The Trail Blazers, by virtue of defeating the New Orleans Pelicans 100-94 at the Moda Center along with the Grizzlies losing to the Spurs, have now clinched a spot in the Western Conference playoffs for the first time since 2011.
What hasn’t been decided, and probably won’t be until the regular season is over for all 30 teams, is who the Trail Blazers will face in the first round. As it stands, Portland could end up as high as fourth and as low as eighth, though somewhere in between is a much more likely scenario.
So to prepare, let’s look at Portland’s possible opponents, one of which the Trail Blazers would have to defeat in order to win their first playoff series since 2000, and how they fared against those teams this season.
The most likely scenario is the Trail Blazers playing the Rockets in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup and with Houston owning home court advantage. And actually, the second most likely scenario is the Trail Blazers playing the Rockets, but with Portland owning home court advantage. So either way, the safe bet is the Blazers and Rockets face off either in Portland or Houston in the third week of April, just as they did in 2009.
The Rockets won the series 3-1 this season, with the Blazers’ only victory being a 111-104 decision on December 12, 2013. Let’s look back at those four contests …
November 5, 2013 in Portland: Rockets 116, Trail Blazers 101 …
The Rockets, one of the most disciplined teams in the NBA when it comes to shot selection, outscored the Trail Blazers 54-28 in the paint and 19-6 on fastbreak points.
“They’re very specific in what they do,” said Stotts. “They shoot threes and they get to the paint. Guys like Harden get to the rim, get to the paint. Lin gets to the rim, gets to the paint. Obviously Howard was 10 for 13 and I don’t think he took anything outside the paint. That’s their style of play and then you throw in transition which is usually paint points, that’s part of what they do. That being said, I think we need to do a better job of defending the paint. We’re one of the bottom teams right now (in opponents points in the paint). We’ve been defending the three well, but we’ve got to do a better job of defending the rim and defending the paint.”
Portland trailed by just five going into the intermission but the game turned early in the second half when Robin Lopez was assessed his fourth foul with 11:11 to to play in the third quarter. From that point, the Rockets would go on a 17-4 run to take control.
“We passed up a lot of shots in the third quarter,” said Wesley Matthews, who finished the game with 19 points, three rebounds and a steal while committing four fouls trying to slow down Harden. “We were trying to maybe do too much, a little too unselfish. Coach has a thing where he keeps saying, ‘Keep playing. Keep playing. Keep playing.’ Plays were made and we’re supposed to shoot it and we didn’t shoot it. I know I turned down some, Nic turned down some. There’s still two ends of the court and we didn’t make many stops on that end.”
Portland would make numerous runs late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, cutting the lead to five with 8:11 to play after a Mo Williams 20-footer, but they would get no closer than that, ultimately losing by a 15-point margin.
December 12, 2013 in Portland: Trail Blazers 111, Rockets 104 …
After going one of six from the field in the first quarter, Aldridge finished with 31 points, a career-high 25 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks as the Trail Blazers defeated the Rockets 111-104 for their 19th victory of the season in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,997. Their 19-4 record is the best 23-game start to a season in Portland since the 1990-91 team opened the season going 21-2.
“Obviously, L.A. was fantastic,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “He was just doing everything. The game was coming to him – big rebounds, big shots, kicked it out of the post when he needed to. He was terrific.”
Aldridge became the first player in franchise history to score at least 30 points and pull down at least 25 rebounds and joins Bill Walton, Mychal Thompson and Sydney Wicks at the only Trail Blazers to log at least four 30-point, 20-rebound games. He is the first player to record a 30-point, 25-rebound performance since Kevin Love on Nov. 12, 2010 and is the first player to finish with at least 30 points, 25 rebounds and two blocks since Chris Webber in 2001.
The Trail Blazers and the Rockets were ranked first and second in the NBA, respectively, in offensive rating, though you wouldn’t have known it watching the first half of Thursday night’s contest at the Moda Center, with the Rockets taking a 44-43 lead into the intermission.
“To be honest, I thought our offense was good in the first half, we just didn’t finish at the rim and we had some open looks,” said Stotts. “I thought we had a lot of really good opportunities in the first half that we didn’t finish.”
Both teams would return to form in the second half and Aldridge, in particular, would elevate his game to an MVP-caliber level, scoring 23 of his 31 points in after the halftime break.
“I just watched film over there on the bench,” said Aldridge of what he did to improve after a rough first quarter. “I was rushing my shots, it was coming too easy, I was trying to go too fast. Second quarter, I just slowed down.”
January 20, 2014 in Houston: Rockets 126, Trail Blazers 113 …
Lead by Chandler Parsons, the Rockets would go on to outscore the Trail Blazers 39-28 in the first quarter thanks to 74 percent shooting (17 of 23) from the field and 100 percent shooting (four of four) from three.
“We let them play like they want to play right from the start, no energy,” said Nicolas Batum. “I think they scored like 20 points after five minutes. We’re on the road, it’s third game in four days, we’re going to be tired, so we can’t let a team like the Houston Rockets play right from the start because it’s going to be tough for us to get back.”
Things didn’t improve much in the second quarter. While Houston cooled a bit from the field, they still managed to hit six of nine three-pointers, with most of those coming from the corners thank to the inside-out opportunities afford by having Dwight Howard on the floor.
“We did give up too many corner threes,” said Stotts. “I think in the first half they were six for seven or something like that. The disappointing thing from a defense standpoint is you know going into it that you have to limit their transition, you have to limit their threes and we didn’t do a good job of that or they did a good job, however you want to look at it.”
