Damian Lillard went nuts on Monday night leading his Portland Trail Blazers to a 129-124 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors.
Lillard was great from long range and made all his free throws while scoring a franchise record 61 points in the ballgame. This marked Lillard’s second career 60-point game (his first came in November against Brooklyn).
Lillard joins Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, James Harden and Elgin Baylor as the only players in NBA history with more than one 60-point game.
That’s some exclusive company.
Lillard was 17/37 from the field, 11/20 on threes, and went 16/16 from the line. He entered the game sixth in the league with 27.1 points per game this season.
Everybody remembers a great rookie season in the NBA, which often result in a trophy being held aloft. However, what about the players who have fantastic second seasons? We always talk about the so-called “sophomore slump,” but not every player deals with that. In fact, some players have had tremendous campaigns in their second years in the league. Here are 25 of the best second seasons in NBA history.
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To think that Lillard ended up at Weber State for college. Despite his humble beginnings, the sharpshooter was drafted sixth overall and impressed right out of the gate by winning Rookie of the Year. In his second season he made his first All-Star team and averaged 20.7 points per game for the Blazers while improving from both beyond the arc and at the free-throw line.
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Speaking of Rookie of the Year winners — and there are a lot of them on this list — Johnson was an iron man for the Hornets in his sophomore campaign. In addition to playing in all 82 games, he averaged a league-high 40.5 minutes per contest. Take that, load management! The man known, for odd reasons, as “Grandmama” did damage in his time on the court, as he averaged over 20 points and 10 boards per game.
A nickname like “The Brow” feels decidedly less strange after talking about “Grandmama,” but there was nothing strange about Davis’ game. While now he is certainly not well liked in New Orleans, the first-overall pick out of Kentucky made fans in the Big Easy happy during his second season. He too averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a night, but he also led the league in blocks per game with a hearty 2.8.
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This is the first guy on the list who isn’t a well-known name, as Drew made only two All-Star Games in his career. One of them was in the 1975-76 season, though, when he was in his second year with the Hawks. Drew made over half of his field-goal attempts, which helped him to average 21.6 points per game for Atlanta.
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Thompson’s first season was with the Nuggets in the ABA. The next year, his sophomore campaign, he moved with Denver to the NBA, and he was ready for the increased level of competition. Thompson’s No. 1 job was to get buckets, and he did just that. The Hall of Famer averaged 25.9 points per contest, helping ease his team into the NBA.
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Penny’s career was unfortunately derailed by injury, but this is a reminder of how much promise he had as a player. After making the All-Rookie team in his first campaign, Hardaway was on the All-NBA first team in the 1994-95 season. He averaged over 20 points and seven assists and would start hanging out with a smaller version of himself voiced by Chris Rock.
Like Penny, Bird’s career was hampered by injury, but it didn’t stop him from being a Hall of Famer with three MVP Awards. He made the All-Star Game every season of his career save the one when he was limited to six games. His sophomore campaign actually saw his scoring drop ever so slightly (21.3 to 21.2), but he improved in rebounds, assists and steals.
Wade made a massive jump from his rookie campaign, where he was solid, to his second season. He improved his scoring from 16.2 points per game all the way to 24.1, thanks in part to getting to the line all the time. It was a great season but only the second-best by a sophomore in the 2004-05 campaign. We’ll get to that, though.
Weirdly, the 1957-58 season is one of only two in Russell’s career where he and the Celtics didn’t win the NBA title. It’s also the first year he won the NBA MVP Award. He scored 16.6 points, but it was his defense and rebounding that stole the show. The legend led the NBA with 22.7 boards per game.
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Yes, you can argue Williams had a better second season than Russell, one of the all-time NBA greats. For his entire career, Buck wasn’t on Russell’s level, but he was an All-Star in his first two seasons. He averaged 17.0 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, but Williams’ calling card was his defense, even if his second season wasn’t one of the four where he made an All-Defense team.
In today’s social media-driven NBA, MVP candidates don’t just need the numbers, they need an accompanying narrative to take home the MVP award. Just ask James Harden.
Three seasons ago, Harden finished second to Russell Westbrook in the MVP vote despite averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds and leading the Rockets to 55 regular-season wins. Westbrook edged Harden because he had the best narrative: Westbrook was the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson and the superstar who stayed in OKC even after Harden and Kevin Durant had left.
