LOS ANGELES – It took 51 days, but the Trail Blazers have finally regained possession of a playoff position.
Behind 22 points from Damian Lillard and some hot shooting from Allen Crabbe, the Blazers beat the Lakers 97-81 on Sunday at the Staples Center to move into a tie with Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games remaining.
Denver, which lost 115-90 to New Orleans earlier in the day, plays at Portland on Tuesday at the Moda Center (7 p.m., CSN). Portland leads the season series 2-1, but can clinch the tie-breaker over Denver even if it loses Tuesday by virtue of winning one of its remaining four division games or having Denver lose one of its three remaining division games.
Seven of the Blazers’ final nine games are at home while seven of the Nuggets final nine games are on the road.
“We know if we can string a few games together at this point, we can be in the driver’s seat,’’ Lillard said before the game. “That’s a great position to be in.’’
Denver has held the eighth spot since Feb. 3, when Portland lost at home to Dallas to fall to 22-29 and Denver beat Milwaukee to improve to 22-27.
The Blazers have caught fire in March, improving to 11-3 in the month, with much of the surge being sparked by center Jusuf Nurkic, who was acquired in a February 12 trade with Denver for Mason Plumlee.
On Sunday, Portland struggled early against the last-place Lakers, but a third-quarter surge, led by Lillard’s 14 points, pushed a 51-46 lead to 77-56 entering the fourth quarter.
It was the Blazers’ 12th consecutive victory over the Lakers, a franchise record.
While Portland was misfiring early, Crabbe rescued them. He made six of his first 10 shots, including three three-pointers. He finished with 18 points and six rebounds, keeping the Blazers afloat long enough for Lillard to heat up and take them home
Noah Vonleh set a career high with 14 rebounds and Al-Farouq Aminu had nine points and 10 rebounds off the bench.
D’Angelo Russell led the Lakers (21-52) with 22 points while leading scorer Jordan Clarkson had an off night, making only 4-of-16 shots for 10 points.
Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN).