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Rip City Return: Blazers make playoffs despite doubters

Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - NOVEMBER 4: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers controls the ball against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on November 4, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For the regular season finale, the Portland Trail Blazers passed out T-shirts reading “Never Doubt Rip City.”

Just in case there are still some doubters, the “never” is underlined.

The Blazers defied preseason expectations and made the playoffs, claiming the fifth seed in the Western Conference. They open their third straight postseason on Sunday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.

It’s almost as if the Blazers succeeded despite the cynics.

“One person picked as what, 15 out of 15 in the West? I mean, the list goes on. I think everybody felt disrespected, like that’s not what our season is gonna be,” guard Allen Crabbe said. “It was everybody’s goal since training camp that we were gonna play hard and it was us against everybody. Everybody stuck with that: We got better as the season went along and we had a helluva season.”

Portland was expected to reach the playoffs last season - and did - with a starting lineup that included Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez. But Matthews’ late-season Achilles injury messed with the team’s chemistry, and they were eliminated in the first round by a strong Memphis team.

Going into this season, the playoffs seemed a longshot.

All the starters except Lillard departed in the offseason, and coach Terry Stotts was tasked with assembling a cohesive unit around his talented point guard. One oddsmaker predicted Portland would win about 26 games.

Lillard and backcourt partner CJ McCollum went on to pace a group that finished the regular season 44-38. The Blazers won seven of their final nine games to close out the regular season.

“It’s going to be tough like it has been all season long. They’re a really good team,” Lillard said about the Clippers. “But we know that we have a chance. So we’ve got to go out there and be ourselves, lock in and be ready.”

In the finale Wednesday night against the Nuggets, a 107-99 Portland win, Lillard broke Matthews’ franchise record for 3-pointers and now has 828 for the Blazers. He averaged 25.1 points, becoming just the third Portland player to average more than 25 -along with Clyde Drexler and Kiki Vandeweghe.

“His four years here have been remarkable,” Stotts said. “He just continues to shine - sometimes you run out of words.”

McCollum averaged 20.8 points in his first year as a starter, giving Portland its first backcourt duo with an average of 20 or more points apiece in a single season.

The Clippers present an intriguing matchup with the recent return of Blake Griffin. Los Angeles won six straight before Wednesday night’s 114-105 loss at Phoenix, with the fourth seed already sewn up and Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford left at home.

Whoever wins the first-round series will play the winner of the series between the defending champion Warriors and the Houston Rockets, a rematch of last year’s conference finals.

It is the first time the Clippers and Blazers are meeting in the playoffs. The Clippers won the season series against Portland 3-1.

“We’ve been underdogs since the jump,” Lillard said. “There’s no pressure on us. I’ve already seen some people talk about the Clippers and the Warriors in the second round. So there’s no pressure on us, we’ve just got to go out and play.”