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Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard

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PHILADELPHIA — After yet another ugly individual performance in a season full of them so far, Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard said his poor start to the season is a chance for him to show the world what he’s really about.

“I always look at struggles as an opportunity to show my true character,” Lillard said after finishing with 20 points and 10 assists, but shooting just 7-for-20 from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range, in a 113-103 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. “When things go great there’s a lot of praise that goes along with that. A lot of people give you a lot of credit. They speak highly of you on social media, TV. ‘Oh Dame had 60, Dame had 50.’ They speak really highly of you. But I think it says more when you’re going through something and s— is kind of hitting the fan and you’re struggling and everybody’s got something to say and to me the real ones, they can keep on trucking and keep on going and still find a way to get the job done.

“And, me personally, I love when those opportunities present themselves. Because when I am riding high and when I do get smoking hot and when I get going people are going to look at it and be like, ‘We remember when you were struggling and you didn’t shy away from it.’ I think it will be more respect for the success when they see how you handle failure and how you handle struggle.

“So, personally, I embrace that. It’s not fun. It’s not easy but it’s part of my DNA. That’s how I got to this position. I’m not angry about it. I’m frustrated with it. I do see it as a challenge and it’s one I accept and I know I’ll come out on top like I always do.”

Monday night, however, saw both Lillard individually, and Portland as a team, fail to come out on top once again.

Lillard, who entered Monday’s game the 76ers averaging career-worsts in points (18.3), field goal percentage (34.9) and 3-point field goal percentage (23.2), once again couldn’t get going outside of a brief seven-point surge in the middle of the fourth quarter. That allowed Philadelphia, who began the game without Ben Simmons Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris and lost Danny Green (left hamstring tightness) in the third quarter, to lead virtually the entire game for a stunning victory.

“I didn’t like our mindset,” coach Chauncey Billups said after his team lost for a second-straight night. “I thought we just traded baskets with them. Complained a lot about the no calls and things and I was too. It’s kind of eye opening, but it just is what it is. We’re pretty much in the same space we were in the night before, let’s come out and be better in the second half and we just didn’t man, we just didn’t.

“We didn’t have it defensively. we were a step behind. And yeah it’s a back-to-back, and they were waiting on us, but it’s still a basketball game.

The focus afterward, though, was on Lillard, and his ongoing offensive struggles. After spending the first nine seasons of his career playing for one coach, Terry Stotts, who ran an offense full of a healthy diet of the high ball screens that turned Lillard into one of the game’s most lethal scorers, Billups has implemented an offensive scheme this year that has some more ball movement in an attempt to get others involved.

“Yeah. I mean, you probably can put some of that on it,” Billups said of the changes to the offense impacting both Lillard and longtime running mate CJ McCollum. “They both have done a good job of just trying to do what’s kind of what’s been asked. Defenses are obviously doing the same thing with Dame. They trap him, he’s doing a good job of getting off of it and there’s too many times where we don’t make teams pay for that.”

Lillard, though, wasn’t about to make excuses.

“I have no excuses,” Lillard said, adding he doesn’t have any injury issues, either, after dealing with an abdominal problem with Team USA at the Olympics this summer. “I don’t know what y’all want me to say about it. I prepared well for the season, my mind is clear.

“I don’t have no reason for it. I don’t have nothing to lean on. I’m not shooting the ball well, and for our team to be successful I’ve got to shoot the ball better, and I accept that. I know that I’m going to shoot the ball better, and I know what it’s going to look like, and I’ve done it many times.”

Lillard, who was named one of the NBA’s 75 greatest players last month and is in his 10th NBA season, got plenty of clean looks at the basket Monday night — just as he did in Sunday night’s loss to Charlotte, when he went 5-for-20 from the field and 2-for-14 from deep. At times Monday, he almost looked in disbelief at the ball not going through the basket, including one moment late in the second quarter when, after another miss, he put his hands on his knees and ruefully shook his head as both teams headed to the bench for a timeout.

But while he said there’s moments of frustration, he said the work he’s put in over his career prevents him from getting too down about an off shooting night or two, knowing that things will eventually turn around.

“Honestly, it’s not as hard as it would seem,” he said. “That’s the best way for me to answer it. The easiest way for me to describe it is frustration. You come off and it’s like ‘All right, I’ve got a clean look,’ and it don’t go in it’s like ‘Damn, I needed that one to go in.’

“It’s more frustration than anything, just because of what you expect from yourself … it’s important to be able to stay level, and keep your mind right and keep your mind strong. I focus on finding solutions, and that’s without doing nothing crazy to search for a solution. Being unsure and not trusting my work. I practice, I show up, I go through my routine, I do everything to take care of my body, I get my shots up, I’m sharp with everything I do.

“Sometimes failure is a part of it, coming up short is a part of it, and I don’t know what else to say other than that I accept the failure, you know what I mean? I’m obviously not going to settle with it. I’m going to keep taking the same shots, I’m going to keep being aggressive, but you’ve got to accept that it’s part of it and you’ve got to keep the belief and keep doing the things that’s going to give you a chance to come out of it and be successful and that’s what I’ve done.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo back in Milwaukee Bucks’ lineup for his 27th birthday after 2-game absence

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo is celebrating his 27th birthday by returning to the Milwaukee Bucks‘ lineup after a two-game absence.

The two-time MVP is listed among the Bucks’ five starters for their game Monday night with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Antetokounmpo had been listed as questionable due to a sore right calf that knocked him out for the previous two games.

“We’ll see how he feels when he warms up and determine it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said Monday before the lineups were released.

