Lake Buena Vista, Florida: A fourth consecutive down-to-the-wire finish, a fourth consecutive win for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They needed all that just to get into the playoffs.
Damian Lillard scored 31 points, CJ McCollum had 14 of his 29 in the fourth quarter — including a pair of big jumpers over Ja Morant late — and the Blazers clinched the NBA’s final playoff spot by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 on Saturday.
Portland’s reward: a matchup with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, starting Tuesday. Jusuf Nurkic had 22 points and 21 rebounds for the winners, who got 21 points from Carmelo Anthony.
“What we’ve done in these two weeks is really special,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys because we were up against it every game, nine straight games where our season was basically in the balance. … They found a way.”
Morant scored 35 for Memphis, which got a 22-point, 16-rebound day from Jonas Valanciunas and 20 points apiece from Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke.
It was the start, and the end, of the Western Conference play-in series — a wrinkle the NBA added to the restarted season because the coronavirus pandemic meant no team would play its allotted 82 games. Portland finished eighth in the West, Memphis was ninth, and the Grizzlies needed to sweep a two-game matchup to advance.
Stuck together. Dug deep.
Western Conference Play-In Highlights presented by @McDonalds pic.twitter.com/7ut9eNCrsz
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) August 15, 2020
They had a chance, up eight in the final quarter, before Portland did what Portland have done in the bubble — pull games out at the end. The Blazers’ last four wins have come by a combined 11 points.
So they go on, and Memphis goes home — knowing its potential is very real.
“I’m going to be able to sleep and live well during the summer, despite a tough loss, knowing that we put in so much work and we were that close to getting into the playoffs,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. “These guys, the first words they said when we got in the locker room was, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do.'”
Nurkic, playing with a heavy heart because of his grandmother’s death, grabbed an offensive rebound and wound up converting a three-point play with 2:39 left to put Portland on top for good.
McCollum — playing with a fracture in his back — connected on a 3-pointer and another long jumper late, both times guarded by Morant, to ensure Portland kept the lead, and Anthony’s 3-pointer with 20.2 seconds left was the last big shot the Blazers needed.
Nurkic revealed on Instagram about 90 minutes before the game that his grandmother, back in his native Bosnia, had died. His post did not disclose the cause of death, but Nurkic said last month that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and briefly slipped into a coma in recent days.
The @trailblazers win the Western Conference Play-In and advance to the NBA Playoffs! #WholeNewGame
They’ll face LAL in Round 1, starting Tuesday.
Damian Lillard: 31 PTS, 10 AST
CJ McCollum: 29 PTS (14 in 4Q)
Jusuf Nurkic: 22 PTS, 21 REB, 6 AST
Ja Morant: 35 PTS, 8 AST pic.twitter.com/o4cZgvcXri
— NBA (@NBA) August 15, 2020
“She would have wanted me to play,” Nurkic said after the game.
Memphis led 94-89 going into the fourth quarter, the last three points in that five-point margin coming on a brilliant recovery by Morant.
The soon-to-be Rookie of the Year attacked the rim, his drive thwarted by the outstretched arms of Blazers 7-footer Hassan Whiteside. Morant, undeterred, simply ran down the loose ball and tapped it out to the right corner where Clarke connected on a 3-pointer.
The Grizzlies’ lead was eight with 9:55 left. And even though they held Lillard — picked earlier Saturday as the bubble MVP — without a field goal in the fourth, they couldn’t force their way into Sunday.
“We are right there … time to get ready for next season,” Morant said.