OAKLAND — He arrived at the Western Conference finals wearing the jersey of the Oakland A’s, who play right next door at the Coliseum, just a five-minute drive from where he was born.
Damian Lillard paused and signed a few autographs before entering Oracle Arena, because he is a man of the people, and these are his people. None of them mention that, in their hearts, they’re rooting for him to lose this playoff series, and so it goes unspoken, a truce in a sense. For this fleeting moment, they’re Lillard fans, until the ball goes up.
And then it’s all for Steph Curry, all night long.
There is a competition within the competition between the Warriors and Blazers, and it is the battle for the affection of Oakland. There is Lillard, the pride of the Brookfield Village neighborhood, who has blossomed into a bonafide star with the Blazers. And then there’s Curry, the symbol of a basketball renaissance here, who has raised the profile of Oakland the last several years.
Now you see why The Town is a bit conflicted. A bit.
The conference championship may well hinge on the performance of these All-NBA guards. Game 1 was fairly lopsided, both in terms of the teams — Warriors 116, Blazers 94 — and the two principles.
Lillard struggled Tuesday and appeared whipped, physically if not mentally, no doubt from a grueling seven-game second round that just wrapped up 48 hours earlier. He missed 8-of-12 shots, had seven turnovers and, in a rarity for him, he was a non-factor for Portland. He’s a combined 7-for-29 in his last two games. Meanwhile, Curry rolled, dropping 36 points and the Blazers along with them.
And so, this is the verdict: Portland cannot hope to stretch this series beyond four games, five tops, without the max from Lillard. He obviously means that much. And Curry, now working without the comforts of his injured co-star Kevin Durant for the second straight game, and maybe without Durant for another two games, needs to keep his skills elevated to prevent suspense from encroaching on the series.
The Warriors are well aware of what Lillard has done to them in the past; he has averaged more points against the hometown team (27.0) than any in his career likely because of provincial pride. Yet Golden State is also aware that he has yet to beat them in any game or series of significance.
“He’s one of the best guards in this league and carries a chip on his shoulder and it has (worked) well for him in his career,” said Draymond Green. “A special talent. I know he’s excited to be back home playing in the last year at Oracle. So it’s special for him but it don’t mean nothing to us. We’ve got to come out here and try to stop him. A tall task.”
While the East Bay has given birth to its share of NBA stars, with Bill Russell, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton among them, Lillard is still freshly active and refreshingly loyal. The connection between him and Oakland remains unwavering despite fame and distance and the fact it’s his job and desire to shock the world in the next few weeks.
He played at St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda and then finished at Oakland High, and a thick section of fans at Oracle Wednesday were wrapped in Blazers gear and made their preference clear. Most were either from the old neighborhood or family members.
His high school coach, Damon Jones, is a Warriors season ticket holder, and Jones said: “Nobody bought me a drink tonight.”
The coach added, playfully: “They gave me a hard time. When the Warriors scored, they wanted to turn around and slap five but then caught themselves at the last minute.”
Jones remembers Lillard as being a promising and quick guard who picked up the nuances of the game rapidly.
“He was very personable for someone his age, a solid teammate,” Jones said. “He still keeps in touch with all of his former teammates. It’s a brotherhood and he’s the leader. He’s always trying to be a positive influence on everyone around here.”
Lillard returns every summer to give away backpacks with school supplies and funded the renovation of the Oakland High gym. He’s a familiar sight around town in the offseason and always approachable, and that loyalty and devotion doesn’t go unnoticed.
“People here respect him,” said Raymond Young, Lillard’s AAU coach. “When he comes here to play, people here say they’re going to clap for Damian but cheer for the Warriors. Only he can get that kind of reaction. His loyalty comes from his family. His mother and father were no-problem parents. They let us coach him. He was a joy to be around. Still is.”
Lillard is even more endearing because he comes from humble beginnings and is self-made. Both of his youth coaches are admittedly shocked by his impact in the NBA. He wound up at Weber State. He wasn’t highly recruited by the big schools. Even nearby Cal-Berkeley came late.
“But if he goes there,” said Young, “does all this happen?”
Lillard is revered in another place as well. Portland is also smitten by his loyalty; in an age of transient stars, Lillard has never wanted to play anywhere else. Perhaps this has cost him some visibility, with a majority of his games tipping off at 10:30 ET. It’s a price he’s more than willing to pay.
