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A win is a win, but the Portland Trail Blazers have made reaching the NBA playoffs more difficult than it sho

Written by on 10/08/2020

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ playoff chase should be a wrap right about now.

Following a 124-121 win over Philadelphia on Sunday in which Damian Lillard scored 51 points, Portland reaching the play-in round at the NBA bubble in Florida should be regarded as a foregone conclusion with Dallas and Brooklyn remaining on the schedule.

But there’s one catch. The Mavericks and the Nets have nothing left to play for. They both secured playoff spots before the restart. Both teams could sit star players the rest of the way to rest up for the playoffs.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why much trepidation should remain regarding these Blazers reaching the NBA playoffs.

For the second consecutive day, ninth-place Portland, after looking so strong through four games, allowed a star-depleted squad to hold a lead late in the fourth quarter. Fortunately for the Blazers (33-39) on Sunday, they managed to pull out the win against a 76ers team minus All-Star forward Ben Simmons (out for the season with a knee injury) and All-Star center Joel Embiid from the 6:12 mark in the first quarter after he exited the contest with an ankle injury.

Because of their absence, Sunday’s game shouldn’t have been close. But this is a Blazers team that on Saturday lost 122-117 to the Los Angeles Clippers, who sat All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard and removed All-Star forward Paul George from the game with about five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, essentially saying they didn’t care if they won the game or not. But somehow they still did win while shooting 44.1 percent from three-point range.

On Sunday, Portland watched guard Josh Richardson play like an All-Star and score 34 points to almost lead the 76ers (42-28) to an upset while shooting 46.7 percent on three-point shots compared with 31.4 percent for Portland.

“I’m really glad we got the win,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “In some ways it was similar to (yesterday’s) game with the Clippers (47-23). They played a smaller lineup, they got scrambling around, Josh Richardson had an outstanding game. Credit to him and how he played. But the biggest thing is with the pressure mounting that we still found a way to win a game.”

Essentially, the fewer All-Star players the better against these Blazers. And that doesn’t bode well for Portland on Tuesday against seventh-place Dallas (42-30), a team that has announced it will sit All-Star guard Luka Doncic and forward Kristaps Porzingis on Monday against Utah. What are the chances those two play very much, if at all, on Tuesday?

As for the Nets (34-36), seventh in the East, they have been without All-Star Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan, all of whom did not rejoin the team for the restart. They will have nothing to play for Thursday against Portland.

On paper, all of this should mean the Blazers will win their final two games and be in the play-in round as the eighth-place team or the ninth-place team, depending on what happens with eight-place Memphis (33-38). But it doesn’t. Instead, Portland is one loss from potentially falling out of ninth and out of the running to be in the play-in round.

San Antonio (31-38) and Phoenix (31-39) are just waiting to pounce.

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Philadelphia 76ers

Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard reacts to a call during the second quarter of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP) APAP

Of course, Lillard was special Sunday. He bounced back from Saturday when his missed two free throws and a three-point attempt in the final 50 seconds to contribute to the loss to the Clippers. The story of him getting over that disappointment to have a big game is legitimate, but not remotely unexpected.

“That was a team loss yesterday and obviously Dame missed his free throws, and I don’t think anyone thinks any less of Dame,” Stotts said. “Tonight, he showed his determination and will that he’s showed throughout his career, and obviously here in the bubble.”

Lillard said he stewed a bit Saturday night, but through the help of conversations with teammates and friends, rationalized that bad games and moments happen to everyone and that they are just a part of the game.

While his great showing was certainly a strong story line, Portland shouldn’t need to rely on Lillard to score 51 to defeat what Philadelphia put on the floor. The reality is Portland didn’t head to Florida for the restart to watch Lillard do what Lillard does. The Blazers went to Orlando to qualify for the playoffs and earn a shot at the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. And right now, that goal remains in peril.

Portland not only had a chance to take two this weekend and move into sole possession of eighth, it had a chance to do so without expending too much energy. Lillard thrives in such situations.

“I enjoy those games mentally because you see people start to break down mentally,” he said. “People start to have lapses. You get to that point where only a few people are going to able to push through and sustain that same level of focus. And I like to take advantage of that because I know I’m going to be there the whole time. Physically, and mentally.”

But few are on Lillard’s level. Without backup center Hassan Whiteside (hip injury), Jusuf Nurkic had to play that much more and on back-to-back days. He sucked it up to give Portland 15 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes but acknowledged his body didn’t feel great going into Sunday after Saturday’s tough game. He is, after all, coming off of a broken leg that cost him 16 months.

What’s most alarming here is that Portland’s perimeter defense has shown no improvement. So, any player in the NBA capable of hitting open jump shots can have a big game against Portland because they will get open looks. That happened for Philadelphia’s Richardson, who made 13 of 20 shots, including 6 of 10 three-point attempts. For the season, he averages 13.6 points per game.

If Portland can’t close out more effectively on shooters against Dallas and Brooklyn, then both games will become incredibly losable regardless of who is on the court.

Give the Blazers credit, however, for how their defense did perform late against the 76ers. Portland amazingly trailed 114-108 with 4:23 remaining before scoring nine consecutive points to take a 117-114 lead. Carmelo Anthony hit a three. CJ McCollum hit a jumper. Then Lillard sank a three-pointer with 2:53 left, drew a foul and made the free throw.

But to win the game, Portland, which gave up 39 points in the second quarter and 63 in the second half, had to make some stops.

Leading 124-121 with 10.2 seconds to go, the Blazers got the stop they needed when Anthony harassed Richardson just enough to make him miss a three-pointer and then several Blazers were involved for a scramble for the loose ball that Philadelphia finally grabbed but not before time had run out.

”We just wanted to switch and not be lackadaisical and make any types of mistakes,” Anthony said of that final defensive stand.

Maybe if they could have accomplished such feats more often earlier in the game, it wouldn’t have been so close and their playoff future wouldn’t remain so iffy.

— Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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