Faced with arguably their biggest game of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers muscled past the Los Angeles Lakers 106-101, breaking a tie for the sixth seed in the Western Conference, clinching a season-series victory over the defending champions and retaining control of their play-in tournament destiny.
Only the top six seeds in each conference will advance to the first round of the postseason automatically. Teams that finish seventh through tenth place will participate in a single-elimination play-in tournament beginning May 18.
One night after getting blown out by the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center—a game that saw Anthony Davis exit after nine minutes with back spasms—a shorthanded Lakers team suffered its eighth loss in its last 10 games.
Without LeBron James and Dennis Schroder available, L.A. couldn't get enough production from Davis and Alex Caruso to get past Damian Lillard and a Blazers team playing in front of fans at Moda Center for the first time all season.
Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers: 38 points, 7 assists, five three-pointers
C.J. McCollum, SG, Portland Trail Blazers: 21 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds
Anthony Davis, PF, Los Angeles Lakers: 36 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists
Alex Caruso, SG, Los Angeles Lakers: 18 points (season high), 6 rebounds, 2 assists
Lillard Packs House, Delivers Win
Before Damian Lillard fired off two clutch three-pointers to sink the Lakers and help preserve the Blazers season, he fired off a Tweet that brought Portland fans back to the Moda Center.
Upset with the Blazers being one of the few teams that still wasn’t permitting fans back in the arena, Lillard criticized the policy and it wasn’t much longer before the team announced nearly 2,000 fans could attend Friday’s crucial matchup. That turned out to be Lillard’s prelude to another epic night.
The franchise guard notched his fifth straight game with at least 30 points (31st this season) with five three-pointers—including two in the last seven minutes of regulation.
After building—and losing—an early 14-point lead over Los Angeles, the season series came down to the final minutes with Lillard, naturally, taking charge.
The 30-year-old scored or assisted on three of the Blazers' final four field goals, then sank two free throws for good measure, ending any chance of another Los Angeles comeback.
"We needed this tiebreaker," Lillard told the ESPN broadcast after the win. "We know that we got the tiebreaker over Dallas, we have the tiebreaker over the L.A. now. It's going to play a major part in being in the play-in game and who we match up with. This was a huge game for us. We knew that coming in and I thought the Lakers played like they knew that as well."
Portland has three more home games before the end of the regular season. Three more chances for Lillard to give Blazers fans in person what they'd only been able to watch from afar for more than a year.
If he keeps playing like he did on Friday, Lillard will earn a few more games in Oregon and a chance to win his first NBA title.
Lakers' Slide Reaches New Low
This season was always going to be a challenge for Los Angeles.
After fighting through one of the most emotional seasons in recent memory to win the championship, the Lakers were rewarded with the shortest offseason in NBA history made even more difficult by a compressed schedule.
Still, it's jarring to see how far the defending champs have fallen after spending what offseason time they had adding depth to their roster. But not even Marc Gasol, Ben McLemore, Montrezl Harrell, Dennis Schroder or Andre Drummond can make up for what LeBron James adds to the team night in and night out. And while he's out, the Lakers look about as incomplete as they were before he arrived in L.A.
That Davis seemed to find his offensive rhythm in his ninth game back from an Achilles and calf injury may be the lone bright spot on Saturday.
The forward's 36 points, 12 rebounds and five assists were the most he recorded in each category since February 12. Yet on Friday that only equalled Lillard's total. It wasn't enough to overcome it.
Now Los Angeles is squarely in the play-in tournament and no longer in control of its own destiny. It'll need plenty of help to ensure a first round berth. A healthy James taking the floor again would be a start, but that might not be enough at this point.
After running through an unprecedented postseason last Summer, the 2021 playoffs may prove an even bigger challenge for one of the league's marquee franchises—not to mention its biggest star.
Los Angeles returns to Staples Center to host the Phoenix Suns on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on NBATV. The Blazers, meanwhile, continue a three-game homestand, facing the San Antonio Spurs at 10 p.m. ET Saturday followed by the Houston Rockets coming to town Monday for another 10 p.m. ET tilt.