The next season, however, Harden beat LeBron James for the award, despite having inferior statistics, because he had the better narrative: It’s about time we recognize Harden’s greatness and reward him because he probably should have won last season.
Last season, Harden finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo because people had crowned Giannis as the best two-way force in the league and the next face of the NBA. As Harden so aptly put it in a GQ interview, “[I had] a 32-game 30-point streak, eight 50-point games, two 60-point games… and all the talk was about [Giannis]? There’s no way. You can’t pout or be mad, and the kid had an unbelievable season, so did his team. But the things I was putting up were legendary. You going to look back in 10, 15 years from now and be like, is that really true? Did that really happen?”
Narratives matter in the MVP race. So, as a primer for this season’s MVP race, here are the top-10 MVP contenders and their accompanying narrative (in italics) entering the season (in alphabetical order):
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Based on the past two seasons, it’s clear Giannis is on a LeBron James-Kevin Durant kind of career trajectory. That being the case, we should expect Antetokounmpo to ascend even higher in this, his seventh season, in the middle of his athletic prime. Giannis’ MVP narrative will be one of dominance, a season where he erases any doubt as to whether he’s the best player in the world. Look for him to improve his game in some obvious way this season -– the most obvious hole in his game is his jump shot (26 percent from three-point land last season) -– but he could also double-down on his already one-of-a-kind post game or become a better playmaker.
Steph Curry, Warriors
Steph has a chance to remind everyone that he’s still the toughest player to game plan for in the league … and maybe ever. He’s back to being the unquestioned best player on his team and the player who won back-to-back MVP awards before taking a step back to make way for Kevin Durant.
After having the second-highest usage percentage in the NBA during his record-setting 2015-16 MVP season, Curry finished the next three Durant seasons at 11th, 10th and 13th. With no Durant and no Klay Thompson for most of this season, Curry’s usage rate should easily jump back into the top-five again. Thus, his stats will almost certainly mirror his stats from that 2015-16 MVP season, when he averaged 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds and made an NBA-record 402 three-pointers. If the Warriors are near the top of the West, and Curry leads the league in scoring and flirts with breaking his own three-point record, he’ll be right in the mix for MVP.
Like Shaquille O’Neal before him, AD is hitting his prime and poised for a Hall of Fame leap as the two-way centerpiece and next great big man for the Los Angeles Lakers .
If he plays anything like he did during the second half of the 2017-18 season, when he averaged 31 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.1 steals over the last 27 games of the season, he’ll probably be a frontrunner for his first MVP award. And if he is playing like that, you can bet your bottom dollar that LeBron and Klutch Sports start campaigning for AD to take home the MVP award. In fact, you don’t even have to read between the lines from the Lakers’ media day to see that James is already doing that.
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Embiid’s narrative began shortly after Kawhi Leonard’s fourth bounce fell through the basket in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The world saw Embiid crying as he left the court, exhausted from a grueling seven-game series. If Embiid plays his way into the MVP conversation, it will mean he spent the offseason getting into the best shape of his life, vowing that he’d never lose another playoff series due to fatigue. He’ll have realized that few people on this Earth have been blessed with his size and athletic prowess, and he decided it’d be a travesty if he didn’t maximize those God-given gifts. It’s time to do what Shaq and Wilt and all the other historic NBA centers did before him: dominate.
With Jimmy Butler taking his talents to South Beach, Embiid will have ample opportunities to show off his newfound conditioning as the closer for the Sixers.
James Harden, Rockets
The Beard knows first-hand how a narrative can swing an MVP vote. He believes he got robbed of the award last season. He has a point. And that means that Harden’s narrative this season will be one of revenge against the voters who wronged him out of capping off a historic season with no MVP trophy. Revenge against the people who think he isn’t the best player in the league. Revenge against the people who don’t think he can lead the Rockets to a title.
An MVP season for Harden might not include the same massive scoring as last season (36.1 points per game) now that his high-usage buddy Russell Westbrook is in H-Town. But if his isolations and pick-and-rolls remain two of the most highly efficient plays in basketball and his assist numbers go back to what they were in previous seasons (10.0 per game from 2016-17 to 2017-18), Harden will have another crack at MVP.
