Dame Time: Lillard Scores 51 Points

Joel Embiid exited Sunday’s game with an unspecified left ankle injury, which was compounded by an eventual 124-121 loss to the Blazers. Damian Lillard scored 51 points in the victory by Portland, which knocked New Orleans and Sacramento out of the playoff race, leaving both team’s final two “seeding” games as glorified exhibitions. It was an eventful Sunday in the Association, to say the least, so let’s Dose.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks has been enthusiastic about his team’s development in Orlando, even though they continue to lose games — they’re 0-6 with two final games vs. the Bucks and Celtics. After playing the Sixers this week, Brooks said of Thomas Bryant, “That was his best defensive game I’ve ever seen him play. I think he needs to continue to focus on that end. We talked to him about it. We showed film on it. And he stepped up. He’s getting better.” Bryant wasn’t individually challenged much in this game, due to the absence of Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, but Washington’s team defense wasn’t up for the task. They allowed OKC to shoot 51.2% from the field and 18-of-39 from deep (46.2%), resulting in a 121-103 drubbing.

The Wizards are officially out of the playoff race, but that doesn’t change the trajectory of the team or how they’re likely to be coached. Troy Brown Jr. was explicit about that after his team was officially eliminated from playoff contention. “[Missing the playoffs] doesn’t change anything for us,” he said. That means he’ll continue to play as point guard, developing skills that should pay off for years to come. The Wizards are likely to use him as a secondary ball-handler who can guide the second unit’s offense, staggered alongside John Wall or Bradley Beal. It’s not a bad role for him, especially since he’s showing real growth in Orlando — something that eluded him during the first part of the 2019-20 season.

Brown Jr. finished this game with 12 points, eight boards, four assists, two steals and two 3-pointers, the type of well-rounded line fantasy managers crave. Jerome Robinson’s shot selection hasn’t been great in Orlando, but he was better on Sunday with 7-of-15 shooting and four 3-pointers for a team-high 19 points, plus six dimes. Isaac Bonga had another solid game with 14 points and eight boards, and looks like a viable long-term piece, but otherwise there was little to glean from this game. None of Washington’s players logged more than 29 minutes.

The Thunder were coming off a bad defensive effort in a 121-92 loss to the Grizzlies, and the Wizards were the cure for what ailed them. Despite missing defensive anchor Steven Adams (bruised left leg), as well as Nerlens Noel (ankle) and Dennis Schroder (personal), they held D.C. to 103 points on 41.3% shooting. Darius Bazley was a surprise star, putting in a game-high 23 points in 26 minutes off the bench. That came on 8-of-13 shooting with five 3-pointers, seven rebounds, one assist and one steal, and gives OKC’s rookie two straight games with double-digit scoring. It came against a very bad defense, of course, so there’s no reason to chase this line in DFS.

Elsewhere, Mike Muscala had 14 points, four 3-pointers, three rebounds and one assist as a fill-in starter. He played 28 minutes with Adams and Noel out of commission. If both guys miss Monday’s game vs. Phoenix, Muscala will have some fantasy appeal by default. But if Noel returns and Adams sits, Noel is the preferred option. He’s a per-minute machine, though he does skews higher in season-long leagues due to efficient FG% and strong defensive stats. Noel had started seven previous games this season, averaging 11.7 points on 69.2% shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 0.7 steals. His offense is limited to buckets directly at the rim and it’s likely he’ll be a career backup at this point, but that won’t stop him from earning a nice contract as an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season. Whether he’ll be an active draft target in fantasy leagues, or merely a final-round flier, depends upon which team signs him.

Chris Paul filled up the boxscore with 13 points, nine assists, six rebounds, three steals, three 3-pointers and two blocks, and continues to be the engine of this team’s success. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander contributed 18/7/6, Danilo Gallinari scored 20 points in 22 minutes, and the Thunder were never really challenged.

