The Portland Trail Blazers booked an NBA playoff showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers with a scintillating 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday in a Western Conference play-in game.
In the league’s first play-in game to determine a post-season berth since 1956, Damian Lillard scored 31 points and Bosnian big man Jusuf Nurkic delivered 22 points and 21 rebounds as Portland rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Lillard once again played a key role in Portland’s fourth straight win in the NBA’s quarantine bubble at Orlando, Florida, where a league champion is set to be crowned after a season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lillard’s offensive excellence – he scored 51 points, 61 and 42 in three must-win games – propelled the Trail Blazers to the play-in. On Saturday, he had plenty of help.
CJ McCollum, playing with a non-displaced fracture in his lower spine, scored 14 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and Carmelo Anthony scored 21 as the Blazers withstood a career-best 35-point performance from the Grizzlies’ rookie of the year frontrunner, Ja Morant.
The first half was an old-school battle of big men with Nurkic scoring 15 points and pulling down 17 rebounds as the Trail Blazers took a 58-52 lead at the break.
Nurkic’s aggressive performance came less than two hours after the Bosnian revealed on social media that his grandmother had died from COVID-19.
He had told reporters she was battling the deadly virus shortly after the NBA season resumed in Orlando in July, but opted not to leave the bubble.
“People don’t understand how serious this … is,” Nurkic said at the time, and his teammates empathized with his loss and the frustration of being away from family at such a crucial time.
“I can’t even fathom what he’s going through,” McCollum said. “It’s something you never get over, you just try to get through it. We’re just trying to support him and understanding that this is a very difficult time for him and his family.”
Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas was also a force, scoring 14 of his 22 points in the second quarter as Memphis erased a 16-point deficit, briefly taking a narrow lead before finishing the half down by six.
Memphis, with 10 points from Morant and 14 from reserve Brandon Clarke, outscored the Blazers 42-31 in the third quarter to seize a five-point lead, and led by eight with 9:55 left to play.
McCollum’s three-pointer knotted the score at 111-111 with 3:08 remaining and Nurkic followed with a put-back basket and free throw to give Portland a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
‘Capable of anything’
“I was thinking ‘I don’t want to play again tomorrow.’ We had to get this done tonight,” said McCollum, who made a three-pointer and a pull up jump shot to stretch Portland’s lead to 119-113 with 1:21 to play.
As the eighth seeds, Portland needed only one win against the Grizzlies to secure their playoff spot, while Memphis needed to win two games to seize the final berth.
“We had to get this done tonight,” McCollum said. “(We) made sure we came out and finished them off. We’re thankful that we were put in position to make the playoffs and we didn’t want to squander the opportunity.”
With the determined Grizzlies battling to the wire, Anthony drained a three-pointer with 21 seconds remaining that effectively sealed it for the Blazers.
After a fourth-straight fight to the finish, Lillard said he had no concern that the Blazers wouldn’t be ready to take on LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs come Tuesday.
“The reason we fought so hard to get in the playoffs is because we feel like we’re capable of doing anything,” he said.
“We can beat anybody, so now we’ve just got to get rested and get ready for the next thing.
“Our work is just beginning.”