Lillard Leads Trail Blazers To Eight-Seed, Play-in Game With Win Versus Nets In Restart Finale

by Casey Holdahl
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The Portland Trail Blazers assured their season would continue for at least two more games with a 134-133 victory versus the Brooklyn Nets at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus on the grounds of the Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando Thursday night.

By going 6-2 over the course of their eight-game restart schedule, the Trail Blazers finish their 2019-20 season with a 35-39 record. More importantly, with the win, the Trail Blazers secure the eight-seed in the West, meaning they’ll face the nine-seed Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference Play-In, with the first game scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

“We’re where we wanted to be,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I don’t think anybody is over the moon right now, it’s just we know we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis. There’s no time to really celebrate.”

They almost no cause to celebrate. The Trail Blazers have had no success dispatching teams early nor easily, even against opponents whose rosters don’t seem to boast the same level of talent as Portland’s, a trend that carried over into their regular-season finale.

So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see a Nets team starting Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, Jarrett Allen, Garrett Temple and Caris LaVert give the Trail Blazers all they could handle, and then some, through four quarters Thursday night, but the lack of suspense still didn’t make the experience any easier to stomach for fans watching at home.

After watching a first half that featured 10 lead changes, seven ties and neither team leading by more than eight, Trail Blazers fans might not have felt supremely confident, but with a 73-67 halftime lead against a team with nothing but pride to play for, they had to at least feel like the odds were in their favor.

But it just wouldn’t be the 2019-20 Trail Blazers if they didn’t make it hard on both themselves and anyone hoping to see them in the play-in and, potentially, the playoffs. So when the Nets took a 102-92 lead with 1:48 to play in the third quarter, one could be forgiven for wondering if this would finally be the time the Trail Blazers were unable to dig out from a double-digit hole.

Damian Lillard simply wouldn’t let it happen.

The 6-3 point guard out of Weber State, who had very likely already cemented his case for MVP of the restart, put the Trail Blazers on the back Thursday night, just as he’s done throughout eight games in Orlando.

Whether he was driving to the basket, hitting three-pointers basically at halfcourt or stealing the ball on a late-game possession, Lillard was masterful throughout Thursday’s contest. Between his made field goals and assists, Lillard had a hand in 25 of Portland’s 50 makes while playing nearly 44 minutes and the entire second half.

“I was confident the whole time, but even when we went down 10, I was like, I might have to start putting my head down and making something happen,” said Lillard. “We kept preaching the same thing: we gotta start getting some stops. If we don’t get stops, we not gonna have a chance.”

After briefly taking the lead midway through the fourth, the Trail Blazers found themselves trailing 124-119 after a LeVert fadeaway found the bottom of the net with 4:18 to play. But Carmelo Anthony, as he has done on multiple occasions throughout eight games in Orlando, made a clutch three to cut the lead to two. A few plays later, Lillard went to the line to take, and make, three free throws, and a possession later, Gary Trent Jr. hit a three to give Portland a two-point lead with a little over two minutes to play.

Joe Harris tied the game on a 13-foot jump shot with 1:52 to play. A Jusuf Nurkic layin off a McCollum assist gave Portland the lead again, though the Nets looked like they had a good chance at a fastbreak to tie the game before Lillard managed to poke the ball away from LeVert, resulting in a takeaway that would enable a made McCollum jumper to give Portland a 134-130 lead with 53 seconds to play.

LeVert would get some level of redemption by finishing an and-1 layup to cut Portland’s lead to oner with 37.7 seconds to play. After an Anthony miss from three, the Nets had a chance to win the game and send Portland home in the process, but LeVert’s midrange jumper missed the mark as time expired, allowing the Trail Blazers to finally exhale.

Lillard led all scored with 42 points on 13-of-22 shooting, 12 assists, three rebounds and two steals in 44 minutes. With the effort, Lillard ends the 2019-20 regular season having averaged 29.8 points per game, third-best in the league this season and the most a Trail Blazer has averaged over a season in franchise history.

McCollum, playing with a small fracture in his back, went 9-of-21 for 25 points to go with seven assists, four rebounds and three steals in 44 minutes. Jusuf Nurkic put up a double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes.

Hassan Whiteside had his second-consecutive impactful game, going for 16 points and nine rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench. Trent Jr. also added 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting.

LeVert led the Nets with 37 points. Jarrett Allen and Garrett Temple each finished with double-doubles and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot added 19 points off the bench.

Next up, the Trail Blazers now face the Grizzlies in the first game of the Western Conference Play-in. As the eight-seed, the Trail Blazers need to win just one game to win a playoff spot and a date with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, while the Grizzlies will have to win twice in order to earn that honor. The first game is scheduled for Saturday at 11:30 a.m. on ABC.

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