Simons seizes opportunity with Lillard for the Blazers | Basketball

By ANNE M. PETERSON – AP Sports Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – With Portland goaltender Damian Lillard sidelined with an abdominal injury, Anfernee Simons takes the opportunity to show he has the ability to be a starter. every day in the NBA.

The emergence of Simons gave the Trail Blazers a spark in an otherwise bleak season. Only 16-24 and sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference, Portland misses both Lillard and his backcourt partner CJ McCollum with injuries.

“That’s really my main focus, just to show that I can be that guy,” Simons said. “So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Simons had a career-high 23 points and 11 assists in Monday night’s 114-108 win over the Brooklyn Nets, who lacked James Harden but faced Kyrie Irving for the second time this season.

The victory capped a home stretch in which the Blazers went 3-2. Simons kicked off at home with a career-high 43 points in a 136-131 win over Atlanta on Jan. 3.

Known by his nickname Ant, Simons, 22, averaged 27.8 points and 7.6 assists over those five games, scoring 20 or more points in four of them.

“I think he’s on the right track,” Portland freshman coach Chauncey Billups said when asked if Simons has proven he’s an NBA starter. “This stretch here without a Lady is going to be huge for Ant. I know how I feel about him, but it’s not about me, it’s about proving himself to everyone. He’s going to have to maintain that consistency. “

He started each of those games in the absence of Lillard, who has struggled this season with lower abdominal tendinopathy. Lillard, six-time All-Star and staunch Blazers leader, has been hampered by the injury since the Tokyo Olympics.

Lillard is not accompanying the Blazers on their next six-game road trip, which begins Wednesday night in Denver. Instead, he will be evaluated more – a disturbing sign as the Blazers seek their ninth straight playoff spot.

McCollum missed 15 games after suffering a collapsed lung and is now awaiting the birth of her first child. Portland is also without other starters Norman Powell due to COVID-19 protocols and Larry Nance Jr. due to inflammation in his right knee.

Simons is hardly the only one among young league players who have racked up more minutes as coronavirus cases increase.

Miami’s Omer Yurtseven, 23, has had double-digit rebounds in his last 11 games and was the first NBA player this season to have four straight games with at least 16 rebounds, a streak he will try to extend on Wednesday. when the Heat visit Atlanta. . He had more playing time while Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon are both injured.

“I think everyone sees it this year, probably more than any other year in the NBA, is that young people have opportunities and they take advantage of it a lot,” said interim Sacramento Kings coach Alvin Gentry. . “You look at a kid like Simons, whom everyone considers a good player. As to how good it is? Well, if you’re playing on a team with the two background players (the Blazers) here, you just don’t have a lot of time to play. So now that he has extended minutes, you can see what he can do.

One of the pitfalls of resuming work from the start and executing it efficiently is that the defenses are now turning to Simons.

“I learn from every game, playing through mistakes, trying to be aggressive in certain areas. I know a lot of teams are going to start paying a lot of attention to me, ”said Simons. “You just need to be prepared for it and know how to counter it. I think I handle it pretty well.

Simons is in his fourth season in the league. He was a first-round draft pick by the Blazers in 2018 from IMG Academy in Florida. When he served as a playmaker prior to last season, Lillard wholeheartedly backed him up, saying, “I believe in Ant.”

“They just want me to play my game. Everyone says shoot the ball, make plays, and everyone gives me the confidence to do it,” Simons said. “So that makes it a lot easier. I don’t come into the game worrying about the burden on my shoulder or the weight on my shoulder.

AP basketball writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.

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