And with the Trail Blazers hitting just one of their five three-point attempts, the stage was set for the Rockets to take a 15-point lead into the halftime intermission.
The Trail Blazers have been particularly good in third quarters this season, as they are statistically the second-best team in the NBA in regards to net rating in the second half of games. And for a while, it looked as though they might live up to their reputation after a 19-5 run, capped by a Wesley Matthews three-pointer with 5:05 to play in the third quarter, cut the lead to six. But the Rockets would answer back with a 20-11 run of their own to end the quarter, persevering their 15-point lead going into the fourth.
“We got close and we just couldn’t get over that hump,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “Our shots didn’t fall for us and they made tough shots and were able to get the win. We definitely didn’t make shots tonight and that was tough. We have to take care of tendencies better. They started off feeling comfortable and just ran with it. We have to make sure the other teams don’t feel that comfortable early.”
March 9, 2014 in Houston: Rockets 118, Trail Blazers 113 in overtime …
The Trail Blazers would go for over six minutes in the fourth without a field goal, though they did earn four trips to the free throw line during that stretch, Unfortunately, they shot 5 of 8 from the line during that stretch, opening the door up just enough for the Rockets to take their first lead of the night after a Jeremy Lin three-pointer with 1:25 to play in regulation put the home team up 102-101.
Lillard would score on the ensuing possession. Matthews would be the next player to score, hitting two free throws with 19 seconds to play in regulation to put Portland up three.
Lin would then earn a trip to the line, hitting one of two, to cut Portland’s lead to two. Matthews was fouled by Patrick Beverley on the ensuing possession, sending Matthews to the line with 12 seconds to play and a chance to make it a two-possession game. But Matthews would miss his only free throw of the night on the second attempt, which left the door open for the Rockets to tie.
And Houston did just that. Despite great defense from Matthews, Harden was able to connect on a three-pointer from the corner in front of Portland’s bench to tied the game with eight seconds to play.
Portland had one more chance to win the game in regulation after calling a timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Batum tried to find Lillard for a lob, but Lin made a play on the ball for the steal.
“Damian was coming wide open,” said Stotts of Portland’s last offensive play of regulation. “Jeremy Lin made a really good read, he left Mo open in the corner. Damian broke open, it was just Jeremy Lin made a really good read on it.”
After the steal, Lin got the ball to Beverley, whose last-second attempt rimmed out to send the game to overtime.
The Trail Blazers would draw first blood in the overtime on a Lillard three-pointer, but Portland would net just one more field goal in the overtime period while the Rockets get buckets from Lin, Harden and Chandler Parson to take the lead and eventually the game.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
After the Rockets, the L.A. Clippers are Portland’s most likely opponent should they fall to six in the West. It’s unlikely, but it could happen. The Clippers are virtually locked into the three seed, so if the Trail Blazers are passed by the Warriors, a team currently 1.5 games behind the Blazers, then Portland very likely ends up in Hollywood in the first round.
The season series is currently tied at 1-1, with the final game, at least of the regular season, to be played on the last night of the season at the Moda Center. Here’s how the first two games ended …
December 26, 2013 in Portland: Trail Blazers 116, Clippers 112 in overtime …
It looked at numerous times throughout the game that the Trail Blazers might pull away from the Clippers, a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. But Portland, despite leading at one point by as many as 12, never found a way to put the Clippers away, resulting in yet another heart-pounding finish at the Moda Center.
“On the whole, they are an explosive team and I thought Blake Griffin and Chris Paul played at a very high level,” said Stotts. “They made some tough shots. For the first 20 minutes of the game, our defense was very sold. Maybe it was because they were missing shots, but I thought they defense was very solid.”
Chris Paul, who finished with 34 points, 16 assists, six steals, three rebounds and just one turnover in almost 45 minutes of play, took control in the fourth quarter, scoring the Clippers’ last eight points, including a fadeaway baseline jumper with nine seconds left in regulation that gave L.A. a 101-98 lead.
The Trail Blazers called timeout to set up a play, resulting in Nicolas Batum getting a spectacular look at a three-pointer, which he hit to tie the game at 101-101 with 5.3 seconds to play.
“Out of bounds, back pick, wide open,” said Batum describing his game-tying shot in the most deadpan tone possible. “I was surprised to get the ball that wide open. Just get one dribble and take a shot. I had to get a shot anyway. That was a good play drawn up by the coach.”
While Batum liked the call from Stotts, the opposing sideline was not nearly as enamored with their execution in the final seconds of regulation.
“We gave them a three at the end, that can’t happen,” said Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. “Number one, we should have fouled and that’s on me. We had too much indecision, that’s why I called the twenty (second timeout), because I could see the guys weren’t all on the same page defensively. I always foul. The one time I don’t, they score. That’s why I always foul, so that’s on me.”
Paul had a clean look at a 17-footer to win the game, but the shot rimmed off, sending the game to overtime and the Moda Center crowd into hysterics.
February 12, 2014 in Los Angeles: Clippers 122, Trail Blazers 117 …
“I thought both teams played well again,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Obviously it was an offensive game, both teams executed very well offensively, made passes, made shots. It’s frustrating to play another good game against a top-tier team and come up short. It’ll start turning our way pretty soon. “
Playing on the second night of a back-to-back after losing a nail-biter to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Portland the night before, the Trail Blazers looked to get back on the winning side of things before a five-day break for the 2014 All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
“One thing about our team is we compete,” said Stotts, “whether it’s a back-to-back, home or road, up 20, down 20. It’s one of the things we can hang our hats on.”
