Blazers' quest for title begins
In what has become a trend under coach Terry Stotts and superstar Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season entering the NBA playoffs.
It's eight consecutive years now in the NBA playoffs for the team, its coach and the point guard, the longest postseason streak in the NBA -- and seemingly each year the Blazers play their best down the stretch. This season, after injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, often-poor defense and struggles that led to 11 consecutive losses to teams above .500 and five consecutive losses at home, the Blazers ended with 10 wins in 12 games.
Portland (42-30) finished sixth in the Western Conference, and plays Nikola Jokic and the third-seeded Denver Nuggets (47-25) in a first-round best-of-7 series, starting this weekend. The Nuggets will play without star guard Jamal Murray, who's out with a knee injury.
"Being able to perform and get the job done down the stretch of the season is kind of a return on our investment over the course of the season," Lillard said, "just from not skipping steps and staying real with it all the way through." He added that Portland proves to be a "blue-collar" identity team because of the way the Blazers just work their way out of adversity.
"We find a way. It's what we do."
Stotts said the 2020-21 season could be the Blazers' biggest accomplishment in the eight-year playoff streak. "We overachieved by anybody's standards," he said. Many people "didn't have us winning 42 games."
Lillard had an MVP-quality season, and he should be high in MVP voting along with Jokic. But, while he averaged 28.8 points, 7.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds, and shot .451 from the field (.391 3-pointers) and .928 from the free-throw line, all great individual numbers, he yearns to lead the Blazers to an NBA championship.
It won't be easy against the Nuggets, or the other West teams (including the defending champion L.A. Lakers), but he likes the Blazers' chances of making noise in the playoffs.
"Not a lot of people view us as a contender … (media members) don't view us as a serious contender," he said. "That's fine, but we give ourselves a chance, that we can make a run. If we don't believe that, we don't have a chance. We're coming into the playoffs to make something happen … to get something done."
Lillard added that the Blazers encountered more adversity than in his previous eight seasons and "never shied away from (struggles). Never made an excuse, never went our separate ways. We had trust and faith to get to where we should be."
Lillard knows his place in Blazers history — he expects to become, eventually, the best Blazer of all time — and he would like to win an NBA title in Portland, just like what Bill Walton helped do and what Clyde Drexler almost helped the organization do.
"For me personally, I can't express my desire (enough) and how bad I want to win it," he said. "I want that more than anything. I want to do it in this city, and have a parade on Broadway and pass El Gaucho.
"Is this going to be the year that we shock the world? Two years ago we were right here, in the Western Conference finals (against Golden State, losing). I think we can do it."
First things first, and the Nuggets will have homecourt advantage, although without Murray and possibly Will Barton, it could be a challenge for Denver. Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists, and he has help from the likes of Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon. But, the Nuggets have been forced to start Facundo Campazzo at the point and Austin Rivers at the other guard spot.
Denver won two of three meetings with Portland. The Blazers beat the Nuggets 132-116 in the regular-season finale May 16, but the Denver starters sat out the second half; the Nuggets hardly put forth their best, winning effort.
"It's going to be a competitive series," Stotts said.
Denver won 111-106 on Feb. 23 at home, although Portland played without McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Jokic had 41. Lillard had 25.
The Nuggets, playing without Murray, won at Moda Center 106-105 on April 21. Jokic had 25. Lillard and Nurkic returned to the lineup after nursing injuries; Lillard had 22, Norman Powell 17, McCollum 14 and Nurkic eight points and seven rebounds. Powell missed a shot at the end for the win; the night before, the L.A. Clippers edged Portland at Moda Center when McCollum missed a shot at the end. The two games were part of a rough stretch for Portland that ended once the Blazers went on the road and won five of six games as part of their late-season success.
Stotts points to the April 21 game as more indicative of how close the Denver-Portland series could be.
Two years ago, the Blazers beat the Nuggets 4-3 in the Western Conference semifinals, winning in the Mile High City in Game 7.
"The team we played two years ago was fully healthy, and this Denver team isn't," Stotts said. "They're maybe not as deep, but the guys out there are pretty good.
"Everything for them revolves around Jokic, his scoring, passing and rebounding. How we can limit his effectiveness is probably the biggest key."
Overall, "we have a good rhythm, we're healthy, that's what you want going into the playoffs," the coach added. "But, momentum can be fleeting in the playoffs."
The Blazers have high hopes with Lillard and McCollum playing well, Powell adding to things as part of a three-guard starting lineup, Nurkic and Enes Kanter scoring and rebounding well, Carmelo Anthony scoring off the bench and Robert Covington doing his "3-and-D" thing.
Nurkic, a former member of the Nuggets, and a friend and former teammate of Jokic's, wasn't able to play in the 2019 Nuggets series because of a broken leg.
"I'm excited for the playoffs. That position was taken away from me (in 2019). I don't take it for granted," he said. "It's a great opportunity for us to be as healthy as possible for playoffs, minus Zach (Collins)."
The Blazers bowed out of the NBA playoffs in the bubble in Orlando, Florida last summer, the first victim on the Lakers' championship run. Now the Nuggets stand in the way of the Blazers' and Lillard's quest to make a run to the NBA Finals.
"We got our hands full, and it's a good matchup for us," Lillard said.
Game 1 — at Denver, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 22 (ESPN)
Game 2 — at Denver, 7 p.m. Monday, May 24 (TNT)
Game 3 — at Portland, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27 (NBATV)
Game 4 — at Portland, 1 p.m. Saturday, May 29 (TNT)
Game 5 — at Denver, TBD Tuesday, June 1, if necessary
Game 6 — at Portland, TBD Thursday, June 3, if necessary
Game 7 — at Denver, TBD Saturday, June 5, if necessary
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