LeBron James, Lakers
This is the most obvious narrative: LeBron’s “Forgot About Dre” season. LeBron is coming off of a miserable first season with the Lakers in which he suffered his first major injury and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. However, missing the playoffs means that he finally got an extended rest after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals.
He’s also undoubtedly been listening to the media mock his team the past 12 months and declare that he’s no longer the Best Player on the Planet. It’s all set up perfectly for LeBron to come out and have a G.O.A.T. kind of season to remind the basketball world that he’s still the King.
An MVP season for LeBron won’t be his typical 27-7-7 season –- voters are too bored of that. Instead, look for him to average double-digit assists now that the Lakers have Davis, but a dearth at point guard.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
The Joker’s narrative is mostly tied to his team’s success. If the Nuggets, who should have some of the best chemistry in the league, are the best team in the Western Conference and flirt with winning 60 games, Jokic will get plenty of MVP votes and his narrative will sound something like this: Jokic is doing it all alone as the lone superstar in a conference loaded with superstar tandems. He flashed his true potential as a franchise centerpiece in last season’s playoffs, averaging 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists. That performance has carried over into the 2019-20 season as he has Denver at the top of the league earlier than anyone would have imagined.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
After last season’s playoff run and subsequent free-agency power flex, Kawhi is the Alpha Dog of the NBA, and he isn’t ready to relinquish that title just yet. In fact, as a little more of Kawhi’s personality has come to the forefront, it has become apparent that he relishes destroying opponents the same way MJ and Kobe did, albeit in a less expressive way.
With Paul George out at the beginning of the season, the Clippers will need Playoff-Kawhi (30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds on 49-38-88 shooting splits) to keep them near the top of the Western Conference until George returns, which should force Kawhi to get rolling a lot earlier than last season’s load-managed season.
Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard’s MVP narrative is similar to Jokic’s in that it’ll be tied to the Blazers’ record this season. Most analysts seem to think that the Blazers will finish closer to .500 than the 53 wins the team had a season ago. Thus, if Lillard leads Portland to another top-three finish in the West, and with his typical Curry-lite numbers (25.8 points, 6.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds with 44-37-91 shooting splits last season), and none of the other candidates on this list are having other-worldly seasons, Lillard could start to garner some late season MVP buzz.
He’s the best leader in the league, the superstar who chose to stay when most would have demanded a trade –- he’s as important to his team as any player in the NBA. Isn’t that everything you can ask for from an MVP candidate?
All the chips were pushed to the middle of the table Sunday in a win-or-go-home Game 7 between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets.
The home team dominated a testy first half that included a tense moment and went into the locker room up by nine points, 48-39. Portland scrapped back with a 32-point third quarter to pull to within one, setting up a balls-to-the-wall fourth quarter.
Portland continued to assert itself in the final stanza and outscored Denver 29-24 to pull off a spectacular 100-96 road win.
These were the top takeaways from Sunday’s series-clinching win by the Blazers over their Western Conference rival.
Shooters from both teams held fierce brick-laying contest
You think nerves played a role in Game 7? We do.
Nobody — and we mean nobody — was hitting from outside the arc. The two teams combined to make just six total three-pointers out of 45 attempts. Folks, that’s a 13.3-percent make rate. This postseason before Game 7, Denver had hit 35.7 percent of hits threes, while Portland had made 37.4 percent.
Just an astonishing display of Game 7 jitters as shooters couldn’t find their touch whatsoever.
Dame Time? Not this time
After ripping off 32 points in Game 6 to help his team pull even in this series against the Nuggets, Blazers star Damian Lillard was ice cold to open the game. He went into halftime with just seven points on 1-of-9 shooting, including 0-for-4 from behind the arc.
The second half was more of the same, as he stayed stuck at seven points well into the fourth quarter. Lillard’s first made three-pointer didn’t go in until fewer than nine minutes remained in the game.
However, it’s worth pointing out that Lillard did hit a key three a bit later in the fourth. He also nearly had a triple-double with 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Still, it wasn’t a signature game from Lillard, who will have to bounce back in a big way against the Golden State Warriors.
Joker couldn’t quite do it all in loss
Nikola Jokic had prettier games during this series than his Game 7 effort. He went cold at times and missed some key opportunities on offense — especially late. Additionally, he simply could not find his shooters like we’re used to, finishing with just two assists.
