• After being swept out of the playoffs last spring by a decided first-round underdog, the Portland Trail Blazers directed criticism inward. Rather than point fingers at one another for that depressing four-game loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, though, the Blazers confronted individual blame, accepted it, and made efforts to overcome it before the waves of such a dispiriting outcome crested to overcome them. Just a few months later, Portland stands alone at the top of the West following a blowout victory over a talented team that, again and again, allows festering chemistry and cultural issues infect their play on the floor.

    The Blazers beat the woebegone Washington Wizards 119-109 on Sunday in the nation’s capital, breaking a two-game losing streak to take some positive momentum on the remaining half of their second longest road trip of the season. Damian Lillard, ever in control offensively, scored a game-high 40 points, reaching that threshold for the third time this season. The red-hot shooting that marked his previous high-water scoring outputs was absent on Sunday, though, as he connected on just 3-of-10 from beyond the arc and 13-of-29 from the field overall. Undeterred by ongoing labors with his jumper, Lillard attacked the rim relentlessly, taking a whopping 15 shots in the basket area and connecting on 13-of-15 at the free throw line. The reigning All-NBA First Team honoree never let up, either, scoring 18 of his points in the third quarter despite Portland taking a 21-point lead into halftime.

    In a true testament to their all-around excellence, the Blazers as a whole were just as impressive as their best player at Capitol One Arena. C.J. McCollum had 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Jusuf Nurkic barely missed a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and a game-high +27 plus-minus. Portland was hardly ablaze from three, going 11-of-30, but still managed 26 assists, over five more than its season-long average. Following Lillard’s lead, the Blazers combined for 36 shots from the restricted area and 35 free-throw attempts, both season-highs.

    Despite Lillard’s brilliance and McCollum’s productivity, Portland still managed to play at level greater than the sum of its parts. A team long maligned for its lack of ball movement pinged passes all over the floor, confusing the listless Wizards defensively and creating open driving and passing lanes of which every player wearing black, red and white took full advantage. Terry Stotts’ team entered Sunday’s action as the sixth-most efficient offensive outfit in basketball, evidence of tweaks to the system and roster that over a month into the season have this group playing better than even the most partisan fans anticipated. Even so, “beautiful game” possessions like the one below have been few and far between for the Blazers this season.

    “When you give up a good shot for great shot it’s always good,” Nurkic said after the game. Most exciting among such passes? Nurkic’s pinpoint bounce pass to a back-cutting McCollum, between the legs of an unsuspecting Ian Mahinmi. It was that type of game, and it’s been that type of season, for both of these teams so far.

    It wasn’t long ago the Wizards were considered legitimate contenders in the East. It was even shorter ago, just during the preseason, that John Wall, Bradley Beal, the unabashedly proud Markieff Morris and company were publicly discussing their side-by-side standing among consensus conference powers like the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. A few weeks later, the wheels have come off in Washington more quickly than even Dwight Howard‘s most vociferous detractors thought possible. There’s enough blame for everyone to shoulder in the Wizards locker room. After the game, though, Wall saved his most direct criticism for the one aspect of basketball of which no player or coach has control: the officiating.

    “I’m always positive,” he told Candace Buckner of his mindset in the midst of a 5-11 season, “it’s just a lot of bull**** that – come on, man. These guys getting all the calls and these guys are jump-shooters. You got a guy that shot 12-for-29 and then shot 15 free throws.”

    Portland isn’t the best team in the Western Conference. Not even close. The only reason the Blazers sit mere percentage points ahead of the Golden State Warriors for first place is due to an injury to Steph Curry, a two-time MVP playing at perhaps the peak of his powers before being sidelined, and the type of locker-room melodrama that makes the Wizards’ seem tame. It was barely more than 48 hours ago that Portland was run off the floor by the rebuilt Minnesota Timberwolves, who on Sunday were put in their place by the Memphis Grizzlies, left for dead before the season yet somehow sporting a 10-5 record.

