NBA regular season

Portland blows its chance as Phoenix continues to rise

Naveen Ganglani
Portland blows its chance as Phoenix continues to rise

HEARTBREAKER. Damian Lillard and the Blazers miss the opportunity to secure a playoff spot after a narrow loss to the Suns.

Photo from NBA

As the regular season winds down, the Trail Blazers find themselves locked with the Lakers and Mavericks anew in a race to avoid the play-in

The Portland Trail Blazers blew a monumental opportunity to accelerate their playoff aspirations by collapsing late against the Phoenix Suns in what was an epic showcase of shot-making prowess, superstar-level talent, and playoff-related implications. 

Ahead by one with five seconds left, the goal for Portland was simple: to secure one stop. The reward would have been a nice shiny ticket to the postseason and nearly a week off beforehand to rest.

After trailing for most of the second half, Damian Lillard sparked a late-game rally to once again put his franchise in the driver’s seat on the way to a season-altering victory. The man whose heroics have fittingly been labelled as “Dame Time” finished with 41 points overall, 24 of those coming in the final period. (RIP, Kobe Bryant). 

Impressive? Yes. 

Surprising? Not at all.

But not even the master of pressure, who leads the NBA in clutch points scored this season (162), could save his Trail Blazers from two boneheaded mistakes in the most critical juncture of a competitive showdown between Western Conference elites. 

The stakes were simple: win, and Portland would secure a spot in the top six. That would have meant no play-in. Instead, the Trail Blazers now find themselves locked with both the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers anew in a race to avoid Golden State, Memphis, and San Antonio. 

Chris Paul had 26 points on an impressive 11-of-14 shooting display to lead Phoenix, which the Suns badly needed since DeAndre Ayton (left knee soreness) did not play and Devin Booker shot only 5-of-17 from the field for 18 markers.

But it was Booker who would make two game-winning free throws down the stretch thanks to a clumsy foul by Portland’s trade deadline acquisition, Norman Powell, who committed the crucial mistake of reaching in while Booker leapt for a midrange pull-up and put the game in the hands of the referees and their whistles. 

Immediately after, Portland head coach Terry Stotts used his team’s final time-out to challenge the call, and it was instantly clear that there wouldn’t be enough evidence to overturn the decision. The consequence? No more time-outs for his team, which meant there would be no way to advance the ball and plot a specific play.

In what could potentially be a preview of a late-game moment come the postseason for the rising Suns, Booker calmly converted both charities, leaving the Trail Blazers only 2.4 seconds left to bring the ball down the entire court and get a decent shot attempt.

They did not. 

Here are the repercussions: Dallas (41-29) regains No. 5 while Portland and LA (41-30) are tied for No. 6. The Blazers own the tiebreaker against both but have the toughest schedule remaining with an upcoming contest against MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and Denver at home. 

The Lakers have back-to-back road games against the struggling Pacers and Zion Williamson-less Pelicans to close their campaign, with the expectation that LeBron James and Anthony Davis will return from injuries. 

Dallas has home and away games against Toronto and Minnesota, respectively, both of whom are closer to the draft lottery than competitive basketball at this point of the season.

Chances are Portland will not face a Denver team resting its key players. The Nuggets (46-24) are only a game behind the LA Clippers (47-23) and since they own the tiebreaker, might be incentivized to pursue the No. 3 seed. 

Denver has one game on the road against the putrid Detroit Pistons before facing Dame and company. The Clippers’ schedule looks relatively easy with road contests against lottery squads Houston and Oklahoma City, although this LA team has a reputation for blowing games they’re supposed to win. 

Both of Denver and Los Angeles’ final regular season matchups on Monday take place at the same time, 9 am, which means unless the Nuggets choke against the Pistons, neither will know where they stand until literally the final buzzer of their non-playoff campaigns. 

It’s also interesting to point this out: will the Nuggets and Clippers maneuver to select their first-round opponent? Would Denver prefer to stay at No. 4 and face Dallas? Would the Clippers like to fall to No. 4 and do the same?

Would the Nuggets prefer to elevate to No. 3, send Portland to No. 7, and potentially face the defending champion Lakers at No. 6? Do the Clippers want a battle-of-LA scenario in the first round?

Meanwhile, the Suns (49-21) remain in the hunt for No. 1, being only half a game behind Utah (50-20) while also owning the tiebreaker between the two. 

Phoenix has two remaining road contests in San Antonio but the Spurs (33-37) are already positioned in their play-in spot. Will Pop opt to rest his guys? Utah, which will be without leading scorer Donovan Mitchell until the playoffs, have road games in Oklahoma City and Sacramento, two teams in the lottery. 

It will take at least one slip up from the Jazz and a perfect road trip for the Suns for the two to switch places. 

“Obviously, it would be huge for us to be in that position, but what we’ve done already is extraordinary – what the players have done. Putting up with every day is a task in itself and I’m proud of what we’ve done but we’re certainly not satisfied,” Phoenix head coach Monty Williams told Rappler after the game.

“To be straight, we don’t talk about seeding. Not one time have we talked about what seeding we want or anything like that. We stress playing a certain way, playing in concepts and environments, and tonight it was having the mentality to defensively rebound the ball.”

If one wonders whether or not the Suns are selective about facing either Lillard’s Blazers or LeBron’s Lakers in a 2-7 matchup, Paul has a different view.

“You can run it through every team in the West, you’ve got somebody like that, so you just prepare, you keep playing, making sure you’ve got your right principles and whoever you get matched up with, you’re ready for,” he said.

With Ayton unavailable and Jusuf Nurkic manning the glass for Portland, Williams wanted his team to still battle in the rebounding department. They outrebounded the Blazers, 42-33. 

While Booker was struggling, Phoenix needed someone else to take the reins, so CP did, with help from guys like Mikal Bridges, Torrey Craig, and Cam Payne.

And when they needed a hero, Booker finally stepped up to the plate, with some help from a Powell-ful mistake.

Sometimes, one game can make all the difference in the world – for the playoffs, seeding, and momentum. 

Depending on where Phoenix and Portland eventually finish, this might turn out as one of those games. –