A night to celebrate (sort of) as Blazers win 50, clinch playoffs
There are four regular-season games yet to play and a playoff run that the Trail Blazers hope will be long and successful still ahead.
Even so, Portland's 100-94 victory over New Orleans Sunday night at the Moda Center was meaningful in a couple of ways.
The Blazers (50-28) reached the 50-win plateau for the first time since 2009-10 and clinched their first playoff appearance since 2010-11.
"Fifty wins is something to be proud of," second-year coach Terry Stotts said. "I told the (players), 50 wins has always been a standard, a bar in this league. The Trail Blazers have been such a great franchise. This is only the 12th time (for a 50-win season).
"We're proud of what we've done so far. It's something no one can take away from us. But no one in the locker room is satisfied with that."
That was clear from the comments made by the players following a come-from-behind win over a New Orleans team that is injury-riddled and, though game, had only enough firepower to make it interesting Sunday night.
"We wanted to get 50 wins," said small forward Nicolas Batum, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds. "What this organization has been through the last three years, to get the 50-win mark and get back to the playoffs is good for us.
"But we haven't done anything yet. We've had a good season so far, but we have four more (regular-season) games, and then the real season starts."
Ah yes, the playoffs. With four regular-season games still ahead, Stotts wanted nothing to do with the "P" word as he spoke to the media afterward. The players, though, treated the mere thought of it with respect.
"It's a great feeling," said Batum, who returns home to his native France after each season. "When you watch the playoffs on TV for two years, it's no fun. I was back in France too early. Don't really like it. Glad to get a chance to be in the playoffs and play against the best players in the world."
Guard Wesley Matthews, who scored 21 points with five rebounds, called the return to the playoffs "one of those long-time-coming things."
"I don't know if I understood it as much my first two years in the league," said Matthews, a fifth-year pro who made the playoffs as a rookie with Utah and as a second-year man with Portland. "You're young, you're coming out of college. I was in the NCAA Tournament (with Marquette) four straight years. It was just one of those things I expected to happen.
"To not make the playoffs for the first time two seasons ago, and not do it again last year, it makes you really appreciate it."
The Pelicans (32-44) didn't make it easy. They extended a seven-point halftime lead to 59-50 early in the third quarter before the Blazers seized control, using a 27-6 run to take a 77-65 lead with one minute remaining in the quarter.
"Really poor defensive execution, and our offense kind of led to that," said New Orleans coach Monty Williams, the former Portland assistant. The Blazers "capitalized on our mistakes. We came out in the third quarter and didn't have our best stuff."
The Pelicans didn't die. Guard Austin Rivers -- Doc Rivers' son -- scored five straight points on a 3-point shot and a fast-break layup to draw the visitors to within 96-92 with 1:14 to go.
Portland closed it out, though, on a Damian Lillard driving layup and two free throws down the stretch.
"We had to make sure we made (the playoffs) happen," Matthews said. "That was our energy, our urgency in the second half, and we were able to take care of business."
The feature matchup was at power forward with a pair of All-Stars, Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge and New Orleans' Anthony Davis. Davis -- who has been dealing with back spasms in recent games -- drew first blood with 11 first-quarter points. Davis was a non-factor the rest of the way, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots in 34 minutes.
Aldridge, meanwhile, made only 6 of 16 shots in the first half but wound up having a big night with 25 points, 18 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots. Three of the blocks came in the fourth quarter, including one on a Rivers drive in the final minute with Portland clinging to a 97-92 lead.
"He gave me the 'Euro step,' " Aldridge said with a laugh, "and I was ready for it."
Aldridge said he discarded a scouting tip in defending Davis after the first quarter.
"They said he likes to go left, so I was giving him right," said Aldridge, who finished 11 for 25 from the field. "He made every shot going right, so I stopped doing that."
Stotts has been particularly appreciative of Aldridge's defense all season.
"He's a really good communicator on the floor," Stotts said. "He knows angles on pick-and-rolls, His defense is underrated. He's always locked into the game plan. He knows personnel. he can bother shots and rebound."
It was the fifth win in six games for the Blazers, who remain two games behind No. 4 Houston (51-25) and 1 1/2 games ahead of No. 6 Golden State (48-29) in the tight Western Conference playoff picture.
"Everybody in the organization is excited we were able to clinch a playoff spot, but we still have a lot to play for," said point guard Damian Lillard, who had 20 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals in his 39 minutes. "We want to stay in the fifth playoff spot. We have some important games coming up."
"We want to keep going in the right direction," Stotts said. "I like accumulating wins, I like improving our playoff seed. It builds confidence when you play well.
"We've clinched a playoff spot. The challenge is to maintain that edge. Sustaining that is what I'll be looking for more than anything. The biggest thing going into the playoffs will be valuing every position. The playoffs are more of a mental grind that a physical grind."
NOTES: Portland's next outing is Wednesday at home against Sacramento (27-50). Both Batum and Matthews stressed the need to remain injury-free in the Blazers' final four regular-season games. "We need to stay healthy," Matthews said. "That's the biggest thing in the playoffs. We have to go in with everybody feeling as good as they possibly can." Lillard, on his thoughts regarding what will be his first playoff experience: "I'm excited about it. When it gets closer and I get in the locker room for the first game, that's when it will really hit me." Portland has made the playoffs for the 30th time in the franchise's 44-year existence, tied with Chicago for the fourth-most in the NBA over that span (L.A. Lakers 39, San Antonio 34 and Boston 31 lead). It was Aldridge's 39th double-double, tied for eighth in the NBA, and his 12th game of at least 25 points and 15 rebounds. It was Batum's 15th double-double. Aldridge may have set the NBA record with four offensive rebounds in a 25-second span of the second quarter. He scored on the final carom. Davis had scored 36, 27 and 21 points in the first three meetings with Portland this season.
New Orleans had won five in a row before its current five-game skid. The Pelicans were without their 2-3-4 scorers in forward Ryan Anderson and guards Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday, plus reserve center Jason Smith, all missing due to injury. "It's comparable to if we took Damian, Wes, Nic and Joel Freeland from our team," Stotts said in pregame. "It puts a lot of pressure on everybody. Monty's a terrific coach. He has handled the situation very well. I've been in situations like that, and it's difficult. This league is hard enough when you have your guys. I can empathize with what they're going through." Said Williams: "It's part of the NBA. It's unfortunate we've had it happen to us pretty much three years in a row. But empathy isn't going to get us any more wins. We have to go out there and perform. That's what we've told our players. A week ago, we performed at a high level. We haven't played that way as of late. Do the injuries have something to do with that? Yeah, a lot. But you know the school I'm from. You get a chance to put in a jersey, you have to go out there and show it."
Williams was an assistant coach for five years in Portland, working with Aldridge for the first four years of his NBA career. Asked to compare Aldridge and Davis, Williams said this: "A.D. blocks more shots than L.A. L.A. shoots more jump shots than A.D. They both run the floor well. A.D. probably has a better handle as far as getting to the basket, and finishes around the basket in different ways. LaMarcus has proved it for a number of seasons. A.D. probably has a ways to go before he gets to that level. But they do have some similarities." Williams had Portland center Robin Lopez last season in New Orleans. "He has a lot of shooters around him, so it gives him more space than he had last year," Williams said. "He's probably playing as good as he has ever played in his career. He is rebounding better than he has ever rebounded. Portland seems to fit him. I'm sure he likes the Pearl District and all those things downtown. They probably look at him and think he fits in, too. I'm sure that has a lot to do with how he's playing." Williams, asked before the game what his players were looking to for motivation since the Pelicans are out of the playoff picture: "Win the game. That should always be everybody's motivation."