Neither team was able to get stops consistently, with the Trail Blazers shooting 51 percent to 58 percent for the Clippers. Portland also shot 42 percent from three and 82 percent from the free throw line, which are numbers that are usually good enough to get a win.
But in a game that featured 40 lead changes and 18 ties, the Clippers were able to hold the Trail Blazers scoreless in the final two minutes to come away with a five-point victory.
“I think we’re playing the games the same way,” said Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard of his team’s inability as of late to win close games. “Sometimes it’s shots that we usually knock down that just aren’t falling. It might be a call or two that doesn’t go our way. It’s a real thin line between winning and losing those games. We were fortunate to be on the winning side at the beginning of the season and lately we’ve been on the losing end. We’re going to take this break and when we come back we’ve got to be ready to pick it up again.”
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Now we start to get to the very unlikely first round opponents. The Thunder are currently the second seed, five games behind the Spurs for the top spot, so if the Trail Blazers fell to seventh (which is incredibly unlikely) they’d end up playing a division rival in the first round.
The Trail Blazers actually fared well against the Thunder this year, splitting the season series 2-2 and with the losses coming by just eight and three points. The Trail Blazers even gave the Thunder one of their seven losses in Oklahoma City this year. So even though some estimate that there’s a less than 1 percent chance Portland ends up in the two vs. seven matchup, let’s look back at the games anyway …
December 4, 2013 in Portland: Trail Blazers 111, Thunder 104 …
The Trail Blazers overcame a double-digit halftime deficit to defeat the Thunder 111-104 for their 16th victory of the season. Portland has now won 14 of their last 15 games and has lost just once at the Moda Center this season. Their 16-3 record is tied for the second-best record through 19 games in team history.
“Needless to say, it was a good win for us. Especially after we really didn’t have much going in the first half, we couldn’t quite come up with loose balls, offensive rebounds, hustle plays. It seemed like they had a lot of momentum in the first half. But I really liked the way we came out at the beginning of the third quarter, obviously. Offense and defense a lot of times go hand in hand. Our defense picked up and our offensive picked up. The crowd got into it and everybody contributed, so the second half was great.”
No Trail Blazer was greater than LaMarcus Aldridge, who lost out on Western Conference Player of the Month honors to Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant earlier in the week. But while Durant won the award, Aldridge all-star won the night, scoring 16 points in the third quarter alone while leading Portland’s comeback from an 11-point halftime deficit.
“I don’t know if I have the words, to be honest,” said Stotts when asked about Aldridge’s performance. “Offensively, obviously he can score. But I liked his toughness, I liked his leadership, I liked his competitive fire. As much as he played very well, it was a lot of the intangibles that I really appreciated from him tonight.”
Aldridge would be Portland’s go-to whenever the offense started to stagnate, and was more than up to the task, finishing the game with a season-high 38 points on a career-high 17 made attempts while logging 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals. With his performance tonight, Aldridge passed Geoff Petrie for sixth on the Trail Blazers’ all-time points list and also passed Jerome Kersey for fourth all-time in made field goals.
“He’s our go-to guy, he’s our franchise player, he’s the face of the franchise,” said Nicolas Batum of Aldridge. “So when we need something — every team go to somebody — Miami goes to LeBron, Lakers go to Kobe, OKC goes to Durant. Us, we go to LA. That’s it.”
Aldridge’s performance in one of Portland’s biggest games of the season thus far inspired an “M-V-P” chant while the the eighth-year power forward, who has spent his entire career as a Trail Blazer, was shooting two clutch free throws with 24 seconds to play (free throws he made, by the way).
“Just surreal,” said Aldridge of the chants. “It was humbling to have that moment here. I’ve been here so long and I’ve had very few of those type of chants here, so that was fun. I thought that made the night just complete for me.”
December 31, 2013 in Oklahoma City: Trail Blazers 98, Thunder 94 …
With the win, the Trail Blazers become just the second team to beat the Thunder at home and while moving to 4-0 against the top four teams in the Western Conference standings.
But like seemingly every big victory the Trail Blazers have notched this season, the game would not be decided until the final seconds. But unlike the last two games against the Heat and Pelicans, it would be the Trail Blazers who made the plays late to come away with possibly their most impressive win to date.
“I think those two losses, later in the season hopefully we’ll look back at them and those will be positives,” said Robin Lopez, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds in 39 minutes. “We need to learn a lesson, our defense has been slipping a little bit. That’s not saying that we cued in beautifully tonight; we have a long ways to go. I think it shows when we put our minds to it and our hearts to it how effective we can be on that end of the floor.”
Once again, the Trail Blazers would wait until the second half to show just how effective they can be.
Oklahoma City took a 12-point lead into the halftime intermission thanks to 22 first half points on eight of 12 shooting from Kevin Durant. The Thunder as a team shot 54 percent from the field and 40 percent from three in the first half while scoring 30 points in the paint.
Nicolas Batum drew the assignment of guarding Durant and seemed to become frustrated early with his defense, which seemed to bleed over into his offense. Batum went zero for three in the first half and looked tentative at times, resulting in three first half turnovers.
“I just missed the bus,” said Batum of his first half performance. “I don’t know what happened in the first half. I just wasn’t into it. I let K.D. play his game like he wanted to and I didn’t show off my shot. I just wasn’t there.
But after a pep talk from his teammates, Batum came out aggressive in both sides of the ball.
