Blazers nip Nets, 134-133, advance to play-in game(s)
It hasn't been easy in the NBA bubble, and Damian Lillard and offense have carried them, but the Portland Trail Blazers found their way into the NBA playoffs — well, at least the play-in game (or games) this weekend against Memphis.
A game Brooklyn team, already safely in the Eastern Conference playoffs, went down shooting as Lillard scored 42 points and the Blazers rallied in the fourth quarter to prevail against the Nets, 134-133, Thursday at Orlando, Florida.
Caris LeVert scored 37 points for Brooklyn, but his jumper in the closing seconds was just long and the Blazers survived another tense finish.
Lillard put his hands on his knees, tired and relieved: The Blazers had accomplished one of their goals in Orlando, keeping their season alive.
The Blazers (35-39), No. 8 in the Western Conference, must beat No. 9 Memphis (34-39) just once in the play-in format. The teams play at 11:30 a.m. Saturday; if Memphis wins, a second play-in game would be Sunday. The winner and No. 8 playoff team advances to meet the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Blazers went 6-2 in the bubble, and all the games were decided by 10 points or fewer. So, it figured that the win-or-go-home game would be tight.
"Every one of our games felt like a big game," coach Terry Stotts said. "The only thing different (Thursday) was our season was on the line and the urgency was there."
Not that most Portland games in the bubble haven't been, but Thursday's game was a shootout as Portland and Brooklyn took turns taking the lead.
Lillard's last points were three free throws to pull Portland within one with 3:17 to play. But he was still a difference-maker.
Down the stretch, Lillard fed Jusuf Nurkic from back court for a layup and hit Gary Trent Jr. for a corner 3-pointer that put the Blazers up 130-128.
Lillard missed a 12-footer with the Blazers up two, but then stole the ball at midcourt from LeVert. CJ McCollum hit a pull-up jumper to put Portland up four with 54.4 seconds left.
The Nets feasted on second-chance opportunities in the fourth quarter, and LeVert drove for a bucket and a foul on one of those to pull the Nets within one, 134-133, with 37.7 seconds left.
Carmelo Anthony missed a wide-open 3-pointer with 25 seconds on the clock, setting up an all-or-nothing defensive possession for the Blazers.
LeVert kept the ball in his hands around the top of the key, and elevated for a straightaway 22-footer that was just long. Time ran out during the battle for the rebound, and Lillard took a deep breath.
"I was confident the whole time, even when we went down 10 (in third quarter)," Lillard said. "We were able to put a few stops together. ... It was who was going to make big plays down stretch, who wants it more, and we were able to do that."
McCollum, battling a bad back, defend LeVert on the final possession. Stotts, through his mask, said that "I trusted our defense," before adding, "I'm smiling."
He added: "Honestly, we played good defense down the stretch, we couldn't get a rebound. We were forcing some tough shots. I'm glad we got the stop when we needed it."
The Blazers began bubble play with a 140-135, overtime win against Memphis, which had beaten Portland earlier in the year. The Grizzlies won only twice in Orlando (including Thursday against a Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks), and Phoenix won all eight games it played, but Memphis had enough cushion to secure a play-in berth.
With Memphis in, Portland had to win later Thursday or it would have been Phoenix advancing. And, the Blazers got it done, despite giving up .552 shooting to the Nets (who played in the bubble without Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving).
It's good to have Lillard on your team. Despite a five-point first quarter, he topped 40 points for the 11th time this season — coming off outputs of 51 and 61 in the past two games. Lillard hit 13 of 22 shots (8 of 14 3-pointers) while also dishing out 12 assists.
One of Lillard's 3s came from the NBA logo, a shot that pulled Portland within four and was a message that, even with the Nets sending multiple defenders at Lillard, he was going to find a way to get Portland at least another couple of games.
"I didn't want to too passive. When I (saw) an opportunity, I was going to rise up," he said. "I got to a spot before they could get to me, I rose up and it went in."
McCollum, playing with a fracture in his back, scored 12 points in the first quarter on 6 of 8 shooting and finished with 25 points. Nurkic came on late to add 22 points and 10 rebounds, and backup Hassan Whiteside had some fine moments with 16 points and nine rebounds. Trent Jr. hit four 3-pointers and added 16 points.
Portland battled foul trouble, specifically Trent picking up his fifth in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Trent had to be more passive defensively to avoid fouling out, so down the stretch McCollum was the primary defener on the 6-6 LeVert.
LeVert led six Brooklyn players in double figures. He was 16 of 29 from the field.
Charles Barkley, during TNT's coverage, said it best: "(The Blazers) play zero defense. At some point, you have to play defense. They're the most gifted offensive team (in Orlando), but you're not going to outscore everybody." But, it didn't matter against Brooklyn; it might against the Lakers, eventually.
Lillard had one of his 60-point games against Brooklyn in November 2019, and he contributed in a hot-shooting first half by both teams.
Brooklyn shot .591 and Portland .526 in the first half. Through three quarters, Lillard had 30 points and LeVert 28, and the Nets were shooting .588.
But, after a back-and-forth fourth quarter, it came down a stop, and McCollum was ready.
"(LeVert) is a great player, he's going to find a way to be effective. He lived in the paint, finished, made tough shots, he's crafty and creative," Lillard told TNT. "But, we finished the game with a stop."
The Blazers needed "every one of" Lillard's 154 points in the past three games, Stotts said. They were all wins.
"Special NBA players in history have had that something and he has it," the coach said. "He has a will that transcends. We wouldn't be the team, obviously, without his basketball skill and his mental makeup."
Stotts said the players were "happy, relieved, excited to be in the play-in round. We are where we want to be. We know we got a tough opponent in Memphis. No time to celebrate."
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