NBA playoff hopes help Portland keep the faith
Coming off a season in which they reached the Western Conference finals, the Trail Blazers' goals were through the roof for the 2019-20 campaign: NBA Finals or bust.
Nearing the halfway point of the regular season, the Blazers are much closer to bust than to the Championship Series.
No shame in Portland's 128-120 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night at Moda Center.
The Lakers (25-7) arrived in Rip City smarting from a four-game losing streak after beginning the season 24-3. They exited with a hard-earned victory over a Portland team that has received more hits than a Mila Kunis photo tweet this season.
The Blazers are 14-19 and percentage points ahead of San Antonio (13-18) for the final playoff spot in the West. It's enough, said Portland guard Damian Lillard, to keep the players' psyche in a positive orbit.
"Even though our record isn't looking the way we want it to look, though we're not winning the amount of games we want to win, we're in the (playoff) hunt," said Lillard, who collected 31 points and nine assists against the Lakers. "That's enough of a reason for us to be in it mentally and still fighting. It's as simple as that."
It's clear the Blazer players haven't cashed in the season. But with a string of setbacks both on and off the court, it would be natural if their spirits took a dip. Coach Terry Stotts said, however, that his players haven't lost faith.
"By watching the game tonight, I wouldn't say so," Stotts said. "We were never out of the game until the end. Everybody on the court was competing. I don't think anything tonight would indicate that."
Indeed, Portland gave the team with the best record in the West all it could handle. The Lakers needed big performances from LeBron James (21 points, 16 assists, seven rebounds two days before his 35th birthday), Anthony Davis (20 points, nine rebounds, five assists), Kyle Kuzma (24 points) and Rajon Rondo (15 points and a number of stellar plays). Led by Kuzma and Rondo, the Lakers scored a season-high 72 points off the bench.
Yet L.A. couldn't shake the Blazers — who shot .477 from the field, including 15 of 35 shots from 3-point range — until the closing minute. Hassan Whiteside contributed 19 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots for the interior-shy local quintet. Portland stayed close despite a sub-par offensive performance by Carmelo Anthony, who missed nine of his first 11 shots before making his final three to finish 5 for 14.
"We brought it through the game," Lillard said. "We were really solid. We played a physical game. We competed. There was just moments in the game where things weren't in our control and didn't go in our favor. If you're playing against one of the best teams in the league, you have to expect it to be a possibility at any time in the game. Their moments were too big for us to pull it off."
Said Stotts: "(The Lakers) are a really good team. They have a lot of guys who can hurt you. Defensively it was a challenge with different matchups, but I was really pleased with the way we competed."
Stotts, down to 10 healthy players Saturday, lost another in the opening minutes. The coach started 6-11 Skal Labissiere on a front line with Whiteside and Anthony, but Labissiere departed less than three minutes into the game with a left knee injury. Stotts said results of an MRI were pending.
"It's tough any time you lose a teammate to an injury, because you don't know how serious it could be or how much time they'll miss," Lillard said. "(Labissiere) is a guy who has been in our rotation all season. It hurts even more, especially with us already dealing with so many injuries."
Portland's high preseason hopes came with the knowledge that center Jusuf Nurkic is likely to be missing until the All-Star break as he rehabs from leg surgery. What wasn't foreseen were injuries to a pair of starters, power forward Zach Collins (shoulder) and small forward Rodney Hood (knee). It also was expected that veteran Pau Gasol would help with depth, but he never recovered from offseason foot surgery. That has left the Portland front line thin as 600-grit sandpaper.
With Labissiere's injury, the Blazers are down to Whiteside, Anthony and 6-9 veteran Anthony Tolliver at the 4 and 5 spots. Tolliver had his best game of the season Saturday, knocking down 4 of 5 3-point shots while scoring a season-high 12 points, but he's not the long-term answer. Two-way player Moses Brown will likely be activated, but he's not the answer, either.
Such extenuating circumstances are largely ignored throughout the league, with injuries affecting nearly every team at times throughout a long season. Doesn't matter that Portland has been hit as hard as any team this side of Golden State.
"I don't care who's on the floor or what we're dealing with as far as injuries or what we're up against, we're all professionals," Lillard said. "People pay a lot of money to come see us play and we get paid a lot of money to show up and do our jobs and perform.
"It's obvious what we're up against. Three of our starters are out. We're playing with guys who it's their first year getting a lot of minutes. But it does no good to use it as a crutch or make an excuse, especially since we're still in position to make the playoffs. As long as we keep our heads up and not be discouraged by things not going our way, we're always going to have a chance. Having that mentality is why we're still in the hunt, regardless of what it may look like."
A year ago, the Blazers were 19-14 through 33 games and 20-16 after 36 but went 33-13 over their final 46 games to finish 53-29. For them to match that this season, they'd have to close 39-10 over their last 49 games. That's closer to impossible than unlikely.
But as Lillard notes, despite all the baggage, the Blazers are still in the West's eighth and final playoff spot at this point. There are so many mediocre-to-bad teams behind them — Sacramento, Phoenix, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans and Golden State — it's almost inconceivable the Blazers will not be a playoff team. That would mean both Oklahoma City (16-15) and San Antonio finishing ahead of them.
On the other hand, Portland must do a major turnaround to finish among the top six in the conference. The Blazers trail No. 6 Utah (19-12) by 6 1/2 games, the No. 1 Lakers by 11 1/2 games.
After ending the calendar year with a Monday home date against the Suns, Portland plays eight of its next 10 games on the road, starting with a five-game homestand. The Blazers should win the first two games against New York and Washington, but it gets trickier after that, with games at Miami, Toronto, Minnesota, Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma City.
By that time, we'll know more about the Blazers' lot in life this season. For now, they're not giving in.
"Not at all," swing man Kent Bazemore said. "If anything, that would have shown awhile ago, with all the losses we've had. Guys are still preaching to stay together. This is a high-character group. We have guys who have been around awhile, who understand the ebbs and flows of a long season.
"We know we're a good team. It's just a matter of getting hot at the right time. That's what the NBA is all about. With all that's gone on, we're still in the eighth seed. To be where we are with everything we've gone through gives us a lot of confidence to continue to show up every day, play hard and believe in one another."
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