Two teams separated by nine places in the standings but just five games in the loss column continue their pursuit of Western Conference playoff spots when the Sacramento Kings host the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday in both teams’ first game following the All-Star break.

The Kings find themselves in third place in the West but in a tight race that could change by the end of the week. They lead the Los Angeles Clippers by just one game and the Phoenix Suns by 1 1/2, with a showdown against the Clippers scheduled in Los Angeles on the second night of a back-to-back on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, but just a half-game out of a play-in spot.

Both teams must endure a heavy road schedule to tip off the second half. The trip to Sacramento begins a stretch of eight of 10 on the road for the Trail Blazers, while the Kings will follow Thursday’s home contest with a three-game trip.

The remaining schedule as a whole could be problematic for the Kings, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2005-06. In terms of winning percentage to date, Sacramento is slated to face the fourth-toughest collection of teams in the second half.

Veteran Harrison Barnes insists he and his teammates have added motivation this season — to give Kings faithful a chance to reacquaint themselves with an NBA postseason.

“These fans have been loyal for so many years, and for a long time things just haven’t come together,” he said. “Seeing people excited … it’s been cool to see.”

The Kings will oppose the Trail Blazers three times over the final 25 games of the season. The clubs still have two remaining dates in Portland — March 29 and 31.

The Trail Blazers have a leg up on the season series, having prevailed 115-108 at Sacramento in the season opener for both clubs. Portland held Kings All-Star Domantas Sabonis to 13 points, five assists and four rebounds in that game — one of just 10 non-double-doubles for him this season.

Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox both represented the Kings at Sunday’s All-Star Game. Sabonis earned his spot through his league-leading 45 double-doubles, while Fox came on strong before the break — following the birth of a child — averaging 33.8 points in his last four games.

The Sacramento duo was joined in Salt Lake City over the weekend by Trail Blazers standout Damian Lillard, who nailed the game-ending shot in Team Giannis’ victory in the All-Star Game. That came one night after he triumphed in the 3-Point Contest.

Perhaps the biggest headline Lillard commanded on All-Star Weekend was proclaiming himself the greatest Trail Blazer of all-time.

“Personally, I think I am,” he said. “When it comes to the body of work, the consistency, the notoriety, the attention that I’ve brought to that market, being a signature athlete, global ambassador for things, winning a lot of games, having a lot of individual success and being able to do it over a long period of time. … I’ve done everything but win a championship.”

Lillard had 20 points, Jerami Grant scored 23 and Anfernee Simons added 22 in the earlier win at Sacramento. However, Simons will miss the Thursday game due to a sprained right ankle he sustained last week.

–Field Level Media