“All my teammates talked to me,” said Batum. “Dame, L.A., they say ‘We need you.’ Mo, Coach (said) ‘We need you. We need you if we want to win this game.’ I can’t give up on those guys so I had to show up because we need this game. So I just decided to be more aggressive on offense and defense.”
Batum responded by scoring 15 second-half points while helping hold Durant to a single point in the fourth quarter. Batum also hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 3:24 to play in the fourth that gave the Trail Blazers their first advantage since leading 20-17 at the 4:41 mark in the first quarter.
“He really got after it,” said Lopez of Batum’s second half performance. “I think KD only had one point. That was huge for us, obviously. That’s a great player and he thrives down the stretch in the fourth quarter. The whole team, especially Nic, did a great job on him.”
January 21 in Oklahoma City: Thunder 105, Trail Blazers 97 …
It would be a back-and-fourth battle to start the final quarter with both teams trading baskets and control of the lead.
And then, Durant struck again.
After receiving a technical foul for slamming his hand into the scorer’s table, Durant responded with a made layup followed by a three-pointer to tie the game at 95-95. Then he hit a three-pointer. And then another. And another.
“MVP performance,” said Stotts of Durant. “To score 46 points on 25 shots, six of seven from threes, and I think he got a couple of his shots blocked. It was a remarkable performance. He made shots when they mattered. He took his time and didn’t force it. He took what was there, and he made some great shots.”
Add in both Jackson and Kendrick Perkins hitting timely jumpers and the result was a 15-0 Thunder run to end the game.
“We gave ourselves a chance down the stretch,” said Lillard. “We missed a lot of shots that we’ve been making. It’s been a tough trip so when it came down to it, time to win the game, they made shots and we missed a few opportunities. “
Portland would get 29 points from Aldridge, though he missed his last five shots at a time when the Trail Blazers needed something to stop Oklahoma City’s momentum.
“They went to me late in the game and I missed shots,” said Aldridge, who also added 16 rebounds. “Part of this is on me. I have to make shots down the stretch. That’s my job on this team and tonight I didn’t do it.”
February 11 in Portland: Thunder 98, Trail Blazers 95 …
“It was a good game, both teams – kind of reminiscent of the Indiana game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We did a lot of good things, stayed in the game, felt like we had a chance to win the game – to be honest, we didn’t shoot the ball very well in the second half. We had a lot of good looks, shots that we normally make, shots that I thought we at least shoot a better percentage. But I liked the way we battled. I liked the way we competed.”
The Trail Blazers had an opportunity to take the lead with two seconds to play after both teams traded a series of turnovers and missed shots. But LaMarcus Aldridge’s 20-foot jumper bounced off the rim and the Thunder corralled the rebound in the waning seconds of the game to all but seal the victory on Portland’s home court.
“We ran a pick and roll,” said Stotts of Portland’s penultimate offensive possession. “If they committed two to Damian, I thought LA would be open. We had shooters on the court and whether LA shoots a jump shot or drives or passes, I can certainly live with the shot. He’s made a living making that shot.”
Portland had a look at a desperation three with 0.6 second to play which would have sent the game to overtime, but Damian Lillard’s attempt missed the mark as time expired.
“We got good looks,” said Lillard, “we didn’t make shots. They knocked down some threes and got in the paint a few times. We just didn’t make shots that we usually make.”
The Trail Blazers got off to a hot start in their first action since finishing up a four-game road trip with a win in Minneapolis Saturday night. Portland took a 13-point lead with 4:03 to play in the first quarter after Thunder coach Scott Brooks was assessed a technical foul for arguing with the officials. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant would be called for a technical less than 30 seconds later, with Lillard once again hitting the corresponding free throw to put the Trail Blazers up 20-8.
But it wouldn’t be all good news early for Portland, as backup center Joel Freeland left the game in the first quarter with a right knee injury. Freeland is expected to have an MRI and his status for Wednesday night’s game against the Clippers in unknown.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
And finally, we arrive at the Spurs, a team the Trail Blazes could potentially, albeit very unlikely, play if they end up in the seventh or eights spot. How unlikely is it that the Trail Blazers end up No. 8? Well, the only way it could happen is if the Blazers lose all of their remaining regular season games.
But let’s consider that possibility anyway. The Trail Blazes and Spurs also split the season series 2-2, but there’s no silver lining going up against a team that has won 19 of their last 20 games. No one wants to play the Spurs, but luckily for the Trail Blazers, there’s almost no chance that happens. Nevertheless, it’s still a possibility, so let’s see this thing through to the end …
November 2 in Portland: Trail Blazers 115, Spurs 105 …
While it was in some respects a historic victory, it was also a night full of Moda Center debuts. Local food options such as Fire On the Mountain Wings and Sizzle Pie Pizza, upgraded in-arena wifi provided by Toyota, a mobile app featuring exclusive video content and a new 100-point play promotion with McDonald’s were among the many upgrades rolled out for the fans in attendance.
But it was the Trail Blazers upgraded offense that took center stage against the defending Western Conference champs. The Trail Blazers shot 56 percent from the field and 40 percent from three to help secure their second victory in as many nights.
“I like it because it’s difficult to game plan if you have different players who are capable of making shots and making plays,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of his team’s balanced scoring, which featured six players scoring in double figures. “To me, as long as the ball is moving and the shots are in rhythm, whether everybody scores double figures or one guy gets 40, as long as the game is played at the offensive end with continuity and passing and teamwork, that’s the most important thing.”