Despite that, Jokic continued to prove without a shadow of a doubt he’s one of the best big men playing in the NBA today. He struggled to find his stroke in Game 7 but still finished with 29 points and 13 rebounds. Notably, Jokic also blocked four shots and gave his team a chance while others, such as Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee, were unable to give the Nuggets a boost.
Zach Collins was a spark plug
One of the big reasons Portland was able to generate such a strong push in the second half is that Collins came alive. On both ends of the court, he was the energizing force the Blazers needed.
Playing 23 minutes in Game 7 while Al-Farouq Aminu was riding the pine, Collins didn’t put up a ton of points. But his scoring was timely, and his presence as a rim defender was a huge weapon for Portland. All told, the second-year forward racked up five rebounds and four blocks while scoring seven points.
McCollum was divine
C.J. McCollum kept the Blazers in the game with 15 first-half points. However, without its leader in sync, Portland floundered badly on offense. As Lillard continued to lay an egg in the second half, however, McCollum picked up the slack.
The shooting guard was aggressive in all facets of his game. He kept attacking the hoop and wasn’t settling for his outside shot.
His third-quarter effort (14 points) was stunning. In the end, McCollum put up 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting while adding nine rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block. Portland wasn’t great overall in Game 7. But McCollum was.
1. Should the Pelicans trade Anthony this season or this summer?
The Pelicans are in 12th place in the Western Conference, and it’s time they start thinking about trading Anthony Davis. If they deal him this season, the Lakers might be willing to part with three of their four young assets (Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart). The 76ers might be willing to dangle Ben Simmons, too. Heck, the Warriors could even offer Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
If New Orleans waits until the summer, the Celtics will be eligible to acquire Davis (a provision in the CBA is preventing them from doing so this season without including Kyrie Irving) and could offer a package including Jaylen Brown and their war chest of valuable future draft picks. The Knicks could offer their unprotected 2019 first-round draft pick and Kevin Knox. The only downside to waiting for the summer is that if Davis demands a deal to a specific team, the Pelicans lose all their leverage. Lots to consider in the Big Easy, and none of it is all that promising.
2. What does the Lakers starting lineup look like this spring?
The best-case scenario includes LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A lineup with those two could win the title. The next best scenario probably involves James, Bradley Beal and whichever two youngsters remain. This lineup could hang with any team in the league but is probably an underdog in the Conference Finals and Finals. The worst-case scenario would be if they make no major moves at the deadline because their current lineup likely has a Conference Finals ceiling and it’d be malpractice to waste a year of LeBron’s prime, like when the team has a number of trade chips.
3. Which teams mortgage their futures at the deadline?
Out West, the Pelicans are sure to be in the middle of everything, as they hold the crown jewel in Anthony Davis. Yet there’s a chance the Pelicans hold onto Davis and make a big trade of their own — we know they were in the mix for Jimmy Butler earlier this year. Everyone knows that the Rockets and Lakers will be looking for deals too. The Kings are desperate to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, so keep an eye on them as well.
Out East, any of the top five teams could justify pushing their chips in and try to capitalize on the Warriors’ perceived vulnerability. Also, keep an eye out for Pat Riley and the Miami Heat — they’ve straightened things out as of late and have been trying to land a blue-chipper ever since LeBron James left.
4. Does Michael Jordan deal Kemba Walker?
The conundrum of Kemba Walker: He means everything to the Hornets and wants to remain the face of the franchise, yet they can’t compete with him on their roster. He’s not quite elite enough to carry Charlotte deep into the playoffs, yet he’s too good to not carry the team to a .500 record. With no cap room (maybe you shouldn’t have maxed out Nic Batum, MJ!) and hardly any trade assets (maybe you shouldn’t have turned down four first-round picks to draft Frank Kaminsky, MJ!), Michael Jordan needs to seriously consider trading Walker for some future draft picks and/or cap relief if the Hornets ever want to quit toiling in mediocrity.
5. What do the Blazers do at the trade deadline?
The Blazers are having another solid season. They’re 25-17 and have an average offense and defense. They won’t miss the playoffs, but they probably won’t make it out of the first round if they don’t make a move at the trade deadline. Is this the year they break up the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt? How does the passing of owner Paul Allen impact the team’s previously unwavering loyalty to its dynamic backcourt? Would the Wizards ever consider a Bradley Beal for McCollum plus an unprotected 2020 first-rounder swap?
