Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Playing team basketball and with Lillard on a run, Portland gunning to move up in NBA West

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Al-Farouq Aminu hears the crowd roar at Moda Center as the Trail Blazers make the final surge to defeat the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night.

As the Trail Blazers dressed following their exhilarating 117-112 victory over playoff-bound Detroit on Saturday night at Moda Center, I sought out Evan Turner to ask what kind of a goal is feasible for the final 10 games of the regular season.

"We want to try to win out," the veteran swing man said.

But is that feasible?

Folks, it's not out of the question.

Portland is 45-27, having won six of its last seven overall and four in a row at home.

The Blazers entered Sunday action fourth in the Western Conference, trailing No. 1 Denver (49-22) by 4 1/2 games, No. 2 Golden State (49-23) by four games and No. 3 Houston (46-27) by a half-game.

The three teams tied in fifth place at 43-30 — Oklahoma City, Utah and the L.A. Clippers — are 2 1/2 games back of the Blazers.

The Blazers have four home games remaining — Brooklyn on Monday night, and then Memphis, Denver and Sacramento the final week of the regular season.

There are six road dates left — Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Minnesota, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Portland likely will be favored in all of the games except the Pistons and the Nuggets on the road. The Detroit contest comes in the second of back-to-back games for the Blazers after a stop at Atlanta (the Hawks, incidentally, have knocked off Utah and Philadelphia in the last four days).

An 8-2 finish would give the Blazers a 53-29 record, which would be their best mark since winning 54 games in 2013-14. It probably wouldn't get them past Golden State in the standings. Denver — which has remaining road dates with Indiana, Houston, Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland and Utah — could be passed, especially if the Blazers can sweep their home-and-home matchups on April 5 and 7.

I'm betting that closing 8-2 would move the Blazers ahead of Houston, which has remaining road dates at New Orleans, Milwaukee, Sacramento, the Clippers and Oklahoma City.

A No. 3 finish would match Portland against the No. 6 team in the West in the first round, and would allow the Blazers to avoid the Warriors in a potential second-round matchup.

That's putting the cart ahead of the horse, of course, and the Blazers want no part of it.

"We know it's possible (to move up), but we have to worry about ourselves," said Damian Lillard, who had another in a stellar patch of performances, going for 28 points, nine assists and six rebounds against Detroit. "It's such a tight race that, with one or two losses here or there, you can drop three spots.

"The position we're in now is a good spot. We'll keep up on who won and who lost (in the West), but it's best for us to focus on ourselves."

The Blazers are trending in the right direction as they close out the regular season. They entered the Detroit game No. 5 in offensive efficiency in the NBA and put that on display by shooting .544 from the field and .423 (11 for 26) from 3-point range. Portland's defense is middling — No. 16 going into the Pistons affair — but it was at its best as the Blazers outscored the visitors 14-3 over the final 4 1/2 minutes to wipe away a six-point deficit.

"Our defensive presence down the stretch and in the biggest moments of the game was when it was best," Lillard said.

Defense wins in the playoffs, but the Blazers are going to have to win with their offense, which at the moment is pretty special, even with CJ McCollum sitting out the last three games as he rehabs a left knee injury.

Lillard has been on a splendid run, averaging 31.3 points and 10.3 assists while shooting .507 from the field and .463 from 3-point range over the past four games. He has been a willing passer to open teammates such as Seth Curry, who has filled some of the minutes vacated by McCollum in spectacular fashion. Curry scored 16 points in the first half against Detroit after filling it up for 20 points in 28 minutes in Thursday's win over Dallas.

Against the Pistons, the ball often found its way to Al-Farouq Aminu, who responded by hitting 8 of 13 shots from the field and scoring a season-high 22 points.

Zach Collins (nine points, four rebounds) and Enes Kanter (10 points, seven boards) provided strong interior minutes off the bench.

The Pistons blitzed Lillard at every turn, trying to take the ball out of hands of the Blazers' floor leader and making his teammates do their part. For the most part, they did.

"You're not going to stop everything," Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. "They're one of the best offensive teams in the league, and we made a decision we were going to try to keep the ball as much as possible out of Lillard's hands. But you take away one thing, you're going to open up something else."

That was Curry and Aminu on the perimeter, or Kanter or Jusuf Nurkic in the middle.

"We had the ball moving," Lillard said. "We were finding the right guys, having quality possessions when it mattered most. ... We were cutting, we were screening, we were ready to shoot the ball when we were open.

"When your mind is in the right place and you're doing whatever you can for the team, good things happen. We were on the good side of things."

Not that the Blazers don't miss McCollum, but Lillard's offensive game seems freer without a backcourt mate who needs the ball almost as much as he does. Lillard would never say that, of course, opting to give credit to the supporting cast that has filled in ably.

"We have so many guys coming in and impacting the game to the point where it's really a group effort, and the game is easier for me," he said. "The game flows better that way. It feels good, and it looks good, too."

Not surprisingly, coach Terry Stotts prefers to emphasis the group part of it.

"We're playing well as a team," he said. "That's the biggest thing. It's about how we're playing as a team and not any specific thing about it or any specific individual."

Any way you slice it, a come-from-behind victory over a physical, talented Pistons outfit bodes well for the Blazers as they prepare for the postseason.

"This is the way we're going to have to play to win games in the playoffs," forward Moe Harkless said.

And if that opportunity comes as the No. 3 seed in the West, all the better.

NOTES — Brooklyn (38-36) is the No. 7 team in the East. The Nets feature three former Blazers — guards Allen Crabbe and Shabazz Napier and forward Ed Davis. ... The Blazers, behind 92-89 after three quarters against Detroit, are 2-24 when trailing after three quarters. ... Casey, on playing at Moda Center: "It's one of the best atmospheres in the league. No matter who they're playing, their fans are some of the best in the league. I'll never forget the 2011 playoff series when I was with Dallas (the Mavericks won in seven games after leading 3-0 in the series). You couldn't even hear yourself talk, the sound was so loud. The fans traditionally have been a great home crowd for this team."

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