PORTLAND, Ore. — There are no asterisks in the NBA postseason — not for abbreviated seasons, and not for series wins over short-handed teams missing two All-Stars. Coaches and players sound this trope all the time: It’s so hard to win in the NBA. Hard to win a game, hard to win a series, hard to win a title.
So please excuse the Portland Trail Blazers if they see their 106-103 Game 6 closeout win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the Moda Center on Friday night not as a fluke born out of Chris Paul‘s fractured hand or Blake Griffin‘s aggravated quad injury, but as a logical extension of a season-long process. Over the course of six months, a team featuring one of the league’s youngest rosters and sporting a record of 11-20 on Christmas Day, will now be playing May basketball — something last season’s veteran squad didn’t, as it bowed out to Memphis in the first round of the 2015 postseason exactly one year ago to the night.
“Behind closed doors, we felt like we could make the playoffs in September,” guard CJ McCollum said. “We felt like we had enough pieces to get there, but it was going to be a process. We needed to get everybody together. We needed to execute. We were going to take some lumps.”
In many respects, Friday night was a composite of the lump-taking process McCollum spoke of. Playing with house money is a luxury, but as the Trail Blazers discovered on Friday night, there’s a tendency to be a little careless at the table. Portland looked jittery from the outset. Damian Lillard paced the team early against the Clippers’ more relaxed pick-and-roll coverage, but the rest of the Trail Blazers couldn’t find the basket with a lighthouse. If not for their assault on the offensive glass, the Trail Blazers would’ve encountered a steep halftime deficit after shooting 40 percent in the first half, including 4-for-16 from beyond the arc.
At the other end, Austin Rivers — and what was left of his face after a meeting with Al-Farouq Aminu‘s elbow — abused Portland off the dribble. At one point, the Clippers had scored 17 points on nine drives by Rivers. A Trail Blazers defense which was below league average in the regular season, but had avoided giving up big innings here in playoffs, found itself scrambled. They weren’t slow-footed for a lack of effort, so much as wrong-footed for a lack of experience. The result was a halftime lead of only two points.
Even as the Trail Blazers drained seven consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, they still couldn’t shake the Clippers. More Rivers’ vengeance off the bounce, and Jordan reversed the Blazers’ fortunes on the glass. As the game moved into the fourth nip and tuck, the prospect for irony was ripe: The league’s most opportunistic underdogs might squander their ready-made ticket to the conference semis.
Ultimately, Portland became their best selves when they needed to in the fourth. A merry-go-round of multiple offensive actions created a drive-and-dish for Lillard, who found McCollum for a 3-pointer with a little over four minutes remaining. Same thing a couple of minutes later: Movement, drive, kick, three from McCollum to keep Portland a length ahead of the Clippers.
“I was really happy with the way we executed down the stretch,” Lillard said. “We didn’t panic when they put up a fight for us. We did the things necessary to win the game.” The Trail Blazers had little time to reflect on the closeout win before the departure time for their Saturday afternoon flight to San Francisco was scrawled on the whiteboard. Golden State awaits in 36 hours time, and the Warriors without Steph don’t resemble the Clippers’ skeleton crew.
The mood following the game was lively, but like a class that finished one exam and has to trek down the hall to the next final, there was a certain focus, even among the relief. “There wasn’t no champagne popping or anything,” big man Ed Davis said.
While Lillard has the most stage presence, and McCollum might be the most expressive of the core, Davis displays the most unvarnished thoughts in the locker room.
“We have nothing to lose,” Davis said. “We go out and swept, that’s what everyone is expecting so that’s how we have to play it — give it all we got, the whole 48 minutes out there and see what happens. We really have nothing to lose. All of y’all are expecting us to lose and the only people who think we’re going to win it are the 15 on the roster and the coaching staff.”
As the scrum dispersed, Davis pleasantly added, “All of y’all expect us to lose, don’t even lie to me.”
No one present denied the charge. So, after two games against the Clippers in which Portland was cast in the unusual role of presumptive favorite, order has officially been restored.
The Trail Blazers can once again take their rightful place as uninvited guests to the 2016 NBA Playoffs.