6. Which teams should blow it up at the deadline?
A couple of teams that are teetering on the brink of falling out of playoff contention should seriously consider blowing up their rosters by trading away assets for future draft picks and high-upside prospects. The most obvious team is the Washington Wizards. At 17-25, no John Wall for the rest of the year and no cap space, the team should absolutely be looking to trade Otto Porter and his massive contract, Markieff Morris and his abrasive attitude and even Bradley Beal if a team like the Lakers offers multiple prospects and draft picks.
Just above Washington in the standings, the Magic, Pistons and Hornets are all fighting for the eight seed. If any of them falter, they’d be obvious “tank” candidates. In the West, everything is still congested in the standings, but the Grizzlies and Pelicans will want to listen to offers for their respective stars if they’re on the outside looking in a month from now.
7. Do the Bucks have enough to compete for a title?
When LeBron James was 24 years old, he won his first MVP and led the Cavs to a league-best 66 wins. He was so transcendent that the team didn’t think it needed to improve a roster with Mo Williams as its second-best player at the trade deadline. Everyone knows how that worked out for Cleveland — the Orlando Magic caught fire in the Conference Finals and upset the Cavs.
Milwaukee Bucks fans should be scared to death of history repeating itself with Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. Giannis is also 24 years old and an MVP front-runner, and he’s leading a surprisingly good Bucks team to the top of the conference as the deadline nears. While the Bucks have better secondary options than the 2009 Cavs had, their current roster is probably another scorer and versatile forward away from being threats to win it all.
8. Are the Raptors finally a legitimate title contender?
These dinosaurs are legit. Unlike past years, they have a roster built for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is back to being the Kawhi Leonard of old (albeit, a little better on offense and a little worse on defense). Danny Green is having his best season in years. Same goes for Serge Ibaka, whose switch to small-ball center appears to have triggered a Benjamin Button-like reverse aging in his body. Kyle Lowry is second in the league in assists, too.
And who could forget Pascal Siakam — wow, where the hell did this guy come from? In his third season, he’s made the jump from solid defensive presence off the bench to potential All-Star and two-way terror on the court. He’s always sprinting, making offensive players uncomfortable on defense and pushing the envelope on offense — just making winning plays all over the court. He’s like Toronto’s own mutated version of Draymond Green. If you haven’t seen him play yet, you’re missing out on the best spin move in the NBA.
9. Are the Houston Rockets still contenders?
James Harden probably answered this one at Golden State last week where he put on one of the most impressive performances of his career. His three-pointer between the outstretched hands of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green was the climax point of an on-going, 15-game stretch in which he’s averaging over 40 points per game. We know Harden will keep stuffing the stat sheet, but we also know that he’s prone to wear down in the playoffs if another teammate isn’t there to lighten his load. Can Chris Paul get back on track once he returns from his hamstring injury? Does Houston trade for another shot creator at the deadline?
10. Are the Nuggets a legitimate title contender?
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets’ meteoric rise to the top of the Western Conference has been one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. Jokic is proving to be a one-man elite offense, as the Nuggets have been able to withstand significant injuries to a number of their key players, including Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Even if they sputter at some point during the second half of the season, they should finish with a top-four record in the West. The question then becomes what is their ceiling this season with a roster comprised mostly of players with little to no prior playoff experience? A safe bet is that they’ll win their first-round series and then lose a close battle in the second round to a more experienced team like the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder or Lakers. Regardless, the future is bright in Denver.
11. Have the Thunder quietly built a defensive machine to upset the Warriors?
With Paul George playing at a first team All-NBA level this season and Steven Adams, Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant playing excellent two-way basketball, the Thunder might be the team best equipped to take down the Warriors. Notice I didn’t mention Russell Westbrook? That’s because the Thunder are often winning games in spite of Westbrook. While he is taking two fewer shots per game and has recommitted himself to defense (leading the league in steals), his shooting splits and shot selection are abysmal. He’s a key reason why OKC has the worst field-goal percentage in the NBA. It’s so frustrating because this team could absolutely steal some games from the Warriors in a series (they’re 3-2 vs. Golden State since acquiring Paul George) with its defense and overwhelming athleticism. However, Westbrook has to be a much more efficient player for the Thunder to take down Goliath.
