“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.