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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Portland heads out on three-game trip with hope, and with Nurkic soon to be in shootaround

The Trail Blazers still hope to make the NBA playoffs this season. On Tuesday night at Moda Center, the Boston Celtics showed them the kind of opponent that will be waiting for them if they get there.

All-Star forward Jayson Tatum scored 36 points, bombing in 8 of 12 shots from 3-point range, and the Celtics (40-17) swept to a 118-106 victory that said volumes about where each team is at.

"They played like a playoff team," said CJ McCollum, who put up 28 points and 10 assists in his third game running Portland's offensive attack in Damian Lillard's absence.

It was the fourth loss in five games for the the injury-ravaged Blazers (26-33), who moved another step in the wrong direction in their bid to reach the postseason for the seventh straight year.

With the likes of Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood out of action, Portland has simply been unable to match up against top-flight opponents — and even some mediocre ones. The Celtics, while missing injured point guard Kemba Walker (knee) for the third straight game, are clearly in the former category.

"Boston's a really good team, even without Kemba out," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "(The Celtics) are experienced, they're talented offensively, they're very well-coached. Hats off to them."

Tatum scored 26 points in the second half. The Celtics were 18 for 39 (.487) from 3-point range. The Blazers fought hard much of the night, but it wasn't enough.

"I liked the way our guys competed," Stotts said. "We didn't take advantage of some our opportunities, but we gave good effort."

McCollum had another big offensive game, going for 28 points and 10 assists in 38 minutes. In his three games at the point since Lillard's injury, he is averaging 32 points and 10.7 assists, with three double-figure assist outings.

"I'm not sure I would have known how good (McCollum) was at the point," Boston coach Brad Stevens said before the game. "His passing has been incredible. He has made the right read over and over.

"He has done all that at (shooting guard), but he runs off as many flares as ball-screens when Lillard's playing. He's so good at the ball-screens. Get off him for just a second, he's so shifty, he makes the right play. He's just been great."

McCollum wasn't quite as efficient Tuesday as in the previous two games, missing 14 of 24 shots from the field and 3 of 6 from the foul line while committing five turnovers. Even so, the Blazers are a better team when he's on the floor.

Portland center Hassan Whiteside had another monster game with 18 points and 19 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza (17 points, eight rebounds) gave 38 minutes of effort. Carmelo Anthony (14 points on 5-for-14 shooting, two rebounds in 34 minutes) had an off night, and the bench provided little.

The Blazers are three games back of Memphis (28-29) in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blazers kept pace with New Orleans (25-33), who stayed a half-game behind after a 118-109 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center.

Now Portland hits the road for a three-game trip that begins at Indiana at 5 p.m. PT Thursday and includes stops at Atlanta at 4:30 p.m. PT Saturday and Orlando at 4 p.m. PT Monday. At least two wins would be advisable for their spot in the playoff picture.

"It's our reality," McCollum said. "We have to figure out how to get as many wins as possible starting Thursday and progressing forward. We have 23 games left. We have to win a majority of them to give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs."

A 16-7 finish would get Portland to 42-40, a record that might hold up for eighth place. New Orleans would have to go 17-7 to match that. New Orleans has the tiebreaker with Portland, having won the season series 4-0. The Pelicans also have a forgiving schedule the rest of the way; 18 of their final 24 opponents have losing records.

It may be just dream talk unless Portland can turn things around dramatically. Nurkic — who has missed the entire season while rehabbing a broken leg — will make the upcoming trip with the Blazers. The 7-foot center will take part in what Stotts calls "a shootaround" once the team arrives in Atlanta, though the coach warns not to read anything into it.

"I wouldn't call it a practice, but he'll be in the gym with us," Stotts said. It may be an indication that Nurkic is getting close. Or, his return may still be weeks away.

Lillard, meanwhile, might be looking at a March 4 home date with Washington for his return. Stotts said it's not certain that the All-Star point guard will make the upcoming trip.

"At this point, we don't know," he said. "We're discussing it."

Stotts said the process of Lillard's return will be like for any other player.

"It's a mutual decision (between Lillard and the team's medical staff)," he said. "He has to be cleared medically; then he has to feel if he's up to playing or not. Ultimately, the player knows whether he feels 100 percent and able to go."

It would appear, then, that the Blazers are going to have at least a few more games without their leader.

"It's always going to be an adjustment period, but there's nothing we can do about injuries," Whiteside said. "Injuries have been following us all season."

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