12. Can the 76ers avoid a chemistry catastrophe?
There are layers to this one. For starters, the relationship between franchise cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, is somewhere between “working partnership” and “icy.” It’s probably closer to the latter right now after their recent rebounding collision and Embiid’s subsequent freak-out. If that weren’t enough to worry about, Jimmy Butler is apparently already comfortable dressing down head coach Brett Brown in front of teammates about his role in the offense. Some teams can excel amid chaos like this; others fall victim to it. Will the Eastern Conference’s most talented team straighten things out for a long playoff run? Or will it implode from within?
13. Do the Pacers have enough offensive firepower to win the East?
It may come as a surprise to the casual fan, but the Indiana Pacers are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference this season. They’re currently in third place and have the NBA’s third-highest rated defense despite missing their star, Victor Oladipo, for 11 games this season. Their defense and plethora of excellent role players will keep them in every game come playoff time, but can Oladipo carry their offense enough for them to make a deep run? Look for the Pacers to add some more scoring pop at this year’s trade deadline.
14. What is the Clippers’ ceiling?
How many players do you think a casual NBA fan could name on the Clippers? Three? Four? Despite having no star power, the Clippers are 24-16 and in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference. This is no longer a cute story about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts — this team is legitimately good. Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are all good players and have destroyed unsuspecting opponents this season.
How good are they? Can they win a playoff series? It’ll depend on the matchup and whether they pick up a better two-guard (Avery Bradley stinks now) and rim protector (Gortat isn’t cutting it). They could probably take down any team without an MVP-caliber player in a seven-game series, so if they play the Spurs, Blazers or Jazz in the first round, they’ll have more than a puncher’s chance to advance.
15. Will Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward get back on track?
If someone told you that Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward were averaging only a combined 23.6 points per game, you’d probably assume that the Celtics were having the season from hell. Fortunately for Boston, the “Marcuses” (Morris and Smart) have stepped up their respective games and covered for Brown’s and Hayward’s struggles. The team is comfortably in fifth place in the top-heavy Eastern Conference and will always have a chance in any playoff series with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and the Marcuses playing well. However, if the Celtics want to compete for a title, they’ll need at least one of Brown or Hayward to start playing better. Both have shown some signs of life recently, but an occasional good game won’t suffice come May and June.
16. Do the Jazz have another magical second half in store?
Quin Snyder has been a second-half miracle worker in his tenure as head coach of the Utah Jazz. Last season, after a 17-24 start to the season, the Jazz ripped off a 31-10 record the next 41 games and rode that momentum to a first-round upset over the Thunder. At 20-21 through 41 games this season, Snyder will need to once again work his second-half magic to get Donovan Mitchell and Co. back on track.
17. How does DeMarcus Cousins fit in with the Warriors?
As they attempt to three-peat and win their fourth title in five seasons, the Warriors are struggling with mental and physical fatigue. Even when they’re at full strength, they seem as vulnerable as they’ve seemed since Kevin Durant joined the team. That could all change when DeMarcus Cousins makes his debut. Will the Warriors be rejuvenated by their “new toy” and find new ways to throttle teams? Or will Cousins’ overwhelming but unnecessary offensive talent hurt the team’s on-court chemistry? Boogie’s commitment to defense could ultimately dictate this one.
18. Can Steph Curry really go 50-45-90 again?
Remember when Steph Curry won the first-ever unanimous MVP in 2015-16 and forced us to recalibrate how basketball was going to be played moving forward? That season he averaged 30.1 points per game and joined Steve Nash as the only players to ever join the 50-45-90 Club (FG percentage-3FG percentage-FT percentage). Well, he’s doing it again this season. Right now he’s averaging 28.9 points per game on 48-44-91 shooting splits. (And he’s been in a slump lately too.) Thanks to the equally ridiculous seasons guys like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo are having, hardly anyone seems to be noticing how insanely well Curry is shooting this year.
19. Can we hand Luka Doncic the Rookie of the Year, already?
Barring injury, the answer is yes. Doncic has been a revelation in Dallas and is must-see television every time he steps on the court. He might even get voted in as an All-Star Game starter. And while he shouldn’t be an All-Star starter, nobody should have any issues with him making the team because he’s averaging 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game and absolutely has a case as being one of the 12 best players in the Western Conference this season.
