The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets were tied for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference before Tuesday night’s action. The Blazers 122-113 win gives Portland a one game lead with 8 games remaining. The win also secured them the tiebreaker over Denver if they were to end the season in a tie. The 8th seed is now Portland’s to lose.
This was the biggest game of the year for the Blazers. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic came up huge at the best time. McCollum, later referred to as “buckets” by Nurkic during a post-game interview, scored 39 points off 15/24 shooting. Nurkic had a career high 33 points and added 16 rebounds. Nurkic was a little extra motivated playing his old team. He outplayed the man that who Denver chose over him as their future center, Nikola Jokic. Jokic had a nice game with 17 points, 8 rebound and 8 assists. He took six 3-point shots for some reason (he made one), but all around it was a nice game. It wasn’t the type of night Nurkic had. He was full of energy Tuesday night. He was even spotted on the bench yelling in excitement during plays. He has thoroughly enjoyed his time here in Portland and the fans have totally embraced the young center. “Nurk fever” continues to spread throughout the city.
It was a 2-1 lead before Tuesday and a Nuggets win would have tied the season series in which the tiebreaker would then go to best division record. The Blazers currently hold the better division record as well. Denver would have had to win their last 3 division games while the Blazers dropped their remaining 5 to give them a division record tie. In that scenario, the Nuggets would finished with a better record and would need the tiebreaker, but all of that is irrelevant as the Blazers took care of business with their victory Tuesday night.
The Blazers now control their own fate with home court advantage down the stretch. Portland plays 6 of their remaining 8 games at home. Denver has 6 games on road during that same span, 3 of which being against playoff teams. Denver has a tougher road ahead by far. Now with the recent loss, they’ll also be playing catch up. Essentially they will be playing from 2 games back knowing that a season tie would give Portland the 8th seed.
There have been advocates for Portland to tank, just as well as there have been those fans who had hoped Portland would make the playoffs. I was one of those that thought for a moment that Portland should tank. The Blazers sat just a few games ahead of the worst teams in the West. If done right, and as grusome as it would have been to watch, Portland could have put themselves in the top-5 in the draft. They weren’t playing great ball. They didn’t look like a team that could win any time soon.
Then after the all-star break, something started to finally click with the Blazers and their newly acquired center Jusuf Nurkic. They have been one of the hottest teams this past month (12-3 during the month of March). They’re playing some great basketball as of late.
No one wants to face Golden State or San Antonio, and the Blazers are likely headed for a first round exit having to play either of those two (SA is 2 games back of GSW for first place). The Blazers have a very young roster still and any playoff experience is good experience. Right now with the momentum that they are putting together, they could surprise Golden State or San Antonio. The odds are against them to win a series, but I wouldn’t be so quick to count them out.
I look at the way the Phoenix Suns celebrated Devin Booker’s 70 point game this past week and that is exactly the losing environment that you don’t want to see in Portland. You think Damian Lillard would have let his team celebrate a 70 point performance in a loss? Absolutely not. It was a great performance and props to Booker, he was on fire. The kid couldn’t miss. But when your team can celebrate a loss as well as they did, there’s something wrong with their mentality to win games.
Portland, by making a run for the playoffs, is maintaining a winning mentality. This is the winning environment that you want your team to build upon. They’re showing that they’re here to fight until the end. Tuesday’s win over Denver assured that their season won’t come to an end as soon as some had thought at the all-star break.