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NBA Beat: Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard surpassing expectations

The Portland Trail Blazers – led by guard Damian Lillard, right – don’t want 2015-16 to be a rebuilding season. At 22-26 entering Saturday, Portland is in eighth place in the Western Conference, which would be the last playoff spot if the postseason started today.
The Portland Trail Blazers – led by guard Damian Lillard, right – don’t want 2015-16 to be a rebuilding season. At 22-26 entering Saturday, Portland is in eighth place in the Western Conference, which would be the last playoff spot if the postseason started today. The Associated Press

This season looked like the blueprint for rebuilding for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Four starters from a playoff team were gone, leaving point guard Damian Lillard as their only proven elite player.

Many outside Portland thought the Trail Blazers could pile up losses and possibly get a top-three draft pick to pair with Lillard. But the Trail Blazers didn’t see this season as a chance to enter the race for star LSU freshman Ben Simmons.

Portland has relied on Lillard and the emergence of shooting guard C.J. McCollum to contend for a Western Conference playoff spot. The Trail Blazers have won seven of 10 to improve to 22-26, eighth in the West.

Coach Terry Stotts said the low expectations have “certainly been” motivation.

“I think all our players knew about it and took exception to it,” he said. “But it doesn’t do any good taking exception to it if you don’t play well. So I think that’s been a little bit of motivation for us from the beginning.”

Inconsistency has marked Portland’s season. The Trail Blazers had an early seven-game losing streak. Their longest winning streak is three games, accomplished four times.

Lillard, who missed seven games because of a foot injury, has been spectacular most of the season, averaging 24.3 points and 7.0 assists, but he did not make the All-Star team. McCollum is having a breakout season, averaging 20.7 points. Guard Allen Crabbe has improved, and young big men Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh are helping the Trail Blazers average 46.1 rebounds, fifth in the league.

Lillard is the key to Portland’s success after the departures of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez. The fourth-year guard has had to step up in other ways.

“With those guys not being here anymore, he’s the incumbent leader and all that entails,” Stotts said. “On the court, in the locker room, offseason, he just has more responsibility, and on top of that, before it was kind of spread among some of the older guys, and now he is the older guy.”

Lillard’s leadership and performance might be enough to get the Trail Blazers into the postseason and make everyone forget they were supposed to be looking toward the draft lottery.

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Isaiah Thomas didn’t receive a contract offer from the Kings in the summer of 2014 and was dealt in a sign-and-trade to the Phoenix Suns.

The Kings didn’t even receive a rotation player for Thomas. They acquired the draft rights to Alex Oriakhi, who didn’t even start on the Kings’ summer-league team, and a trade exception that allowed them to acquire Andre Miller last season.

Phoenix traded Thomas to the Boston Celtics last February. And the 5-foot-9 guard, who admittedly plays with something to prove every night, is now an All-Star.

Not bad for a player deemed expendable by two teams in less than a year.

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Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin is a crossover star known for his athleticism on the court and funny TV commercials off it.

But last Saturday, he broke his right hand when he hit one of the team’s equipment managers. Not only will he be out four to six weeks, his image might have been damaged.

Griffin had a reputation in NBA circles for not being a tough guy, so what was he doing beating up someone considerably smaller than him?

Altercations happen behind the scenes more often than the public realizes, but when they result in a player missing time, they become big news.

Griffin must deal with the embarrassment and possibly punishment from the league. And when he returns, he’ll have to play like a superstar to make this incident a distant memory.

Last words

“You have to forgive people at some point. I believe that. We built Richard Nixon a library,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers, to reporters on forgiveness for Griffin.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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