Trail Blazers Defeat Nuggets In Finale, Get Nuggets In First-Round Matchup

by Casey Holdahl
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PORTLAND -- The Portland Trail Blazers finished their 2020-21 regular season Sunday night with a victory versus the Denver Nuggets. Now they’ll move on to the postseason where they’ll face... the Denver Nuggets.

In an unpredictable last day of the season, which saw multiple teams opt for rest rather than a win, the Trail Blazers ended up in a three-way tie for fifth thanks in part to a 132-116 victory versus the Nuggets in front of a sellout crowd of 1,939 Sunday night at Moda Center.

“It’s going to be a competitive series,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Obviously this game was not indicative of either team, per se. Last time we played them it was a one-point game, so that was competitive. It should be pretty interesting.”

The Trail Blazers finish the regular season by going 42-30 overall and 20-16 at home this season. Portland closed out the season by winning 10 of their final 12 games and their last four contests at Moda Center. And with the win, the Trail Blazers qualify for the playoffs for the eighth-straight season.

“I’m a big wrestling fan and everybody don’t get to participate in the Royal Rumble,” said Damian Lillard. “But we’ve been in the Royal Rumble eight years straight. We haven’t been the last man standing yet, but we in there every time, we one of the teams in there. Sometimes we’ve been the first team thrown over the rope, we’ve been almost one of the last few thrown over the rope. We just continue to be there.”

Between the Blazers winning, the Mavericks losing to the Timberwolves and the Lakers defeating the Pelicans, all on Sunday night, Portland, Dallas and Los Angeles all finished the season with the same record. The three-way tiebreaker dictates that the Mavericks get the five-seed by virtue of winning their division, while the Trail Blazers get the six-seed and the Lakers the seven-seed.

And with the Clippers losing to the Thunder -- a loss that was preceded by one to the Rockets -- and the Nuggets losing to the Trail Blazers, L.A. gets the four-five matchup with the Mavericks while Denver draws the Trail Blazers in the three-six matchup and a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals.

“We’re not coming into this series looking at it like, well we did it two years ago so it can be done now,” said Lillard. “They’re different, Jokic is an even better player now, (and) he was great then. He’s a better player now, I feel like they’re a deeper team now. We’ve got our hands full, but it’s a good matchup for us and one that we feel like we’re more than capable of winning. We’ve just got to rest up and get ready for it.”

With the play-in tournament requiring a few days in order to decided which teams will get the seven and eight seeds in both conferences, the Trail Blazers will now have nearly a week off before facing the Nuggets in Denver for Game 1 on either Saturday or Sunday.

While Sunday’s season finale was all but a must-win for the Trail Blazers in order to avoid the play-in tournament, it was debatable whether the Nuggets would have benefited form a victory. With the Clippers losing to the Thunder, Denver had no fear of dropping to fourth, and if they had beaten Portland, the Lakers would have moved into sixth, setting up a first-round matchups with the defending champs.

So with the Nuggets taking a casual approach to the game, the Trail Blazers were able to jump out to 21-point first quarter lead. And when the Nuggets didn’t send their starters back in the game in the second half, all Portland needed to do was retain a bit of focus in order to come away with the win.

“We moved the ball, we shot the ball well, defended,” said Stotts. “The first quarter was terrific. You build a lead like that -- obviously Denver didn’t play their guys the second half. The way we came out and played, that really set the tone for us.”

Seven Trail Blazers finished in double figures led by 24 points and five assists from CJ McCollum. Lillard had a double-double of 22 points and 10 assists as did Jusuf Nurkic, who scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 20 minutes.

Norman Powell added 19 points on 5-of-9 shooting and Enes Kanter put up 14 points and 15 rebonds in 22 minutes. Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons each finished with 10 points in 21 minutes.

Now, after playing basically every other day for the last two months, the Trail Blazers will have nearly a week off to prepare for a much more difficult Nuggets team than they faced in the finale. But with the way the Trail Blazers closed out the season, they’re confident they’ll be ready.

“To me, that’s what feels the most different is the fact that we experienced a really low moments as a group and we received a lot of criticism, we were hard on ourselves internally as well,” said Lillard. “And we came out of it playing our best basketball of the season at the right time. I don’t remember a time of us being in this type of grove in this fashion going into the postseason in all those other seasons.”


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