LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Ninety-one seconds into the fourth quarter of a game that would decide the Portland Trail Blazers’ fate, Damian Lillard took one step over half court and launched a 3-pointer that felt as though it traveled halfway to Oregon.
Like so many of Lillard’s other remarkable plays over the past two weeks, the ball dropped softly through the hoop. In response, the Brooklyn Nets called timeout. And while the Blazers still trailed by four at that point, it felt inevitable that Lillard — the undisputed MVP of this NBA bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort — would find a way to save Portland one more time.
In the end, he did just that, finishing with 42 points — including 12 in the fourth quarter — to lift Portland to a heart-stopping 134-133 victory over the Nets, and with it earning the Blazers the eighth seed in the Western Conference and a spot this weekend in the NBA’s first play-in tournament.
“I just didn’t want to be too passive,” Lillard said afterward. “So, as I was bringing the ball up, I said, ‘As soon as I see an opportunity, I’m gonna raise up.'”
It was a preposterous shot — just like many others Lillard has thrown in over the past two weeks in leading Portland to a 6-2 record, allowing the Blazers to finish a half-game ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, their opponent in the play-in round this weekend, and the Phoenix Suns. And Portland has needed every single one of them, as Lillard scored 51 points to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 61 points to beat the Dallas Mavericks and now 42 points to beat the Nets — games the Blazers won by a combined seven points.
“We needed every one of [those points],” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said with a smile.
He wasn’t kidding, as Lillard became the first player in NBA history to score at least 40 points in three consecutive games his team won by three or fewer points, according to Elias Sports Bureau data.
But when Stotts met with his team after Thursday night’s game, it wasn’t Lillard’s 3 from half court that he showed the team, nor was it Gary Trent Jr.’s big corner 3-pointer with over two minutes to play that gave Portland the lead or Jusuf Nurkic’s layup or CJ McCollum’s key midrange jumper that followed it.
Instead, he showed the team a pair of plays: Lillard diving on the floor at half court for a loose ball, and Nurkic doing the same on the baseline to secure a defensive rebound.
“Those are the things we have to do to win games,” Stotts said. “Those plays, those two plays, made a difference.”
As a result, Portland has found its way into the league’s inaugural play-in tournament, where, as the eighth seed, the Blazers have to win just one of the two potential play-in games (Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on ABC and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) in order to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, have to win both games to make the postseason.
While the two teams in the hunt for play-in berths that won earlier Thursday — the Grizzlies and Suns — scored victories against depleted Milwaukee Bucks and Mavericks teams, respectively, that were preparing for the playoffs, the Blazers got a full effort from the Nets.
Brooklyn will play the Toronto Raptors beginning Tuesday in the first round of the playoffs, but after the Nets have had guys in and out of the lineup over the past several weeks, they chose to play their full rotation its typical allotment of minutes in order to get ready.
“We’ll have our starting lineup that we’ve had the last couple games and see how those guys progress,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game. “We’ll monitor those guys — but it’s about us having a rhythm and kind of progression as we lead into the playoffs.
“So we’ll assess the game, see what the game renders, but those guys have the mental makeup right now that they’re playing a competitive basketball game.”
The Nets kept that focus throughout, as Caris LeVert (37 points on 16-for-29 shooting with 9 assists) led Brooklyn to a 10-point lead late in the third quarter. The Nets as a team shot a scorching 59.7% from the field through three quarters against Portland’s flammable defense, which entered Thursday’s game ranked 21st in defensive efficiency.
But Portland, as it did against both Philadelphia and Dallas, fought back and took the lead with 1 minute, 45 seconds remaining on a layup by Nurkic that made it 132-130 Blazers, and McCollum doubled the lead with a free throw line jumper with 53.4 seconds left following a frantic sequence in which Nurkic and Lillard both dove on those loose balls.
The Blazers gave up a multitude of offensive rebounds in the fourth, however, and it appeared that would come back to cost Portland dearly when LeVert scored over Nurkic, plus drew a foul, with 37.7 seconds left, cutting Portland’s lead to 134-133.
Portland had a chance to seal the game when Carmelo Anthony had a wide-open look in the corner that would have pushed the lead back to four, but Anthony missed. Brooklyn then came down and chose to play for the win, with LeVert isolated against McCollum — whom he had relentlessly attacked in the fourth quarter.
But though LeVert got off a quality shot, it went wanting, and Portland was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
“As far as the shot, I just try to read the defense,” LeVert said. “I feel like they playing the drive, I got to watch it again, but these are all shots I practice each and every day so I’ll live with that shot.”
None of that will matter, though, to Portland. Instead, the focus for the Blazers will be only to try to rest and recuperate for Saturday’s game against Memphis — and, potentially, the matchup with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers waiting after it.
If anyone thinks Portland is celebrating its accomplishment of reaching the play-in round, think again. The Blazers have bigger things in mind.
“I would say that we were happy [and] relieved. We’re excited to be in the play-in round. [But] it’s not like we were jumping up and down,” Stotts said.
“We are where we wanted to be. I don’t think anybody is over the moon right now. We know that we got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no real time to celebrate.”
Rather than celebrating, Lillard had something else in mind: a postgame ice bath to begin preparing his body for Saturday’s showdown with the Grizzlies. But he said his mind was already raring to go.
“I’ll always be ready mentally,” Lillard said. “I’m never concerned about that.”
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