The Trail Blazers shot 56 percent from the field, lead by a 11-of-17 offensive performance from LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal in 38 minutes. The performance was just the latest in a string of seemingly effortless performances for the two-time all-star, who said he always has a little something extra when playing against the Spurs.
“I don’t ever want to take LaMarcus for granted because he’s been remarkably consistent, not only last year but throughout his career,” said Stotts. “What he’s doing right now is he’s playing his game and playing it well. I certainly don’t take it for granted but it doesn’t surprise me.”
The Moda Center crowd, possibly while snacking on spicy peanut chicken wings or pork belly cubano sandwiches, got their first taste of what center Robin Lopez can bring to the Trail Blazers roster with a 12-point, six-rebound, two-block night. Lopez struggled mightily in Portland’s season-opening loss to the Suns and was better in their victory Friday night in Denver against the Nuggets, but his play in Saturday night’s victory was the first real glimpse of the best that Lopez has to offer.
“He plays hard at both ends, really goes after every rebound,” said Stotts of Lopez, who played all but 50 seconds of the second half. “He made a big block down the stretch. His presence in the paint just makes a difference. You feel his effort and you feel his energy when he’s on the court.”
January 17 in San Antonio: Trail Blazers 109, Spurs 100 …
With Portland trailing 89-88 with 5:54 to play after a Tim Duncan putback dunk, Aldridge responded by hitting an 18-footer and then a layup to put the Trail Blazers up 92-89.
“I definitely watched him growing up and I learned a lot from him,” said Aldridge of going up against Duncan. “It was like an idol versus a up-and-coming, hopefully a top, power forward.”
The Spurs attempted to slow Aldridge down late in the fourth quarter by sending double teams, but that only served to give open looks to Matthews, who was more than happy to take advantage while San Antonio scrambled to cover the perimeter.
“LA is going to see every kind of defense there is and he was ready for it,” said Matthews. “We were all ready for it. That ball swung around the horn. They did the hard job. He had to kick it out of the double team, everybody else had to pass it around their man. I just had to knock it down.”
Matthews did just that, hitting three three-pointers late in the game to help the Trail Blazers pull away.
“We have confident shooters,” said Stotts. “Whomever it is – Damian (Lillard), Wesley, Mo (Williams), LA, Nic (Batum) – we have a lot of guys who are very good shooters and feel confident when the ball is in their hands. The ones Wes hit were very timely. It really turned the tide.”
Matthews finished with nine points in the fourth and 24 for the night while shooting nine of 14 from the field and a near-perfect six of seven from three.
“It felt good,” said Matthews of his fourth quarter shooting performance. “What do they say in football, pitch and catch? I like high-pressure moments, high-pressure situations.”
Portland would outscore San Antonio 21-11 during the final five minutes, 33 seconds of the game to come away with the nine-point victory.
February 19 in Portland: Spurs 111, Trail Blazers 109 …
With LaMarcus Aldridge sidelined with a left groin strain, the Trail Blazers started just their second different starting lineup of the season against the Spurs, with Dorell Wright joining Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez as Portland’s first five.
“It was different,” said Lillard. “It’s tough to rebound and run our offense how we usually do when we don’t have our guys that’s normally in the rotation out there period, but without (Aldridge) out there, that makes it tougher obviously.”
Playing without Aldridge, a three-time All-Star, would have been difficult enough on its own, but not having Joel Freeland (sprained right MCL) or Meyers Leonard (sprained left ankle) available forced the Trail Blazers to go with small lineups almost exclusively all night.
The Spurs were also playing without future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and All-Star point guard Tony Parker, though San Antonio has much more experience playing without their best players, and it showed Wednesday night.
“We tried to beat San Antonio at their game and they did better than us,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “They played their small lineup more effectively. We didn’t do enough defensively to get a win. While (Aldridge) and Meyers and Joel are out, we’re going to have to figure out ways to win games. There were some good things we did tonight. San Antonio is used to playing these games without their guys and they plug guys in and they play well. During this stretch, we’re going to have to figure some things out at both ends of the floor.”
With averages of 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds, it would be easy to think the Trail Blazers would struggle in both scoring and rebounding with Aldridge unavailable, though that didn’t seem to be the case Wednesday. Portland’s 109 points Wednesday night were more than their season average and they out-rebounded San Antonio by five. They even outscored the Spurs 54-42 in the paint, something that happens infrequently even with Aldridge on the court.
“Offense isn’t going to be our problem,” said Matthews. “We’ve got to stop beating ourselves on the defensive end, stop allowing teams to not work for their buckets.”
The Spurs were particularly successful scoring in the fourth quarter, going 11 of 19 from the field and four of seven from three. Former Trail Blazer Patty Mills would score 13 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter on six of nine shooting, despite being guarded by the much longer Batum.
“I let Patty Mills do whatever he wants to do,” said Batum, who also struggled through a two of eight night shooting. “That’s on me. That’s it.”
March 12 in San Antonio: Spurs 103, Trail Blazers 90 …
The Portland Trail Blazers fell to 42-23 on the season, 18-15 on the road and 0-4 on their current five-game road trip with a 103-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night at the AT&T Center.
As if the loss alone wasn’t bad enough, Portland suffered a serious blow with LaMarcus Aldridge taking a hard fall at the 11:17 mark in third quarter after colliding with Spurs center Aron Baynes.
Aldridge writhed on the floor in obvious pain before finally being helped off the court by teammates Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard and was reluctant to put any weight on his right leg. Replays showed the three-time All-Star landing hard on his tailbone, though the team later described the injury as a “back contusion.”
