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Lillard scores 32 points and hits long shots, Simons wins dunk contest and Covington represents HBCUs.

COURTESY PHOTO: BRUCE ELY/TRAIL BLAZERS - Damian Lillard starred at the NBA All-Star Game, and now looks forward to the Trail Blazers' playoff push.What's ahead: The Blazers (21-14), sitting fifth in the NBA Western Conference with their best record at the NBA All-Star Game break since 2014-15, return for the NBA's second half, starting at 7 p.m. Thursday at Moda Center against Phoenix, continuing on the road at Minnesota (5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday), then returning home for two games each against New Orleans (7 p.m. March 16 and 18) and Dallas (7 p.m. March 19 and 21) and then one game against Brooklyn (7 p.m. March 23).

The Blazers could see CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic back soon. McCollum, averaging a career-high 26.7 points a game, would take some scoring heat off Damian Lillard, and Nurkic would bring back an all-around post game.

The Blazers said McCollum (foot) has been cleared for contact practice and Nurkic (wrist) continues to increase his on-court activity. They'll both be reevaluated this week.

What's behind: In the week before the break, the Blazers lost a game against LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers, 102-93 Feb. 26, to finish 0-3 on a road trip. Lillard had 35 points, but the Lakers defended him and the Blazers well in the third quarter and dominated in points in the paint (52-30), on the fast break (23-13) and in points off turnovers (22-8).

Then, it was a three-game winning streak at Moda Center in some memorable games.

The Blazers hit a team-record 24 3-pointers in beating Charlotte 123-111 March 1. Robert Covington had his best game with 21 points (with five 3-pointers) and 10 rebounds and starting 8 of 8 shooting. Carmelo Anthony hit six 3-pointers and scored 29 points; Lillard also hit six 3-pointers.

Lillard had only made four shots (1 of 8 3-pointers) until the final 2:06 in a 108-106 win against Golden State March 3. He scored the team's final eight points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer, and then made the play of the game, stepping in front of Draymond Green for a charge.

Lillard then scored 44 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter and 10 in a row as Portland overtook and beat Sacramento 123-119 March 4. Lillard made 13 of 26 shots from the field (8 of 15 3-pointers) and all 10 free throws. He also had seven assists — and no turnovers.

Big weekend: Lillard showed off his talents in the NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, scoring 32 points and canning the game's final shot from just inside the halfcourt line — one of three makes from the distance — for the Team LeBron win in a game with a unique win-lose format. For good measure, he tapped his wrist, signifying "Dame Time." They were the final points of a 170-150 victory for Team LeBron.

At halftime, Anfernee Simons won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Add some consistency to Simons' game, and he might find himself in the All-Star Game someday. He's really talented with handles, scoring ability, 3-point shooting and obviously athleticism — and he has good mentors in Lillard and McCollum and a good reserve backcourt running partner in Gary Trent Jr.

And, one can't overlook the appearance of Covington in Atlanta, as the league's only player from a Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the league (from Tennessee State) and competing in the Skills Challenge. The NBA promoted HBCU at the All-Star Game. Covington gifted $25,000 to his alma mater.

Lillard's half: A lot of people follow the KIA MVP Ladder. (The eye test says Lillard is a top-five candidate, but we'll go with something of a more scientific evaluation).

Lillard is ranked fourth behind Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and James and just ahead of Luka Doncic.

Lillard is averaging 29.8 points (third in league behind Bradley Beal and Embiid), 4.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists and one steal per game. He's third in 3-pointers made (4.3/game, behind teammate McCollum and Stephen Curry at 4.8).

No turnovers: Lillard had 40 points and no turnovers Jan. 13 — in a win at Sacramento. So, he showed some improvement last week with 44 and zero turnovers against Sacramento.

ESPN tweeted that it was Lillard's fifth career game with 40 or more points and no turnovers, tied for third most since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.

Michael Jordan had 14. Anthony Davis currently has six, and Lillard is tied with George Gervin with five, just ahead of Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with four each.

Lillard quotes: The Portland star commented on several topics after the All-Star Game, including …

• Halfcourt jumpers — "I haven't done it in an actual game, (but now) tested it out in live action. Felt decent, fine. Like a normal jumper, able to shoot it pretty easily. … I think I'm going to (shoot from about halfcourt in a game), but it has to be out of respect for our team. We work hard on the defensive end, and I don't want to come down and waste a possession."

• End of game heroics — "The end of the game is the best time of the game — some players wear down, shy away or get excited. It's win or lose, stakes are at their highest, it's a lot of fun. You can sink or swim, your team can win or lose. I always get up for those moments."

• Portland's first half — "We did our jobs in the first half of the season, and had a lot of injuries. It was tough, we came together, got the job done. Our work is just beginning."

• Playing in small market — "If you're playing on a bigger stage, a major platform and market — New York, Chicago, LA — you don't have to be doing anything to get attention. I don't think you absolutely need a bigger market (to be a recognizable NBA star). If you're doing things the right way, you capture the attention of people and bring people to you, you can build up a market. I've brought (Portland) to the bigger stage — being an all-star, doing things off the floor, the national campaigns. Nobody who's played in Portland has done it the way I've done it. I've helped build the market up from what it was. … You leave it better than it was when you got there."

Kanter's contribution: What a big deal it was for the Blazers to acquire Enes Kanter and his two-year, $10 million contract from the Boston Celtics. Not only has the 6-10 post filled in admirably for the injured Nurkic, he has been steady in rebounding and scoring.

He's second behind Atlanta's Clint Capela in the NBA in offensive rebounding (4.17/game) and third in total rebounds behind Capela and Rudy Gobert (11.9).

Not to mention, new players Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. have been stalwarts on the defensive end — just what they're hired to do. They chip in on offense and shut down players on defense.

McCollum's business: Voted on by players, McCollum has been reelected as a National Basketball Players Association vice president. He'll begin his three-year term on the NBPA executive committee immediately. Chris Paul of Phoenix serves as NBPA president and Andre Iguodala of Miami the first vice president.

Stats: The Blazers rank 24th in scoring defense (114.9), and 11th in scoring offense (114.5). … They are second in 3-pointers made per game (12.8, behind Utah's 13.6) and attempted (34.0, behind Utah's 34.5). They are eighth in 3-point percentage (38.2%). … Portland has a 6-8 record against teams that are .500 or better and 15-6 against teams below .500.


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