How Long Before Orlando Magic Catch Eastern Conference by Surprise?

It’s around this time each summer when NBA prognosticators posit a handful of teams worth keeping half an eye on—not contenders, not guaranteed bottom-dwellers, but the purgatory-bound upstarts with the potential to shake things up a bit.

The New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks: You’re liable to hear these names bandied about quite a bit in the days and weeks ahead.

The Orlando Magic? They haven’t registered quite as high on the sneaky-sexy scale.

Ignore them while you can, though, because this might be the last summer you’ll be able to.

From the outside looking in, any team that finishes with the third worst record in the NBA—playing in a historically weak East, no less—wouldn’t seem the stuff of upstart promise.

The fact that Orlando recently jettisoned starting point guard and long-standing veteran Jameer Nelson, forcing it to rely on the steady but hardly spectacular Luke Ridnour, doesn’t exactly help the cause.

What the Magic have, however, is a youth-imbued core capable, with the right care and coaching, of catching its conference superiors asleep at the wheel.

Had it not been for Michael Carter-Williams’ incendiary start to last season, Orlando’s own sophomore sensation, Victor Oladipo, might’ve stolen Rookie of the Year right out from under him.

Despite the slight, Oladipo is a star in waiting—a two-way force with the athleticism of Dwyane Wade, the defensive tenacity of Tony Allen and the work ethic of young Kobe Bryant.

“He never takes a day off,” Oladipo‘s collegiate coach, Tom Crean, said of his former charge in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins.

“He really worked as hard as he possibly could, and if the gym was going to be open, you knew you could count on Victor being there,” added Oladipo’s high school coach, Mike Jones. “He kind of became like the Pied Piper. When Victor worked out, other guys wanted to work out, too. His outlook and his approach are definitely contagious.”

After averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 42 percent shooting during his rookie campaign, Oladipo stands as one of the upcoming season’s biggest breakout candidates. More encouraging still for Orlando fans, he’s by no means alone in this regard.

Oladipo may well be the Magic’s star of the future. But it’s in the frontcourt trio of Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and the newly acquired Channing Frye that Orlando may find its steadiest, sturdiest anchor.

Entering his fourth year, Vucevic is already a double-double machine, and has improved almost across the statistical board in each of his three seasons. With another mini leap, we could be talking about an All-Star caliber center by January. At that point, Orlando has to start thinking about how much it’s willing to spend beyond the burly center’s $4.1 million qualifying offer next summer.

And while Harris’ first three seasons have been beset by minor injuries, his steadily developing offensive versatility is poised to be a focal point of Jacque Vaughn’s Spurs-inspired offense this season. That the 22-year-old Long Island native carved out some summer free time to work out with Carmelo Anthony at the New York Knicks star’s Midtown Manhattan gym (via the New York Post’s Marc Berman) only adds to the intrigue.

Frye, meanwhile, gives the Magic something they haven’t had since Stan Van Gundy left town: consistent outside shooting. The four-year, $32 million tender might seem steep now, but Frye’s veteran leadership is a necessary quantity for any team with grander designs on the horizon.

And that’s before we even get to Aaron Gordon, the 6’9” athletic specimen out of Arizona and the fourth overall pick of June’s draft. Gordon’s offense remains very much a work in progress, but the defense—think Shawn Marion in terms of positional versatility—is nothing if not NBA-ready.

Round it out with the 21-year-old Moe Harkless, the savvy-skilled Andrew Nicholson and the bruising Kyle O’Quinn, Orlando’s frontcourt depth will be an indispensable part of the team’s rotational strategy.

The backcourt, on the other hand—particularly in the wake of Arron Afflalo’s departure—presents question marks aplenty.

If rookie Elfrid Payton’s summer league showing is any kind of harbinger, the Rajon Rondo comparisons might not sound so hyperbolic. Still, Payton’s sheer rawness—particularly in terms of scoring—is bound to be a short-term hindrance to Orlando’s offense. Even if Payton earns the opening-night starting nod, expect a heavy dose of Ridnour as the season progresses.

Make no mistake, the Magic offense is nowhere near a top-tier attack. In fact, given their next-to-last finish in efficiency a season ago, it’d be a minor miracle for them to claw into the top half.

