• 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

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    According to Shams Charania, the NBA has informed players that they will not be able to travel with their respective teams in Orland, should they fail to be tested on one of two days before the scheduled travel date.

    The report also says that if the player does indeed miss the said window to be tested, he will need to register three consecutive tests before traveling. This is a strict protocol, but one the league needs to enforce in order to ensure the safety of all of the players and staff who will be entering the "bubble" in Walt Disney World in preparation for the resumption of the 2019-20 season. There has been a lot of concern, especially with the growing number of cases being recorded in Florida.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Jimmy Butler
    SG, Miami Heat

    Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald is reporting that a third Heat player has tested positive for COVID-19.

    Derrick Jones Jr. is the only known player, though Jackson adds that the two latest cases are both rotation players. Florida is in terrible shape at the moment and the Heat may need to enter the bubble without three of their rotation options — those players may still join the team later but will miss out on valuable practice time. The NBA is going full steam ahead on their restart plans but the virus is going to determine whether or not things actually unfold according to plan.

    Source: Barry Jackson on Twitter

  • Landry Shamet
    SG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Shams Charania reports that Landry Shamet has tested positive for COVID-19 and is unlikely to join the Clippers for their trip to Orlando this week.

    That leaves the door open for Shamet to rejoin the team closer to the season's restart, assuming he is feeling okay. Just yesterday it was announced that the Clippers closed their facilities after a positive test, so it appears Shamet's case was the culprit. The sharpshooter is averaging 27.5 minutes per game this season so if he's forced to sit out the Orlando restart it could have big ramifications on LA's backcourt rotation.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    The NBA has released its schedule of scrimmages for the Orlando restart, with games beginning on July 22.

    The league has tried to match up teams that are unlikely opponents for these scrimmages so nobody gets a really good look at what a potential playoff matchup might want to run. For example, the first day of scrimmages will see the Nuggets face the Wizards, the Nets take on the Pelicans, the Clippers against the Magic and the Kings vs. the Heat. Scrimmages will run through July 28.

    Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter

  • Caris LeVert
    PG-SG, Brooklyn Nets

    Caris LeVert embraces challenge of being a leader.

    LeVert has been an active participant in the racial inequality protests and admitted that basketball is very minor right now compared to everything else going on in the world but is ready for the NBA restart saying, "For me, it’s just taking on that challenge of being a leader, being the leader of that group, going down there with some of the most experience on the team, playoff experience." In the 16 games since rejoining the starting lineup, LeVert has put up All-Star numbers with 24.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists, while shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range and leading the Nets to a 9-7 record over that span. The upward trajectory continues for the Nets' 20th overall pick in the 2016 draft.

    Source: Newsday

  • Jordan Crawford
    SG, Free Agent

    Jordan Crawford has agreed to a deal with Russia's Lokomotiv Kuban.

    Crawford last played in the NBA for the Pelicans in 2018 with career averages of 12.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 24.4 minutes. The career journeyman has played for five NBA teams since 2010 with a few stints with China in between. Since the beginning of 2019, he has played in Israel, China, Germany and now we can add Russia to that list.

    Source: Sportando

  • Lance Stephenson
    SG, Free Agent

    Lance Stephenson is ineligible to sign with the Pacers according to Scott Agness.

    Stephenson to the Pacers was being discussed in early March and made sense now with Victor Oladipo choosing to sit out the remainder of the season but this move apparently will not happen. The 29-year old Stephenson spent this past season in China where he averaged 26.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the CBA's Flying Leopards.

    Source: Scott Agness on Twitter

  • Anthony Davis
    PF-C, Los Angeles Lakers

    Anthony Davis has high expectations for the Lakers when they resume play later in July in Orlando, citing the long layoff as a favorable development for his squad.

    As if the Lakers weren't already squarely in the hunt for an NBA championship. When speaking to ESPN's Dave McMenamin, Davis said that he believes their "chances are higher just because we’re all rested and we’re all ready to go.” Depth seems to be the most glaring issue potentially facing the Lakers as they prepare to make the trip to Disney World, as defensive stalwart Avery Bradley recently opted out of the remainder of the season. Bradley was subsequently replaced by well-traveled veteran guard J.R. Smith (who has a long history of playoff runs alongside LeBron James with the Cavs), but the team is still unsure of veteran center Dwight Howard's status the rest of the way. Other than Howard, the Lakers' roster is seemingly set for Orlando. Davis sounds like he's ready to rock, however.

    Source: ESPN

  • Deng Adel
    PF, Brooklyn Nets

    Deng Adel, who played 19 games for the Cavs last season as a two-way player, is being pursued by the Illawara Hawks of Australia's NBL, which, notably was the team 18-year-old LaMelo Ball played for last season (and has attempted to purchase).

    Adel had two short stints before last season with the Rockets and Nets in the Summer League and the preseason, respectively. He was originally a standout at Louisville but went undrafted in 2018 before hitching on with the Cavs on a two-way pact. This season he had been playing for the Long Island Nets, the Nets' G League affiliate, prior to the pause and ultimately the end of the G League season. Adel had registered averages of 11.1 points, 4.2 boards and 2.6 assists to that point. Also of note, Adel spent the lion's share of his childhood in Australia after his family moved from South Sudan around the time he was eight.

    Source: Sportando

  • Darius Miller
    SF, New Orleans Pelicans

    Darius Miller is unsure if he will be able to play in Orlando, as he continues to recover from a torn a ruptured right Achillies.

    Due to the lockdown, Miller has been unable to participate in any live-action, or else he would have played in 3-on-3 or 5-on-5 by now. At this point, it would be surprising for the Pelicans to risk his health by pushing for him to participate in the eight-game regular season.

    Source: Will Guillory on Twitter