Blazers head into first playoff series in three years with one goal: Get beyond the first round

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Rob Ems, who was named Free Throw Guy by Mattress World owner Sheri Heiner, tries to distract Milwaukee Bucks center Zaza Pachulia during a free throw at the Moda Center.The Trail Blazers open the playoffs this weekend against the Houston Rockets, their first venture into the postseason since 2011, when they were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks in six games.

The big question: Can Portland get past the first round for the first time since 2000, when the Blazers blew a big lead in Game 7 of their Western Conference finals series with the Los Angeles Lakers? No West team has gone so long without a playoff series victory.

That doesn’t concern the current group of coaches and players in Portland, most of whom haven’t been around for much of the time since that ignominious collapse by Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis and Co.

Just the same, the 2013-14 Blazers want to leave their mark beyond what they have accomplished during the regular season.

“We believe in ourselves,” All-Star point guard Damian Lillard says. “You don’t go into the playoffs just to make them. We’re capable of winning a (playoff) series, and more.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard reacts after dunking the ball against Milwaukee Bucks in overtime at Moda Center. Lillard says the team wont be satisfied until it wins in the playoffs.A year ago, the Blazers suffered through a season-ending 13-game losing streak to finish 33-49. The over/under figure set by Las Vegas oddsmakers this preseason had Portland at 38 wins. The Blazers go into Wednesday’s regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers with a 53-28 record, an improvement of 20 victories from the previous season.

With Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the Blazers’ 24-5 start was evidence that everyone had underestimated the group that general manager Neil Olshey put together. Things leveled out from there. And there was a March swoon in which Portland lost eight of 11 games and, for a moment, seemed in danger of sliding out of the playoff picture.

The Blazers got it straightened out, though, and began the final week of the regular season still in contention for the fourth of eight playoff spots in the West — which earns homecourt advantage in the first round.

“I’ve been a fan of the success they’ve had this season,” says Rick Sund, Atlanta’s senior adviser/basketball operations and a former GM of the Hawks and Seattle SuperSonics. “They’ve been fun to watch. So many of the media didn’t pick them to even make the playoffs. It’s a feather in the caps of management, the coaching staff and the players. In a very strong conference, it’s a real credit to all of them.”

Time to step up

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, goes through his lineup routine with teammate Blazers forward Dorell Wright.There’s an underdog mentality that has worked well for the Blazers this season. NBA media, guard Wesley Matthews points out, “had us picked 14th (out of 15 teams in the West). I took that personally. I think a lot of guys did. But that’s when we’re at our best, when we’re on edge.”

Reserve forward Dorell Wright earned a championship ring as a member of the 2005-06 Miami Heat. He’d like to think he has a chance to get to the NBA finals again with Portland.

“I see a lot of guys ready to win,” Wright says. “I know LA (LaMarcus) is ready to win. He’s been here for eight years. Dame is a great competitor. Wesley, (Robin Lopez) — everybody. When you’ve been underdogs a lot of your career, you’re ready for these big moments, just to prove yourself.”

Aldridge made the postseason three times (2009-11) with the Blazers without winning a series.

“I haven’t made it into the second round,” says Aldridge, 28. “I don’t want us to be satisfied with just making (the playoffs). I’m telling the young guys, ‘I’ve made (the playoffs), and as quickly as you make it, you can go home.’ I want us to be locked in on making it past the first round.”

Reserve guard Mo Williams, who reached the 2009 Eastern Conference finals with the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, has participated in 41 playoff games, 25 as a starter. Aldridge and Nicolas Batum are next on the team in playoff experience (18 games), followed by Matthews (16), Earl Watson (eight), Wright (seven) and Lopez (six). The rest of the players have never made the postseason.

“We have playoff experience,” Matthews says. “Our starting five, other than Damian, has been in the playoffs.”

But none of them together. Maybe that won’t be a problem.

