After months of planning, and two weeks of seeding games inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble, it all came down to the Portland Trail Blazers’ matchup with the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night. And after an incredible back-and-forth game, the Blazers clinched a spot in the play-in series with a 134-133 win. Portland will now meet Memphis, and the Grizzlies have to beat the Blazers twice to advance to the first round to take on the Lakers.
The situation was pretty simple. Win, and the Blazers advanced to the play-in, lose, and the Suns would have been in. Damian Lillard, after everything he’s done in the bubble, wasn’t letting the latter happen. He finished with 42 points and 12 assists for his fourth 40-point night in the seeding games.
It was another incredible performance by Lillard, but Caris LeVert nearly broke the Blazers’ hearts. The young Brooklyn guard was stellar in his own right, going for 37 points, six rebounds and nine assists, but his potential game-winner clanged off the back of the rim — saving Portland and ending Phoenix’s season.
Here are some key takeaways from the game:
Blazers win, they’re in
The seeding games actually end on Friday, but Thursday was the last truly meaningful day, as the four teams fighting for two spots in the Western Conference were all in action. Early on, the Phoenix Suns beat the Dallas Mavericks to finish 8-0 in the bubble, but they still needed help. They didn’t get any from the Milwaukee Bucks, as the Memphis Grizzlies cruised past a Giannis Antetokounmpo-less squad to clinch a spot in the play-in series.
With wins by the Suns and Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs were eliminated before they could even take the court, ending their remarkable 22-year playoff streak. And so, heading into the final game of the night, the situation that started out quite complicated early in the day became extremely clear-cut.
It was win or go home for the Blazers, and they got the job done — barely, but they got it done. Even more important than just making the play-in, the Blazers jumped past the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the process. That’s huge, because it means the Blazers have to win just once to clinch the playoff berth, while the Grizzlies will now have to beat them twice in a row.
Dame does it again
They haven’t announced the Kia NBA Player of the Seeding Games — corporate branding on awards is so cool — yet, but there’s no question it’s going to be Damian Lillard. The man was an absolute force of nature over the past few weeks, pretty much willing the Blazers into the play-in by himself.
Thursday night was no different. The Blazers were intent on getting the ball out of his hands, trapping him early in the first quarter when he came off pick-and-rolls, and going so far as to double-team him at midcourt by the fourth quarter. And it just didn’t matter. There were certainly stretches where he went quiet, but when he turned it on there was nothing the Nets could do.
He finished with 42 points and 12 assists, on 13-for-22 from the field, and 8-for-14 from 3-point land, which is an incredible game in any situation, let alone an elimination game where you’re facing constant double teams. Overall, he was responsible for 69 of the Blazers’ 134 points — more than half of them.
On a night like that, there are so many things you can highlight, but nothing was more impressive than his 3-point shooting. He hit some ridiculous shots from the corner, and at one point early in the fourth quarter pulled up with his heels on the NBA logo at midcourt. It was just an unbelievable showing.
Blazers’ dominate second-chance points
Lillard was obviously the main story in this game, as there’s no chance the Blazers even come close to winning without him. However, there were other things going on down in Orlando, and one of the biggest was the Blazers’ dominance in terms of second-chance points.
The Nets entered the bubble missing a number of key players, and one of the biggest challenges for the group that did go down to Orlando was a lack of size; Jarrett Allen was the only healthy player over 6-foot-9. While playing so small was a boost for their offense, it also made them vulnerable on the glass — in particular on the defensive end, where Allen’s penchant for chasing blocks often leaves him out of position for rebounds.
Portland took advantage of that weakness in a major way, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds. More importantly, they converted on those extra opportunities, scoring 29 huge second-chance points, which wasn’t just a season-high, but the most second-chance points they’ve had in a game since 2014. When you allow a team to shoot 55 percent from the field as the Blazers did, you have to find a way to keep pace, and the Blazers did so on the glass.