Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers became only the third team in the Western Conference to clinch a playoff spot. At this point, it seemed almost guaranteed that the team would go into the playoffs with home court advantage in the first round. That turned out to not be the case, as a bad week has sent the team scrambling for the final stretch of the season.
A losing streak at the worst time
Portland started its Texas-road trip in Dallas against the Mavericks. What should’ve been an easy win for the Blazers turned into a disaster. For the second time in two weeks, Portland lost to a team thought to have given up winning for the rest of the season.
A bad shooting night from both of Portland’s stars, to go along with a great all-around performance from Dallas led to Portland’s 115-109 loss. Damian Lillard led Portland in scoring with 29 points, but he did so on only 6 of 20 from the field. He earned most of his points from the line, going 15 of 15. CJ McCollum only scored 16 points, and was unable to sink any of his triples. To make matters worse, Lillard sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter of the loss. At this point in the season, losing a game that seemed to be a guaranteed win could have bad consequences.
Lillard would miss Portland’s next game against the Houston Rockets, and it was not a pretty one. This game seemed over from the get-go with Houston outscoring the Blazers in the first quarter 36-17. Houston led by double-digits for the majority of the game. In fact, the Rockets led by 17 points with less than four minutes to play.
It wasn’t until the final minutes that something finally clicked for Portland. Led by backup shooting guard Pat Connaughton, and seldom-played reserves Wade Baldwin and Jake Layman, Portland ripped off a 17-0 run to tie the game at 94 with six seconds to play. The comeback was foiled by a last-second bucket by Chris Paul. The heart shown by the reserves was a feat in its own. Still, moral victories don’t count in the playoff race.
Saturday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs was arguably the most important. A win would eliminate the Spurs’ chances of overtaking Portland in the playoff rankings. Lillard returned from his one-game absence, hoping his play would give the Blazers the win they desperately needed.
Sadly for Portland, at this time of year, the Spurs become an unstoppable machine. The Spurs always seem to win the games they absolutely need to. Saturday was no different. Portland went into an arena that San Antonio has only lost at eight times all year and put up a fight.
It wasn’t until a veteran of the Spurs’ dynasty, Manu Ginobili, had a quick scoring outburst in the fourth quarter that San Antonio took control of the game. Ginobili has been a big-time player in these moments over the years. It’s appropriate that he was able to do it again at the age of 40. Portland ultimately fell 116-105, and went 0-3 in Texas. This trip put Portland’s chances of retaining home court advantage in jeopardy.
What Portland needs for home court
The simplest way for Portland to clinch home court advantage in the first round is to win. The Blazers close out the season against the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz. A win in either one of these two would clinch it for Portland.
If Portland were to drop Monday’s game in Denver, it would have to rely on the Golden State Warriors to beat Utah on Tuesday to avoid the regular season finale with the Jazz being a battle for home court advantage. If both Portland and Utah win their penultimate games, Wednesday’s match-up will be for the third seed. At that point, Portland could look at potential playoff match-ups to decide whether dropping the final game would be the best option.
The only teams with a chance to take home court away from Portland is San Antonio and Utah. Either Portland owns the tiebreaker, or cannot be caught by the remaining teams. The most important thing for Portland to do is to win Monday’s match-up at Denver. This would take a lot of pressure off the team, and allow them to strategize playoff seeding. It’s been an incredible regular season for Portland, and the team is ready to show what it has in the playoffs.