In one of the most electrifying postseason performances ever, Damian Lillard had 55 points and an NBA playoff record 12 3-pointers in the Portland Trail Blazers‘ double-overtime loss at the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Lillard played 52 minutes and shot 17-of-24 from the field, including 12-of-17 from 3-point range, but it wasn’t enough as the Nuggets held him off in the second overtime to post a 147-140 victory and take a 3-2 series lead.
“It was the best playoff performance I’ve ever seen,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “He gave it his all.”
As Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, “Damian Lillard was superhuman tonight.”
Lillard, by contrast, brushed aside his performance when he was asked to reflect on it.
“It don’t matter. We lost the game,” Lillard said. “At this point, all that matters is we can’t lose another game in the series. We go out there and we play to win the game, and we came up short.”
The record-breaking 3 came with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left in double overtime as Lillard bombarded the Nuggets with a series of deep step-back jumpers to keep the Blazers in the game.
He hit one to tie the score with 3.7 seconds in regulation, which came after a review overturned a foul on a 3 that would’ve given Lillard three free throws.
He hit another in the first overtime with 6.6 seconds left over the 6-foot-10 Michael Porter Jr. to tie the score again and force the second extra frame. That one completed a nine-point comeback in the final two minutes, all led by Lillard.
“The degree of difficulty on which he hit some of those shots is god-like,” CJ McCollum said. “To be able to create space and shoot from so far out contested time after time. It’s a shame we wasted one of the all-time performances by not being more supportive for him.”
The Blazers’ other four starters all scored in double figures, but down the stretch, Lillard carried the load. He scored or assisted on 37 of the Blazers’ final 42 points; and for the game, he scored or assisted on 80 points, tied for the most ever in NBA playoff history. Lillard’s 55 points are the third-most points ever in a playoff loss.
“He did everything that he could,” Blazers forward Robert Covington said.
The mood around the Blazers’ postgame was one of immense disappointment. Most of the talk around Lillard’s epic performance was redirected to the situation the Blazers now find themselves in — with their backs against the wall.
“I have empathy for Dame. I have empathy for anybody on our team,” Stotts said. “But now’s not the time for empathy. Now’s the time to regroup and come back and get Game 6.”
There was a moment in the second overtime, with about three minutes to go, when Lillard curled off a high screen moving to his left and pulled for a decently open 3. It clipped off the front of the rim, bouncing off the backboard and into the hands of Porter. But off to the side, Lillard’s defender, Austin Rivers, put his hands together, looked to the sky and said, “Thank God.”
Praying seemed to be about the only acceptable defense there was for Lillard.
“I’m learning to become a good poker player,” Malone said. “Because probably five or six years ago when I first got here, I wouldn’t have looked so composed.”
Lillard has three career game-tying or go-ahead 3s inside the final five seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime, tying Reggie Miller for the most over the past 25 seasons. Lillard is also the first player in the past 25 seasons with multiple game-tying 3s in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime of a playoff game. He has two career playoff games with at least 10 3s; the rest of the NBA has one (Thompson).
It was quite the bounce-back outing for Lillard, who scored just 10 points on 1-of-10 shooting in Game 4; but the Blazers blew Denver out behind a strong defensive performance and balanced scoring.
In Game 5, Portland couldn’t find answers for likely league MVP Nikola Jokic, who finished with 38 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists, and a stronger bench performance led by Monte Morris (28 points and 5 assists). The back and forth between Lillard and Jokic featured Lillard scoring or assisting on 22 of Portland’s 26 points in clutch time, with Jokic scoring or assisting on 22 of Denver’s 31.
“It was a pleasure to be on the court to witness that,” Jokic said of Lillard’s performance.
The Nuggets corralled Lillard to a degree in the final minutes, with his last basket coming with 3:47 remaining that gave Portland a two-point lead. After a Jokic layup, Porter Jr. followed it with the eventual game-winner, a corner 3 set up by Jokic to give the Nuggets a three-point lead. It was a big response from Porter Jr., who scored 26 on 10-of-13 shooting after being challenged by Malone before the game.
“I can’t let a team or gameplan take me out of a game, like what happened in Game 4,” Porter Jr. said. “Even though they’re doing a really tough job on me, I’ve got to continue to help my team any way I can.”
The series turns back to Portland on Thursday for Game 6.
“Tough loss, man,” Lillard said. “It’s do or die now.”
Sources — Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden hopeful to return for Game 5 against Milwaukee Bucks
Harden, pushing for a chance to play, participated in the Nets shootaround on Tuesday morning with improvement in his right hamstring and that prompted the team to upgrade his status from doubtful to questionable for Game 5 tonight, sources said.
The Nets are tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks, and are preparing to be without guard Kyrie Irving (right ankle sprain) for the rest of the series, sources said. The Nets haven’t ruled Irving out beyond Game 5, but Harden is clearly much closer to a return for the Nets.
Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said Sunday that the team would try to approach the injuries as isolated incidents and not let Irving’s ankle sprain rush Harden back to the floor before his hamstring is fully healed. Harden was injured in the first minute of Game 1 of the Nets’ series against the Bucks on June 5.
