After looking shaky in Game 1, the Los Angeles Lakers steamrolled the Trail Blazers in the next four games, riding superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, size advantage and defense to the 4-1 NBA playoff series win at Orlando, Florida.
But the Trail Blazers came away feeling good about their performance in Orlando, having made up a 3 1/2-game deficit to place eighth in the Western Conference, going 6-2 in regular-season bubble play and then beating Memphis 126-122 in the playoff play-in game. Damian Lillard averaged 36.8 points in the nine games and finished the regular season averaging an even 30.0 points per game — yes, let's call him what he is, a superstar.
The Lakers went 5 of 32 on 3-pointers in the first game with Portland, and the Blazers' win only fueled thoughts that it could be a big upset over the No. 1 Western Conference team. Wasn't meant to be, even before Lillard suffered a finger injury and then a knee injury. There was too much LeBron and too much AD.
The play of guards Lillard and CJ McCollum wasn't surprising — they're really good — but forward Carmelo Anthony turned back the clock to hit big shots and play better defense, center Jusuf Nurkic showed barely any rust after 16 months recovering from his horrible leg injury and backup guard Gary Trent Jr. solidified his spot in the NBA with stellar shooting and tough defense (even on James).
Injuries took their toll with Collins (ankle) going out, McCollum (back) and Lillard hobbled, and even Nassir Little (concussion in practice), Hassan Whiteside (finger) and Wenyen Gabriel (quad) hurting. Not to mention the Blazers had entered the NBA bubble without rotation player Trevor Ariza (opt out), and Rodney Hood (Archilles) could have made a big difference had he been healthy in 2019-20.
Portland's performance was indicative of the strength of the roster, and not the 29-37 pre-bubble record.
"Bottom line is we made the playoffs again, seven straight years making the playoffs," coach Terry Stotts said. "That to me is special, something everybody on the team should be proud of. We had ups and downs throughout the season, there were a lot of positives about this season although our record might not show it. This bubble (play) will be something to build off of."
Said McCollum: "We definitely competed, played against a lot of quality opponents to qualify for the playoffs, beat a good Memphis team for the eighth seed. Injuries are a part of the game, and it would have been nice to have everybody. We showed signs of being an elite team."
• The core players have contracts for 2020-21 — Lillard, McCollum, Ariza, Nurkic, Hood, Collins, Trent Jr. — as do Anfernee Simons, Gabriel, Little and Mario Hezonja. It's expected that Whiteside will move to another team, but the 36-year-old Anthony let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that he wants to continue playing and he wants to sign a deal with Portland.
"I'll be right in the fray of things whenever the next season comes," Anthony said.
"I think that I've found a home in Portland. I'm hoping it can be Portland, and we keep this team together, get guys healthy and get another run at it. ... I consider myself already coming back, so it's not something I've thought about."
Anthony has yet to make an NBA finals appearance, and he has been on 10 teams now that have departed in the first round of the playoffs.
Gone are the days of Anthony commanding $24 to $26 million a year, as he had with the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder. He signed for a non-guaranteed $2.16 million with the Blazers.
So, it'll be a matter of how Anthony fits into the payroll, as the Blazers won't want to be above the luxury tax threshold.
Said McCollum: "I thought he was fantastic, he competed defensively, taking the challenge of playing arguably the best player in world (James). He hit 3-pointers and rebounded. Hopefully he can come back next year. I'd love to play with him the rest of his career, but I guess that's to be determined."
• Collins, who had returned to play in the NBA bubble after shoulder surgery, was to undergo ankle surgery. Lillard's knee won't require surgery. McCollum said his back injury won't require surgery.
"Going forward, it'll be nice to let my back rest. I'll go home and get ready for whenever next season starts," McCollum said. "I'll rest for about eight weeks, let the (back) bone completely heal, and then resume normal activities."
• The Blazers averaged 126 points in the NBA bubble games, including the play-in game, the highest output in the bubble, and finished sixth in the NBA in the regular season at 115 per game.
Offense hasn't been the problem with the Blazers, when healthy. (The Lakers held them to 20 points below their bubble average).
It's clear that Portland still needs work defensively. They gave up 122 points a game in the nine NBA bubble games (116.1 overall, only ahead of Minnesota, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington). The Lakers averaged 117.2 points (123.3 in its four wins) and shot 57 percent on two-point baskets; Portland had allowed 50 percent shooting on two-pointers during the regular season.
• So, when will the 2020-21 season start? It's scheduled to start Dec. 1, but it really depends on how the NBA moves on while dealing with the coronavirus and government restrictions. A lot of chatter has the NBA moving back its start to around Christmas.
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