LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP)A fourth consecutive down-to-the-wire finish, a fourth consecutive win for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They needed all that just to get into the playoffs.
Damian Lillard scored 31 points, CJ McCollum had 14 of his 29 in the fourth quarter – including a pair of big jumpers over Ja Morant late – and the Blazers clinched the NBA’s final playoff spot by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 on Saturday.
Portland’s reward: a matchup with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, starting Tuesday. Jusuf Nurkic had 22 points and 21 rebounds for the winners, who got 21 points from Carmelo Anthony.
”What we’ve done in these two weeks is really special,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. ”I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys because we were up against it every game, nine straight games where our season was basically in the balance. … They found a way.”
Morant scored 35 for Memphis, which got a 22-point, 16-rebound day from Jonas Valanciunas and 20 points apiece from Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke.
It was the start, and the end, of the Western Conference play-in series – a wrinkle the NBA added to the restarted season because the coronavirus pandemic meant no team would play its allotted 82 games. Portland finished eighth in the West, Memphis was ninth, and the Grizzlies needed to sweep a two-game matchup to advance.
They had a chance, up eight in the final quarter, before Portland did what Portland does in the bubble – pull games out at the end. The Blazers’ last four wins have come by a combined 11 points.
So they go on, and Memphis goes home – knowing its potential is very real.
”I’m going to be able to sleep and live well during the summer, despite a tough loss, knowing that we put in so much work and we were that close to getting into the playoffs,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. ”These guys, the first words they said when we got in the locker room was, `We’ve got a lot of work to do.”’
Nurkic, playing with a heavy heart because of his grandmother’s death, grabbed an offensive rebound and wound up converting a three-point play with 2:39 left to put Portland on top for good.
McCollum – playing with a fracture in his back – connected on a 3-pointer and another long jumper late, both times guarded by Morant, to ensure Portland kept the lead, and Anthony’s 3-pointer with 20.2 seconds left was the last big shot the Blazers needed.
Nurkic revealed on Instagram about 90 minutes before the game that his grandmother, back in his native Bosnia, had died. His post did not disclose the cause of death, but Nurkic said last month that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and briefly slipped into a coma in recent days.
”She would have wanted me to play,” Nurkic said after the game.
Memphis led 94-89 going into the fourth quarter, the last three points in that five-point margin coming on a brilliant recovery by Morant.
The soon-to-be Rookie of the Year attacked the rim, his drive thwarted by the outstretched arms of Blazers 7-footer Hassan Whiteside. Morant, undeterred, simply ran down the loose ball and tapped it out to the right corner where Clarke connected on a 3-pointer.
The Grizzlies’ lead was eight with 9:55 left. And even though they held Lillard – picked earlier Saturday as the bubble MVP – without a field goal in the fourth, they couldn’t force their way into Sunday.
”We are right there … time to get ready for next season,” Morant said.
Grizzlies: Memphis got down by 16 in the first quarter, then erased the entire deficit and more in a span of 4:48 – turning that deficit into a 36-33 lead with a 22-3 run. … The Grizzlies’ 42-point third quarter matched the second-highest scoring period of the season for Memphis and was the second-highest scoring third quarter in franchise history. They had 46 in the third against the Lakers on Jan. 9, 2007.
Trail Blazers: Nurkic’s previous first-half high for rebounds was 12. He had 17 at the break on Saturday, while none of his teammates had more than one. … Lillard was briefly shaken up when Valanciunas’ knee fell on the back of his neck during a second-quarter scrum for a loose ball. Lillard remained in the game.
Among the players in attendance: Miami’s Meyers Leonard (a former Portland center) and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. NBA players are permitted to request access to other games within the Disney bubble, when schedules allow. Lakers assistant Jason Kidd was also at the game, as was National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts.
The Lakers went 2-1 against the Blazers this season, with the road team winning all three games. Anthony Davis (32.0 ppg) and LeBron James (24.7 ppg) led the Lakers; Lillard (36.0 ppg) and Whiteside (22.0 ppg) led the Blazers.
Grizzlies: Season complete.
Trail Blazers: Face the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
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