Grizzlies at Raptors

Anthony Tolliver started again for the Grizzlies, taking the place of injured Jaren Jackson Jr. (torn meniscus). The expectation was that Brandon Clarke would gain the most without JJJ in the lineup, and he has indeed seen his minutes and production trend up — he had 16 points (6-of-10 FGs), two 3-pointers, nine rebounds, two assists and one steal on Sunday. However, coach Taylor Jenkins made it sound like the 35-year-old Tolliver will continue to start. “He brought so much juice to the lineup,” Jenkins said after Friday’s game. “That energy just picked up and permeated throughout the rest of the group and he was a leader of that charge.” Tolliver got 30 minutes tonight, so it doesn’t look like a change is imminent despite the loss.

Dillon Brooks shot his team out of this game, basically, going 11-of-26 from the field for 25 points with six boards, three steals and two assists. Brooks was really struggling prior to a late run, so his stat line looks better than his actual impact in this game. Credit is also due to the Raptors’ defense, as they made it tough for Brooks and completely took former teammate Jonas Valanciunas out of the picture. JV finished scoreless with 10 boards in 27 minutes, squandering any ‘revenge game’ narrative that’s been brewing since he was traded last year. Still, Brooks called his number too often and settled for low-percentage attempts, including a 0-of-5 mark on above-the-break 3-pointers. Memphis needs scoring, especially now that JJJ is out, so I doubt this will chasten him enough to rein it in vs. the Celtics on Tuesday.

On a positive note, De’Anthony Melton stepped up defensively with a career-high six steals. He was initially credited with seven swipes, but one of them was taken away. Grayson Allen also bounced back and scored 20 points with four 3-pointers, going 6-of-14 from the field and 4-of-4 from the line. Allen has failed to distinguish himself in the NBA, but he’s making an impact in Orlando so I’m keeping eyes on him this fall. Ja Morant did his best with 17 points and 10 assists in a whopping 41 minutes, but is feeling the impact of teams’ game-planning to stop him. As Morant goes, so go the Grizzlies…and teams know that.

Serge Ibaka played 25 minutes despite suffering a scratched right eye on Friday. He chipped in 12 points, 12 rebounds, three dimes, three steals, two blocks and two 3-pointers, so the injury didn’t him at all. The only bad news for his fantasy value is that he’s being used exclusively without Marc Gasol on the court. Gasol isn’t a huge-minute player at this stage of his career (22 minutes tonight), but if they don’t play together for any stints it limits Ibaka to around 20-25 minutes per game. Given how small most teams are comfortable playing, and the presence of OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, extended PF minutes for Ibaka probably aren’t in the cards in Orlando. It was par for the course elsewhere for Toronto, with Pascal Siakam scoring 26 points, OG Anunoby scoring six points but filling up the defensive categories, and Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet combining for 29 points, 13 dimes and eight steals.

Spurs at Pelicans

Derrick White limped off the court after an awkward landing on Sunday, later being diagnosed with a bruised left knee. He finished the first quarter with 12 points and was scoring at every level, hitting 3-pointers, mid-range shots and layups, but didn’t return after the injury. His absence was a clear reason the Spurs fell apart in the third quarter, watching a 20-point lead dwindle to just four points before settling down in the fourth quarter. If he misses time it will be Keldon Johnson, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli filling the void, none of whom have White’s fantasy upside.

A silver lining  of the Spurs’ play in Orlando has been the starting pair of White alongside Dejounte Murray, which has worked out nicely. The White/Murray pairing occurred out of necessity, with the banged-up Spurs going smaller and lacking typical starter Bryn Forbes (quad), but maybe this will be enough for White to claim the job next season. We’ll have an extremely short offseason this year, but that’s a story to monitor since it has obvious fantasy implications.

Rudy Gay filled up the stat sheet with 19 points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals, two 3-pointers and one block in just 29 minutes. The focus has rightfully been on the play of their young guys in Orlando, but if they make the postseason it will be largely due to veterans Gay and DeMar DeRozan (27 points on efficient 10-of-16 FGs and 7-of-7 FTs). They’re also getting strong play from Jakob Poeltl, who battled foul trouble on Sunday but still chipped in 14 rebounds (five offensive), four points, two steals and one assist in 22 minutes. Poeltl’s presence is necessary for the Spurs to have a modicum of rim protection without Aldridge and Trey Lyles, and he looks increasingly comfortable in their defensive schemes. He’ll be a restricted free agent this fall ($5.1 million qualifying offer), and it will be fascinating to see how much interest he draws from other teams, especially since there’s no stretch-five potential.

New Orleans’ defense has struggled lately, one reason why they have a 2-4 record in the Orlando bubble and were eliminated later in the evening when Portland beat the Sixers. The Pelicans officially won’t be in the postseason. The defensive failings aren’t a new problem. They haven’t held an opponent under 100 points since Dec. 28 (they still gave up 98 points in that game), and came in with the fourth-worst Defensive Rating of teams in the bubble. The offense was just as anemic today, opening 10-of-28 from the field as they dug an early double-digit deficit. If it weren’t for J.J. Redick’s individual brilliance (31 points on 10-of-16 shooting with eight triples), they wouldn’t have been competitive down the stretch of this game.

Zion Williamson still hasn’t played more than 27 minutes since the season re-started on July 30, and at this rate it doesn’t seem like he will. The Pelicans are focused entirely on next season and won’t take any unnecessary risks with their franchise pillar. That mentality will only get more intense over the final two ‘seeding’ games, since the Pels’ playoff chances are kaput. One interesting/worrying note about Williamson is his lack of defensive stats. He wasn’t exactly a stat-magnet this year at 0.7 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, but he’s now played 103 minutes in Orlando without a single defensive stat. For a guy with his timing and explosive athleticism, I’m not even sure how that’s possible. Health concerns already have me leery of him, and his popularity ensures some fantasy GM will grab him a round too early, so I doubt he’ll be on many of my squads in 2020-21. Don’t get me wrong — I’ll still watch him play every chance I get.

Magic at Celtics

Markelle Fultz notched 16 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, two steals and one block during a tough overtime loss to the Celtics, 122-119. This was Fultz’s first game in the bubble with 30+ minutes, which suggests he could displace D.J. Augustin (12 points, five assists in 33 minutes) as a starter in the near future. Conditioning was the hurdle he needed to clear to log enough minutes to start, and it looks like he’s there.

From an injury perspective, the Magic came into this game limping. In some cases that was literal, as they played without Aaron Gordon (left hamstring), Evan Fournier (illness), Michael Carter-Williams (left foot), Jonathan Isaac (left knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (knee). Fournier doesn’t have COVID-19 so he’s truly day-to-day, but it’s unclear when Gordon and MCW might get back on the court. Momentum matters with the playoffs on the horizon, but the Magic aren’t likely to take any chances. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot, and after watching Isaac go down with a torn ACL, it wouldn’t make sense to play Gordon or MCW at less than 100%. I’d be surprised if either guy plays more than light minutes in a tune-up game before the postseason.

The Celtics were in trouble late in the fourth quarter of this game, but they managed to tie it up and force overtime on a bucket from Jayson Tatum with 3.8 seconds left. Tatum then blocked a shot from Terrence Ross, and his team went on to win behind a massive performance from Gordon Hayward, who had 31 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two 3-pointers in 40 minutes. Hayward made 12-of-18 shots and looked absolutely fantastic tonight.

Boston came into this game with a clean injury report, an enviable position to be in as the ‘seeding’ portion of the NBA re-start winds down. Even Kemba’s troublesome knee has responded well to increased play, though that might not be the impression given by his 1-of-9 shooting performance on Sunday. He added six dimes and three assists, and it just wasn’t his night offensively, but he did log a bubble-high 32 minutes. He was expected to settle into the 30-32 range to gear up for the playoffs, so unless there’s word of a setback that’s where he should remain.

Sixers at Blazers

Joel Embiid exited Sunday’s game with a “left ankle injury.” It looked like he rolled his ankle, but even a sprain is substantial for a guy with a litany of injuries in his brief history as an NBA history. I’m not expecting Embiid to be out long-term, but Philly is already playing without Ben Simmons (knee surgery), and they’ll need a variety of players to step up as he recovers.

Shake Milton will have the ball plenty and has proven he can produce at a high level without Simmons, so his DFS salary will inevitably get inflated. Al Horford is also a clear winner with a new starting job alongside Joel Embiid, and he’ll be critical to keeping Philly’s offense humming in the halfcourt. He’s a willing passer with 4.0+ assists per game in four straight seasons, and comes in hitting 1.4 three-pointers per game, so there’s cause for optimism that the Al/Joel pairing will be a success. Head coach Brett Brown all but confirmed he’ll start the rest of the way, saying recently: “It’s not a statistic to me, although [Horford’s] stats are pretty damned good. It’s more just that physical presence that he brings to this [starting] group. It’s clear he understands that we need him more than we ever have needed him.”

This game was the Damian Lillard show for Portland, as he started hot and never looked back en route to 51 points on 16-of-28 FGs and 15-of-16 FTs. It’s easy for players to say they’re unaffected by off-court drama, but Lillard goes out and proves it. Saturday night’s loss to the Clippers ended with a pair of missed free throws and a missed 3-pointer, and dozens of headlines were created when Patrick Beverley loudly mocked him from the bench. Dame shrugged it off afterward, and sure enough he was calm and collected while decimating another opponent in the bubble. Every win is crucial for the Blazers’ odds of making the playoffs, or at least forcing a play-in, and they have to feel great with the ball in Lillard’s hands.

Blazers’ radio host Jay Allen pointed out after the game that Lillard is now the eighth player in NBA history to score 50+ points in at least five games. The other players on the list are Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, James Harden and Rick Barry.

Hassan Whiteside didn’t play on Sunday due to a left hip strain. That meant extra minutes for Wayne Gabriel, who chipped in three points, two rebounds and one block in 12 minutes. It’s interesting that Nassir Little still isn’t in the rotation. We knew that Jusuf Nurkic’s return would be bad news for Whiteside’s fantasy value, a fate that was sealed when the Nurk/Whiteside frontcourt was quickly scratched. Still, the difference in production from the ‘regular’ season to the Orlando bubble is staggering:

Pre-Orlando, without Nurkic: 16.3 points on 61.8% FGs, 14.2 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 1.2 steals, 31.3 minutes

Orlando, with Nurkic: 5.8 points on 58.8% FGs, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 0.0 steals in 15.8 minutes.

His minutes have been cut in half, yet his production is basically 1/3rd of where he was before the season re-started. Whiteside’s clashes with Erik Spoelstra in Miami are well-documented and he’s been upset about reduced minutes and a bench role in the past, so I’m wondering if he’s just checking out mentally. For now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s just not fully healthy. Either way, it’s impossible to trust him for DFS value. And I’m confident his elite production in 9-cat/8-cat this year will drive up his average draft position to unreasonable heights, and I won’t get him anywhere. He’s an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and I see very few situations in which I’d take him top-30.

Rockets at Kings

Austin Rivers was on fire throughout Sunday’s game, scoring a career-high 41 points on 14-of-20 FGs and 7-of-8 FTs, with a 6-of-11 mark from deep. He also had six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 33 minutes, so it wasn’t a hollow scoring line whatsoever. He launched a few late-game shots clearly chasing his previous career-high in scoring, without which this game would have looked even cleaner from an efficiency perspective, but the win was a foregone conclusion so that’s understandable.

The delayed context for Rivers’ huge game is that both Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon were out for this game, leaving dozens of minutes and plenty of offensive usage up for grabs. Ben McLemore started and logged 28 minutes, scoring 20 points with three rebounds and one assist. He shot 7-of-16 from the field, with 14 of his attempts from deep — he made six of them, but obviously knows his role on this team. Any DFS appeal could be short-lived because Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said on Sunday that Westbrook and Gordon could return for Monday’s practice. Here’s the full quote: “I think [the odds of them practicing] are good. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll go through shootaround [Monday] and see how it feels. It’s looking likely.”

