Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

Jusuf Nurkic was grieving for his late grandmother. CJ McCollum was dealing with a broken bone in his back. And whether he will admit it or not, Damian Lillard had every right to be, well, tired as hell.

But there the Trail Blazers are, thanks to those three and ageless Carmelo Anthony, winners of the NBA’s first play-in game and headed for the playoffs and a first-round matchup with the Western Conference’s top team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Out of the whole play-in scenario, the last team standing.

Portland won seven of the nine games it played inside that pressure-packed bubble, most of them the same way it polished off the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 Saturday afternoon:

Get an early lead, squander some of it in the second quarter, then have a near-fatal collapse in the third quarter and finally, rally down the stretch of the game and make clutch shots while somehow getting defensive stops.

And winning by a razor-thin margin.

These have been character wins -- testimony to the quality of people making them happen,

The character of the Trail Blazer roster has been rock-solid for several seasons. Neil Olshey has brought in players with integrity who respect the game and their teammates. They have their troubles on the court, at times, but they don’t get down on themselves and they stay together. They play hard and respect the game.

It’s a tribute to the front office, the coaching staff and the players, from top to bottom.

And, of course, Damian Lillard’s powerful and unique leadership. He wasn't going to go to Orlando to waste his time and no time was wasted.

“We go after a certain type of player,” said McCollum, who had 29 points on 11-19 shooting. “With a certain type of character. Historically, our organization has done a good job of targeting people and we are able to come together as one and it starts with our leadership group.

“And then it trickles down through Dame and then me and I think we’re able to get people on board and the way Dame leads, it should be commended.

“They should write a book about it. He cares about the 15th man the same way he cares about the second and third guy on the team and I think that kind of shows you his character.”

Lillard, before Saturday’s game unanimously named the Most Valuable Player of the seeding portion of the schedule, had 31 points, 10 assists and played just short of 45 minutes.

Down the stretch, he deferred to McCollum, Nurkic and Anthony and each contributed. But Lillard is the straw that stirs the Portland drink.

“I try to be an example of the stuff that I preach and the standard that we have of our culture,” Lillard said. “I just enjoy building real relationships with my teammates. I have a real friendship with all my teammates.

“I’m able to say certain things to them, or share certain things with them, in the heat of the battle or just on the bench or whatever, because they know I really care about them. They know I really want the best for them. 

“You show people you believe in them, you show people you care about them, over time, and you do it all the time, then you don’t have to be a dictator about everything and try to ruin everything.

“People respect you and they reciprocate the energy that you give them and it makes it easier to be a leader.”

And finally, the Trail Blazers get a bit of rest after playing nine games in 15 days. They don’t start that series with the Lakers until Tuesday, when the every-other-day experience kicks in again for that seven-game set.

The Lakers, who feature two of the top five players in the league -- LeBron James and Anthony Davis -- will be a handful but several national pundits and former players believe Portland has a shot at them.

“I’ve been seeing everybody saying what we’re going to do to the Lakers,” Lillard said. “They are the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. They have the best player in the world on their team, but at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble just to get the eighth seed and go out there and get beat up on. 

“We feel like we have a chance in a series against anybody in this league. We feel like we’ve got a chance in this series. And that’s how we’re going to approach it. But we are going to approach it with a healthy level of respect for them.”

The playoffs. And they earned it.