• A significant portion of the NBA fan base believes Damian Lillard is basketball’s preeminent closer.

    With Kobe Bryant long retired, LeBron James and James Harden incessantly subject to casual scrutiny, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant splitting shots and spotlights in Oakland, and upstart superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid marginalized by playing from the inside-out, the Portland Trail Blazers cornerstone has emerged as the player efficiency-loving stat nerds and hero-ball worshipping old heads alike agree is perhaps the league’s most dangerous with the game on the line. The fourth quarter, after all, is called “Lillard Time” for a reason, and not just due to increasingly-faded memories of his series-clinching game-winner over the Houston Rockets in the 2014 playoffs. Last season, Lillard tied for the league lead in field goals made with under 60 seconds left and the score within one point, and ranked top-four in the same category the previous two years. His clutch bonafides are undeniable.

    More than a third of the way into 2018-19, Lillard’s late-game performance has yet to align with his well-earned reputation. As a result of Terry Stotts’ adherence to utilizing all-bench lineups, Lillard is averaging fewer fourth-quarter minutes than any other season of his career, shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc in the process. But the 18-13 Blazers have stayed afloat in the second half regardless, posting a net rating of +1.8 after intermission, per NBA.com/stats – tenth-best in basketball, and .5 points per 100 possessions better than their first-half mark.

    How is Portland, top-heavy and inconsistent as ever, managing to win second halves despite Lillard’s subpar play late, then? He’s just putting on the cape earlier than in years past, rescuing his team from frustratingly punchless starts by dominating in the third quarter. Lillard, after dropping 15 third-quarter points during his team’s come-from-behind win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, leads the NBA by averaging 10.4 points in the third quarter – over a full point more than James Harden’s runner-up number. Lillard’s 322 points scored in the third quarter is 57 more than Kevin Durant’s first-quarter tally, second-highest among any individual total compiled in a given quarter this season. He’s racking up points with staggering efficiency, too, shooting 51.0 percent overall and 51.1 percent from three.

    The most impressive aspect of Lillard’s play in third quarters so far this season, though, is the ease with which he flips the switch from table-setter to alpha-dog scorer, a change he insists is all part of the pre-game plan.

    “First half, I’m just letting the game happen,” he said, after leading the Blazers to their third consecutive victory.  “If I come out and I’m getting open looks, then I’ll be more aggressive in the first half. Most of the time I’m setting guys up, managing the game, seeing what’s going on and taking what comes to me. In that third quarter, that’s usually when you can tell what direction the game is going in. The game is decided in the second half, so I usually try to get more aggressive, impose my will more so then than in the first half.”

    The eye test certainly supports the notion of Lillard amping up his aggressiveness in the third quarter, a reality also backed up by more nuanced statistics. It’s not just hot jump-shooting that has Lillard setting scoreboards ablaze immediately following halftime. Rather, he adjusts his shot profile to maximize the effects of additional usage, raising his free-throw rate to .46 from a game-long .37 and three-point rate to .46 from .40, while lowering his percentage of points scored from mid-range. Lillard’s 68.9 true shooting percentage in the third quarter is indeed mind-blowing, but hardly some fluke attributed mostly to a few standout games scattered among the season’s first two months. He simply changes his offensive approach in the third, abusing defenses with a new sense of vigor by relentlessly attacking the rim and launching away from deep.

    Wednesday’s win marked the 15th game this season Lillard has scored in double-figures during the third quarter, and fourth in the past five games. He’s drained multiple threes nine times and made at least four free throws 12 times, routinely dragging his team back from sizable halftime deficits or keeping it within striking distance before the fourth quarter begins. Just imagine, then, how much better the Blazers will be once Lillard regularly sustains his third-quarter mojo through brief stints on the bench before re-entering for closing time.

    Expecting him to replicate that level of play is setting yourself up for disappointment – not just with regard to the fourth quarter, but the prior one, too. Lillard has been so dominant in the third quarter through the season’s first 31 games that his numbers are bound to come back down to earth. Still, tweaks to his shot profile and overall playing style portend major ongoing success in the third quarter regardless, and suggest the likelihood that his late-game struggles are rooted more in bad luck than a sudden inability to conjure crunch-time heroics.

    Not that the many of us with Lillard Time, of course, even assumed much differently.

Fantasy News

  • Furkan Korkmaz
    SG, Philadelphia Sixers

    After an injury-plagued sophomore campaign for the Sixers, Furkan Korkmaz knows this season will be crucial for his future and he is hoping to make big strides this year.

    The one thing Korkmaz has going for him is his shooting ability and that is something the Sixers could surely utilize on this roster. It did not click last season, but Korkmaz will get another chance to prove his worth at some point this season. Still, it is hard to picture him coming out of the gate with a big role on opening night.

    Source: Sixers.com

  • Nikola Mirotic
    PF, Milwaukee Bucks

    On Sunday, Nikola Mirotic dropped 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting for Barcelona.

