• Russell Westbrook and Stevens Adams aren’t Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis.

    The Portland Trail Blazers weren’t swept out of the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans last year for any one reason, but most impactful among the many was the inability of Damian Lillard to free himself from constraints of extra aggressive ball-screen defense. Holiday and Davis weren’t the only Pelicans defenders who stymied Lillard while executing that plan of attack; Nikola Mirotic, in particular, deserves credit for his surprising effectiveness containing the ball on the other side of picks, letting Davis wreak havoc as a help defender around the rim. But it goes without saying that Alvin Gentry’s strategy hinged on the presence of his team’s two best defensive players, a tandem better suited to make life hell on Lillard than any other in the league.

    A year later, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed like a bad matchup for Portland on the surface given an ingrained defensive scheme similar to the one New Orleans employed to such success. Were Lillard and the Blazers prepared for another defense intent on forcing the ball out of his hands, goading role players into testing their limits offensively? Through the first two games of the first-round series between Portland and Oklahoma City, the answer has been an unequivocal affirmative – resulting from both the Thunder’s suboptimal personnel, and improvements and adjustments made by the Blazers.

    Adams is lighter on his feet than one might expect given his status as the league’s resident strongman. His keen understanding of angles and space makes him a better rim-protector than the numbers suggest, too. But tasked with pressing a playmaker of Lillard’s caliber high up the floor, corralling him until the primary defender – mostly Westbrook to this point – recovers in time to put two defenders on the ball, has just proven too much for Adams to handle.

    The Thunder’s use of an aggressive drop on Lillard instead of a full hedge makes sense. He has functional range to the logo, and needs just a blink of an eye to turn the corner around a hedging defender and let fly from deep before the primary defender gets back in place for a sufficient contest. But Oklahoma City’s effort to find that difficult balance between preventing a pull-up triple and keeping the ball from the paint inevitably leaves Adams on an island, even if just for a moment, and Lillard’s been able to exploit that opportunity time and again – whether the Blazers run a simple pick-and-roll, hit Adams with a down screen before the main one is set, throw an additional screener in the fray, or Lillard rejects the pick altogether.

    Lillard has also realized that sometimes his best course of attack is going even before the screen arrives. Paul George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Terrence Ferguson is quickly developing into one of the game’s best young perimeter defenders, but there’s nothing they can do when Lillard, with nearly unparalleled burst, splits the sliver of space that briefly appears when the primary defender opens his hips to prepare for an oncoming pick.

    Remember, Adams isn’t Davis, and Westbrook isn’t Holiday. If Adams doesn’t have the quickness to contain Lillard in space beyond the arc, he certainly won’t be quick enough to chase him at an unexpected moment’s notice and affect a shot at the rim. That’s not his fault – Lillard has also roasted Nerlens Noel, one of the fastest bigs in basketball, in the same scenario on multiple occasions. Westbrook, never adept at navigating screens, needs to stay closer attached to the ball, and maybe more importantly, Billy Donovan must put Adams and company in a better position to succeed.

    What that is, unfortunately, remains to be seen. It would help if Lillard stopped dropping bombs several steps behind the three-point line; over half of his 19 attempts from deep thus far have been from 28 feet or more. Maybe moving Westbrook off Lillard and slotting Ferguson onto him would lead to a bit more resistance at the initial point of attack, though Westbrook’s penchant for getting lost away from the ball and Ferguson’s lack of strength are complicating factors. Donovan seems to like the length of George on C.J. McCollum, who uses far more off-ball picks than his backcourt partner, but it’s not like that matchup has been in the Thunder’s favor thus far. Maybe they muck up the game by switching across five positions, giving more playing time to Noel and sliding Jerami Grant down to center, though doing so would obviously decrease Adams’ minutes.

    Portland, with a year to prepare for its postseason opponents adopting a version of New Orleans’ defensive blueprint, won’t make it any easier for Oklahoma City to find workable adjustments, either.

    Evan Turner, a non-threat from three who was frequently used as a primary ball handler both throughout the regular season and in last year’s playoffs, has played just 28 total minutes against the Thunder as Stotts prioritizes shooting and floor spacing. Rodney Hood and Seth Curry, who finished third in three-point percentage during the regular season, have been the Blazers’ first subs off the bench, while Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, with varying degrees of threatening three-point range, have combined to play nearly as many minutes at center as Enes Kanter.

    It’s been said for years that Portland becomes a different team when Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless knock down open shots. They’re a combined 1-of-7 from deep in this series, but it’s only mattered to a manageable extent because the Blazers are otherwise dotting the floor with shooters, pushing the pace when chances present themselves, and moving the ball quickly in the rare instances Lillard or McCollum get stuck off the dribble.

    “Over the course of the game, shots are gonna fall – I think that’s what we’ve seen on the offensive end,” Lillard said after Game 2. “Everybody’s a part of it. We’re making the right pass, swing-swing, passing ahead. Everything that we’re doing offensively is keeping everybody involved, and it’s also making them pay for giving so much attention to the ball.”

    We’ll see if those two-way realities hold true when this series shifts to Oklahoma City on Friday night.

Fantasy News

  • Trajan Langdon - Team - New Orleans Pelicans

    The New Orleans Pelicans are hiring Brooklyn Nets' assistant GM Trajan Langdon as next General Manager according to Shams Charania of the Athletic.

