Win Streak And A Chance To Clinch Undone in Phoenix By Miscues, Missed Free Throw

by Casey Holdahl
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PHOENIX -- The Trail Blazers had ample opportunities to come away with a win, and clinch a spot in the 2021 Playoffs in the process, Thursday night in Phoenix. Instead, they’ll likely have to get a win in the final game of the 2020-21 season in order to ensure their eight-straight postseason appearance.

Portland had a five-game winning streak snapped and their chances of finishing in fifth greatly diminished with a 118-117 loss to the Suns in front of a crowd of 8,359 Thursday night at Phoenix Suns Arena.

“We had it,” said Damian Lillard. “The thing that hurts the most is we had control of the game and we let it slip. We had a chance to take that game and we didn’t take it. And we needed it.”

The Trail Blazers are now 41-30 overall and 22-14 on the road this season. With the loss, Portland is now sixth in the Western Conference standings, a half game behind the Mavericks in fifth and a half game ahead of the Lakers in seventh, with one game to play.

Neither the Trail Blazers, motivated by a chance to secure a playoff spot, nor the Suns, still with a chance of claiming the top overall seed, conceded anything in the first half. In 24 minutes of hard-fought play, the lead changed 16 times, there were 10 ties and neither team led by more than four points. Given that, it was no surprise that the game was separated by just one point at the halftime intermission.

But the Suns would create some separation in the third thanks in part to seven second-chance points, eight points scored off of five Portland turnovers and a boost off the bench from Torrey Craig, who put up 10 points on 3-of-4 shooting in just 3:39 of play in the quarter.

Add in Chris Paul going 4-of-4 for nine points, Portland shooting just two free throws and no Blazer making more than two attempts from the field, all of which helped the Suns take a 10-point lead, the largest for either team in Thursday’s game, before going into the fourth with an eight-point advantage.

But there was no let up from the Trail Blazers in the fourth. With Lillard going nuclear -- he put up 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the fourth -- and Robert Covington coming up with two timely three-pointers, the Blazers chipped away at the Suns lead, eventually tying the game at 107-107 thanks to one of those Covington threes with four minutes to play.

Portland and Phoenix each scored two points in the next three possessions, with the Blazers breaking the stalemate with with two Covington free throws that gave the road team a 115-113 lead with 1:13 to play. Dario Saric was fouled on the next possession, but made just one of two attempts, thus giving the ball back to the Blazers up 115-114 with just over a minute to play.

CJ McCollum missed a floater and Saric missed two more free throws on the next two possessions, so when Lillard followed those misses up with a layup to put Portland up by three with 34.7 seconds to play, it seemed as though they had a great chance to secure their best win of the season at the most opportune time.

But that’s not what happened. After Mikal Bridges made two free throws, Portland called one of their two remaining timeouts to advance the ball to halfcourt with 5.6 seconds to play. Covington would end up with the ball and was immediately fouled, though he too would miss both free throws, giving the ball back to the Suns with five seconds to play and trailing 117-116.

“I was surprised, he’s a good free throw shooter,” said Stotts. “He just made two. The fact he missed both, I think everybody was surprised at that.”

The Suns put the ball in the hands of Devin Booker, who was fouled, albeit with minimal contact, but Norman Powell with 0.9 seconds on the clock. Terry Stotts opted to use his last timeout to challenge the call, was was confirmed on replay, though the officials also used the opportunity to put 2.4 seconds on the clock, which may or may not have happened had the call not been challenged.

“If there had been 2.4 (seconds), I don’t know if I would have (challenged),” said Stotts. “If it had been 2.4, I probably would have kept my timeout, advanced the ball and try to get a last shot. But with 0.9 on the clock, it really wasn’t that difficult.”

Booker made both free throws, and with no timeouts, the Trail Blazers had to take the ball the length of the court for even a chance at tying or winning the game. But Portland never managed to get up a final attempt, as CJ McCollum’s desperation attempt at midcourt came just after the buzzer.

Lillard led all scorers with 41 points on 16-of-23 shooting, five assists, five rebounds and a steal in nearly 43 minutes (he played the entire second half). McCollum scored 20 of his 27 points in the first half while also finishing with six assists in 39 minutes.

Covington shot 50 percent from the field, three and free throw line to finish with 16 points to go with four rebounds, four assists and two steals in just under 37 minutes. Powell contributed 12 points, three assists and two steals in 40 minutes.

Seven Suns players finished in double figures, with Paul going for 26 points and both Mikal Bridges and Cameron Payne contributing 21.

Now, the Trail Blazers will have two days off before hosting the Denver Nuggets in 72nd and final game of their regular season. With a win, they’re assured of no worse than sixth, but will likely fall to seventh, and thus, have to play their way into the 2021 Playoffs, with a loss.

“This one over, we’ve got to make sure we win this last one,” said Lillard. “It does us no good to hold on to this game and go out there and not be locked in for the next one. The last game of the season is now the most important game of the season, so we’ve got to move on and make sure we handle our business at home.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.

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