The Blazers experience is not for the faint of heart. There’s no lead that’s safe, no deficit that’s insurmountable, and no games that feature comfortable finishes. It’s as if they go through a cat’s nine lives every time they take the court, yet somehow manage to come out the other side—not unscathed, but still, improbably, alive.
“We basically played a nine-game playoff series,” Terry Stotts said of Portland’s bubble experience on Saturday.
He’s not wrong. The Blazers have been playing for their postseason lives ever since they arrived in Orlando, with each game carrying massive stakes. But make no mistake, Portland has often made things look much harder than they had to be. And that’s exactly what happened in Saturday’s play-in game.
The Blazers took a 16-point lead on the young Grizzlies in the first half of the elimination game, but it would have been foolish to think that was going to lead to an easy, blowout win. Portland has a potent offense, but it’s combined with a porous defense that often lets opponents back in the game. Generally, once the fourth quarter hits, the Blazers turn the ball over to Damian Lillard and pray that he has enough magic and long-range shots to save them. On Saturday, though, a slightly new formula emerged: relying on experience. Between Jusuf Nurkic’s 22-point, 21-rebound afternoon, CJ McCollum’s late-game efforts, and a clutch push from Carmelo Anthony, Saturday’s 126-122 win—which put Portland in the playoffs—was earned through a team effort unlike any the Blazers have had to concoct in Orlando.
The Grizzlies erased Portland’s 16-point cushion with ease, and even captured a lead of their own in the second half thanks to Ja Morant’s pyrotechnics. Morant, who said postgame that he’s been playing with a fractured thumb, had a career-high 35 points on Saturday and turned the Blazers’ bigs into trampolines for his highlight-worthy dunks. It was a coming-of-age game for the rookie, showing that he’s ready for this stage just one season in. But late in the fourth quarter, with the game close, McCollum flipped the script on him. While Morant was operating high above the rim, McCollum put him back on ground level on defense. And on the other end of the floor, McCollum reminded everyone who the elder statesman is.
Lillard may have still had 32 points in the game, but late, when the ball usually finds itself in his hands, it was McCollum who held it, exploiting the Morant matchup as if he wanted to teach the rookie a lesson. McCollum hit three clutch jumpers in the final three minutes, and by the time he turned to the cameras and said some variation of “Can’t fucking guard me!” there was no way to avoid the eventual conclusion: the Blazers’ experience was going to win out. The kicker? A Carmelo Anthony dagger 3, of course:
Lillard didn’t need to play superhero this time around, as the Blazers found their heart through another source: Nurkic. Hours before tip-off, Nurkic announced on Instagram that his grandmother had passed away due to COVID-19 complications.
“I didn’t want to play,” Nurkic said after the game. “I think she made me play.”
It’s safe to say that without Nurkic, the Blazers would have lost. He didn’t just put up monster numbers—he had his own share of clutch moments, too. His rebound and putback with 2:39 left in the game was what gave Portland the lead it wouldn’t lose again, and he was a team-high plus-18 while on the floor whereas his backup, Hassan Whiteside, was minus-13—a team low. Nurkic’s injury during the regular season was one of the main reasons the Blazers found themselves scrapping for the 8-seed in Orlando, and now his play is one of the biggest reasons why they could give the Lakers some trouble in the first round.
And yet, the task that awaits this team is daunting. After having played a marathon of nine games in 16 days, the Blazers are now up against the 1-seed in the West. Theoretically, Portland was the most dangerous opponent the Lakers could have faced in the first round, because it’s the most talented of the teams that were up for the 8-seed. Plus, the Blazers are now fully healthy, with Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injuries. This group is a top-5 seed masquerading as an 8-seed, but given the load they’ve had to carry so far, it won’t be a surprise either if we see them running on fumes for most of the series.
Even if Portland goes out in four games, though, there’s no doubt this team will make the Lakers work for each win. If you ask the Blazers players, there’s no reason why they can’t keep this run going. And after the way they have survived and advanced so far, who are we to tell them they can’t?