The Portland Trail Blazers went into the All-Star Break with a huge win over the Golden State Warriors. Despite this encouraging sign, there was still reason to be concerned after the break. The Blazers have been very inconsistent all season long, and the team has one of the hardest schedules to end the year.
With every game having serious playoff implications at this point, one bad string of games could have Portland on the outside looking in. It’s important for a team to win the games its supposed to, and Portland did just that to start the final stretch.
Portland gets revenge over Utah
Fans of the Blazers were rolling their eyes after the team’s uninspired performance against the Utah Jazz on Feb. 11. Portland lost by 19 at home, and the only player who seemed to have his head in the game was Damian Lillard with 39 points. The Jazz left the All-Star Break riding an 11-game winning streak. Naturally, there was some concern leading into Friday’s match-up in Salt Lake City.
It was obvious that Portland was intent on flipping the script that night. Despite a few ties late in the first quarter, the Jazz did not lead for a second on Friday. The already-improved Blazers’ defense put together one of its best performances of the season, holding the Jazz to one of their lowest point totals of the season in the 100-81 victory.
Lillard and C.J. McCollum went to work, combining for 50 points against the Jazz. Other contributors, like Jusuf Nurkić and Al-Farouq Aminu, added 15 and 12, respectively. Portland won every quarter, and ran Utah off its own home court.
Lillard’s heroics lead Portland comeback in Phoenix
Portland quickly had to move past its win over Utah and travel to Phoenix to play the Suns on Saturday. After a big win, it had to play the second night of a back-to-back against one of the worst teams in the league. It was a prime choice for the Blazers to lay an egg.
Despite some scares, the team managed to pull it out in the end. Phoenix took control in the third quarter, and capitalized on the Blazers’ poor shooting percentages. With 7:26 remaining in the fourth quarter, Phoenix held a 93-78 lead.
Then, Damian Lillard happened.
Over the final seven and a half minutes of play, Lillard scored 15 of his game-high 40 points. He concluded the game with a driving, through traffic, lay-up with 0.9 seconds left on the clock. Phoenix’s heave was off, and Portland won 106-104.
It wasn’t the ideal way Portland would’ve wanted to knock off an 18-win team, but Lillard made history in the process. With 197 points in his last five games, Lillard has scored the most points in a five-game stretch in Trail Blazers’ history. Portland is going to need Lillard to ride his hot streak as long as he can if the team wants to continue rising up in the rankings.
The week ahead
The first full week back from the All-Star Break will be an important one. Portland has a three-game home stretch, with two against teams in the playoff race. After hosting the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, the Blazers play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday, and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.
The Timberwolves, Blazers, and Thunder are currently the fourth, fifth, and seventh seed in the West, respectively. Only two games separate the three. These games are a necessity for Portland for both playoff seeding, and tie-breakers. With a final stretch this close, the tie-breakers could ultimately decide playoff seeding.