Still, the rudiments of an upstart are there, in the youth-laden talent, considerable cap space and a coach in Vaughn who, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe highlighted back in February, appears to have the confidence of board room and locker room alike:

The Magic locker room is a strikingly harmonious place — a rare thing for a team featuring veterans who want the minutes they’re accustomed to and young guys chasing numbers and money. The organization credits the positive vibes to Vaughn’s straight talk with each player.

But the Magic have so far to go, and they know it. Finding a star in this draft is crucial for the Magic’s long-term championship aspirations. If they find merely a good player, the road is going to be very difficult.

At this point, any one of Oladipo, Gordon, Payton, Harris or Vucevic has a chance—however varying in probability—to emerge as a bona fide cornerstone. That general manager Rob Hennigan and Co. have spread their gambles across all five positions speaks to an organizational philosophy at once sensible and intriguing.

But with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks each adhering to a similar rebuilding timetable (and strategy), Orlando’s margin for error might not be as vast as fans would like to think. Sooner or later, Hennigan must begin shifting his focus from Ping-Pong balls to proven talent to capitalize on the Magic’s massive cap space by bringing in players capable of accelerating the rebuilding process.

With a slew of team and player options on the horizon, the Magic have a bevy of blueprints at their disposal, from maintaining its current core to reinforcing with veterans on the fringes and just about everything in between.

More importantly, they have the means necessary to begin their standings ascent—if not this season, then certainly by 2015.

Tempting as it might be to remain bolted to the basement, the time is nigh for Orlando to grasp a central truth of today’s NBA: Realizing you’re ready is just as important as the process of getting there.

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How Long Before Brad Stevens Turns the Boston Celtics Around?

When you’ve won a championship for every four years of the NBA’s existence, as the Boston Celtics have, “rebuilding” probably isn’t too high up on the franchise lexicon.

So when the team decided last summer to hand the reins to a baby-faced 36-year-old from a mid-major college conference, the writing was on the wall for Celtics fans: After years of nearly constant contention, it was going to be a long road back for Boston.

Judging by his six-year, $22 million deal, Brad Stevens—the coaching wunderkind who’d made his name as the brains behind Butler University’s steady ascendanceisn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So how long until he truly turns the Celtics around?

The short answer: Not this season, or the next one. And probably not the one after that, either.

Cold reality aside, you can’t accuse Boston of not having a plan in place. Like many teams, the Celtics stand to have boatloads of cash to spend in 2015 and 2016—the latter of which could find them with the full complement of cap space, depending on how the various options shake out.

Still, with a bevy of big names slated to become available, Boston isn’t the only team with eyes for the next two summers. To have any chance of reeling in a Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic or—taking it another notch up—Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, the Celtics’ youth-laden core must be rounded out to something resembling rotational coherence.

For Boston, the biggest X-factor lies in who will be the team’s point guard of the future, a question cast into towering relief following their recent selection of Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick in June’s draft.

On the one hand, picking the 20-year-old Smart to serve a season or two as a backup to four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo seems like a pretty sound strategy.

On the other, there are stone statues easier to read than the Celtics’ mercurial floor general. Indeed, it seems not a week has gone by in the past year when Rondo has’t been mentioned either as trade fodder or—at the other extreme—as being open to serving as Boston’s new cornerstone.

Now, with the team still looking at two or three more years of doldrums-dwelling and Smart the clear heir apparent, it seems Rondo’s days in Beantown are ticking ever downward.

From Stevens’ perspective, it’s not hard to see how Smart provides the more compelling long-term play. In both frame and drive, the rookie point guard can’t help but conjure memories of Stevens’ longtime Butler floor general, Shelvin Mack—albeit with a bigger build, better penetrating prowess and oodles more upside.

It’s the rest of the roster that could stand a smidge more certainty.

Of Boston’s many young talents, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk—with their double-double potential and cheap price tags—stand the best chance of seeing Boston’s rebuild through. Not surprising, given the two’s efficient production and ability to stretch the floor.

And while Jeff Green’s $9.2 million player option for the 2015-16 season looms large indeed, Boston can use a stopgap 3 to hold the fort until James Young, the versatile forward out of Kentucky, learns the ropes of Stevens’ system.

