It was another close game for the Trail Blazers Thursday night, but this time, Portland faced a short-handed Denver Nuggets team who was without three of their starters in Jamal Murray (left hamstring; tightness), Gary Harris (right hip; muscle strain) and oPaul Millsap (rest).
Troy Daniels (right hip; tightness), Will Barton (right knee; soreness), and Vlatko Cancar (left foot; fracture) didn’t suit up for the Nuggets, either, as Denver continues to deal with the injury bug.
After Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard caught fire in the first quarter, scoring 14 points in his first 12 minutes, it seemed like the Blazers were going to steamroll the young Nuggets.
That wasn’t the case.
However, Lillard wasn’t ready to say sorry for ‘only’ beating Denver by 10.
Some people might say, ‘oh, they didn’t play anybody,’ but for us, we’re not going to apologize for a win. We’re here to just get it done and teams have lost those games and I’m just happy we was able to pull ours out. -- Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard
There was plenty to like about the Trail Blazers' offense in Thursday's 125-115 win.
Lillard was red-hot from three and from all over the court really, hitting a career-high 11 threes on the night. He finished with 45 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and three steals.
The Trail Blazers, as a team, knocked down 23 three pointers, a franchise-high, as Gary Trent, Jr. continued his hot shooting, connecting on 7-of-10 from beyond the arc.
“We’re just trending and going in the direction that we want to be,” Lillard said.
Portland now sits just a half game back of the No. 8 seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
There’s a real chance that Portland could leapfrog the Grizzlies heading into the play-in games as the eight seed.
The Memphis Grizzlies have four games remaining: Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee.
The Trail Blazers still must face the Los Angeles Clippers, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Brooklyn.
[You can listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast here with special guest Bill Walton]:
But, as cliché as it may admittedly sound, Portland is taking it one game at a time.
And hey, that’s worked thus far.
We can’t afford to watch the standings or watch the scoreboards because it’s that close and they’re so many teams that are right in the thick of things that… nobody is even close to a magic number so right now it’s just most important that we concern ourselves with winning games and doing what we have to do.-- Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts
“I think we’re playing good basketball,” Coach Stotts added. “I think we’re playing with a determination in a playoff stretch that you have to have during this. So whatever people say about us or ninth seed, eighth seed, we have to win games and we’ve dug ourselves this hole, and we’re playing with the urgency that we need to play with, and I think one of the reasons we’ve won three of these games is because, and we played well against Boston, is that we’ve really approached each game with a playoff mentality, a must-win mentality, and when you play like that there’s a good chance you’re gonna play a lot better.”
Coach Stotts reiterated that with four more games to go, there’s still so much up in the air with how close teams are in the standings in the bottom half of the West.
“We’re all playing the same way,” Stotts said of the teams vying for a playoff spot. “There’s only one spot for us and we have to play that way… We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and it’s just about playing the next game.”
“Sorry, pretty cliché,” Stotts added for good measure.
A statement that was never looked at as cliché was the conversation Lillard had with Yahoo! Sports' Chris Haynes at the end of May when Lillard said he wouldn't play when the NBA returns unless Portland has a chance to compete for a playoff berth.
Four games in and now everyone sees why.
With the addition of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins and the emergence of Gary Trent Jr., the Blazers are right where Lillard thought they would be if they were given the opportunity.
Months ago when I said, ‘if we don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot, I don’t want to play,’ because I knew that if we did have a chance to play for a playoff spot it would look something like it looks right now because we’re a more healthy team, more rested, and I knew what our team was doing – guys was getting conditioning in and we stayed in contact. As soon as we opened our facility, guys were there every day. I knew that once we got here, we would be one of the teams that could take advantage of it. So far we have. -- Damian Lillard
The Western Conference race for the eighth seed is heating up. While the Blazers are 3-1 in the restart, Memphis has struggled. So has New Orleans. The Blazers are 0.5 games behind the eight seed.
And Rip City knows, Lillard still has a lot more to say and do.
Buckle up, Rip City! The chase continues.