Damian Lillard's 42 Help Blazers Clinch No. 8 Seed, Set Up Play-in vs. Grizzlies

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2020

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, left, works the floor against Brooklyn Nets' Caris LeVert during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers are going to the playoffs.

Well, to the play-in series, at least.

Portland clinched the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and eliminated the Phoenix Suns with a dramatic 134-133 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in Thursday's seeding game at Walt Disney World Resort. Damian Lillard led the way with some key help from CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, and their team will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in series starting Saturday as a result.

Caris LeVert had a chance to win it at the buzzer, but his step-back jumper rimmed out.

The Trail Blazers overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half and worked their way up the standings by going 6-2 in the bubble, while the Nets will be the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference after going 5-3.

         

Notable Player Stats

  • Damian Lillard, G, POR: 42 PTS, 12 AST, 13-of-22 FG, 8-of-14 3PT
  • CJ McCollum, G, POR: 25 PTS, 7 AST, 3 STL, 9-of-21 FG, 0-of-6 3PT
  • Jusuf Nurkic, C, POR: 22 PTS, 10 REB, 11-of-17 FG
  • Caris LeVert, G, BKN: 37 PTS, 9 AST, 6 REB, 16-of-29 FG
  • Jarrett Allen, C, BKN: 14 PTS, 11 REB, 4 AST, 3 BLK, 5-of-8 FG
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Dame, CJ Rescue Trail Blazers' Season and Bail Out Defense

Lillard has always been one of the league's most exciting players, but he has been appointment viewing since the season's restart.

The five-time All-Star scored more than 20 points in each game and dropped 45 against Denver, 51 against Philadelphia and 61 against Dallas. Those points were critical against the Mavericks considering McCollum, who is playing with a fractured back, was 2-of-14 from the field.

McCollum wasted no time bouncing back with the season on the line Thursday with 12 points in the first quarter alone even though his three-pointer wasn't falling. It was an encouraging development for Portland, especially when he willingly attacked openings on the inside.

He helped the Trail Blazers build a six-point lead by halftime, and it seemed as if Portland would gradually pull away. Instead, the Nets torched the Trail Blazers defense that ranked 21st of 22 teams in Walt Disney World Resort entering Thursday, per NBA.com, and exploded for 37 points in the third while building a double-digit lead.

Portland couldn't stay in front of LeVert, Brooklyn was draining open threes, Tyler Johnson was finding his way into the lane and the season was on the brink.

It put all the pressure on Dame Time in the fourth, especially when the Nets consistently met him just inside half court with two defenders like he was Stephen Curry at Davidson. All Lillard did was pull up from the logo on one possession, slice through them on multiple occasions, whip skip passes around for open looks and put the team on his back.

It was a brilliant performance, and the Trail Blazers needed every last point because their defense was a wreck for much of the game.

          

Caris LeVert Looks Ready for Offensive Responsibility

No Kevin Durant. No Kyrie Irving. No Spencer Dinwiddie. No DeAndre Jordan. No Wilson Chandler. No Taurean Prince.

This Nets team was supposed to go through the motions in the bubble and lose without putting up much a fight. The Nets just don't have the talent on paper to compete against the league's top teams.

LeVert missed the memo.

LeVert scored more than 20 points in three of his four previous games entering play, including a 34-point showing against the Washington Wizards, and consistently torched Portland's vulnerable defense. Rather than settle for contested jump shots, he attacked the lane and facilitated whenever doubles came.

The offense ran through him during a spurt in the third quarter to take the lead, and his ability to finish at the rim and serve as a willing passer made him all the more difficult to stop for the Trail Blazers. He made his mark even though he missed that last shot.

Brooklyn was just 1-3 against Toronto this season, but LeVert was its leading scorer in the sole win.

He will have to be that and more against the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs if the Nets are going to stun the defending champions.

          

What's Next?

Portland will face Memphis on Saturday. If the Trail Blazers win, they will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. If the Grizzlies win, there will be a winner-take-all game Sunday for the right to play the Lakers. 

The Nets will face the defending champion Raptors in the first round of the playoffs starting Monday.