“Fifty wins is something to be proud of,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I told the team that 50 wins has always been a standard, it’s been a bar in this league. The Trail Blazers have been such a great franchise and this is only the 12th one, so we’re really proud of what we’ve done so far. It’s something no one can take away from us, but I don’t think anybody in the locker room is satisfied with where we are. It’s an accomplishment and we need to enjoy it and then get ready for Sac on Wednesday.”
The Trail Blazers, who currently sit fifth in the Western Conference standings, could finish anywhere between fourth and eighth with four games left to play, but what is certain is that they will break a three-year postseason drought.
“It’s a great feeling because when you watch the playoffs on TV for two years, you’re kind of mad,” said Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum of locking up a playoff spot. “Back in France too early, I didn’t really like it, so just get back into the playoffs, play against the best.”
After the Grizzlies lost to the Spurs earlier in the night, all Portland needed to do to punch their playoff ticket was defeat the Pelicans, a team already mathematically eliminated from postseason contention.
For the first two quarters it looked as though Portland might have to wait for another game to clinch, as the Pelicans led by as many as 10 in the second quarter and took a 55-48 lead into the halftime intermission. The Pelicans shot 49 percent while turning the ball over just three times in the first two quarters to put a scare into the Trail Blazers, a team coming off a loss Friday night to the Suns.
“We gave them a lot of easy looks in the first half,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “They got a lot of easy shots off pick and rolls. We talked about it at halftime and I thought the guards did better and the bigs did too.”
But the Trail Blazers would go on an 18-2 run starting midway through the third quarter to to take a 75-65 lead with 1:39 to play in the third.
“We were losing at halftime and we needed to tighten up,” said Damian Lillard, who finished with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes. “I think in the third quarter our urgency just went up. We wanted to take control of the game in the third quarter instead of going into the fourth quarter down and trying to find our way back into the game.”
Portland would hold New Orleans to 14 points in the third quarter on 35 percent shooting while hitting 55 percent of their own shots to win the quarter by 15 points. Batum was particularly effective in the third, scoring nine of his 16 points in the quarter while also grabbing seven of his 12 rebounds.
The Pelicans would make one last push, going on a 9-3 run late in the fourth to cut Portland’s lead to 97-94 with 35 seconds to play. But a layup and a late foul shot by Lillard put Portland up by six, which would be the winning deficit.
“There’s no magic potion with us,” said Wesley Matthews. “I don’t think we shot the three ball very well. There’s no secret to what we have to do, what we can do. We know we can be an elite defensive team, we know we’re going to score points. It’s just a matter of going out there and doing it, finishing possessions.”
Aldridge led all scorers with 25 points to go along with 18 rebounds, four assists and four blocks in 36 minutes.
“LA was great,” said Stotts. “He had some blocks, obviously his rebounding, he had good hands. He’s a really good communicator out on the court. In pick and rolls, he knows angles. I’ve said this a few times – I think his defense is underrated because he’s always locked into the game plan, he knows personnel, he can bother shots and he can rebound.”
Matthews went 3 of 7 from three on the way to 21 points and five rebounds in 31 minutes.
With a playoff berth locked up and four games to play, one might assume that the Trail Blazers would look to rest players for the postseason, even at the expense of seeding. But according to every player in Portland’s locker room, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the regular season comes to a close.
“I want to play,” said Matthews. “I see the logic in (resting players), I see the safeness in that, but we’re trying to lock up a spot. We’re trying to lock up that fifth spot, maybe, possibly, off chance sneak that fourth spot. I don’t know what’s really going on with that but I want to play and win. Win out.”
And while players were happy to put questions about the liklihood of making the postseason to bed, there was no overwhelming sense of relief in Portland’s locker room, as simply making the playoffs was just another step in a more audacious goal.
“We all said that we’re happy about it and we just moved on,” said Aldridge. “This wasn’t our ultimate goal. It was one of our goals but we’re not satisfied. We’re not going to over-celebrate about it.”
They can let their guard down just a bit with two days off before hosting the Sacramento Kings at the Moda Center.
“Right now I’m not worried about the playoffs; I’m concerned about Sacramento,” said Stotts. “They played Dallas tough tonight. I like accumulating wins, I like improving our playoff seed. It’s not necessarily looking at matchups or anything, but I think it builds confidence when you play well.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 PM.
Greetings podcast enthusiasts. Between CJ McCollum getting an extension and Moe Harkless signing a new deal, Portland’s roster for the start of the 2016-17 regular season is all but finalized. So it seemed like a good time to hit the studio with Joe Freeman of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com to record yet another edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we discuss the near-max extension for McCollum and the four-year, roughly $40 million contract for Harkless, which directions Terry Stotts might go in terms of starting lineups and minutes allocations, the news that both Al-Farouq Aminu and Festus Ezeli will forego playing for Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics, give a quick rundown of the preseason schedule and answer your Twitter-submitted questions.