20. Should the Knicks even bother bringing Kristaps Porzingis back this season?
If you recall, Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL just before the All-Star break last season. With a crappy roster in place and their sights set on Kevin Durant, the Knicks have been in no rush to get their young star on the court before he’s completely healthy. They are going to evaluate Porzingis in mid-February, but there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all this season.
Should he play? On one hand, it’d be nice to get him back on the court for about 10-15 games to help him get his rhythm and confidence back heading into the offseason — this is what the Pacers did with Paul George following his broken leg. On the other hand, with a shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, they might not want Porzingis winning games for them and screwing up their lottery odds.
After the Portland Trail Blazers were swept by the Golden State Warriors on Monday, point guard Damian Lillard told ESPN he’s developed a newfound obsession with trying to take down the Warriors.
“You have to be obsessed with that because you know that they’re so good that they’re going to be there,” Lillard said after a 128-103 loss in Game 4. “That’s who you’re going to have to get through to get to where you want to get to. That’s what it is.”
Lillard recorded 34 points and six assists in 41 minutes on Monday and was 12-of-24 from the field. The rest of his team shot 21-for-61, equating to 34 percent.
The Trail Blazers squeezed into the final playoff spot (41-41) after a disappointing start to the season. They were expected to take the next step after a 44-38 record during the 2015-16 season.
The two-time All-Star is proud of the team’s push down the stretch of the regular season, but he’s not satisfied.
“I wouldn’t say it was a successful year,” Lillard told ESPN. “We got tested, and I think we answered the bell. I felt like we showed our true colors by the way we fought. But I wouldn’t say successful. I think it was growth. A year of growth for us.”
In last year’s playoffs, the Warriors bounced the Trail Blazers out of the second round in five games.
Lillard’s anger was evident after Monday’s lopsided loss. “I don’t even know what to think right now,” he said. “It’s very frustrating. But you know me, I’m going to come back stronger than ever.”
When addressing the media, Lillard spoke highly about how well the Warriors play together and how everyone is on the same page. He has realized that the Trail Blazers must take a page out of the Warriors’ book.
Opening Night in the NBA began with the Cavaliers getting their championship rings, and ended with the Warriors getting destroyed at home by the Spurs.
Here are takeaways from all three of Tuesday night’s games, beginning with Cleveland’s dominant win over the Knicks.
LeBron and the Cavaliers already look unstoppable
The Cavaliers looked every bit like defending champions during a dominating 115-84 win over the Knicks, and the way they’re already firing on all cylinders, it’s clear that injuries will be the only thing capable of stopping this Cleveland team in the East.
LeBron James once again looked like the league’s best player, dunking at will and using his incredible court vision to set up his teammates for easy looks. James finished with a triple-double line of 19 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists.
It took a while for the shots to begin to fall, but for a Cavaliers team that returned all of its key rotation players from last year, the chemistry was evident from the very start.
Kyrie Irving went on a tear in the third quarter, when he scored 19 of his game-high 29 points to help put the contest out of reach. It was only one game, and it was against a disjointed Knicks team. But the Cavaliers showed what we already knew: They’re the clear favorites to finish first in the East.
The Knicks are kind of a mess. Here’s why.
While the Cavaliers looked like a cohesive team full of talented players who had played together for an entire season, the Knicks were essentially the exact opposite. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah both missed extensive time in training camp, and New York looked like a team unfamiliar with each other in what was an inevitable blowout loss.
New York had already committed 10 turnovers four minutes into the second quarter, and assisted on just seven of its 17 made shots in the first half due to a lack of ball movement and too much isolation in the team’s half-court sets.
On the bright side, Carmelo Anthony got off to a strong offensive start with 11 first quarter points, and Rose had no trouble using his speed to get to the rim as often as he liked. But the fact that the Knicks aren’t close to having a bench rotation in place is another concern, and one that’s going to take some time to figure itself out.
Damian Lillard will demand our attention
Damian Lillard is possibly the most overlooked star player in today’s NBA. He was somehow snubbed from the All-Star team last year after averaging a career-best 25.1 points and 6.8 assists, but he seems more determined than ever to gain the attention he deserves.
Lillard lit up the Utah Jazz for 16 of his game-high 39 points in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, while engineering a 17-point turnaround for his team over the game’s final 11 minutes.