One look at the Celtics’ depth chart makes it crystal clear that, much like last season, 2014-15 is sure to be a wash. But with three more first-round picks on the way in 2015, Boston has achieved a level of financial flexibility paramount in today’s NBA, beholden as it is to a parity-driven collective bargaining agreement.

However, those fans looking to next summer for the team’s next big coup would be wise to heed the analysis of Bleacher Report’s D.J. Foster, who back in March explained why next year could be even more painful for Boston fans:

Point being, Boston is in the position to use its cap space next year not to sign its own free agents, but rather to be a salary-dump destination and get rewarded with picks. It’s like what the Utah Jazz did for the Golden State Warriors this offseason in the three-team deal with the Denver Nuggets that landed the Warriors Andre Iguodala (and the Jazz two unprotected future first-round picks).

Rather than go all-in on what will most likely be a second-tier free-agent class, the Celtics would instead be wise to absorb other team’s financial flotsam—expiring contracts, in a pair of words—in exchange for even more draft-day bullion.

Not only does that kind of war chest allow a franchise to better hedge on its youth, but it gives them myriad more options once the trade deadline rolls around.

Indeed, Ainge stated as much during a press conference conducted back in March.

“We will [have cap space], not just by signing free agents into cap space this summer, but through sign-and-trades,” Ainge said. “We have a lot of flexibility for sign-and-trade potential. Next summer we will have cap space, unless we use it on a bigger deal this summer.”

Whatever the Celtics’ long-term approach—and given the built-in dynamism, it could be one of a hundred—it’s clear they’ve staked their future squarely on the clipboard of their soft-spoken coach.

For a first-time NBA coach with a scant six seasons of Division I experience to his credit, committing $22 million over a half-dozen years is virtually unprecedented.

Then again, so too was Stevens’ reputation.

“Coach Stevens is a Hall of Fame coach,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams told Fox Sports’ Andrew Gruman in a 2013 interview. “He’s just not old enough for you to call him that yet.”

And therein lies the rub: In hiring Stevens, Boston sought a coach who, like the players he’d be charged with marshaling, still has plenty of room to grow. And while the near-future picture might not look all that pristine, the Celtics’ front office—led by Ainge and assistant general manager Mike Zarren—have given their pedagogical prodigy as diverse a palate as possible to paint the team’s next great masterpiece.

In short, Boston’s strategy is to imbue itself with so much flexibility that at any given point the team is in a position to either allow Stevens and his charges to grow organically or reload at a moment’s notice.

Exactly when or how the Celtics’ next banner will be raised remains, at this point, a question without a definitive answer. Whatever Boston’s ultimate endgame, though, it’s clear Stevens—a coaching cornerstone if ever there was one—will be there to see it through.

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Carmelo should take long look at Mavericks now

The Mavericks brought in two ex-Knicks. Now they want to bring in the star, Carmelo Anthony.

      
 

 

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’Melo should take long look at Mavs

The Mavericks brought in two ex-Knicks. Now they want to bring in the star, Carmelo Anthony.

      
 

 

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On a Long Runway, Fordham May Finally Be Ready for Takeoff

Fordham basketball is in a much better place than it’s been over the last two decades.

There have been far too many years of disappointment and shattered hopes; perhaps a little history lesson is in order.

Nick Macarchuk, who coached Fordham for 12 seasons, guided the Rams to the NCAA tournament in 1992, but that’s when they were still a member of the Patriot League.

When it upgraded to the Atlantic 10 prior to the 1995 season, Fordham didn’t have A-10 talent, making rebuilding an impossible task. Macarchuk was gone after the 1998-99 season.

He was replaced by Bob Hill, the former NBA coach who brought name recognition. Hill’s final season in the Bronx (2002-03) was one of the program’s worst ever, with the Rams finishing 2-26.

Then it looked like Dereck Whittenburg might be the answer. His team finished .500 in 2005-06, his third year at the school, then 18-12 the next season. It went downhill from there. In Whittenburg’s final two years, the Rams won four games. When he was let go in December of 2009, the program had hit rock bottom.

Tom Pecora was brought in to fix what had become, for a number of reasons, a huge mess.

Pecora was hired on March 25, 2010. Four years later, he appears to have the Rams, who have won just 34 games in that time, positioned to win for the first time in a long time.

