Big goal for Blazers: homecourt advantage
The final road trip of the NBA regular season approaches for the Trail Blazers, beginning Tuesday night at Dallas, with stops in Houston, San Antonio and Denver.
A look at where Portland stands going into the final week and a half of the regular season ...
• The Blazers (48-29) clinched a playoff berth for the fifth straight year with Sunday's 113-98 win over Memphis at Moda Center.
"It's a good accomplishment," sixth-year Blazer coach Terry Stotts says. Making the playoffs "is one of our goals at the beginning of the season. We still have some more goals to accomplish, but it's something everybody should be proud of."
The next goal is homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and to maintain the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. For the third seed, the magic number for the Blazers is four — a combined four Portland wins or losses by the No. 4 Spurs (45-32).
Portland's magic number for getting homecourt advantage — at least the fourth seed, that is — is two with Utah (44-33) and one with Oklahoma City (45-33). The Jazz won the season series with the Blazers, 2-1; Portland swept OKC, 4-0.
• The Blazers will likely gain homecourt advantage for a first-round series for the first time since 2015, when as No. 4 seed they were upset in five games by No. 5 seed Memphis.
"Two years ago, we were 11 games under .500 at All-Star break, and it was an uphill battle," guard CJ McCollum says. "Last year, we finished eighth and were trying to climb up all year. This year, we're trying to sustain good basketball and keep our seed (at No. 3)."
Clinching a playoff spot with five games left in the regular season "helps our stress level," Damian Lillard says.
"We don't have to go down to the wire to get a playoff spot," the All-Star point guard says. "We're looking to stay sharp and try to finish off winning the division and get homecourt.
"We can give ourselves a pat on the back about it, but there's more work to be done."
• Dallas (23-54) should be a pushover. The NBA recently fined owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for admitting the Mavericks are openly "tanking" the rest of the way.
Houston (62-15) and San Antonio should be formidable foes, although Rockets point guard Chris Paul has missed five of the last six games with a nagging hip injury. Denver (42-35) is still in contention for a playoff berth, so the Nuggets should offer plenty of resistance, too.
"We haven't won a game against Houston this season," Lillard says. "If we win, we can sweep Dallas. Each game has significance. I'm looking forward to all of them. If we get the job done, maybe (the starters) can get some rest to finish up (the regular season)."
• Portland's reserves haven't been very impressive of late.
In Friday's 105-96 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland led 87-66 after three quarters. After Stotts unloaded his bench, the Clippers got close enough that Stotts had to bring his starters back in the final minute. It happened again Sunday. After the Blazers carried a 98-75 edge into the final period, Memphis then went on a 20-5 tear against Portland's subs, trimming the margin to 103-95 with 3:14 left. Stotts had to call in the starters to close things out.
"We've had some games where (reserves) came in and made shots," Lillard says. "Against a team like Memphis, it can be hard. We missed some shots and they pounced pretty hard.
"Maybe our energy and focus slipped up a little bit. You can look at it like, 'We blew a lead again,' or you can give (the Grizzlies) credit for how hard they worked and for continuing to play."
• For sure, Portland's depth has been impacted significantly by the loss of forwards Moe Harkless (knee) and Ed Davis (ankle), probably until the playoffs.
"With those two on the floor, we're a better team," Lillard says. "They play a huge role in what we do and why we've had success. But we have an opportunity to get it done, anyway. We've had guys stepping up constantly, doing what we need them to do."
• Meyers Leonard and Caleb Swanigan were the recipients of the playing time normally afforded to Davis in Sunday's win over Memphis.
Leonard had six points on 3-for-4 shooting to go with five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes.
Swanigan collected four points, four boards and two assists in nine minutes.
"It will be on a game-by-game basis," Stotts says of future playing time. "Caleb will get some minutes. Meyers will get some minutes. Or possibly Zach (Collins) will get some more minutes. With Moe out, one of those guys is going to get an opportunity."
