Trail Blazers know what they have, and what they need to do
The Trail Blazers know what players they have — at the minimum — for the rest of the season.
Whether that will be enough to secure the seventh straight NBA playoff appearance for the franchise remains to be seen.
Rehabbing big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins are expected to join up at some point, but for now, the roster is set.
The trade deadline passed Thursday, and though reserve forward Skal Labissiere was sent to Atlanta, center Hassan Whiteside stayed put. There's enough to provide optimism that Portland can reach the postseason.
"I like it," Damian Lillard said of the roster that carried the Blazers (24-28) to their fifth win in six outings, a 125-117 triumph over San Antonio at Moda Center. "These are the guys we've been battling with. Through the ups and downs, we've been through it all together. We've managed to stay together and keep our eyes focused on making a playoff push."
Lillard — coming off back-to-back Western Conference player of the week honors — had another in a string of big offensive games with 26 points and 10 assists, though he matched his season high with seven turnovers.
Portland won the game from the 3-point line, sinking 18 of 37 attempts (.486) compared to 10 of 28 for the Spurs. But San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sent his raves Lillard's way.
"Their 3-point shooting was a big part of it, but it was Damian who made it happen," Popovich said. "It was a good day for us until Damian broke it open with his play. He got through double-teams and split pick-and-rolls and found his teammates, and they knocked down shots.
"He was the generator. He did a great job in that respect. That was the difference in the game."
Popovich — coach of the U.S. Olympic team this summer — sought out a prospective team member afterward to share some thoughts.
"He said, 'You just keep getting better and better,'" Lillard said. "It meant a lot. People always say about me, 'He's reached his peak. That's all he can do.' What I say I do in the summers, I come out and I back it up. The fact he acknowledged that means something to me. It tells me I'm doing something right."
Lillard had plenty of help Thursday night, notably from Whiteside and second-year guard Gary Trent Jr.
Whiteside continued his run of dominating games with 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting. He equaled his season high of 23 rebounds and blocked four shots in 36 minutes. The 7-1 veteran leads the NBA in blocks (3.1), ranks third in rebounds (14.1) and is sixth in field-goal percentage (.613).
"It's crazy," Lillard said. "You want to see those type of numbers impact winning, and that's what he's been doing lately. It's been a big part of us winning games.
"He's the best shot-blocker I've ever been around. I feel like he's going to block everything."
Whiteside is in the final year of a contract that calls for him to make $27.1 million this season. Neil Olshey, Portland's president of basketball operations, spent months looking at potential deals before the deadline, but couldn't come up with a move that made sense.
It means that Whiteside will finish the season with Portland, then become a free agent on July 1. It will be difficult for the high-payroll Blazers to sign him, but at least it means Lillard, CJ McCollum and their teammates will have Whiteside with them in their bid for the playoffs this spring.
Trent was sensational from the 3-point line Thursday, bombing in 6 of 7 attempts for 21 points in his 24 minutes off the bench. He also had four assists and drew compliments from coach Terry Stotts for his defense.
"He has always been a shooter, but the strides he has made defensively are really noticeable," Stotts said.
"For a young player in this league to even touch the floor, you have to be able to defend," said Trent, son of former Blazer forward Gary Trent Sr. "Last year, I was told I need to work on my defense. I took that to heart and concentrated on my defense. To this day, I still work at it. I want to get better."
Trent wasn't a member of the rotation through early December, but played his way into regular minutes. Over the last nine games, he has scored in double figures seven times, averaged 14.0 points and shot .482 from 3-point range.
"He's giving us something to get excited about," Lillard said.
So did the win over San Antonio (22-29), which entered the night a half-game back of Portland. It was a battle for ninth place in the West — not exactly the battle cry the Blazers envisioned at season's start, but what they are faced with now.
"We talked about it before the game," Lillard said. "We're past the point of, 'It's just another game.' Every game is important, but games like this are even more important, because they're one of the teams that we're fighting for that (eighth) spot with. It was a tie-breaker game, too (Portland won the season series 2-1), and it gives us some separation from them."
Portland is 2 1/2 games back of No. 8 Memphis (26-25) and 7 1/2 games behind No. 7 Oklahoma City (31-20) with 30 games remaining on the regular-season schedule. But the Blazers are showing some life before it's too late.
"We're competing," Lillard said. "We're playing smarter. We're really connected on both ends of the floor. It's not just one quarter and then not the next, and just off and on. It's like we're a lot more steady right now."
Veteran forward Carmelo Anthony — who had 20 points and eight rebounds and hit four straight 3's Thursday night — is part of that. 'Melo' was picked up off the scrap heap after more than a year of inaction early in the season and has been an important part of the Blazers' resurgence, averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.
"Playing basketball is what he loves to do," said Popovich, who also sought out Anthony for a hug after the game. "He has a great, outsized personality. Guys enjoy him. And he can still get things done on the court. Someone like him, who has been a fabric of the league so long, it's great to see him around."
Portland gets a rematch with Utah on Friday night at Salt Lake City. Another win — the Blazers prevailed 124-107 at Moda Center on Feb. 1 — would be another step in the right direction. But the Blazers will again be playing the second of back-to-back games.
Twice? That would be a coup.
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