It’s not that we haven’t been able to say that before.

Longtime observers of the program remember the optimism when Hill, big name and all, was brought in. He was able to bring in some talent, and the team did win 26 games in his first two years.

But the general feeling was that it wasn’t about building a program so much as it was about winning in the present. That’s not how you have sustained success in college basketball.

Meanwhile, after Whittenburg’s team won 18 games, it looked like the Rams had arrived. But a year later, following a 12-win season, five seniors who were all instrumental in turning the program around were gone. Finding replacements proved to be a difficult task.

And that brings us to 2014. For the first time in Pecora‘s tenure at Rose Hill, the necessary pieces appear to be in place. Translation: There’s more A-10 talent on the roster.

It’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to convince young men like Eric Paschall, the New England Prep Player of the Year last season, and Jon Severe, Mr. New York Basketball in 2013, to be part of what could be something special in the Bronx. Both could have very easily gone to programs that have won in bigger conferences.

The coaching staff also gets credit for going the international route, selling the school and their philosophy to players like Nemanja Zarkovic, the Serbian-born point guard who migrated to Canada and played for Montreal’s College Jean-De-Brebeuf. Also, Christian Sengfelder (Germany), Dekeba Battee-Aston (Australia) and Zaire Thompson (Germany) will join the Rams next week.

Those young and new faces join a core group of returning players. Ryan Canty, Ryan Rhoomes, Bryan Smith and Mandell Thomas have been around for a few seasons, and you hear the same thing from and about all of them: They’re tired of losing.

Antwoine Anderson and Manny Suarez, ineligible last season, are in the mix as well.

There are questions, of course, and June can produce few answers.

But the early returns are good. Paschall looks like he could be a star. Zarkovic has been here for a few weeks, and already you can see him asserting himself as a leader. Rhoomes seems rejuvenated and determined. Severe has a year of experience under his belt. I could go on.

It’s easy to knock Fordham. That’s what two decades of basketball frustration will do. But it’s also impossible to ignore what could be.

Pecora talks a lot about talent, about turning the corner and about the runway being long. He’s about as honest a guy as you’ll find.

I think he’s right. The runway to building a winner was a lot longer than people thought. But now Fordham seems poised to turn the corner. It appears the talent is there.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy or that it’ll happen overnight. It’s hard to ask for more patience, but this will take time.

In December of 1994, the university made the jump from the Patriot League to the Atlantic 10. No one could have predicted how difficult the next two decades would be.

But in its 20th anniversary season in the Atlantic 10, Fordham, on that long runway, may finally be ready for takeoff.

 

Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. Twitter: @CFCostello.

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What Took the Minnesota Timberwolves so Long to Discover Gorgui Dieng?

Gorgui Dieng has been an absolute revelation for the Minnesota Timberwolves as they try to survive the pesky injury imp and stay mathematically alive in the race for No. 8 in the Western Conference. 

But what took so long? 

Dieng only played minimally during the vast majority of his rookie season, and it wasn’t until necessity forced Rick Adelman‘s hand that he stepped into the starting lineup. It took Nikola Pekovic dealing with an ankle injury and Ronny Turiaf’s knee acting up, because at that point, there just weren’t any other options at Minnesota’s disposal. 

So Dieng it was, and he played so well that the ‘Wolves coaching staff had to be left saying only one thing: “Dieng it, what took us so long to play him?”

I’m only assuming those words escaped the lips of someone on the sidelines of the Target Center, but they probably sum up the non-uttered thoughts. The Louisville product has been that good during his three-game stint. 

 

Tearing it Up Lately

Going into this three-game stint as the team’s starting center, Dieng hadn‘t exactly made much of an impact off the bench. He was averaging only 1.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals and 0.5 blocks per game while shooting just 42.6 percent from the field. Even if you translate those numbers into per-36-minute stats, they aren’t too impressive—9.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks are the highlights. 

There just wasn’t much indication of an impending explosion. Rates don’t generally tend to be maintained when jumping from 6.5 minutes per game to nearly 34. 

And with Dieng, they weren’t maintained. 

He improved on them. 