“When a guy takes a a tough fall like that, when you’re airborne, you just don’t know what can happen you land,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “The longer he stayed down, you just don’t know.”
Aldridge did not return to the game, finishing the night with 13 points on 6 of 11 shooting and four rebounds. X-rays on his back came back negative, though his status for Friday night’s contest in New Orleans against the Pelicans is not yet know.
“It looked really painful,” said Damian Lillard. “I watched him go up for the shot and fall straight out of the air. That’s a tough fall. I was concerned about his well-being more than anything else once I saw his facial expressions and that he kind of stayed down. I never saw him stay down like that, so obviously I was concerned for him.”
If there’s any good news, aside from x-rays coming back negative, it’s that the Trail Blazers recently went 4-1 while Aldridge was sidelined with a left groin strain.
A happy Friday the 13th to all of you loyal podcast listeners. Before everyone goes their separate ways now that the offseason is here, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net and TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio one last time to record a season-ending edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we attempt recap the series versus the Warriors, which ended in five games with a 125-121 loss at Oracle Arena Wednesday night, and the season in general, discuss the lasting effects of the playoff run and the respect that they earned from around the league due to their performance and look forward to some of the questions the Blazers will have to answer in the offseason, particularly in regard to free agency. And as always, we finish up by answering your Twitter-submitted questions on topics such as the culture the Trail Blazers have developed, (more) free agency, exit interviews and favorite moments from the just-completed season. It’s been a fun one.
Less than 12 hours after being eliminated from the postseason, the Trail Blazers returned to their practice facility in Tualatin to meet with the coaches to discuss offseason plans, clean out their lockers and take questions from the media one last time before starting their vacations.
Here’s the audio and a few quotes from Terry Stotts and the players from today’s exit interviews…
On the 2015-16 season…
“Like I said last night, this has been a special season. This group of players, what they were able to do individually and collectively, our chemistry was really good. We had good guys, they got along, players and coaches. It means a lot and it goes both ways. It was a joy. I think players enjoyed coming to work every day and I know the coaches and staff did, too.”
On whether this was his most rewarding season as a head coach…
“No question. This was an extremely rewarding season because it kind of played out the way we wanted it to. And we’re not talking about the record or the playoffs, everything was about growth, improvement, getting better throughout the season and being better at the end of the season. I think we did that individually and collectively and from a coaching standpoint, that’s as pure as it gets. That’s what coaching is about. You don’t get to experience that very much at the NBA level.”
On whether he expects anyone on his staff to be interviewed for various open head coaching positions…
“I hope so. I can’t say enough about how good my staff is. I think Jay Triano and Nate Tibbetts and David Vanterpool are all ready to be considering for head coaching jobs. I think they’re all prepared to do a great job as a head coach depending on whatever a team is looking for. I hope they get consideration because they’re all very deserving.
On many of his teammates deciding to stay in Portland during the offseason…
“That means a lot because I stay here every summer. I’m used to coming in here like ‘I wonder when everybody else coming back to town,’ you know what I mean? The trainers are here, the coaches are here and it’s an empty gym. And even after the game last night, on the plane, I started getting worried already. I was sitting on the plane like ‘Man, we had some success this year, it was unexpected it was no pressure. Next year people gonna expect a little bit more’ and I started to get worried about too many pats on the back. ‘They weren’t supposed to do this but they did that.’ I started getting worried, but we don’t have those kind of guys. We’ve got hungry guys, we’ve got humble guys that work hard. We had a taste this season as a young group of how well we could do and what it takes. We lost to a really experienced, championship team. That makes me happy to hear that so many guys are going to be here working out in the summer because that lets me know that they see how close we are and they see how important it’s going to be going forward.”
On free agency and having a say in the process…
“I’m pretty sure they’ll communicate what the plans are with me, but like I’ve said in the past, my job is to be a good teammate, to make sure I put in my time and become a better player and that’s what I’ll do. They ask me my opinion on something, I’ll give them my honest opinion, but I love all the guys that we have on our roster now. I think going forward, if we continue to grow together, we’ll be a good team. Obviously it’s a business and rosters change, players make decisions for themselves, so when that time comes, we’ll see what happens. But when they come to me ask for my opinion or what I think about something, I’ll tell them what I think.”
On what he’s looking for as a restricted free agent…
“Any pay raise is going to be significantly higher than what I’m making now. But like I said earlier, it’s just situation really for me. It doesn’t make sense to make a lot of money and go to a team that, if you don’t fit that system, then get paid a lot of money to be frustrated? That doesn’t make sense to me. The culture here, it’s great. I know this organization well, I know the system, know the coaches, players. It’s just real comfortable here. I wouldn’t mind being here, I really wouldn’t. It’s really just coming down to situation and how I can continue to improve as a basketball player.”
On head coach Terry Stotts…
“Definitely think he should get an extension. I feel like everybody here knows that he should get an extension. He’s done a great job with this team. It’s really hard to put into words what he did with this group because nobody expected us to do what we did. Even from Day One, even through the games where we were 11-20, seven-game losing streak, he never folded and he always told us it’s all about trusting the process and we stuck with that throughout this whole year.”
On spending time in Portland this offseason…
“I think, for one, it doesn’t rain a lot in the summer, so that helps. Just being around the facility, 24 hour access, you’re able to get a lot of things done without a distraction. You go home, you go to certain cities, you either got to pay to get in the gym or you’ve got to worry about people interrupting you while you workout. I go back to my high school but sometimes I’ve got to just like lock the door so I can just workout and not have to worry about certain interruptions because you can’t get through a full workout when people are coming in, talk to you. It’s meant to be a compliment to you, it’s hard. So I think it helps that here, you just come in, the doors are locked, you’ve got your finger scan, you workout when you want, the weather is nice. You’re paying rent here anyway, so it makes sense.”
On the camaraderie of the roster and the changes that might be in store…
“I think we had a really unique group. They did a great job of putting together like minds, young guys who are easy to talk to. Nobody is really arrogant or overly cocky. We’ve got some ignorant guys on the team that you guys guys know who’s outlandish with his statements. I won’t put him out there, he knows who he is. Besides that, we all got along well, everybody spoke their minds, nobody was afraid to say certain things. If somebody played bad, if somebody wasn’t doing things the right way, you could address it and nobody would frown or look at you the wrong way. So I like the way our team is put together, I like the work ethic everybody had. This is one of the rare teams where you could hang out with players off the court. Everybody’s got their friends, but I could hang out with any one of the 15 guys off the court and be perfectly comfortable, eat dinner, et cetera… We’ve got a really good unit and a lot of guys made themselves some money this year, a lot of guy’s prices went up. Hopefully we can rekindle the flame, but if not, we had a good run, we had a good year together collectively and wish everybody the best of luck in the free agency process.
On how he’s approaching restricted free agency…
“To be honest with you, I haven’t had a real concrete conversation with my agent about this. I wanted it to be, right now, about my rehab and about supporting the guys, being there however I could, I guess more from an emotional standpoint, for the team. I certainly wish I could have been out there. With that being said, I’m sure we’ll talk within the next couple of days about how we’re going to really approach this, the timing of things, I suppose what teams are interested, what teams would maybe like to meet in person. I don’t have a concrete plan at this point. Restricted free agency, it gets a little hairy, it takes time, teams maybe don’t want to tie their money up. I honestly don’t know all the ins and outs of it. Like I said before the season when I didn’t accept an extension, I’m confident in where I’m at. It’s my agent’s job to present whatever he has on his mind and what’s on my plate from that side of things. My job right now is simply to rehab my shoulder, continue to work on my leg strength, which is a huge focus of mine for this summer, and just figure out different way in the weight room or out here, even simple things as ball handling, just trying to improve as a player and as a man.”
On why he’s going to spend much of the offseason in Portland…
“I’m coming back to Portland just because went through all that rain, got to enjoy some of the sun. I like it here. I’m renting a spot, so I’m just going to stay here. I like Todd (Forcier) and BK (Ben Kenyon) and those guys, so definitely going to put a lot of work in in the weight room. It’s always good vibes here so I don’t think guys want to get away. Some teams, you want to get away just because you don’t like certain people. It’s not like that here. I enjoyed being here so that’s why I’m going to stick around and do most of my training out here.”
On the realities of keeping a roster with multiple free agents together…
“It’s going to be tricky with all the salary cap stuff going on. I think a lot of the guys who are free agents definitely raised their value. I think everyone did. You never know. I hope all those guys get paid well, I think they will. They deserve it. You just never know with free agency, who they go after and things like that, but I hope everybody comes back, but that’s not really realistic. It doesn’t really work like that in the league. I just tried to enjoy that time yesterday because I’ve been around a little bit and I know how the business side of things work.”
On his mindset going into the offseason…
“This summer is big for me, become more of a scoring threat. I think there’s a lot to be added. I look forward, if the opportunity is there, to come back to have some stability from a staff perspective. I would look forward to coming back to a similar situation from one season to the next. I’ve played for three coaches in three years, so I think that would be something I’d look forward to as well… Once you’ve been traded, you never know.”
On being a restricted free agent…
“Free agency is something I haven’t really thought about. I’ve tried not to think about it during the season and we just finished yesterday, so it hasn’t really been on my mind yet. It’s something that we’ll have to think about soon.”
On his first season in Portland…
I loved it. It was by far the most fun season I’ve had. These guys here are great, the organization is great. I really, really enjoyed it and looking forward to seeing what happens this summer.”
On his first season in Portland…
“It’s the most fun year I think I’ve had as a pro. We had a great group of guys, high character guys, silly guys and it was a fun year. That’s without even being on the court. On the court, we had a special group. We came together halfway through, really made it a special year all the way until last night when we’re playing against the champions, gave them all we had. Played a tough series, obviously it didn’t end the way that we wanted it to, but it’s a year we’re all proud of.”
His thoughts on entering free agency and what he’s looking for…
This is my second time doing it and it’ll be a little different than the first time. I think getting a taste of what this year and this postseason was like and how much fun, how competitive it is, I think, number one, being on a team that’s a winning team. It’s obviously tough to get on one of the elite elite teams, but that could be a possibility. That could easily be a possibility here. Being on a team that is about winning and that’s a good fit for me.
On his first season with the Trail Blazers…
“It was an amazing journey of growth. We grew a lot throughout the season, personally and as a team. It was just fun to be a part of it.”
How he looks back on the season in terms of enjoyment…
The season was great. Any time you have guys that are the same age, it just makes it a lot easier to get along. It’s easy to have relatable points, different things like that. A lot of us are going through similar things in our careers so you get to relate on that note. When it came to comfortably in that sense, it was just unbelievable. And then I think that’s why the chemistry was there as well. Even our vets and the older guys like Chris Kaman, they were a joy to be around as well. From top to bottom, everybody was kind of in that same wavelength of what they were trying to do. It just made it easy to get along.