    Mirotic's opening appearance for his new EuroLeague club, Barcelona, resulted in a victory, and he did not have to work too hard for most of his buckets at the Supercopa Endesa versus Valencia. Mirotic should find quick success during his return to European basketball, but NBA fantasy players will surely be missing his presence stateside.

    Source: Eurohoops

  • Bruce Brown
    SG, Detroit Pistons

    Coach Dwane Casey spoke highly of Bruce Brown’s defensive play, calling him an ‘elite defender.’

    Brown remains in contention for a starting spot with the Pistons, but he is not a high-usage player, and the Pistons have stocked up with offensive threats such as Derrick Rose and the immortal Joe Johnson. It will be tough for Brown to rack up enough touches or minutes this season.

    Source: Pistons.com

  • Kevin Durant
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    There is some optimism in league circles about Kevin Durant's (Achilles) chances of playing this season, according to Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

    Looking back on Durant's decision to return during the Finals, the Nets may want to exude caution when considering KD's return to action. However, Durant is pursuing his rehab with a sense of purpose, and it would be great to see him get back on the court this season. We'll keep you posted when a real timeline on Durant's rehab emerges. This news does not make him a target on draft day for standard leagues.

    Source: New York Post

  • Larry Nance Jr.
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Larry Nance Jr. is the presumed favorite to start at PF heading into training camp according to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

    Fedor went on to speculate that Nance Jr. could see a lot of time at the four while Kevin Love starts at center and Tristan Thompson and John Henson compete for back up minutes behind those two. Any uptick in playing time would be a huge boost to the per-minute dynamo that Nance Jr is, and a starting role with a new coaching staff bodes well for that. He's trending in the right direction.

    Source: Cleveland.com

  • Kevin Knox
    SF, New York Knicks

    Coach Fizdale told the Knicks players that no starters have been determined and players had to earn their minutes.

    Kevin Knox will battle with veteran Marcus Morris for the starting small forward spot. Knox has been working on getting his body stronger to be able to take on more contact on drives to the basket. Last season as a rookie, he averaged 12.8 points on a putrid 37 percent from the field. Knox will look to get more looks closer to the basket and increase his field goal percentage to more respectable levels. Knox provided little else outside of points and rebounds last season and will need to improve his shooting and defense to be considered a standard-league player.

    Source: New York Post

  • Bol Bol
    C, Denver Nuggets

    According to Nick Kosmider of The Athletic, Bol Bol could spend his entire rookie season in the G-League.

    Bol Bol was not drafted to be an immediate impact player, but just fell too late fore the Nuggets liking. The 44th overall pick needs to bulk up and show that he could take the bumps and bruises before having his chance on the big stage.

    Source: Nick Kosmider of The Athletic

  • Kawhi Leonard
    SF, Los Angeles Clippers

    After speaking with Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank, Dan Woike's takeaway is that Kawhi Leonard's "load management" will not be as strict as it was last year.

    It was reported in July that Kawhi said he wants to play all next season fully and approach load management on a game-to-game basis so this is further confirmation that he will most likely play more than the 60 games he played last year but surely won't play all 82 either. Kurt Helin of NBC Sports speculates that this could be for several reasons. One could be that Leonard can take on more now that he is a little healthier while he believes the Clippers might also limit his per-game minutes to help him play more games. The other idea is that because the Western Conference is so deep, the Clippers will not be able to get a good seed if Leonard sits too many games. Fantasy wise, Leonard finished last season seventh in per game value but 18th in total value since he played only 60 games. Near the top of the second round would be a great place to snag him if he plays around 70 games this season.

    Source: Dan Woike on Twitter

  • Malik Beasley
    SG, Denver Nuggets

    The Nuggets want to extend Malik Beasley and Juan Hernagomez before the October 21 deadline.

    The Nuggets already locked up one of their 2016 first-round picks (Jamal Murray) to a long-term deal and now want to do the same with their other two 2016 first-round picks, Hernangomez and Beasley. If not, the two will likely become restricted free-agents at the end of the season. Both players saw stretches of big minutes last season due to injuries but at full health, Beasley was around 20 minutes per game while Hernangomez was at around 10. Fantasy wise, neither player puts up big defensive stats but Beasley is a very efficient shooter with low turnovers, knocking down 2.0 triples per game last year, putting him near top-150 value at only 23.2 minutes per game. Hernangomez is a decent rebounder and knocked down 0.9 triples per game but he would need closer to 30 minutes per game to be a factor in standard leagues.

    Source: Denver Post

  • OG Anunoby
    SF, Toronto Raptors

    Coach Nick Nurse intends to put OG Anunoby "back out there in a primary role."

    With Kawhi Leonard vacating the starting small forward spot, Anunoby is the leading candidate to take the role. Before the arrival of Leonard, Anunoby started 62 games in his rookie season. Last season he started 6 out of 67 games, and missed the entire playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy. He averaged 7.0 points, 2.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.3 blocks over 20.2 minutes per game, while shooting 45.3 percent from the floor, 33.2 percent from 3-point range and 58.1 percent from the free-throw line. He can be picked up as a late round flier in drafts.

    Source: The Athletic