LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In one arena, the Portland Trail Blazers competed with the awareness that every single possession could determine a win. And that win could determine their playoff chances.
At another arena only minutes away, the Los Angeles Lakers competed with the awareness that they have already secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. And so their key players either rested on the bench or played with apathy on the court.
All of which poses an interesting question. Should the Blazers sneak into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s eighth seed, could they upset the top-seeded Lakers in a first-round matchup? Could the Blazers benefit from knowing their playoff opponent far in advance and from their stellar play during the NBA’s restart?
“I’d love to find out,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said following a 125-115 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday. “I don’t know.”
To be clear, Stott was answering a question of if there are any advantages to the Blazers knowing they would play the Lakers in the playoffs since they were all but mathematically assured of the No. 1 seed before the season restart even began. He was not answering a question of if he thinks the Blazers could beat the Lakers in the postseason.
Either way, Stotts and his players would not have given bulletin board material. The Blazers (32-30) still sit a half-game behind the Memphis Grizzlies (32-37) for the eighth and final playoff spot with four seeding games remaining. They only have narrow cushions over the Phoenix Suns (30-39), San Antonio Spurs (29-38), Sacramento Kings (29-39) and New Orleans Pelicans (29-39). And the eighth seed only secures an automatic playoff berth if it has a four-game advantage over the ninth seed. Otherwise, both teams will have a play-in scenario that requires the eighth seed to only win once.
“We can’t afford to watch the standings or watch the scoreboard because it’s that close,” Stotts said. “There are so many teams that are right in the thick of things that nobody is even close to a magic number. So right now it’s most important that we consider ourselves in the games and doing what we have to do.”
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Still, those in NBA circles increasingly expect the Blazers to make the playoffs because they have an All-Star backcourt (Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum), a future Hall-of-Famer who has resuscitated his career (Carmelo Anthony) and two frontcourt players returning from injuries (Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins). They have become increasingly intrigued with the Blazers’ upset potential against the Lakers for the same reasons. Before the Celtics faced the Blazers and survived a late-game comeback, Boston coach Brad Stevens said that “we’re not playing the ninth-place Portland Trail Blazers; we’re playing the Western Conference finalists from last year.”
“I don’t view us as the team that went to the Western Conference finals because you are who you’ve shown to be during the season,” Lillard said after scoring 45 points on 13-of-21 shooting against Denver. “We’ve been unhealthy, that’s true. But we still have a lot of good players, and we haven’t played to the level that we need to. But I think now we’re starting to trend in the direction of a basketball team we want to be.”
Meanwhile, the Lakers are not exactly trending where they want to be. They suffered a 113-97 loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday, a day after a 105-86 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are needed qualifiers. They sat LeBron James (sore right groin) and Alex Caruso (left muscle spasms) against Houston to address minor injuries. The Lakers played their rotation players limited minutes against the Thunder because it marked the first night of a back-to-back, and they played with limited effort partly because they had already secured the No.1 seed. And they have used the season restart to incorporate J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters into their roster.
Amid their 2-3 record during the season restart, however, the Lakers have shown some troubling developments. They have ranked last out of 22 teams in shooting percentage (41.2%), last in 3-point shooting (21.3%), 21st in assists (18.8) and 18th in turnovers (18). Lakers forward Anthony Davis has either played incredibly dominant or incredibly passive. And James suggested some other unspecified problems, saying after the Thunder loss “there’s just some things you really can’t control that’s here that I really don’t want to talk about that’s kind of off the floor.”
I still believe the Lakers will beat the Blazers in the first round eventually win the NBA championship. So long as James and Davis remain healthy, the Lakers can absorb fluid depth charts, an opponent’s best shot and an occasional bad game. The Lakers certainly have the talent and experience to correct their aforementioned issues. The Blazers have the talent and experience, however, to exploit those issues.
“I’m always optimistic and I always see the best in situations, especially in situations like this,” Lillard said. “It was also why I said what I said. If we don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot, I don’t want to play. I knew if we did have a chance to play for a playoff spot, it would look like something that it is right now.”
Lillard was not expressing optimism about potentially beating the Lakers. He was expressing optimism about the team’s playoff chances. Still, Lillard believes he can beat anyone he faces. So do the Blazers. That explains why he and McCollum told their team in training camp that they expect to win an NBA title.
Since the restart, they have shown that is not hyperbole. Lillard has averaged 31.3 points while leading the league in assists (11.3). McCollum (20.8 points) and Anthony (14) have contributed to the scoring load. Gary Trent Jr. has lead the NBA in 3-pointers made (22). Nurkic has led the league in blocks (12).
“We’re playing good basketball. I think we’re playing with a determination that in a playoff stretch that you have to have during this,” Stotts said.”So whatever people say about us, ninth seed, eighth seed, we have to win games. We dug ourselves this hole. But we are playing with the urgency that we’ll have play with.”
The Blazers showed that urgency against the Nuggets (45-24), who have been battered with injuries to Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Paul Millsap rested, while Nikola Jokic played limited minutes. That did not matter to the Blazers, who view stacked and depleted rosters the same way.
“If you come out there and think it’s going to be an easy game, that’s why you respect your opponent. They have a lot of guys out there trying to stay in the league and show that they can play. They’re here for a reason,” Lillard said. “I wanted to come out and assert myself. They had guys out and they could tell I wanted to come out and be present. I don’t care who’s out here on the court. I don’t care what we think about who’s on the court.”
With that mindset, the Blazers can significantly test the Lakers. They have the talent to back it up. With Avery Bradley opting out of the season restart, the Lakers do not have a dependable perimeter player that can stop Lillard or McCollum. Though James and Davis have mostly remained consistent this season, Portland at least has enough size in its frontcourt to make them work for their points. With Anthony’s presence, that can force James to expend more defensive energy and require Davis to balance rim protection and perimeter defense.
“We have really approached each game with a playoff mentality and a must-win mentality,” Stotts said. “When you play like that, there is a good chance you’re going to play a lot better.”
Can Portland become good enough both to make the postseason and win a playoff series?
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Stotts said. “It’s just about playing the next game. Sorry, pretty cliché.”
That is okay. The Blazers might give boring answers. They play very entertaining basketball, though. Most importantly, they have played winning basketball to become the Western Conference’s expected eighth seed. And that might give them a decent shot at pulling off a first-round upset.