Lillard has stated that his goal is to win MVP this season, and numbers like that will get him into the conversation as long as the wins are there, too.
Golden State All-Star forward Draymond Green did not mince words when asked about the Portland Trail Blazers’ chances in the aftermath of their Game 4 loss to the Warriors on Monday night.
After Golden State’s 132-125 overtime win, which gave the Warriors a 3-1 advantage in the Western Conference semifinals, Green was asked whether he thought the Blazers were done.
“Do I think they’re done? Of course I think they’re done,” he said.
“If I don’t think they’re done, I don’t know who else is going to think it,” he continued. “We’re going home with a 3-1 lead. It’s up to us to close it out. And I trust my teammates, I trust our team to come out ready to go and close this series out. Of course I think they’re done. It’s time for us to close the series. We did what we needed to do; we came on the road and got one win. We took care of home court. Now it’s time for us to do it again.”
Game 5 is Wednesday in Oakland, California.
Of Portland ultimately losing after taking a 16-2 lead to start the game, Green said, “That’s a gut punch [the Blazers] caught tonight.”
But asked whether he has developed a respect for the Blazers in this series, he said, “We’ll talk about that on Wednesday. We’ve got another game in this series.”
Blazers star Damian Lillard said before Green’s remarks that they aren’t done fighting.
“We want to go out there and make sure they respect us, make sure they understand it’s not going to be what everybody thinks it’s going to be,” Lillard said. “It’s not going to be no rolling over, it’s not going to be no out here being scared, it’s not going to be any of that.”
Green also was asked about a prediction of victory for Monday night’s game.
“I didn’t predict that. I told you we were going to win,” he said.
He said he wasn’t worried about giving the Blazers extra motivation.
“I wanted to give them bulletin-board material,” he said.
Discussion of the Portland Trail Blazers’ surprisingly strong season has centered on the contributions of two players — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. That’s understandable and warranted, because they are the league’s top scoring duos and essential members of a team without many other capable creators. Yet the Blazers would not be in prime position to earn a playoff berth if not for the play of their many quality role players, most of whom joined the team this offseason. Their success isn’t just a matter of two guys scoring a bunch.
Several players proved as much in Tuesday’s home game against the Washington Wizards, including on the single biggest play of the game. The Wizards had a chance to win in regulation with the game tied at 104-104 following a pull-up jumper from McCollum with five seconds on the clock. They created a good look in the paint for Marcin Gortat, but wing Gerald Henderson came out of nowhere to protect the rim.
John Wall got another chance to win at the buzzer off the rebound, but his three-pointer caught rim to send it to overtime.
The block continued an excellent game for Henderson, who put up 12 points and seven rebounds with a plus-16 in his 30 minutes. (He was also part of a tussle that resulted in the ejection of Washington wing Alan Anderson.) Yet it’s arguable that he wasn’t even the Blazers’ best bench player on the night, because big man Ed Davis logged nine points, 15 rebounds (five offensive), and four assists in his 32 minutes.
It was fitting, then, that Henderson also picked up Portland’s first basket of overtime to tie it at 106-106, after which Lillard made a lay-up and three-pointer to open up a five-point lead. Wall answered back with a three-pointer at the 3:01 mark, but Washington missed it’s final five attempts of the night.
Earlier this month, Forbes released its annual 30 Under 30 list for sports, honoring 30 athletes below the age of 30 for their outstanding achievements in and out of competition for 2016.
For the second-straight year, an NBA star was selected to be the featured player in the field, with reigning league MVP Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors getting the nod. Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard was also chosen as an NBA representative. One year prior, it was James Harden of the Houston Rockets who got the cover shot, with Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers also making the cut.
The NBA has no shortage of captivating characters worthy of a 30 Under 30 distinction, but which individuals are the odds-on favorites to follow in the footsteps of Curry and co. next year?
While Curry’s burgeoning superstardom could easily render him a repeat selection, we will operate under the assumption that all NBA reps in 2017 will be new to the list. Besides Curry, Lillard, Harden and Paul, those individuals are Derrick Rose (2013 & 2014), Kevin Durant (2013 & 2014) and Anthony Davis (2013). LeBron James (2013 & 2014), Dwight Howard (2013) and Deron Williams (2013) are now ineligible due to the age restriction.