    David Griffin makes his first big hire as the new Head of Basketball ops, getting a guy who played an essential role in the Nets' impressive turnaround. Langdon joins the league's most fascinating team from a front office perspective, holding the keys to what could either be a contending team or a jump-start rebuilding one depending on what is done with Anthony Davis.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Bradley Beal - G - Washington Wizards

    The Lakers are looking at adding a litany of veteran players via trade this offseason, including: Kyle Lowry, Derrick Favors and Bradley Beal according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News.

    The Lakers acquiring the fourth pick in the 2019 NBA draft will make them all the more competitive on the trade market. It has been well documented how LeBron James' teams have preferred established players over rookies, and that should be no different after coming off of the disaster that last season's Laker team was. The connection between the Lakers and Beal has been established for months, but it's worth keeping in mind as we get closer to the draft. Aiming to add vets like Lowry and Favors also makes sense, but obviously Beal would be the big get of that bunch.

    Source: Sporting News

  • Mike Conley - G - Memphis Grizzlies

    Multiple teams are looking into trading for Mike Conley according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News.

    The article lists a couple teams that have already been linked to Conley such as the Jazz and the Pacers, but one particularly interesting one that was introduced was the Miami Heat. The Heat may be looking to move on from Dragic, who is set to accept a player option that will book him for $19.2 million for the 2019-2020 season. With a combination of expiring salary and a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, the Heat could present themselves as an intriguing trading partner for the rebuilding Grizz.

    Source: Sporting News

  • Frank Ntilikina - G - New York Knicks

    The Knicks are shopping Frank Ntilikina for a late-first or 2nd round pick according to Marc Berman of the New York Post

    The paltry return they're searching for tells the story for the former lottery pick. It hasn't been a strong first two years for the young PG, but there will likely be an offer or two for him out there from a bottoming-out team who may want to take a filer on him for his defensive upside. Still though, Ntilikina has a long way to go before he can be considered a reliable NBA player.

    Source: New York Post

  • Goran Dragic - G - Miami Heat

    Goran Dragic is unlikely to opt out of the last year of his deal according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

    This is unsurprising given how Dragic will be set to make $19.2 million in his final season, a total that he is all but assured not to see on the open market. Dragic's most productive days are behind him, but that doesn't mean that the Heat won't be able to find a suitor who'd be looking to clear some cap space with his expiring deal.

    Source: Miami Herald

  • Stephen Curry - G - Golden State Warriors

    Stephen Curry scored 36 points in Saturday's 110-99 Game 3 win over the Blazers, adding six rebounds, three assists and five turnovers.

    Curry led his team offensively, contributing 36 points on 11-for-26 shooting. On a night where teammate Draymond Green was the primary facilitator, Curry settled in on scoring the bulk of his team's points from off the ball screens and shots from behind the arc. The Warriors have the luxury to allow for multiple ball-handlers and Curry seemed happy to acquiesce as he and Klay Thompson combined for 55 points with seven 3-pointers. Look for Curry to continue to lead the team in scoring as Kevin Durant is not expected to be back this series.

  • Damian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers

    Shams Charania of The Athletic is reporting that Damian Lillard has been playing through separated ribs in the Western Conference Finals.

    Charania and Sam Amick have since reported that the injury occurred in Game 2 when Kevon Looney landed on Lillard's ribs. To this point he's playing with a pad on his torso, though his current run of poor shooting extends back into the second round before the injury was sustained. The Blazers are facing a deep hole down 0-3 to the Warriors, and Lillard will surely be finishing out the series despite his injury. Between the ailment and Golden State selling out to stop him, Lillard has had to battle through quite a bit in the WCF.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Damian Jones - C - Golden State Warriors

    Damian Jones got the start for the Warriors but played just three minutes after picking up three fouls in the first quarter to finish with no other countable statistic in Saturday's win.

    Jones got the start and then got the hook early after drawing three fouls in the first 3:17 of Game 3. Jones got the start over Andrew Bogut after playing just two minutes in Game 2 and two minutes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Bogut and Jones played a combined six minutes this game and did not contribute anything offensively. Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney picked up the slack and ended up playing 42 minutes and contributing 14 points. It is unlikely that Jones will start again going into Game 4.

  • Draymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors

    Draymond Green went off on Saturday's win, posting a monster 20-13-12 line and adding four steals and one block.

    Draymond was all over the court for the Warriors posting his seventh career postseason triple-double. With his team down 13 points to start the second half, Green channeled his inner Magic Johnson and rallied the Warriors with six rebounds, six assists and two steals to take the lead going into the fourth quarter. His defensive intensity continues to be a catalyst for the team and is a major reason why the Warriors continue to dominate in this series.

  • Maurice Harkless - F - Trail Blazers

    Moe Harkless scored six points and added three rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks in Saturday's loss.

    Harkless did all of his damage in the first half and looked to be on his way to a great game scoring six points and adding two steals/blocks. Unfortunately he would not score again and added just one assist to his stat line in the second half. Fellow forward Al-Farouq Aminu added just two points in the losing effort and he and Harkless continue to get marginalized in the Blazers' small-ball lineup. Harkless has the ability to contribute for the team and they will need him to re-find his aggressiveness if the they plan on making this a series.