Since becoming a starter, the Louisville product has done nothing but impress and set records, as the Minnesota PR Twitter feed makes perfectly clear: 

He’s averaged 14.7 points, 14.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.0 blocks per game when receiving the opportunity to corral the opening tip, and he’s shooting 57.1 percent from the field. 

I was just ready to play. I don’t care if you’re up or down, as long as I am on the court. I’m just trying to play for my teammates and do my job,” Dieng told Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal after his third consecutive double-double. ”We lost tonight, but I think I gave everything I had when I was on the floor. I always say stats don’t mean anything. Personal stats, I don’t care anything about. I’m more like a team guy and I want to win.”

Even if that quote came after a loss to the Houston Rockets, the ‘Wolves have still gone 2-1 since he stepped into the starting lineup to replace an injured Pekovic. And the team has looked quite good with him on the court, a statement that applies to both ends of the floor. 

From a team perspective, Dieng‘s highlight in the starting five has been helping spark a road victory over the Dallas Mavericks, one in which Minnesota outscored Dirk Nowitzki and Co. by 15 points when he was on the floor. 

But from an individual perspective, Dieng‘s 22-point, 21-rebound masterpiece against the Rockets can’t help but stand out. 

According to Basketball-Reference, only 13 different players have recorded a 20/20 game during the 2013-14 campaign. And any guesses how many also recorded four assists during their monstrous outing? 

Just three: Dieng, Jared Sullinger and Tobias Harris. 

In fact, only 25 players in the past decade have managed to meet or top those numbers in the past decade, once more per Basketball-Reference

The former Cardinal hasn‘t just served as a stopgap player during the past three games; he’s looked like a burgeoning star. So what took the ‘Wolves so long to discover him? 

 

Rick Adelman Hates Rookies

The head coach in Minnesota does a fantastic job in some areas, but he’s notoriously hesitant to hand over opportunities to first-year players. Ending up on the ‘Wolves is essentially a death knell to a player’s Rookie of the Year hopes and dreams, even if there’s definitely a chance for improvement later on. 

Rick Adelman has been the head coach for Minnesota over the last three years, and just take a look at the amount of playing time and success rookies have experienced under him: 

There are a couple of egregious sections in that table, which would look even worse if I’d included the numbers rookies had posted during his tenures with teams before joining the Minnesota organization. Notable this season is Shabazz Muhammad, who has labored away off the bench and spent significant portions of the year in the D-League. 

As Phil Mackey explains for 1500ESPN.com, this isn’t exactly justifiable:

29: The number of rookies who have played more minutes than Shabazz Muhammad this season.

Now, Shabazz‘s breakout game in Phoenix on Wednesday could have been a blip on the radar. This isn’t to say he’s the next Dwyane Wade. The jury is still way out.

But answer this for me: On what planet are the Wolves good enough to stash the 14th overall pick on the bench for the first three-and-a-half months of the season?

Corey Brewer. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Dante Cunningham. Robbie Hummel. And to some degree, Alexey Shved. All run-of-the-mill, largely replaceable entities with very little upside. Not to mention, the Wolves’ bench is one of the worst in the NBA by almost any measurement — 29th in field goal percentage, 29th in efficiency rating and 26th in scoring (per 48 minutes).

Since Mackey wrote that at the end of February, the number of rookies who have played more minutes than Muhammad has risen to 39. 

It’s something addressed by Steve Carp, who wrote the following about the former UCLA standout for the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “He also was at the mercy of Rick Adelman, a veteran coach who is hesitant to give rookies a significant role. And with the revamped Timberwolves management in win-now mode, Adelman didn’t have the luxury to play Muhammad and live with his mistakes.”

But how about Derrick Williams? 

Part of the reason the No. 2 pick never developed is that Adelman treated him with a very short leash. He never let Williams develop on the court, and he often placed the Arizona product in situations that weren’t exactly conducive to success. 

It should be quite telling that Williams moved to the Sacramento Kings this season and immediately started looking like a different—read: better—player. 

Escaping the bench is difficult when Adelman controls it. Dieng just wasn’t an exception to the rule until necessity forced his coach’s hand. 

 

Is This a Legitimate Development? 

Remember that Dieng was only starting due to the dearth of other options. With Pekovic‘s ankle and Turiaf’s knee keeping them out of action, he was the only reasonable choice, as Adelman probably wanted to avoid having Kevin Love suit up as a center and be forced into protecting the rim on a regular basis. 