“Sometimes you can learn on the fly,” Williams says. “You saw five freshmen almost win an NCAA championship (for Kentucky). You’d like to have plenty of experience, but I don’t think you don’t need it.”

“A lot of teams go to the playoffs year after year, and they still lose,” Lillard says. “Golden State made it for the first time last year, and (the Warriors) made noise.”

Sacramento coach Mike Malone was an assistant with the Warriors last season.

“Sometimes too much is made of” playoff experience, says Malone, who made the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons with Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State. “Look at us at last year. The Warriors hadn’t been to the playoffs for a long time. We had a lot of guys it was the first time. We were able to knock off Denver in the first round and give San Antonio a hell of a run (in the West semifinals).

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Trail Blazers fans cheer for the team after a play against Sacramento Kings at Moda Center.“Yes, you like savvy veterans. But sometimes the newness, the excitement, the energy guys have makes up for some of that. I can’t imagine Damian Lillard thinking, ‘This is my first playoff series.’ He’ll go out there to show everybody. It’s the time to step up and make a name for


Malone raises a couple of very good points, though.

“The biggest question mark with the Trail Blazers is their bench,” he says. “If they get in foul trouble, they have Mo Williams, they have Dorell, they have Thomas Robinson. But how effective can their bench be? And they rely on their 3-point shot so much. If it’s not going, can they go to something else that will carry them offensively?”

Hungry players

Portland entered the final week of the season last in the league in bench points (24.1) and 27th among the 30 teams in bench scoring differential (minus-7.4). It would help if center/forward Joel Freeland, out of action since Feb. 12 with a knee injury, can come back for some productive minutes in the playoffs.

The Blazers are shooting .372 from 3-point range, tied for eigth in the NBA, and are taking more than 25.2 attempts per game, third-most in the league (Houston is at 26.6). TNT’s Charles Barkley has questioned whether Portland can be successful in the postseason while relying so heavily on the long ball.

“We have an inside-outside game,” Matthews counters. “We won 11 straight games this season and four straight games numerous times. We’ve won in different ways. We have two of the better post-up guys in the league in LA and RoLo.”

“If they’re hitting (from 3-point range), it’s all great,” says Sacramento forward Travis Outlaw, whose only playoff experience was with Portland in 2008-09. “If they get hot, they can win a series. If they’re missing, they’ll have to try to some things closer to the rim.

“But they share the ball well. I think LaMarcus is going to step up big. He’s the veteran of that team. I think he can carry them. And with Lillard, they have the 1-2 punch going. They can create open shots for other people.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Young Trail Blazer fans from Seaside cheer for the Blazers against the Milwaukee Bucks from the top of the Moda Center.The Blazers would love to have homecourt advantage in any series because the Moda Center crowd is among the most raucous and supportive in the NBA.

“We have a great home base,” Williams says. “The more games we get here, the better.”

“It’s a big advantage,” Wright says. “You have to love coming here each and every night. The fans are awesome. It’s not hard for us to get up for games, because our fans are always behind us.”

“This building gives them a great homecourt advantage,” the Kings’ Malone says. “It’s one of the toughest places to play. I think they’ll be a very competitive playoff team.”

Coach Terry Stotts wants the Blazers to be peaking as they go into the playoffs.

“It’s important to have an edge,” Stotts says. “For our (young) team, it’s going to be especially important. If we let up, it’s going to be difficult to turn it on (in the playoffs).”

The Blazers have proved they are capable. The only team they haven’t beaten this season is two-time defending champion Miami (losing 108-107 and 93-91).

“Every team in the top four spots (in the West), we’ve beaten,” Matthews says. “And with a couple balls bouncing the right way, we could have swept them. We’re confident we’re going to take care of the first round.”

Wright says the Blazers’ desire to succeed in the playoffs is off the charts.

“When I was in Miami, it was the same way,” he says. “We had guys chasing a championship, veterans like Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning. They were hungry. That’s what I see with this team — a lot of hungry guys.”

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