The Bucks split the two games Antetokounmpo missed last week.

In their first game without him, the Bucks lost 97-93 at Toronto on Thursday to snap an eight-game winning streak. They rebounded at home two nights later by rolling to a 124-102 victory over Miami.

Antetokounmpo is scoring 27.6 points per game this season to rank second in the NBA, behind Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant. He’s also averaging 11.8 rebounds and six assists.

Denver’s Nikola Jokić is the only other NBA player averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists this season.

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Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan enters health and safety protocols

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Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan has entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will miss Monday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets.

DeRozan becomes the third Bulls player currently in the health and safety protocols, joining Coby White and Javonte Green.

DeRozan was recognized earlier in the day as the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for averaging 30.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and shooting 58.7% from the field while the Bulls went 3-0 last week with wins against the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.

DeRozan is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 26.4 points per game in his first season with the Bulls.

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Fantasy basketball waiver wire finds

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Working the waiver wire is pivotal to succeeding in fantasy basketball. With so many games, injuries and endless shifts in rotations throughout the marathon campaign, we’ll need to source stats from free agency to maximize imaginary rosters.

A willingness to entertain competition for the last few spots on your fantasy hoops roster can prove rewarding. When curating this fluid collective of statistical contributors, it helps to consider your end-of-bench players in direct competition with the talent floating in free agency.

The goal of this weekly series is to identify players at each position available in free agency in at least a third of ESPN leagues. Some nominations are specialists capable of helping in one or two categories, while others deliver more diverse and important statistical offerings. In the breakdowns below, I’ve ordered players at each position with the priority of acquisition in mind, rather than roster percentage in ESPN leagues.


Point Guard

Alec Burks, New York Knicks (Rostered in 27.4% of ESPN leagues): Earning Tom Thibodeau’s trust can prove quite valuable for fantasy value, as the coach is notorious for riding his core playmakers for big minutes. Burks’ recent shift to the starting lineup has fueled 18.8 PPG with strong shooting and steal rates.

Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder (44.2%): Due to return to the floor for the Thunder on Monday, Giddey should continue to flirt with triple-double production as one of the lead creators for a young Oklahoma City roster.

Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks (36.8%): With at least 15 points in 12 of his last 15 games, Brunson has emerged as a steady complementary scorer for Dallas. Jason Kidd trusts Brunson to commandeer the second unit, and this Villanova product becomes a legit fantasy starter whenever Luka Doncic is sidelined.

Shooting Guard

Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets (61.2%): A thigh injury has sidelined Porter for the past handful of Houston’s games, but the third-year combo guard should return to a rewarding role as the team’s primary creator soon. In a league full of heliocentric playmakers, sourcing assists in fantasy free agency has become more difficult, making Porter an undervalued option.

Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (36.1%): One of just nine players among the top 40 in 3-point attempts this season sinking at least 40% of his attempts from beyond the arc, Bane sports a 42.1% career clip from deep and is currently enjoying a breakout sophomore season thanks to sizable leaps in minutes and touches this season.

Small Forward

Gary Trent Jr., Toronto Raptors (66.0%): A 3-and-D wing currently found at fifth in total steals and fourth in swipes per game, this larcenous wing is also one of just 33 players to have lofted at least 150 3-pointers entering Sunday’s schedule.

Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (27.4%): It’s possible Tate could prove more valuable as a fantasy option than even Trent among this week’s waiver wings. After all, Tate has been somewhat prolific lately in slashing for 19.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 6.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, and 1.5 BPG during his last four games entering Sunday. While his scoring load will dip once Jalen Green and Porter are good to go, Tate’s ability to create for others on offense and create chaos on defense proves reliable.

Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies (33.8%): You’d think the absence of Ja Morant would inspire a surge in scoring for Brooks, but he’s been somewhat quiet in that department in recent games. A deeper dive reveals Brooks claims a team-high 32.6% usage rate with Morant off the floor this season, evidence Brooks will fill the bucket soon enough.

Power Forward

Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets (47.6%): You’ll need to overlook some quiet scoring outings from Gordon, but increased opportunity rates on a Denver roster in real need should inspire some fun fantasy lines. Such as in Saturday’s win over the Knicks, Gordon wasn’t very effective on offense yet compiled four combined steals and blocks.

Lauri Markkanen, Cleveland Cavaliers (51.4%): Even as the fit is wonky at times in an oversized Cleveland frontcourt, Markkanen enjoys rare shooting freedom as the resident stretch big for the Cavaliers. This role has afforded him at least seven 3-point attempts in six of the last seven outings entering Sunday’s slate.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings (37.5%): Will Bagley ever really prove consistently productive with the Kings? That’s unlikely, but a new coaching lens might unlock more minutes and production for Bagley in the coming weeks.

Center

Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks (59.3%): The signing of DeMarcus Cousins in response to the loss of Brook Lopez likely speaks to the team’s potential need for size in the playoffs, but also signals a huge role for Portis for the rest of the regular season. Portis is currently one of just nine NBA players averaging at least 15 points, eight rebounds, and at least 0.8 blocks and 0.8 steals per game. Are these somewhat arbitrary endpoints? Of course, but they also speak to how rare it is to find a player so regularly flirting with double-double production along with respectable defensive rates.

P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets (62.8%): If the league is trending to small-ball lineups, why not fantasy rosters, as well? Washington has thrived recently as the team’s primary stretch center, enjoying more rebounding and rim protection opportunities in addition to proving hot from the arc during the past week.

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