But Pek is going to be back soon. 

Per Aaron Bruski of Rotoworld (h/t Yahoo! Sports), he’s already traveling with the team, and there’s a chance he’ll be able to resume his starting gig March 23 against the Phoenix Suns (though Nate Sandell of 1500ESPN.com does report he is “doubtful” for Sunday’s game). And when that happens, there’s no way Adelman is going to keep Dieng ahead of him during the stretch run of a season that hasn‘t yet seen Minnesota mathematically eliminated from the playoff race. 

Lest we forget, Pekovic is an established NBA center who often plays like he’s on the verge of being able to make an All-Star team. He’s still averaging 17.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game this season, and those are numbers that Dieng probably won’t be able to maintain over the course of a larger sample size. 

Additionally, NBA.com’s Mark Remme reveals that the Louisville product benefited from matchup advantages: 

He’s gotten a few breaks matchup-wise in these three games—Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Houston’s Dwight Howard were both injured and didn’t play against the Wolves this week—but to his credit Dieng has taken advantage of their absences and hasn’t gotten himself into a ton of foul trouble. In two of his last three games, he’s played at least 37 minutes. Adelman said that’s a testament to Dieng’s focus and work ethic—he hadn’t been getting a lot of run on the court prior to Pekovic’s injury, but he kept his body ready and was able to jump in and play big minutes at the NBA level when called upon.

However, that doesn’t mean Dieng‘s sudden development and ascension to prominence was illegitimate. 

This is, after all, a 24-year-old rookie we’re talking about, one who still has a bit of potential left in the tank. He never displayed inordinate amounts of upside during his career at Louisville, and it’s unlikely he ever turns into a star player in the Association. But few players do. 

The big man’s offensive arsenal is still quite limited, and it seems more likely that he’ll be a defensive stalwart and rebounding specialist than a guy who can consistently carry the offensive burden for the frontcourt.

Unless he develops a mid-range jumper, of course. That was a solid part of his game under Rick Pitino, but for whatever reason, his offense has been completely devoid of work outside the paint during his rookie season in the Association. Reincorporating that, whether through practice in an empty gym or simply reminding himself he should have the confidence to take those looks is key. 

Even over the course of three games against relatively lackluster competition, Dieng showed that he can be a quality starting center. At the very least, he displayed enough that Adelman—yes, even Adelman—should be confident in his ability to provide valuable minutes off the bench on a nightly basis. 

Not bad for a late first-round pick from one of the weakest drafts in recent memory. 

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What a long, strange trip it’s been for Mercer coach Bob Hoffman

“Weird?” Hoffman says, laughing. “Strange? I’ve been everywhere.”

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Jordan Crawford Beats 3rd-Quarter Buzzer with Double-Teamed Long Ball

There are times when the lanky arms of Giannis Antetokounmpo just don’t really matter.

This was one of them, as Jordan Crawford showed off a couple of shakes before knocking down the buzzer-beating triple in the face of a double-team to end the third quarter of a March 20 contest with the Milwaukee Bucks

With those handles, you might as well call him “Jamal.”

And I suppose you can do the same thanks to his perimeter shooting, which was a sorely needed boost during a surprisingly close game against a bottom-feeding team in the Eastern Conference. 

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How does Pittsburgh convince its players to stick around for so long?

The Panthers have a history of players staying at school under coach Jamie Dixon

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Blazers season crashing down long before Aldridge

Portland’s season was quickly going off the rails long before LaMarcus Aldridge came crashing on the floor in the second half. Aldridge made the basket but fell hard on his lower back, an injury that will keep him out at least the next two games and maybe longer.

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The game was almost out of reach at that point anyway. Which says a bit more about the Trail Blazers free fall from getting home-court advantage to fighting for their Playoff lives.

At the beginning of the seaosn, the Blazers raced out of the gates to a 31-9 record. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were legitimate all stars and played the part. This was one of the true feel-good stories of the NBA with Terry Stotts getting the most out of his team.

Portland is hardly young too. There was an urgency to make this a Playoff year with Aldridge having the ability to enter free agency. There are plenty of players on the roster — from Nicolas Batum to Wesley Matthews to Mo Williams — …

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