Irving was injured midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4 in Milwaukee when he landed awkwardly on Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s foot after making a layup over Jrue Holiday. Antetokounmpo crashed the paint in what appeared to be an attempt to help Holiday, who was the primary defender.
Irving remained on the ground for several minutes as Nash and the team’s athletic trainers attended to him. Eventually, Irving walked to the locker room without assistance but was limping. He left the arena in a walking boot and on crutches. An MRI on Monday confirmed Irving’s ankle sprain.
The Nets have battled injuries all season. The Big 3 of Harden, Irving and Kevin Durant played just eight games together in the regular season and six games together in the playoffs — including the game when Harden was injured. Harden missed 18 games in the regular season with a hamstring strain and before that, he missed two with hamstring tightness.
ESPN’s Malika Andrews contributed to this report.
Brooklyn Nets upgrade James Harden (hamstring) from out to doubtful for Game 5 against Milwaukee Bucks
Harden is expected to test his injured hamstring in shootaround and has been determined to find a way to get cleared to play in Game 5, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Nets initially ruled Harden out for the game on Monday.
Before Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harden was doing on-court work, shooting and rehabilitation.
Harden suffered what the team has called “right hamstring tightness” 43 seconds into Game 1 of the series. His push to return comes after the Bucks have won two straight games to tie up the series 2-2.
2021 NBA playoffs – What’s real and what’s not in the conference semifinals
No matchup has more storylines than Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks, which is locked at 2-2 heading into Tuesday’s Game 5. Should the Nets still be considered NBA title contenders after Kyrie Irving‘s ankle sprain added to Brooklyn’s injury woes?
Our panel of NBA experts is breaking down the biggest trends we’re seeing so far in the conference semifinals.
Real or not: The Nets’ title chances after Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury
NOT REAL. An essential part of any path to an NBA championship is luck. Sometimes it comes in the form of a favorable bounce; other times it simply means a team avoids running into an untimely injury over the course of trying to win 16 postseason games.
The Nets, unfortunately, haven’t been lucky. They spent all year dealing with injuries to their Big Three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Including the playoffs, they’ve played only 15 games together.
And, with Harden suffering a recurrence of the hamstring injury that cost him virtually all of the final several weeks of the regular season just 47 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee, and Irving spraining his right ankle Sunday — both have been ruled out for Game 5 in Brooklyn — they might not play together again this season.
Kendrick Perkins says Kevin Durant will have to show he is the best player in the world for the Nets to beat the Bucks without James Harden or Kyrie Irving.
The beauty in having three stars of this caliber on one team is that an injury to one of them isn’t enough to sink your team. Brooklyn showed that by eviscerating Milwaukee without Harden in Games 1 and 2. But even for Durant, arguably the greatest scorer this game has ever seen, trying to beat Milwaukee two out of three times without both of his running mates is a very tall task.
It’s unlikely that P.J. Tucker will be able to remain quite as physical as he was guarding Durant in Games 3 and 4, when Durant shot an uncharacteristic 20-for-53 from the field. But even if that normalizes moving forward, replacing Harden and Irving with some combination of Mike James, Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown simply isn’t going to cut it.
Now, if either Harden or Irving — or both — can return before this series is over, the Nets will suddenly be a legitimate title threat once again. But if Durant remains on his own against the Bucks for the rest of this series, what seemed like a clear path to the NBA Finals a few days ago could instead become a rapid departure from the postseason.
— Tim Bontemps
Real or not: The Suns as the favorites to win the West
REAL. At least for now. The biggest advantage Phoenix has is already securing a spot in the Western Conference finals while the Clippers and Jazz battle for the other one — at least through Game 6 — while the Suns get to rest at home.
The other edge for Phoenix is one that proved crucial in a second-round sweep of the Nuggets: health. No rotation Suns player has missed a game due to injury in the playoffs, making them the outlier in a postseason defined by injuries to key contributors.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker combine for 71 points to help the Suns steamroll their way into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 11 years.
Paul was limited by a shoulder contusion in the first round, but looked good as ever against the Nuggets, torching them for 25.5 PPG and 10.3 APG. Paul’s 63% shooting was his best in any playoff series and his 8.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio his best in a series since 2008.
Meanwhile, Utah is still without starting point guard Mike Conley due to a hamstring strain and has fellow All-Star guard Mitchell playing through an ankle injury. And while the Clippers are missing only center Serge Ibaka, their stars are logging huge minutes; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have already played more than any Phoenix player has entering the conference finals.
At the same time, we should be careful not to read too much into the Suns’ dominance over Denver. The Nuggets were ill-equipped to deal with Phoenix’s spread pick-and-roll tactics, detailed last week by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and the absence of guard Jamal Murray made it difficult for Denver to keep up offensively. Either the Jazz or Clippers should be more capable of challenging the elbow jumpers on which Paul feasted against the Nuggets, and both teams are more complete offensively.
A matchup with Utah would be interesting, because the Jazz were the stronger team over the course of the regular season and would have home-court advantage, but the Suns won all three head-to-head meetings. Phoenix had less success against the Clippers, losing the first two meetings before winning April 28 with Kawhi sidelined.
