grizzlies had won seven of their last ten games. They are now 0-2 without him but the losses weren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. They came up short in an overtime game against a red-hot New York Knicks team, then lost to the Dallas Mavericks on a ridiculous floating three-pointer by Luka Doncic. On Monday they fell two points short in a double-overtime thriller in Denver against the Nuggets. Without JV on the floor, Jokic erupted with 47 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists.

Sharing the ball has been a constant theme for this young Memphis team. Only the Golden State Warriors average more assists per game as a team. The Grizzlies also lead the league in steals per game, which is a testament to their effort on the defensive end of the floor.

Taylor Jenkins deserves much of the credit in Memphis, though he doesn’t want the spotlight. The second-year head coach has the Grizzlies playing elite defense despite being one of the faster teams in terms of pace of play. Their defensive rating ranks seventh in the league while also boasting the 11th best net rating. The road ahead doesn’t get much easier for them though.

Memphis is in the middle of a brutal seven-game road trip. It started well for them, with wins over the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks. After the double-overtime loss in Denver, they beat the Clippers in Jackson’s season debut and now head to Portland for two games against the Trail Blazers. Their road trip wraps up with another visit to Denver before facing Portland for the third time in six days.

The last time Memphis made the playoffs was during the 2016-17 season. Along with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, that roster included players like Tony Allen, Vince Carter, Chandler Parsons, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph. This Grizzlies team may not have the same level of veterans, but their talent runs extremely deep.

Adding Jackson back into the fold should give Memphis a potent punch heading into the postseason. With Valanciunas now missing games, Jackson should have the opportunity to shake off the rust. While they aren’t heading to the NBA Finals this season, this is a scary Grizzlies team that can derail the hopes of a championship contender in the West.

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NBA Daily: Is Stephen Curry the MVP?

Given the prolific season Stephen Curry is having, despite the Golden State Warriors being ninth in the Western Conference, does his impact make him the Most Valuable Player in the NBA this season?

Bobby Krivitsky

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In the aftermath of Klay Thompson suffering an Achilles tear that ended his season before it began, no one would have blamed Stephen Curry for prioritizing his preservation through the 2020-21 campaign.

Instead, despite the Golden State Warriors lacking the necessary talent to become a title contender, Curry’s doing everything in his power to get them into the playoffs.

The two-time league MVP is on pace to win the scoring title for the second time in his career. In a recent road loss against the Boston Celtics, Curry put up 47 points, becoming the second player in Warriors history to score 30 or more points in 10-straight games, joining Wilt Chamberlain. 

In his last 11 contests, Curry’s averaging 40 points on shooting splits that aren’t supposed to be possible at the game’s highest level. Even though he’s hoisting 14.3 attempts from beyond the arc per game, he’s making them at a 49.7 percent clip. He’s taking 23.4 shots from the field but still seeing the ball go through the hoop 54.1 percent of the time.

The context of how Curry’s producing those prodigious numbers makes them even more impressive. He is the only scoring threat on Golden State who defenses need to concern themselves with — stop Curry, win the game; it’s that simple, at least in theory it is.

 

Another layer of what makes Curry’s prolific scoring so impressive is the energy he’s exerting to do so. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry’s running 1.43 miles per game on offense, which is the sixth-most league-wide. And what that figure doesn’t fully capture is that while Curry has a lightning-quick release and is masterful at creating the sliver of daylight he needs to get his shot off, it takes a significant amount of energy to do that once, let alone throughout a game.

Even though Curry’s already the greatest shooter of all time, he’s taken the most lethal part of his game to new heights. From 2015 when the Warriors won their first NBA championship to 2019, a stretch in which they reached the finals every year, step-back threes accounted for just eight percent of Curry’s shooting profile from beyond the arc. But this season, Curry knew it would be more challenging to create shots for himself, which is why he’s doubled that figure to 16 percent and he’s knocking down 51.5 percent of his step-back threes, per NBA.com.

Curry’s also putting more pressure on opponents from further away from the hoop than he has in years past. According to NBA.com, from 2015 through 2019, five percent of his threes came from 30 to 40 feet. This season, shots from that distance account for 10 percent of his three-point attempts. Just like when defenses double team him out of a pick-and-roll, Curry forcing teams to defend him from further out is another way for him to create 4-3 opportunities for his teammates.

 

After that loss against the Celtics, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said Curry’s “at the peak of his powers.” Though he’s not just putting his talents towards individual production, he is the primary reason Golden State’s firmly in the play-in tournament. The Warriors currently reside ninth in the Western Conference. They’re one game behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and two back of the seventh-ranked Dallas Mavericks. 

As impressive an individual season as Curry’s having and as vital as he’s been to his team’s success this season, the reality is the Warriors haven’t won at a high enough level for him to win Most Valuable Player honors for the third time in his career. Currently, Nikola Jokic is the leading MVP candidate. While it’s fair to point out the Denver Nuggets aren’t even in the top three in the Western Conference, Jokic ranks first in player efficiency rating, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He’s averaging 26.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game. 

If Jokic misses enough of Denver’s remaining games, someone could usurp him for the right to win MVP. In that scenario, Curry would have a chance to become the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a third time, but he’d have to sway voters from giving it to Joel Embiid. Embiid’s in the midst of a career season, ranking second in player efficiency rating, eighth in win shares and fourth in box plus/minus. He’s averaging 29.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while leading the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Curry ranks sixth in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares and is second in both box plus/minus and value over replacement player. He has a case for MVP, but Jokic and Embiid are capping off career seasons while leading their respective teams to a higher level of success. Yes, their teams are more talented and there probably isn’t enough weight put on how valuable an individual is to his team, but the reality is the MVP typically goes to the best player on a top team. Furthermore, that argument also applies to Jokic, who’s the lone All-Star on a team with a better record.

Not naming Curry this season’s Most Valuable Player doesn’t mean his prolific production isn’t appreciated. Nor should it get taken as a sign elevating his team, somehow finding ways to become a more dangerous shooter and investing as much energy as he has into a season that won’t end with a championship isn’t garnering respect from the NBA community. That includes fans whose favorite team doesn’t reside in the Bay Area.

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NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that would require their participation in the play-in tournament.

However, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars, going seven and eight. As a result, their fall in the standings has been painless, going from third at the time of James’ injury to now occupying fifth place in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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