After winning 13 straight games, the Portland Trail Blazers were rolling. This was tied for the second longest winning streak in franchise history. The team began the streak at the sixth spot in the Western Conference and the 12th best record in the whole league. Portland went into its Tuesday night showdown with the Houston Rockets as the third seed in the West, and fifth best record overall. The bad news for the Blazers was that the Rockets have held the best record in the league for weeks now. It would be a battle from start to finish.
A heartbreaker at home
Portland hosted the Rockets on national television last Tuesday night in what was arguably the most anticipated match-up of the season for the Blazers. Fans were ready for the team to prove that it belonged in the conversation for title contention. A win against the Rockets would send a message throughout the league.
Things did not end up going the way Portland intended, but a message was sent. The two teams were in a game that was about as back and forth as it can get, with 17 lead changes and 10 ties. Ultimately, a late offensive rebound in the closing seconds led Houston to a 115-111 victory.
James Harden proved yet again why he should be the league MVP this season, dropping an almost-routine 42 points, six rebounds, and seven assists. Chris Paul had a great game of his own, finishing with 22 points on five made three-pointers.
The Blazers’ stars, on the other hand, had games to forget. Damian Lillard scored 20 points, but he did so on 5 of 17 shooting, including 0-7 from deep. Lillard’s struggles almost completely overshadowed C.J. McCollum‘s lack of a presence on the court. The other half of Portland’s top-tier back court didn’t even crack double-digits. He missed all five of his attempts from three, and never made a trip to the free throw line.
It may not have been the outcome that Portland was looking for, but the team did prove something. Even with its two stars playing in some of their worst games of the season, the Blazers still only lost by four to the best team in the league. Of course, Portland received some boosts from unlikely heroes such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, who finished with 22 and 17 points, respectively. Portland’s supporting cast stepped up when it needed to, and the team fell just short of pulling off a major upset. If this version of Portland’s role players show up in the playoffs on a night Lillard and McCollum are hitting their shots, who knows what this team can do?
Another disappointment followed up by redemption
For the second time this season, the Blazers faced a Boston Celtics team that would be without star point guard Kyrie Irving. However, this did not mean a guaranteed victory, as Portland lost off on an Al Horford buzzer beater back in February. Boston is a very good team with or without Irving, and the Blazers prepared for another fight.
While the Blazers had plenty of positives to take away from the loss against Houston on Tuesday, there was a lot more to forget against Boston. Portland went into the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, only to allow the Celtics to score 38 points in the final frame en route to a 105-100 comeback win.
The Blazers have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since the All-Star break. Allowing an onslaught like they did against Boston was unacceptable. It was a game that the Blazers had to have as the team tries to close out its position as the third seed.
The next game for Portland would have further implications on playoff seeding. The Blazers left home to see if it could rediscover some of the last month’s magic on the road. The first stop was against division rival Oklahoma City Thunder, who only trailed the third seed by one game. Portland looked to sweep the Thunder 4-0 in the season series.
The Blazers started this game just how they wanted. Lillard scored 11 points to lead the Blazers to an opening 34-17 lead. It didn’t take the Thunder long to get back, answering with a 35-point quarter of its own to close the gap. They even briefly took the lead, before going into the half trailing by five.
This game turned into one with a playoff atmosphere in the third quarter. A foul from Ed Davis turned into a shoving match between Davis, Evan Turner, Russell Westbrook, and the rookie Terrance Ferguson. Each player involved was assessed a technical foul, so no one ended up ejected.
The final quarter and a half had playoff intensity that starts to come around this time of year. Players were barking at each other, huge baskets were made, and Carmelo Anthony came up short. The corpse of the former All-Star missed all four of his 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter, and was virtually a non-factor on the defensive end. For some reason, the man with six points while missing all of his three-pointers was the one taking the final shot down three. The Blazers escaped Oklahoma City with a win and a wider gap on the three seed.
As of Monday night, Damian Lillard is still awaiting the birth of his son. His girlfriend is now a week late, and he is still on standby, ready to leave the team to be with her for the birth. It seems likely his availability could be affected for Tuesday’s game with Western Conference playoff team New Orleans Pelicans, or the lowly Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. It’s safe to assume that Lillard will have welcomed his son into the world by the time the team returns home on Friday to face the Los Angeles Clippers and faces the Grizzlies again on Sunday.