    The West may not be better than its ever been, like many thought it would in 2018-19, but is still rife with quality teams nonetheless. Only the lowly Phoenix Suns can be earmarked for the lottery come next summer; each of the conference’s other 14 teams are currently thinking playoffs, and have already shown the ability to back up those hopes with high-quality play. Nothing is guaranteed, as the Blazers learned the hard way in April.

    Well, except for the fact that Portland, if it fails to crack the West’s top eight by season’s end, won’t be doomed by interpersonal turmoil, a fact easily taken for granted by years of stoic leadership from Stotts and Lillard – exactly what Washington, and many other teams across the league, are so sorely lacking.

Fantasy News

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    LeBron James put together a double-double in Wednesday's 120-94 win against the Warriors, ending with 23 points, six rebounds, 12 assists, a steal and a block.

    James is now averaging 11.1 assists per game and is still getting his when it comes to scoring. He is just inside the top-25 right now and will keep filling the stat sheet all season.

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma started and finished Wednesday night's contest with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, five rebounds, two assists, and three 3-pointers.

    Kuzma has put together a nice streak of games. He adds scoring and 3-pointers, but can't find a way to help teams in other categories. Kuzma will likely end up having late-round value at this pace.

  • JaVale McGee
    C, Los Angeles Lakers

    JaVale McGee put up a double-double on Wednesday, finishing with 18 points, 17 boards, two assists, three steals and three blocks.

    McGee was the better center in this contest and played 28 minutes to Dwight Howard's (15 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one block) 20 minutes. McGee put up one of his best performances of the season, but it's hard to get too excited by one night of work. Howard seems to be the center to own for the Lakers.

  • D'Angelo Russell
    PG, Golden State Warriors

    D'Angelo Russell ended the night with 21 points, two rebounds, eight assists, a steal and a block.

    Russell is clearly the go-to option on this Golden State team. He is a top-40 guy right now and has the potential to keep that up for the rest of the year.

  • Draymond Green
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Draymond Green didn't contribute much on Wednesday, ending with 10 points, only one rebound, five assists, a steal, a block and two 3-pointers.

    Green contributed in each category, barely. It was nice to see him knock down a couple shots from beyond the arc, but these are hardly the numbers owners were expecting when taking Green in the early rounds. He is currently returning top-125 value and could be a great buy-low opportunity, but it's hard to trust much on the Warriors right now.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein
    C, Golden State Warriors

    Willie Cauley-Stein scored 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting and added five rebounds, three assists and two blocks on Wednesday.

    Cauley-Stein had the best game of the Golden State big men (Marquese Chriss ended scoreless with six boards, two assists and two blocks) and is having a top-100 year so far. He might be doing it quietly, but it's hard to fault you if want to pick up Cauley-Stein now.

  • Eric Paschall
    PF, Golden State Warriors

    Eric Paschall came off the bench on Wednesday and dropped 15 points with three rebounds.

    Paschall still logged 32 minutes but didn't stuff the stat sheet like we have seen in the past. He put a nice move on LeBron, but he is starting to regress despite taking 15 shots in this one. If you picked him up, he is worth holding onto for a bit longer.

  • Damian Lillard
    PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard had trouble finding his rhythm in Wedensday night's 114-106 loss to the Raptors, ending with nine points (2-for-12 shooting), 10 assists, two blocks and two from deep.

    Lillard had a rough time finding the bottom of the net in this one, but still managed to get 10 dimes and two blocks. Lillard is a top-5 player right now and there is no reason to worry after tonight's performance.

  • CJ McCollum
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    C.J. McCollum finished the night with 19 points, six rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block and hitting three shots from deep on Wednesday.

    McCollum has been shaky this season and it was nice to see an uptick in 3-pointers and rebounds in this one. He will likely pick it up as the season continues, and if you're looking for a buy-low candidate, this might be a good target for you.

  • Rodney Hood
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Rodney Hood (back spams) returned to action on Wednesday night and dropped 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, two boards, an assist and five 3-pointers.

    Hood looks like someone that should be owned in standard leagues as he is providing nice numbers from deep and shooting 50 percent from the field this season. He's currently inside the top-120.