No. 3 NBA playoff seed? Blazers see a way
The Trail Blazers have been nothing if not consistently inconsistent this season. From week to week, from game to game, sometimes from quarter to quarter.
The latest example is surely what had coach Terry Stotts in a give-me-a-wide-berth state of mind as he met with the media following Portland's 109-103 overtime victory over Charlotte Thursday night at Moda Center.
The Blazers held a 22-5 lead at the game's onset as the bumbling Hornets (23-31) missed 14 of their first 16 shots. Portland still led 92-75 with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, but then nearly threw away the game before saving the day in the extra session.
"I'm glad we won," Stotts said tersely after Portland had committed 13 of its 17 turnovers in the second half — seven in the fourth quarter.
Stotts also was incensed with the officiating, notably a pair of offensive foul calls on Jusuf Nurkic in overtime that kept the Hornets alive. What did the sixth-year Blazer coach think of the referee crew?
"They got most of the calls right," said Stotts, mindful of hanging on to the spare change in his pocket instead of sending it the NBA office's way.
The Blazers overcame one of the poorest performances of the season by Damian Lillard, who was ineffective at both ends. Lillard lost the battle of All-Star point guards, totaling 18 points (on 6-for-22 shooting, 3 for 11 from 3-point range), eight assists and four turnovers while his counterpart, Charlotte's Kemba Walker, bombed in a cool 40, including 6 of 11 from downtown.
Nurkic was Portland's biggest weapon on Thursday, making 10 of 14 shots while collecting 24 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots in 33 minutes. The "Bosnian Beast" also had five of his seven turnovers in the fourth quarter and overtime, several while trying to force a pass through traffic.
Stotts' appraisal: "He played a very good game. He had some very careless turnovers."
Quipped Nurkic: "I was hunting a triple-double."
After a few yucks with reporters, the 7-footer continued, "My decisions have to be better. I know I'm a great passer. I trust myself in what I'm going to do. It's going to come. I'm getting near what I want to be."
It was a game the Blazers had to have, and should have had rather easily. Portland is only 12-20 against teams that are .500 or better but is now 18-5 against teams without a winning record. It was the ninth straight victory at Moda Center for the local lads, who are 16-10 at home after starting the season 7-10.
That's the Blazers' longest home win streak since December 2012 to January 2013. It's also part of the formula CJ McCollum proposes to ride to a playoff run.
"We have to continue to win at home and beat teams under .500," McCollum said.
The Blazers have 14 remaining home games and six road dates left on the schedule. That would mean going 20-7 the rest of the way to finish 50-32, which might get them as high as third place in the NBA Western Conference.
That's exactly what the Blazers are hoping for — or, at least fourth place, which would mean homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"That's our goal," reserve forward Ed Davis said. "We have to get some momentum heading into the (All-Star) break. After that, it's a downhill run that goes quickly. We want to control our own destiny."
"Homecourt advantage means a lot in this league," McCollum said. "You get to sleep in your own bed. Stick to your routine. You don't have to travel. It's crucial."
Oh, yeah, and there is the enthusiastic support of the Moda City denizens.
"If we play in Rip City at the start (of the playoffs), it would be great," Nurkic said. "Everything is so tight in the West. We have a great chance to get to where we want to be. We just have to make a run."
Portland (30-25) has a decent chance to get as high as the No. 3 seed. The team currently in that spot, San Antonio, is 35-21 — 4 1/2 games ahead of the Blazers. The Spurs aren't the same team without forward Kawhi Leonard, whose shoulder injury has sidelined him most of the season. Reserve forward Rudy Gay has been out since December. Without those two, Gregg Popovich's outfit might not be even be a playoff team.
Minnesota is No. 4 at 34-23, while underachieving Oklahoma City — missing Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony with sprained ankles in Thursday's blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers — is fifth at 31-25, a half-game in front of No. 6 Portland.
"We're right there with those teams — knocking on Minnesota's door, right there with OKC," Lillard said. "We're right there in the mix. We're like that knowing we have a lot of situations where we gave away games we should have won."
On the flip side, No. 7 Denver (29-25) and No. 8 New Orleans (28-25) are within a game of the Blazers, with the No. 9 Los Angeles Clippers a game and a half back at 27-25. Then there are the streaking Utah Jazz, who have won seven straight to climb to 26-28. That makes Sunday night's Moda Center matchup between the Blazers and Jazz an important one.
As long as the Blazers don't finish with the No. 7 or 8 seed — which would mean playing either Golden State or Houston — they stand a chance to win a first-round matchup.
"We've shown we can compete with the best teams in the West," Stotts said. "To win a series, you have to play well over a stretch. We've won series before; we can compete in a series this year.
"The most important thing is to be playing good basketball at the end of a season, no matter what the matchup. It's an advantage to have the homecourt, but the most important thing is that you make a good stretch run and put yourself in a position that you're playing well."
Portland has climbed to a tie for 15th in offensive rating and has slipped to a tie for 10th in defensive ratings. The Blazers were as high as second in defensive rating in the first half of the season.
"We've defended well the first halves of games," Stotts said. "The second half, it's been disappointing."
The Blazers were outscored 32-18 in the fourth quarter Thursday night.
"We played great three quarters," Nurkic said. "We didn't get mental things done in the fourth. We did a lot of great things tonight. We should not have gotten in overtime, but every win is a win."
RANDOM STATS AND OBSERVATIONS
• Lillard has 10,079 career points, moving ahead of Jerome Kersey into fifth place on the franchise list. Next in line at No. 4: Cliff Robinson at 10,405.
If Lillard continues his scoring pace of 25 points per game, he'll pass Robinson on March 25 at Oklahoma City.
• Davis has been a fortress off the Blazer bench, averaging 8.3 points and 8.6 rebounds while shooting .692 from the field.
The 6-9 eight-year pro, in his third season with the Blazers, has a contract that expires at the end of the season.
"This is the longest stint I've had with a team," Davis said. "This is where I want to be. Hopefully we can get a deal done this summer and I'll be here long-term. That's my goal."
• Small forward Moe Harkless, in his 22nd start of the season but only his third since Dec. 5, had two huge baskets in overtime and finished with eight points and five rebounds in 32 minutes.
Since late December, Harkless has had three big games — 22 points and six rebounds against the L.A. Lakers on Dec. 23, 19 points and five rebounds on 7-for-10 shooting (3 for 4 on 3's) against the Spurs on Jan. 7, and 19 points and eight boards (5 for 5 on 3's) against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 4.
In his 16 other appearances, he has averaged 3.2 points and 1.3 rebounds 51 in 16.6 minutes.
• Rookie big man Zach Collins is in a shooting slump. The 7-footer from Gonzaga is 4 for 24 from the field — 2 for 12 from 3-point range — in the last five games.
• Al-Farouq Aminu has averaged only 8.1 points while shooting .339 in his last seven games, but is rebounding at a 10.6 clip over that span.
• Stotts on forward Noah Vonleh, traded to Chicago in a salary dump on Wednesday: "That's the unfortunate part of the business. Noah is a really good person, a really good player, a really good teammate. I'm appreciative of the time he spent here and wish him nothing but the best."