“You all know I’m always an optimist and always see the best in situations like this, and that’s why I said what I said a few months ago when I said: “If we don’t have the chance to compete for a playoff berth, I don’t want to play,” Lillard said. “Because I knew if we had a chance to play for a playoff spot it would look something like this now. ”
The Blazers entered the bubble 3½ games behind the Grizzlies, needing to be down four by the end of eight league games to force a play-in streak. In the play-in, the seeded 8 must win a game; the 9 seeds must gain two. As the Grizzlies struggle and face a significant loss from Jaren Jackson Jr.’s injury, the Blazers have not only made up for lost ground, but are able to turn around with Memphis as well. (If Memphis can even hold on, that’s it.)
“In this situation, we just have an opportunity,” said Lillard, “and let’s take advantage of it. “
Lillard was electric against Denver, dropping 45 points and tying a career-high 11 points to 3 points. There’s a story there, of course, with Lillard and the Blazers beating the Nuggets in seven playoff games.
“I skipped our guys at halftime,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “We were babysitting Damian Lillard like we didn’t know who he was. We’ve done a really good job of defending him over the past two seasons including the playoffs, [but] our pickup points were way too low. When we closed, we didn’t take him out of the 3 point line. Our hands were lowered. We weren’t in the pick-and-rolls. You name it, we abandoned it. ”
The Nuggets themselves face a wave of injuries and health management issues, sitting Paul Millsap (rest), Jamal Murray (hamstrings), Gary Harris (hip), Troy Daniels (hip) and Will Barton (knee). Center Nikola Jokic played, although Malone said he really didn’t want it at all, which is why the big Serbian man sat down. This clearly gave Portland an advantage, but Lillard said he wasn’t too concerned about style points at the moment.
“We knew there were a lot of their main players, but in the NBA, over the course of my career, I’ve learned these are the most dangerous nights,” Lillard said. “You come thinking it’s going to be an easy game and that’s why you respect your opponent.
“We did what we had to do,” he said. “Some people might say, ‘Ah, they haven’t played anybody’, but for us, we’re not going to apologize for a win. We are here just to do it. ”
While other teams can afford to manage playing time and minutes, the Blazers are in a battle. Could playing those eight games with urgency and intensity give them some sort of advantage in a playoff series?
“I would love to know that,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
The Blazers’ last four games are against the Clippers, 76ers, Mavericks and Nets, and while they have positioned themselves well, the race for 8 and 9 in the West is extremely close. The Suns, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings are all within two games of Portland, leaving the margin for error like a razor. Stotts wasn’t going to risk a guess, saying it was a one-game-at-a-time situation (while fully acknowledging the cliché).
Ahead of the shutdown, the Blazers were mired in a disappointing season, facing injuries to Zach Collins and the slow return of Jusuf Nurkic. A season ago they were in the Western Conference Finals, taking the plunge to validate the Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt and provide a roadmap to continue building a contender.
“I don’t think of us as a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals, because you are who you’ve shown to be during the season,” said Lillard. “We’ve been in poor health, it’s true, but we still have a lot of good players and we haven’t played at the level we need. But I think now we’re starting to move towards the genre. of the basketball team we want to be. ”
Free time gave the Blazers time to heal and grow. Not only are they mostly whole again, but the development of the Gary Trent Jr. wing has been a huge boost. The sophomore goalie has been a bubble star so far, losing 27 to Denver, hitting 7 out of 10 out of 3.
That’s what Lillard had in mind in May. He just wanted a hit.
“I knew once we got here we would be one of the teams that would benefit,” said Lillard, “and so far we’ve done it. “