Lillard has never taken a team this deep into the playoffs, where legends and reputations are made, and so being in the conference finals represents some new and deserved shine for him.
A layer of that invisibility was peeled off in these playoffs where Lillard has come up massive. His shot from nearly 40 feet that eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round, and the bye-bye wave reaction, became iconic. Then he followed up with a strong second round as well against the Nuggets, although as that series crept to the conclusion, Lillard shot just 3-for-17 in that Game 7, then followed up with a 4-for-12 Tuesday, proof that he might be gassed — and also that the Warriors cooked up a defensive game plan specifically for him.
“Obviously it’s a little bit difficult physically and emotionally just because you’re excited about being in the Western Conference finals,” said Lillard. “You come straight here form Denver and get ready for the best team in the league. But once we lace our shoes and put our uniforms on, it’s fair and square. You got to go out there and handle your business.
“They did a good job defensively and even when I was trying to find (teammates), they were getting deflections. They were making me play in a crowd. I thought they were successful at that … in this first game.”
But his toughest task of all might be upstaging Curry, particularly here in Oakland. While Lillard has flourished through much of the postseason, Curry by comparison has been mild, especially by his standards. The missed layups, a famously flubbed dunk attempt and sporadic 3-point shooting was unsightly.
And then, after Durant limped off the floor, Curry felt a sense of urgency and a flush of greatness. He buried the Rockets with a pair of epic fourth quarters, then kept the faucet running Tuesday. The Blazers couldn’t limit or at least slow him anywhere on the floor, especially from the 3-point line, where Curry was a sizzling 9-for-15. And no missed layups. In his last six quarters of basketball, Curry has scored 69 points with 13-for-24 shooting on 3s.
“I know what I’m capable of doing on the floor,” Curry said, “and the situation calls for me to be more aggressive and hopefully that will continue. It’s nice to see the ball go in. I want to maintain that. I didn’t shoot well for 4 1/2 games the last series. Every game is different. You have to reestablish yourself and that’s my perspective no matter how I play.”
Curry didn’t arrive wearing the baseball jersey of the home team, and if anything has been spotted at San Franciso Giants games across the Bay, where the Warriors will call home starting next season. But don’t get anything twisted. Curry’s bond with Oakland, developed over time, is genuine and real for someone born and bred a country away in Charlotte, and the feeling is mutual.
The tug of war for the heartstrings of Oakland is subtle between the pair of franchise players on the floor in this playoff series. Call it a draw from the standpoint of whom the fans here respect and appreciate. There’s enough love to be shared by both.
Yet in the basketball sense, this series is on the verge of being owned by the one wearing the jersey that reps Oakland. Curry has more momentum and better teammates, and Durant is on deck.
Oakland, therefore, will indeed cheer for one of its own, for Damian Lillard. But the way this series and these playoffs are going, The Town is anxious to pop bottles with Steph Curry once again, at the usual place and time, for one last time.
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The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
Raptors on brink of first Finals berth in franchise history
TORONTO — Twenty-one would be a very cool number for the Toronto Raptors. Before they get it, though, they’ll need to get one.
And one would be beyond cool. Off the charts, historic, potentially transformative and largely indescribable.
Twenty-one: That’s how many teams in NBA playoff history will have overcome an 0-2 start to win a best-of-seven series, if the Raptors manage to close out the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. Whether it happens in Game 6 Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena or in Game 7 back in Milwaukee Monday, Toronto would buck outlandish odds — this is the 289th series to begin with the same team winning the first two games, so we’re talking a 7 percent likelihood (20 of 288).
One: That’s all that stands between the Raptors and the first NBA Final appearance in Toronto franchise history. One more victory in the next three days would validate the risks and twists of this 2018-19 season for the Raptors, while exorcising nearly a quarter century’s worth of demons.
One little win and Toronto finally will break through, capping a stellar six-year run of promising regular seasons and heartbreaking postseasons. They will have earned, in the face of so much uncertainty, their best shot yet at a championship, even if it means going through the mighty Golden State Warriors.
When Raptors president Masai Ujiri traded for star forward Kawhi Leonard, he was gambling not just that Leonard could recover from the right quadriceps injury that scuttled his 2017-18. He was guessing that swapping in Leonard for former All-Star wing DeMar DeRozan could push Toronto to, well, right where they’re at. And he was hoping Leonard, a rent-a-player able to leave this summer in free agency, would enjoy the whole experience enough to let Ujiri pay him $220 million over the next five seasons.