Last weekend, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and his older brother, Errick, were guests on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss, amongst other things, The Basketball Tournament, which is billed as a “open application, 5-on-5, single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament” in which the winning team takes home $2 million in prize money. Errick’s team, Overseas Elite, won the tournament last year and are in the finals, which airs Tuesday at 4 PM Pacific on ESPN, again this year.
But the tournament wasn’t the only topic of conversation, as any time you get two brothers together, you’re contractually obligated to ask them which is mom’s favorite. One one had, CJ still lives with his mom, so you might assume he’s the got the No. 1 son ranking sewn up, but it sounds like Errick was the much better behaved child and mom’s tend to have long memories, so it sounds like it’s a bit of a tossup.
“CJ, he was a good kid,” said Errick, “he just liked to get into things. He was really physical. She couldn’t take him around any other kids or he would, like, get into little altercations with them because he just played too rough.”
Sounds about right.
On Thursday, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was a guest on The Doug Gottlieb Show on CBS Sports Radio. Over the 15 minute conversation, Stotts discusses LeBron James saying he would have been his pick for 2016 NBA Coach of the Year, Kevin Durant signing as a free agent with the Golden State Warriors, the notion of “super teams” in the NBA, having confidence in your players and his participation in the Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive.
You can listen to the entire interview here, though I’m transcribed a portion which you can read below…
On LeBron James saying Stotts should have been Coach of the Year:
“To be honest, it felt pretty good. I have a lot of respect obviously for LeBron, what he does and what he’s done in his career, but for him to come out and say that, it made me feel good.”
On Cleveland winning the NBA Finals after being down 3-1 to Golden State:
“Obviously it was historical. A lot of things went into it, but when a team can do that and to win two games on the road being down 3-1, it’s really remarkable. It just put an end to a historical season as it was with Golden State and what they did during the regular season, the way they came back against Oklahoma City and then for Cleveland to do that, it was just remarkable. I thought it was a remarkable season to begin with and it finished that way.”
On Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors:
“My first reaction was he earned the right to be a free agent. I know a lot of thought went into it and it wasn’t a decision that he took lightly. I know he took a lot of criticism for making that decision but I think he earned that right to make whatever decision he felt was best for him. I think it’s going to be interesting with Golden State. Obviously defending them is going to be a challenge because — we talked about versatility — they were already an extremely talented offensive team and he’s going to make them better. They’re going to be a different team than they were last year, they’re not going to have the big guys. When you lose Festus Ezeli, who is on our team now, and Andre Bogut and Maurice Speights, the look of their frontline is going to be different. But I think they could be just as good just because of what they’ll be able to do at the offensive end.”
His thoughts on “super teams” in the NBA:
“You know, I don’t know if it’s good or bad for the league. I’ve just kind of accepted that that’s the way things are. I know people have made comparisons when LeBron went to Miami and that was supposedly the first super team and they won two championships, but it’s not like there was a five year, seven year run dynasty. When you get out on the court, you still have to play the games. Obviously Golden State is going to be very good, but you’ve got to play an 82-game season, you’ve got to go through four series to win a championship. I think the league does thrive on star power, whether it’s star power within a team or having a team be a star. I don’t know, I think the league is doing extremely well, I think it’s extremely popular. I think this is just another story that people are going to be interested in.”
On having confidence in shooters like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum:
“I’m a big believer in confidence when shooting. It probably goes back to my freshman year in college when I didn’t know whether to shoot or (laughs) you know the phrase. But anyway, I’m a big believer in confidence and Allen and CJ are two different categories. CJ struggled with injuries his first two years and was trying to get incorporated into a roster that was winning 50 games and never really got into a rhythm. I think shooting is about rhythm and confidence. Same thing for AC, really, is that he did have opportunities to play in his first two years but he was playing behind Wes Matthews and Nic Batum and his opportunities on the court were limited. When you’re looking over your shoulder and trying not to make mistakes and putting pressure on (yourself) to make a shot, it’s difficult. I really give it to CJ and Allen, they were ready for this year and they were prepared for it, the opportunity was going to be there. But I think that a lot of players — and you know, you played — is that if the coach trusts me, I’m going to play better. Whether I trusted them or not their first two years, certainly their opportunity was there and I trusted them with the role that they were going to have.”
On his participation in the Men’s Wearhouse National Suit Drive:
“Every year what I do is I go through the closet and knowing that I’m going to get some suits in the fall, I go through and weed out the older ones. There’s certain ones that I do kind of have a special place in my heart for them, but other than that, I just take some of the older suits and the Men’s Wearhouse has a great program with the suit drive to give away suits to people who can use them. I’m kind of a bigger guy so hopefully there’s some big guys out there who are able to take advantage of them.”