OAKLAND — Though they had every reason to do so, the 2015-16 Trail Blazers refused to give in to despair or doubt. Despite being picked as one of the worst teams in the NBA, they declared before training camp that their goal was to make the playoffs. When they were nine games below .500 before the start of the new year, they kept plugging along, never allowing themselves to take the easy road to the lottery.
When they eventually made the playoffs, they overcame a 2-0 deficit to advance to the second round for just the second time in 16 years. And after going down 2-0 to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a team that set the NBA record for wins this season, they rallied to win Game Three, forcing at least a Game Five.
And in the end, the 2015-16 Trail Blazers died like they lived: by refusing to give up.
Though facing long odds of overcoming a 3-1 series deficit, the Trail Blazers gave a performance, both in terms of quality and effort, that typified their entire season, though it ultimately wouldn’t be enough, as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to score 62 points to lead the Warriors to a 125-121 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 19,596 Wednesday night at Oracle Arena. With the win, the Warriors have eliminated the Trail Blazers from the postseason by winning the series 4-1.
“This was a remarkable season,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I’ve been in the league coaching for 23 years, it was a special year. We had all young guys who got better. They worked hard. We had success. With success being more than just making the playoffs and the success is more than winning a playoff series.”
Especially considering the circumstances at the start of the season. After replacing four of five starters and nine players in total, most assumed Portland’s 2015-16 campaign would be one devoted to developing the young players they acquired in the offseason while and giving themselves the best odds to secure a lottery pick. But instead, they formed themselves into a tough, never-say-die team that took advantage of low expectations and a weaker than expected Western Conference to shock the NBA by not only making the postseason, but by getting the fifth-seed.
“The goal at the beginning of the season was that we were going to work with the players,” said Stotts. “They were going to get better and we were going to get better as a team. I was talking with my coaches, a lot of times in this league, you don’t get that opportunity to work with a group of guys who come to work every day, there is no drama. They came to work, they got better, we got better, and we had success because of their character and their work ethic every day. So I don’t have to wait long to understand how special this season was.”
The Trail Blazers would hold an 11-point lead in the second half, but, as was often the case in the five-game series, were never able to deliver the knockout blow. The Warriors would eventually take their first lead of the game midway through the third quarter, a lead that would grow to as many as eight points, though that wouldn’t stop the Trail Blazers from hard-charging until the final buzzer. The Trail Blazers cut the Golden State lead to two with under a minute to play, but could never put together enough consecutive makes to win the game or force overtime.
“You’ve also got to take your hat off to (Golden State) and give them credit,” said Damian Lillard. “They did what championship teams do. When it was time to win games, they did things a little bit better than we did in situations where it made a difference in win or loss, and those are the things that we’ve got to grow from. We’ve got to remember these teams and remember executing down the stretch and how important one rebound can end up being.”
In a way, Portland’s play in Game Five, and in the playoffs in general, was a microcosm of Portland’s “special season.” They fought hard, comported themselves far better than most expected, had their opportunities and even looked like they might have played well enough to extend their season before falling just short.
“We went out there and put our best foot forward, and obviously we’ve got a ways to go before we’re a finished product,” said CJ McCollum. “We can all get better individually and collectively as a unit and I think we will. There are no excuses. We competed, but we’re not satisfied losing 4-1, even if the games were close. I don’t think we went into this playoffs like let’s get the gentleman’s sweep as a goal. That’s not how we approached it.”
The Blazers were led by Lillard who went 7-of-24 from the field to finish with 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in 39 minutes. CJ McCollum went 11-of-23 for 27 points to go with eight rebounds and five assists.
“He was tough,” said Stephen Curry of McCollum. “He kept his foot on the gas pedal, made some tough shots and took advantage of some offensive rebounds and had the confidence to keep shooting and knock them down. So he did what he could to keep his team in the game. He’s a talented player, so that’s what you expect.”
Portland got the kind of performances they needed from the role players to give a team like the Warriors a run for their money. Al-Farouq Aminu shot 50 percent from the field to finish with 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals in 36 minutes. Maurice Harkless added 13 points in 19 minutes.
And then there was Allen Crabbe, who saved his best playoff game for last, going 7-of-9 from the field and 5-of-7 from three to finish with 20 points and three rebounds in 32 minutes.
As for the Warriors, Curry went 10-of-20 from the field and 5-of-11 from three to finish with 29 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in 36 minutes. Thompson went 13-of-17 from the field and 6-of-9 from three for a game-high 33 points to go with two rebounds and an assist in 34 minutes. Draymond Green had one of his quieter offensive games of the series, going just 2-of-7 from the field for 13 points, though he did grab 11 rebounds and hand out six assists. Shaun Livingston came off the bench to added 10 points.
While the Warriors now move on to face the winner of the Spurs/Thunder series in the Western Conference finals, the Trail Blazers head back to Portland to begin their offseason, albeit about a month later than most expected at the start of training camp. Though they head home unhappy with the result, they can take some pride in knowing that, while their season is over, their journey as an up-and-coming team is just beginning.
“I think the experience that we got was great,” said Lillard. “Regardless of what other people expected, I think what we were able to do was reassure ourselves that the foundation that we built this year is the right thing. We did it the right way and that’s what allowed us to be in this position. So we’ve got to continue to work and continue to grow that same thing and do the same things that we have been doing all season long and try to continue going forward.”