Like so many other notable Lillard pieces over the past two weeks, the ball fell smoothly through the hoop. In response, the Brooklyn Nets called timeout. And while the Blazers are still trailing four at this point, it seemed inevitable that Lillard – the undisputed MVP of that NBA bubble at Walt Disney World Resort – would find a way to save Portland once again.
In the end, that’s exactly what he did, finishing with 42 points – including 12 in the fourth quarter – to take Portland to a breathtaking 134-133 victory over the Nets, and with that, the Blazers. won the eighth seed in the Western Conference and a spot this weekend in the first NBA play-in tournament.
“I just didn’t want to be too passive,” Lillard said afterward. “So, as I was raising the ball, I said, ‘As soon as I see an opportunity, I’m going to get up.’ ”
It was an absurd shot – just like many other Lillard threw in the past two weeks leading Portland to a 6-2 record, allowing the Blazers to finish half a game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, their opponent in the room. -in round this weekend, and the Phoenix Suns. And Portland needed all of them, as Lillard scored 51 points to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 61 points to beat the Dallas Mavericks and now 42 points to beat the Nets – games the Blazers won by. seven points combined.
“We needed each of the [those points]Blazers coach Terry Stotts said with a smile.
He wasn’t kidding, as Lillard became the first person in NBA history to score at least 40 points in three straight games his team have won by three points or less, according to data from the Elias Sports Bureau. .
But when Stotts met his team after Thursday night’s game, it wasn’t Lillard’s bombshell from the half court that he showed the team, nor Gary Trent Jr.’s big 3-point turn. with over two minutes to go that gave Portland. the first or the layup of Jusuf Nurkic or the key midrange rider of CJ McCollum who followed him.
Instead, he showed the team a pair of plays: Lillard diving to the ground at midfield for a loose ball, and Nurkic doing the same on the baseline to ensure a defensive rebound.
“These are the things we have to do to win games,” Stotts said. “These pieces, these two pieces, made a difference. ”
As a result, Portland has found its way into the league’s inaugural play-in tournament, where, as an eighth seed, the Blazers are set to win just one of two potential play-in games (Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on ABC and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, must win both games to make the playoffs.
While the two play-in scouting teams that won earlier on Thursday – the Grizzlies and Suns – took off victories against exhausted teams from the Milwaukee Bucks and Mavericks, respectively, who were preparing for the playoffs, the Blazers got full effort from the Nets.
Brooklyn will face the Toronto Raptors starting Tuesday in the first round of the playoffs, but after the Nets have had players in and out of the roster for the past few weeks, they have chosen to play their full rotation in their typical allotment. of minutes in order. for preparing.
“We’ll have our starting lineup that we’ve had the last two games and we’ll see how these guys progress,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game. “We’re going to be watching these guys – but it’s about having a pace and a kind of progression as we head into the playoffs.
“So we’re going to assess the game, see what the game does, but these guys have the mental makeup right now that they’re playing a competitive basketball game. ”
The Nets kept that focus throughout, as Caris LeVert (37 points on a 16-for-29 shot with 9 assists) led Brooklyn to a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. The Nets as a team shot 59.7 percent from the field during three quarters against the flammable Portland defense that entered Thursday’s game 21st in defensive efficiency.
But Portland, as he did against Philadelphia and Dallas, fought back and took the lead with 1 minute and 45 seconds left on a Nurkic layup that made Portland 132-130, and McCollum doubled the lead with a free throw lineman. with 53.4 seconds remaining after a frantic streak in which Nurkic and Lillard both dove on those loose balls.
The Blazers gave up a slew of offensive rebounds in the fourth, however, and it appeared it would come at a cost to Portland when LeVert scored on Nurkic, plus one foul, with 37.7 seconds left, slashing Portland’s lead. at 134-133.
Portland had a chance to seal the game when Carmelo Anthony had a look wide open in the corner that would have pushed the lead back to four, but Anthony missed. Brooklyn then came down and chose to play for the win, with LeVert isolated against McCollum – whom he had attacked relentlessly in the fourth quarter.
But while LeVert put in a quality shot, he missed, and Portland was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
“As far as shooting goes, I’m just trying to read the defense,” LeVert said. “I feel like they’re playing the drive, I have to watch it again, but these are all shots that I do every day, so I’m going to live with that shot. ”
None of this will matter, however, for Portland. Instead, the Blazers’ goal will only be to try and rest and recover for Saturday’s game against Memphis – and, potentially, the game with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers waiting for it.
If anyone thinks Portland is celebrating their accomplishment by hitting the play-in round, think again. The Blazers have bigger things on their minds.
“I would say we were happy, [and] relieved. We are delighted to be in the play-in round. [But] it’s not like we’re jumping up and down, ”Stotts said.
“We are where we wanted to be. I don’t think anyone is over the moon right now. We know we have a tough opponent in Memphis, so there wasn’t really a time to celebrate. ”
Rather than celebrating, Lillard had something else in mind: a post-game ice bath to start preparing his body for Saturday’s showdown with the Grizzlies. But he said his mind was already anxious to go.
“I will always be mentally prepared,” said Lillard. “I’m never worried about it. “