It’s impossible to know where things stand on that last front, owing to Leonard’s inscrutability and a decision that’s still six weeks away. But the Raptors never have gotten this far, so there is an opportunity here to be savored, with more potentially to come.
“It would be a very, very long summer thinking about what could have been or what you could have done,” guard Fred VanVleet said, framing things a bit negatively after raining 7-of-9 3-pointers on Milwaukee in the 105-99 Game 5 victory. “So we’ve just got to go out there and have no regrets. … One win away from the Finals sounds pretty good to me.”
Sounds a little easier, maybe, than it actually will be. The Raptors are at home for Game 6 and the crowd at Scotiabank crowd, already dialed high, will be able to let it rip without any fear — immediate fear, anyway — of failure.
But Milwaukee will be desperate. Giannis Antetokounmpo has pledged that his team will not “fold.” And the Bucks have zero interest in a knock-knock year, believing all season that they were good enough to reach and win the championship.
They wouldn’t be human if they weren’t shaken by the three consecutive defeats Toronto has dealt them. The Raptors have managed to surround and partially stifle Antetokounmpo, while still firing out enough to bother Milwaukee’s 3-point shooters into repeated misfires.
The Bucks’ defense has been probed and poked like a cut-rate steak. They resorted again to some uncharacteristic switching in Game 5 but had most of their success inside the arc. Late in the pivotal loss, they got beat for five offensive rebounds, when grabbing two or three might have swung the outcome.
“It’s win or lose,” coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday in a conference call with reporters. “When you win, there are things that [still] are concerning and unsettling that you need to work on and improve. I think there’s just enough possessions where there’s a couple of rebounds that stand out.
“Can we do a little bit better job in some of our activity in certain situations. Offensively, I think at times can our spacing be better and our ball movement be better? But I would say it’s like a lot of games. We didn’t get it done.”
Trail Blazers sign Stotts to extension through 2022
PORTLAND (AP) — The Portland Trail Blazers have formally announced that coach Terry Stotts signed a contract extension through the 2021-22 season.
The extension was first revealed the day after the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the postseason by the Golden State Warriors, but terms were not released.
Stotts, Portland’s coach since 2012, led the team to its first appearance in the Western Conference finals in 19 years. The Blazers finished the regular season 53-29 to secure the third seed then got past Oklahoma City and Denver in the opening rounds of the playoffs.
The Blazers have made the playoffs in six straight seasons under Stotts.
The Blazers also announced Friday that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has signed to a contract extension through the 2023-24 season. Olshey joined the team in 2012 as general manager and was promoted in 2015.
Durant initially thought injury was much worse
Superstar Warriors forward Kevin Durant was forced to sit out the entire Western Conference finals with a calf injury suffered in the previous round, and it’s increasingly likely he’ll miss at least part of the upcoming Finals against either Toronto or Milwaukee as Golden State pursues its third straight title and fourth in five years.
But it could have been much worse based on his split-second reaction to the injury he suffered late in the Warriors’ Game 5 victory on May 8 of their Western Conference semifinals series with Houston.
While Durant was later diagnosed with a right calf strain, he initially feared — along with many watching — that he might have torn his Achilles tendon based on the non-contact nature of the injury.
“I felt somebody trip me up,” said Durant, who spoke about the injury for the first time on Friday. “First thing that came to mind, “Boogie (Cousins) said, Kobe (Bryant) said…” that it felt like somebody kicked them (after they tore Achilles tendons).
“So the first thing in my mind was to slow down and process what happened. Then I started walking, and I could put weight on it, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
But still bad enough that Durant has been out for more than two weeks, and has yet to be cleared for on-court activities. The Warriors announced on Thursday that Durant continues to make “good progress” with the injury, and is “hopeful” to return at some point during The Finals, which begin next Thursday and conclude, if it lasts all seven games, on June 16.
“I’m just taking it a second at a time,” Durant said. “I don’t really know too much about this injury. I’m just leaving it up to the team doctors.”
The Warriors can at least count on the return of veteran reserve Andre Iguodala (calf), who is expected to return for Game 1, and perhaps All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins (quad), who the Warriors expect to return at some point during The Finals.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said both players participated in a full team scrimmage on Friday, with no restrictions on contact or playing time. Durant, he said, sat out as he continues to rehab.
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