I’m not sure yet whom I’d pick depending on the conference finals matchup, but before it’s set, Phoenix is the most likely team to win the West.
— Kevin Pelton
Real or not: Atlanta’s chances at slowing down Joel Embiid for the rest of the series
REAL. It has to be real, because the Hawks were the opponent when Embiid just had one of the worst halves in recent playoff history. In the defining moment of Monday’s Game 4, when a layup could’ve put his team ahead in the final seconds, Embiid admitted he didn’t have enough lift. It was obvious if you watched him repeatedly clang jumpers on the front of the rim.
Because Embiid hasn’t missed any games in this series, it is easy to forget how serious of an injury he is dealing with. Playing through a minor meniscus injury isn’t unheard of, but for a player with Embiid’s injury history and the type of game he plays, it’s truly remarkable. The guy hits the deck numerous times a game, and even if he is guilty of a few embellishments, there’s a natural inclination to wonder if he’ll get up every time.
During Game 4, Embiid went to the locker room before halftime with trainers. No one was willing to publicly admit what was going on, but the results in the second half — when Embiid was 0-of-12 shooting — spoke enough.
Trae Young does it again as he records a 25-point, 18-assist double-double to elevate the Hawks to a 103-100 Game 4 win over the 76ers to tie the series at 2-2.
With games every other day the rest of the series, the game-time spring in Embiid’s legs is likely more important than any defensive scheme the Hawks can deploy. Embiid’s activity level during Games 1 and 2 — when he routinely beat double-teams and Clint Capela even when Atlanta’s center was in great defensive position — was hard to comprehend considering Embiid had just been diagnosed with such an injury. Reality seems to be biting.
The issue is the 76ers will have a tough time reducing his load. Knowing that Embiid was laboring, and with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris having good offensive games and a recent history of being a good pick-and-roll tandem, Philly coach Doc Rivers still went to his center for the final shot.
The play worked, with the Hawks failing to handle it, but Embiid couldn’t execute. That was a microcosm of Game 4, and it could end up being that way the rest of this series.
— Brian Windhorst
Real or not: Reggie Jackson as the No. 3 for the Clippers
NOT REAL. Jackson saved the Clippers in the first round against the Mavericks. But this team was constructed with Marcus Morris Sr. as the No. 3 option behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Clippers are at their best when Morris is playing at that level. Morris is known for his toughness and frontcourt play, but he was fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage this year at 45.1%. When he is rolling, defenders have to respect his shot from behind the arc, and it completely opens up the spacing for the rest of the offense.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both score 31 points to propel the Clippers to their second straight win vs. the Jazz.
Everything Jackson has given the Clippers in these playoffs has been a bonus. He was one of the last guys added to the roster and wasn’t even promised a spot in the rotation. But he is healthy now and comfortable in his role, and he has always had a penchant for big games in the postseason. Assistant coach Chauncey Billups has been working with Jackson on his game this season, and Billups said he has “completely reinvented himself.”
Jackson has always had the talent to have a run like this. He just hasn’t been healthy enough or been on a team as good as this one. It’s fun to see veteran players like this find such a good fit. But Morris needs to be the Clippers’ No. 3 option if they’re going to live up to the high expectations set for this team.
— Ramona Shelburne
Real or not: Donovan Mitchell is the best guard in the conference semis
NOT REAL. We can stop the debate about whether Mitchell deserves to be considered a superstar. He has eliminated any doubt, proving again that he’s capable of frequently taking over playoff games. Mitchell is averaging an efficient 32.9 PPG this postseason, causing the Clippers to scramble to find schematic solutions despite being stocked with guards and wings with reputations as defensive stoppers.
But the best guard still playing — and available — in these playoffs has already wrapped up his Western Conference semifinal series. He’s resting his 36-year-old body, waiting on the Jazz-Clippers winner. And Chris Paul just reminded the world of how great he still is, conducting a point guard clinic in the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets.
Patrick Beverley and Donovan Mitchell refuse to give up on the loose ball and have to be separated by referees.
Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix turned the Suns from a bubble success story with a promising young core to a real contender, controlled that series from start to finish. He averaged 25.5 points on shooting splits (.627/.750/1.000) that are absolutely ridiculous. He made 10.3 assists per game and committed a total of only five turnovers in the series.
That 8.2 assists-to-turnover ratio is the second best in a series since turnovers became an official stat, behind only Paul’s 10.0-to-1 ratio from his first playoff series way back in 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
And that isn’t even the most impressive CP3 stat from the series. Take a gander at his numbers from the four fourth quarters: 43 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers on 84% shooting from the floor.
Devin Booker, Paul’s 24-year-old co-star, also belongs in this conversation. He certainly has hushed any talk about his lack of playoff experience, scoring a total of 81 points in his first two closeout games, pretty solid proof of killer instinct.
But Booker rode shotgun in this series, with Paul steering the Suns into the conference finals, a destination Mitchell and the Jazz are still trying to reach.
— Tim MacMahon
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