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  • 17 Dec 2014

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Blazers playing for future now

Nothing is official, but make no mistake about it. The Trail Blazers are playing out the string now on a season that has run its course.

Wednesday night’s 94-76 loss to Memphis to open a five-game homestand was the sixth in a row for Portland (33-42), which has no gimmes remaining and might lose the seven remaining games on its schedule.

Six of the opponents are playoff teams, and the seventh — Dallas — is 2 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Blazers haven’t been mathematically eliminated from the postseason yet, but that could come as soon as Friday. It’s a foregone conclusion, one the players have grown to accept with resignation.

That doesn’t mean effort will be lacking from here on out.

“We need to come out and play hard,” said guard Wesley Matthews, a warrior who can be counted upon to do just that the rest of the way. “We’re not playing for a playoff spot now, but ... I expect everybody to sell out.

"It’s a blessing that we get to play this game every day. I don’t want (teammates) to take it for granted. We only have two weeks left. It has to be a great two weeks. We have to leave it all out there. We’re going to have a long enough summer to think about it.”

Portland was without starting forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, who sat out his fourth straight game with a sprained ankle, and Nicolas Batum, who aggravated a shoulder injury in Monday’s loss at Utah. That made it tough against a Memphis team that is battling for homecourt advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

“We haven’t used excuses all season, so I’m not going to start now,” said JJ Hickson, who scored 17 points and nine rebounds and battled Memphis’ all-star power forward, Zach Randolph, to a statistical standstill. “We had guys out, but (the Grizzlies) made plays on defense, and we struggled in a little bit on both ends of the floor.”

What’s left for the Blazers?

“We have to play for each other,” Hickson said. “You sit in the locker room and look at the guys next to you.... that’s what it’s all about. Playing for us and not giving in, to have some momentum for next year.”

The irony of the last sentence is that Hickson — who becomes a free agent on July 1 and should command strong interest on the market — is unlikely to be back with Portland next season.

More likely to return are the Blazers’ five rookies, all of whom saw considerable playing time in Wednesday’s wire-to-wire rout.

Damian Lillard, Meyers Leonard and Victor Claver were in the opening lineup, the first time Portland has had three rookies among the starting five since Batum, Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden started in a January 2009 contest.

Oden, ironically, sat in courtside seats with a significant other Wednesday night. “Just visiting,” said Oden, who declined media interview requests but was probably on hand primarily to watch former Ohio State teammate Mike Conley in action.

Oden, a free agent rehabbing from his most recent knee surgery, watched his old pal score a game-high 20 points and dish out five assists with one turnover for the Grizzlies (51-24), who are tied with Denver for third place in the conference.

“You hate to lose at home, but we played hard,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Memphis is a top seed in the West and you have to give (the Grizzlies) credit. They’re a better team than we are.”

It’s hard to win when you allow a team to shoot .611 in a half, as Memphis did in mounting a 57-46 lead at intermission. It’s hard to win when you have 19 turnovers, as the Blazers did, and make 1 of 18 3-point attempts in the second half, as the local quintet did, too.

With their playoff hopes all but extinguished, the Blazers are playing for next season now. That doesn’t mean they won’t try to win the remaining games this season. But rookies Leonard, Claver, Joel Freeland and Will Barton will get more time the rest of the way.

“I want to be competitive,” coach Terry Stotts said before the game. “They will get more of a learning experience. What I’m looking for is how we play, and if we’re doing things the way we want. It’s a good teaching environment. We want to make the most of these last eight games.”

Now it’s down to seven. And despite no postseason for the second straight year, Matthews wants his team to go out fighting.

“Regardless of who’s playing, you have to have the mentality you’re going to win,” he said. “We have the best job in the world. Thousands of people come every single night to watch us play. We have an opportunity to provide for our families. We’ve been training for this our whole lives.

“You have to play with your heart. This doesn’t change anything.”

NOTES — Lillard scored 17 points and had five assists, but was only 8 for 19 from the field — 1 for 6 from 3-point range — and had five turnovers in 41 minutes. ... Aldridge is expected to practice and should be available for Friday’s home date with Houston. Batum could be out a more extended period. ... Asked to compare this season with last season, when the Blazers finished 28-38, Matthews replied, “They both suck. We’re not in the playoffs, so they both suck.” ... former Blazer Randolph said he was impressed with both of Portland’s first-round draft picks, Lillard and Leonard, who finished with 10 points and seven boards in 28 minutes. “You know who he remind me of? My boy Joe — Joel Pryzbilla,” Randolph said, comparing the 7-1 rookie to the former Blazer center. “Just a little bit.” On Lillard: “I told the young fella, ‘Man, keep working, you’re going to be an all-star next year. You got a great future.”

Hickson was one rebound shy of his 41st double-double of the season. ... Portland scored only 30 second-half points. The Blazers cut what was once an 18-point deficit to 63-56 midway through the third quarter. The Grizzlies went on a 9-0 run and Portland never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way. ... Portland reserve Eric Maynor scored only two points but finished with 10 assists in 31 minutes. ... Memphis reserve Jerryd Bayless, another ex-Blazer, handed out seven assists in 28 minutes but was 0 for 8 from the field.