USA Today Sports’ Mark Medina breaks down how the Lakers view a potential playoff series against the Blazers.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The shot by Caris LeVert bricked off the back of the rim. For the first time all night, the Portland Trail Blazers could finally exhale.
The Trail Blazers escaped with a 134-133 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. They (at least temporarily) secured the Western Conference’s eighth seed, ensuring an appearance in the league’s play-in tournament against the ninth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies beginning Saturday.
Not only could Portland (35-39) exhale in relief after the Nets guard missed a 22-foot jumper with .3 seconds remaining. They could also exhale in exhaustion.
As soon as the buzzer sounded, Portland showed its fatigue. Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard placed his hands on his knees.
“I was just tired,” Lillard said
And why wouldn’t he? The Blazers went 6-2 during the season restart in a two-week span. Lillard had just posted 42 points after spending the week carrying the Blazers in wins over Philadelphia (scoring 51 points) and Dallas (scoring 61).
The fatigue did not just apply to Lillard.
C.J. McCollum, who defended LeVert on the final play, has played through pain during the season’s restart.
Though he has since returned from a left leg injury that kept him sidelined for nearly the entire season, Portland forward Jusuf Nurkic entered the post-game press conference room wearing ice bags around both of his knees, his left ankle and his left foot. As Nurkic mused, “I have ice all over me.”
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So once the Trail Blazers entered the locker room following their well-fought victory, they didn’t have much energy to celebrate advancing to the play-in tournament.
“We were happy, and we’re excited to be in the play-in round. But it’s not like we were jumping up and down. We were hurt,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We’re where we wanted to be. I don’t think anybody is over the moon right now. We just know we have a tough opponent in Memphis so there is no time to really celebrate.”
The Trail Blazers do not have much time to rest or heal, either. So that begs a question: Do the Blazers have enough mental and physical energy left to beat the Grizzlies?
Portland has the luxury of only needing to win once out of a possible two games. If the Blazers do, how much will they have left when facing the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (52-19) in the first round of the NBA playoffs, beginning Tuesday?
“I’ll always be fine mentally. I’m never concerned about that. I think physically we’ll all be a little bit fatigued. But it wont be what it usually is,” Lillard said. “Every year we go into the playoffs there is fatigue coming off of 82 games. Right now, we basically had a four month break and a short training camp and these eight games. So even though we will be fatigued because of how fast the turnaround is, it won’t be nowhere near what it usually is when you get to the playoffs.”
Lillard conceded he would feel much differently had the Trail Blazers just finished their 79th through 82nd game of the regular season.
Once the NBA suspended the season on March 11 because of the coronavirus outbreak, 22 of its 30 teams had a four-month layoff. During that time, Lillard trained in the morning and finished his workouts by 1 p.m. He spent the rest of the day with his family. He also caught up on needed sleep. Stotts raved about how disciplined players remained with attending voluntary workouts.
“It did take all that we had,” Stotts said.
Yes, it did.
Lillard (41.75 minutes) and McCollum (45.87) logged heavy minutes. Portland made hustle plays against Brooklyn, including when Lillard and Nurkic dove on the floor for loose balls. They all planned to take ice baths around 1 a.m.
Yet, Portland believes it can thrive off that adrenaline rush after relying on it for two weeks. Not only do they not have to travel or deal with back-to-backs, the Lakers have appeared sluggish due to regular-season apathy, uneven rotations and poor 3-point shooting.
“If anything, a lot of teams have been resting guys and sitting guys. Sometimes it works in your favor to be the more active team,” Lillard said. “I think that’s what our mentality has to be after we get the play-in series done. I think mentally ill be fine. Physically there will be some fatigue there. But I don’t think it will be as hard as you might think. There’s a lot riding on these games.”
There is a lot riding on Saturday’s game, too, obviously. All of which captures Portland’s story for the past two weeks.
“It’s going to prepare us for the real deal,” Nurkic said. “Obviously we just get in as an eighth seed playing the Lakers. But I think it will help us. Each of the game we pretty much had the best players out there playing.”