P.J. Tucker had seven rebounds with one assist, one steal, one block and zero turnovers in this high-scoring game. The bad news is that Tucker scored only one point, finishing 0-of-5 from the field and 1-of-2 from the line. He’s always a very low-usage player and tonight’s game wasn’t any different without Russell Westbrook (quad), whose offense was picked up by Ben McLemore and Austin Rivers. Tucker’s real-world impact is always much greater than it is in fantasy, and he rarely pops off in DFS because offense is such a big part of the scoring system.

The Kings are genuinely hard to write about at the moment. They’ve fallen out of playoff contention and are without Marvin Bagley (foot), and didn’t have Richaun Holmes (hip) on Sunday. They are playing into the void for their final two games, which means anything can happen rotation-wise. Do you know DaQuan Jeffries? He scored 13 points for the Kings on Sunday, making 5-of-8 shots with two rebounds, two assists, one steal and one 3-pointer. He played 30 minutes and looked pretty good.

Nemanja Bjelica played only five minutes off the bench, while the guy who replaced him as a starter, Alex Len, had four points and three rebounds in 15 minutes. Former first-round pick Harry Giles, who is finally and fully healthy and hale, was limited to two points, three boards and three assists in a mere 15 minutes. What is going on in Sacramento? Buddy Hield’s minutes over the past three games are 11, 20 and 25, and it’s as though the team’s management/coaching staff wants to aggravate him. De’Aaron Fox (26 points, nine dimes) was solid on Sunday and looks safe for DFS value, but could be benched with the Kings out of the playoff picture. Bogdan Bogdanovic had a good game with 13 points, eight dimes, five rebounds and two 3-pointers, but that was based on 36 minutes of play which doesn’t seem feasible. Unless you’re privy to conversations between coach Luke Walton and his talks with upper management, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the Kings’ final games in Orlando.

Nets at Clippers

Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris were all doubtful to play on Saturday night. The next morning, they were flipped to ‘probable’ on the injury report. Then they were cleared to play later in the afternoon. Prior to tip-off, coach Jacque Vaughn revealed that none of them were on a minute-limit. The impression is that Brooklyn was going to rest three of their key players, two of whom have guaranteed long-term contracts, but back-tracked for whatever reason. [The Nets’ seemingly purposeless injury updates required no fewer than nine news blurbs from Rotoworld’s staff.]

One takeaway here is that lineups are going to be extremely unpredictable over the final handful of ‘seeding’ games before the playoffs. It doesn’t help that homecourt advantage is non-existent in the bubble, so there are certain strata of teams. One group is playing just to develop some momentum and keep guys healthy. Another group at the bottom of the West is still playing for a postseason berth (that’s dwindling by the day), and will therefore have actual, reliable rotations. A third group is just here for player development.

Regardless, DFS owners who took the plunge on Caris LeVert were thrilled on Sunday, as he notched 17 points and seven dimes…in the first quarter. That set a career high for LeVert in assists during a single quarter. It also paced the Nets to the second-most points they’ve ever scored in the first quarter of a game in franchise history, falling a point shy of a record set in 2000. He finished with 27 points, 13 assists, four rebounds, two 3-pointers and one steal in 35 minutes.

This was a back-to-back for the Clippers, so Paul George sat out. Kawhi Leonard was intensely efficient with 39 points in in 37 minutes. He had six assists, four steals and made four 3-pointers, finishing 14-of-25 from the field and 7-of-8 from the line. It’s what he does. Patrick Beverley was out again due to a calf injury, and it’s unclear when he’ll be ready to go. Bev still made headlines this weekend, though, after trolling Damian Lillard late in Saturday’s game — when Dame missed a pair of free throws, Beverley tapped his wrist in mocking allusion to ‘Dame Time.’ As usual, Lillard took it in stride and pointed out that he’s knocked out Bev in the playoffs before.

Terance Mann got hot with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting, Lou Williams chipped in 18 points, Ivica Zubac had 15 rebounds, and full line, and that was about it. From the ‘random footnote’ department, L.A.’s PR department notes that Sunday marked Lou Williams’ 1,000th career regular season game. They continued, “Williams is one of 13 active players in the NBA to reach the milestone and is the 135th player in NBA history.” He’s a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year this season, along with teammate Montrezl Harrell, and if I had a say I’d let them share it.

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