Down 24 with less than four minutes before halftime, the Trail Blazers looked like they were headed for a demoralizing blowout. Portland’s porous defense had few answers for a hot-shooting Boston Celtics team that appeared primed to run away with one.
Yet despite the early onslaught from Jayon Tatum and the rest of the Celtics rangey wings, the Blazers didn’t buckle. Instead Damian Lillard donned his cape, emerging from the halftime locker room as the hero that has saved the Blazers hopes on countless occasions.
The heroics just weren't quite enough. Lillard scored 22 of his team-high 30 points in the final two quarters and not only brought the Blazers back from a massive deficit he even propelled them to a late lead before the Celtics regrouped and held on for a win. Portland had four possessions to tie or take the lead inside the final two minutes and came up short on all of them.
“We dug ourselves a deep hole against a really good team,” Lillard said. “Any time you do that your chance of winning is going to be pretty slim. I think we showed we’re here for business by how we responded, and how we gave ourselves a chance to win. At this point that’s all we can ask for. We didn’t play a very good first half, and we could’ve easily have folded and laid down and just said, ‘It’s a bad day.’ But we didn’t do that.”
If the win over Memphis on Friday was a glimpse of what might be possible for the Blazers playoff push, Sunday’s loss to the Celtics was a sobering reminder of how difficult their path forward remains.
Heading into the NBA restart in Orlando Lillard was vocal that all he wanted was for his team to have a legitimate chance. They got that, and on Sunday Lillard tried his best to make sure the Blazers didn’t waste the opportunity.
After winning their first seeding game Friday, the Blazers were in control of their own postseason destiny. But with their loss Sunday and a San Antonio victory, Portland has now slipped to tenth place in the West with more obstacles between them and a playoff berth.
The loss to the Celtics was a clear illustration of the Blazers flaws and as well as their strengths. Lillard was magnificent, Jusuf Nurkic continues to be an anchor on both ends and Gary Trent Jr. seems to get better each time he steps on the court. And yet there they were down 24 unable to slow down one of the best teams in the league. With games looming against Houston, Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia, the schedule isn’t going to soften up.
This team has the talent to forge a path to the postseason, and Sunday was evidence of the challenges that path will no doubt pose.