• The Blazers are in a serious slump from 3-point range. Over the last nine games, they are shooting .272 from beyond the arc, firing at 31 percent or lower seven times.
"We're getting great looks," said Lillard, who finished with 27 points, nine assists and no turnovers in 33 minutes against Memphis but was 2 for 8 on 3-point attempts. "I don't think you change anything when you're getting high-quality looks like we've been getting.
"If anything, we should be encouraged. We're still winning games, having good ball movement and rhythm to the game. When this happens, (3-point accuracy) comes back around. Hopefully, when we get in the playoffs, it'll hit again and be right on time."
• The Blazers are indeed still winning games — 17 of the last 20, in fact. That's a serious late-season run.
"We've been playing good basketball since the All-Star break," Stotts says. "Our record reflects that. Our offense since Jan. 1 has been very good. Our defense has come around. We've been consistent. We've closed out games.
"We've been doing a lot of things well, and you like to be playing good basketball going into the playoffs. You don't want to go into the playoffs limping. Having momentum is good. But that doesn't guarantee anything. That lasts only so long in the playoffs."
• Portland ranks seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency, 13th in offensive efficiency. The Blazers are among the top five in the league in scoring defense and opponents' field-goal percentage. That would seem to bode well for them in the playoffs, where the consensus of thought for years has been that defense is at a premium.
Stotts believes the opposite is true.
"Scoring is at a premium in the playoffs," he says. "Scoring is difficult. Defense usually picks up, and team are better-scouted in the playoffs. Teams are able to prepare a defensive game plan more. Scoring is a priority. That being said, we have to do the same things we've been doing at the defensive end in the playoffs."
• The Blazers seem well-positioned for as nice of a playoff run since at least 2014, when they upset Houston in the first round of the playoffs.
"The first half of the season, we weren't how we are now, but we were pretty solid," Lillard says. "We had a lot of good moments. The second half of the season, we've grown into the team that we want to be.
"It's happening at the right time. And the way it's happening, we're well-equipped to have success in the playoffs. We're having good ball movement, good defense. We're getting production from everybody. We're depending on a lot of guys."
NOTES: Memphis was missing two players who played in a loss Friday night at Utah — forward JaMychal Green (knee) and guard MarShon Brooks (ankle). Additionally, forward Chandler Parsons, who missed the Jazz game, sat out Sunday's game for "rest." The Grizzlies already have veteran guard Tyreke Evans sidelined for "personal reasons" — that is, so he doesn't get hurt heading into free agency this summer. Does Memphis interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff get instructions from general manager Chris Wallace about limiting playing time for regulars? "We have conversations about that," Bickerstaff said. "We stay in touch daily. We have conversations about making sure we take care of our guys, and getting other guys opportunities to play. Marc has played a ton of minutes. You look at where we are, it's important to see what we have going forward. Guys like Ivan Rabb and Deyonta Davis need the experience. We put a plan together, and every night we go out and try to execute that plan."
Bickerstaff said the Grizzlies are not tanking. "Our message to our guys is, it's not an excuse to lose," he said. "You still have to go out and try to do the right things to help this team win games. We're not telling guys to go out and blow games. Guys are supposed to compete and attempt to win. If you're sending any other message — that you're playing for ping pong balls (in the draft lottery) — you're sending the wrong message to your guys. They're held accountable. In those fourth quarters, the minutes will be given to guys who compete the hardest and try to help us win games."
One of the Grizzlies' bright lights this season has been rookie swing man Dillon Brooks, who bombed in 28 points against the Blazers to go with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. The second-round draft pick from Oregon, who has started most of the season, is averaging 10.4 points while shooting .438 from the field, .361 from 3-point range and .737 from the foul line. "It's his work ethic, his want and need to get better, to compete," Bickerstaff said. "Every day, he's the first one in the gym. Whatever happened the night before, he's working on that to try to improve it. Whatever he sees in his game as a weakness, he's working on that. I watch how much he studies on his iPad. He eats the right way. He's one of the most mature rookies I've been around."