With four seeding games down and four to go, Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts found some commonality Thursday night among the six teams vying for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference.
“We’re all playing the same way,” he said after Damian Lillard poured in 45 points to lead Portland’s 125-115 win over the Denver Nuggets. “We’re all playing with [the idea] that there’s only one spot for us, and we have to play that way.”
Stotts admitted “the math is a little easier” now that all six teams fighting for the final playoff spot in the West have reached the halfway point in the seeding games that could determine a potential play-in scenario between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. But what’s transpired in the four seeding games for each of these teams indicates a difficult, yet entertaining road ahead, especially for the three teams (Memphis, New Orleans and Sacramento) coming out of those first four outings with losing records.
Blazers, Suns make haste
When the NBA restart began at Walt Disney World, Memphis held the No. 8 spot, followed by (in order) Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio and Phoenix.
The surprising Suns remain the only undefeated squad during the restart among the contenders for eighth, after capturing a 114-99 win Thursday against the Indiana Pacers. That victory was fueled by another strong performance from Devin Booker (20 points and 10 assists), who is averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists during the restart.
Booker continues to receive plenty of timely contributions from Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson, too.
“We’ve come in with the right approach every day,” Booker said. “Coach [Monty Williams] always says the word ‘approach’, and since Day 1 that we got here, [in] the practices we’ve been going hard and the few games that we’ve played we’ve stuck together and came out with some big wins.”
Phoenix sits at 10th in the conference standings, but just two games behind the Grizzlies for eighth and 1 1/2 behind Portland for ninth.
“We’re humans, right?” Williams said. “We look at that stuff. But it’s not always the primary focus. Everybody has a goal of making the playoffs, but there’s stuff we’re gonna have to do to get there. So, we just try to dial in on those things. If we take care of those things, we may have a chance. That’s our mentality. We’re grateful to be here.
"We’re humble about the opportunity, and yet, we attack it. These guys want it. I don’t have to wind anybody up. This is our DNA. This is who we are. We play hard every night. We compete every night. We defend. We share the ball. That’s the identity, and we don’t want that to change.”
Grizzlies not giving up hope
The injury-riddled Grizzlies, meanwhile, lost each of their first four seeding games, including the first three to teams chasing them for the final playoff spot in the West. Memphis’ situation only worsened Monday in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, with Jaren Jackson Jr. suffering a torn left meniscus that will put him out for the rest of the season.
The defeat to Utah on Wednesday gave the Grizzlies their fifth in a row, and they’ve dropped 11 of their last 15 outings going back to February.
The Grizzlies have allowed opponents to shoot 41% from deep in their first four seeding games. Still, they’re clinging to that eighth spot, barely, despite entering the NBA bubble with some cushion.
“The media [is] gonna [say], ‘Well, they had this lead. Now, they have this lead and somebody’s coming to take it,’ ” Grizzlies guard Ja Morant said. “We can’t pay attention to that. All that will lead to is us trying to put pressure on ourselves, which we don’t have to. We’re learning from everything we’re going through right now, still have four games to play. We’re just gonna attack those four games.”
Portland pulled to within a half game of the Grizzlies by downing the Nuggets, but San Antonio and Phoenix lurk close behind Memphis in the standings.
“I would’ve hoped that we played better, and we didn’t get hurt,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It’s all magnified in a four-game stretch where, yes, we’re 0-4, and haven’t gotten a win. It hasn’t shaken our way. But our guys are still getting better. We’re learning a lot from game to game. I don’t have to constantly be on them about, ‘Keep your spirits up.’
"We obviously miss J.J. ... But these guys, they keep fighting. We’ve had chances in four straight games. That’s a credit to these guys that are unified no matter what our depth chart is.”
They’ll need more moving forward, as the fight only intensifies for Memphis on Friday, when it faces Oklahoma City (4 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
Pelicans, Kings, Spurs face uphill climb
New Orleans entered the NBA’s restart as one of the favorites to squeeze into the eighth spot behind rookie sensation Zion Williamson and veteran guard Jrue Holiday. However, the Pelicans have stumbled to 1-3 in their first four seeding games, and are 3-6 since March, surrendering 120 points or more in five of those six defeats.
Williamson dropped 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting in 22 minutes in Thursday’s loss to Sacramento, which finally won its first game of restart. Interestingly, New Orleans is 0-5 this season when Williamson plays fewer than 25 minutes. But Williamson isn’t sure if or when the team plans to increase his minutes.
“I can’t really answer that question right now,” he said. “I have to go talk to the coaches, go talk to the staff and see where everybody’s head is at.”
The issue for New Orleans is it wants to take a long-term approach with managing Williamson’s minutes, after he missed time due to leaving the NBA bubble to tend to a family matter. Pelicans vice president David Griffin has made it clear the team won’t sacrifice Williamson’s long-term health in this fight to make the postseason for the first time since 2018.
The Pelicans gave up 49 points in the first quarter during Thursday’s loss to the Kings.
“No, we don’t have a margin for error,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who stood with his arms crossed for the entirety of his nearly six-minute postgame interview on Zoom. “I don’t think it’s that we don’t care. I think our guys really care. They understand the sense of urgency we’re in right now. Nothing is gonna be easy down here.”
As for the Spurs, despite winning two of their first four games of the restart missing three starters in LaMarcus Aldridge, Bryn Forbes and Trey Lyles, while fielding a starting lineup featuring DeMar DeRozan at power forward, it appears they face long odds to advance to the postseason for what would be an NBA record 23rd-consecutive season.
Given its lineup limitations and relative youth, San Antonio entered the restart looking to develop its youth for the future. The Spurs are 14-23 against teams with records better than .500 after falling Wednesday to Denver. But third-year guard Derrick White has scored 20 points or more in three of the team’s first four seeding games, while other youngsters such as Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray continue to gain valuable experience.
“This whole approach is all about them,” veteran guard Patty Mills said. “It’s for them to be able to play meaningful games, develop the way that we believe they can grow into and the potential they have. So, look, two losses in the row, obviously is the result, but I think we’re playing good basketball. The style we’re playing is good and guys are getting better. For me it’s big picture. It’s not great to say after a loss because you always want to win.
"But when you understand where we were, where we’re going and the process that we’re taking and where we’re trying to be. And this group is being put together to be able to go out there and get the job done with what we have. It’s a process and everyone understands that process. ”
As for Trail Blazers, Stotts quickly pointed out the reality that “there are so many teams that are right in the thick of things that nobody is even close to a magic number” in terms of how many wins it will take to ultimately secure a postseason berth.
The six teams in contention in the West receive four more opportunities in the coming days to make their case.
That’s what Lillard wanted all along.
Lillard told Yahoo's Chris Haynes back in May that he didn’t want to play if his team wouldn’t receive at least a chance to advance to the postseason once the NBA resumed the season. Now with a fully healthy roster at the ready with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the fold, it appears Portland’s chances are as good as anybody’s.
“I’m always optimistic, and always see the best in situations, especially a situation like this,” Lillard said. “It was also why I said what I said months ago when I said that if we don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot, I don’t want to play. Because I knew that if we did have a chance to play for a playoff spot, it would look something like it looks right now, because we are a more healthy team, we’re more rested.
"I knew that once we got here, we would be one of the teams that would take advantage of it, and so far, we are.”
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