Blazers end on high note
The Trail Blazers dipped into the treasure chest and came away with a handful of goodies in their regular-season finale Wednesday night at Moda Center.
A 102-93 victory over Utah secured the No. 3 seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs and the Northwest Division championship for Portland, which will square off against No. 6 seed New Orleans in the first round.
The first two games will be Saturday and Tuesday at Moda Center, with both games starting at 7:30 p.m.
"Winning the division is a big deal," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "It's always going to be in the rafters. The banner will be up in the practice facility.
"It's been an up and down season, but I'm pleased with the way we played tonight. We have some momentum going into the playoffs. The No 3 seed is pretty good. Now the fun starts."
The Blazers, who came into the game on a four-game losing streak, felt it was important to end the regular season on a winning note.
"We wanted to get back on the right track before the playoffs," forward Ed Davis said. "It's a long year, a grind, and you want to finish on a good note so that you have that positive energy going into the playoffs."
The third seed was on the line Wednesday as the Blazers and Jazz entered with identical 48-33 records. Portland was the better team from the onset, building a 24-point fourth-quarter lead before putting away a Utah team that had won 29 of its last 34 games, including six in a row.
"They've been in important games," Utah coach Quin Snyder said, "and they came out like that tonight."
"I would have liked to get a 50-win season, but you can't complain about the division championship and 49 wins," said Damian Lillard, who scored 36 points and dished out 10 assists with no turnovers in 37 minutes of a virtuoso performance.
Clinching the No. 3 seed and the division title was a long time coming for the Blazers. This was their final chance.
"We had two weeks to lock down the third spot and win the division," Lillard said. "That opportunity won't always be there. Here we are, one game, and we're playing for the third spot and the division championship. That's something to be proud of, to care about and play for. We worked too hard not to go and get that, especially on our home floor."
Before Wednesday's game at Moda Center began, the Pelicans had beaten San Antonio, meaning the Blazers had clinched at least the No. 4 seed and first-round homecourt advantage. They weren't going to settle for that, though, not with the third seed within their grasp.
"That was a goal of ours, and we definitely wanted to win the division," Davis said. "We went out there and got it."
The Jazz came in hot, but they definitely were not Wednesday, shooting .348 in the first half and .371 for the game. They were 5 for 30 from mid-range. "You have to make a few of those," Snyder said.
Utah gets the No. 5 seed and will begin its series with No. 4 seed Oklahoma City on the road.
The Blazers had shot poorly during their losing streak, but were better Wednesday, firing at a .461 clip from the field while making 9 of 24 (.375) from 3-point range. Lillard, though, was the money man, making 13 of 25 from the field and 4 of 10 from beyond the arc.
"It was nice to make some shots," Stotts said. "Damian set the tone early, and we were able to build on that. I was pleased with our defense. The first three quarters, we were really solid defensively."
"We had a great defensive effort going," Lillard said. "Guys were locked in from the beginning. The past few games, we were getting good looks, we were executing well, we were just missing shots. Tonight, we just kept trusting, and guys made shots."
It was a successful regular season for the Blazers, who were not a playoff team in the eyes of some preseason pundits.
"They picked us for 11th in the West," forward Evan Turner said. "We finished third and got homecourt advantage and won our division. It doesn't get much better than that."
Now it's on to the series against New Orleans (48-34), which has won 20 of its last 28 games, including six in a row. Center DeMarcus Cousins was lost for the season with an Achilles tendon injury in late January. The Pelicans survived behind the extraordinary talents of power forward Anthony Davis, along with guards Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo and forward Nikola Mirotic.
"They're a good team," Ed Davis said. "They have an MVP-caliber player in Davis. We're going to put a lot of focus and attention on him, but I like our chances."
The Blazers and Pelicans split the season series 2-2.
"They stole one from us here," said Lillard, pointing to a 123-116 New Orleans win on Dec. 2 in which Cousins scored 38 points. "That was a game we should have had. They have a lot of guys who make them a dangerous team. We're in for a dogfight."
"When Cousins went down, everyone wrote them off," Stotts said. "They've done a great job of competing since then. Davis has been an outstanding player. It's been a tough matchup for us, but you can put behind everything that happened before. The playoffs are a different animal."
Having homecourt advantage is "huge," Turner said.
"Especially when every flight (to New Orleans) is damn near six hours," he said. "We didn't want to go back on the road. We've been out there 11 of the past 14 days. The first game is going to set the tone. We have to protect the homecourt."
"Sleeping in your own bed, not having to travel, playing in front of our crowd — any time you can start a playoff series at home, it's good," Lillard said.
Davis, though, sounds a warning.
"It's important, but it starts out zero-zero," he said. "We didn't have homecourt in the Clippers series two years ago, and we won it. It means something, but a team can easily come into your place and get rid of you."
That the Blazers shrugged off their losing streak and ended the regular season with a victory should "give us confidence, especially in beating a good team," Lillard said.
"We played a really complete game in a big game," he said. "It meant a lot. Our team should be really encouraged going into the playoffs."
"The most important thing about tonight's game was playing well," Stotts said. "It was important for morale — that we could go into (the playoffs) with a feel-good (performance). That can go away with one loss in the playoffs, but we had too good of a season not to finish on a high note."
Lillard stopped short of saying he feels better about this team's playoff chances than any Portland club he has been on.
"My second year, I felt we were going to win the championship," he said with a grin. "But I feel really good about this team. It's been a process for us. We've constantly grown. We've put a lot of time into the chemistry. Everybody has a great understanding of what their role is for the team.
"I feel like we're in a really good place. It's a great opportunity for us to go out there and show we can compete at the highest level."
NOTES: It's Portland's first division title since 2015. ... It's the first time the Blazers have had first-round homecourt advantage since 2009. ... Games 3 and 4 of the series will be Thursday and Saturday in New Orleans. ... It was the 25th time this season Lillard has scored 30 or more points. ... Utah rookie point guard Donovan Mitchell, who came in with a team-high 20.5-point average, missed his first eight shots and finished with 17 points on 6 for 23 from the field. ... Snyder, on Portland's defense: "They guard the rim. That's why they have a good defense. (Jusuf) Nurkic is back there. Davis is back there. They try to stay with shooters. They shift off certain guys." ... Turner played with Holiday in Philadelphia. "He is one of my favorite players," Turner said. "He's tough to guard. I always thought he was underrated and super talented." ... Turner was named recipient of the Blazers' annual Maurice Lucas Award, given to the player who best represents the late power forward's "indomitable spirit" on the court and in the community. "(Lucas) was a great teammate," Stotts said. "On the court, he played hard. In the locker room, teammates appreciated him. It's the same thing with Evan. He gives 100 percent. Whether he plays well or doesn't play well, you know you're going to get a good effort from him. And he's appreciated in the locker room."