While the league had affectionately termed it a “seeding game,” the Trail Blazers' Friday evening showdown with the Memphis Grizzlies certainly looked and felt like postseason basketball.
In the week leading up to the game, the Blazers acknowledged the importance of their first seeding game. And even prior to tip off the controversy-shy Terry Stotts labeled the meeting with Memphis a “must-win” in his pregame comments.
“This is playoff basketball for us and for me,” Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “This is something that we’ve been looking forward to for a long time, since the stoppage of our season."
The stakes were obvious, the Blazers trailed Memphis by 3.5 games, needing to stay within four games of the eighth place Grizzlies to force a possible play-in tournament and earn a shot at the playoffs. A loss would push them to 4.5 games back, making for a steep climb in their final seven games in Orlando.
“Everybody knew how important this game was,” Stotts said afterwards. “To try and sugarcoat and say ‘We don’t need this’ -- This is playoff basketball for us, and you need that pressure. And the pressure is going to continue so you can’t shy away from it.”
The Blazers certainly didn’t shy away. In a game that felt like the postseason, the Blazers took an important step toward making the playoffs.
They hung through the back and forth contest to pull out an overtime win. But if the chaos and emotion on the court didn’t make this feel like a postseason showdown, Stotts’ shortened postseason-esque rotation gave it a true playoff feel. The Blazers rolled out an eight man rotation with Hassan Whiteside, Gary Trent Jr. and Mario Hezonja as the only reserves to see action alongside starters Anthony, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.
That meant second-year guard Anfernee Simons never got off the bench, and high-energy options Nassir Little and Wenyen Gabriel kept their warm-ups on. It isn’t surprising that Stotts shrunk his playing rotation down, but it was a clear admission of how important this game was to Portland.
The much anticipated Whiteside-Nurkic pairing got only a brief first half cameo as Stotts didn’t go back to the supersized look after a first quarter trial run. Some of that was foul trouble across Portland’s frontline, but mostly it was because the team was ditching experiments in favor of known quantities.
The eight players who did see action rewarded Stotts’ trust. Hezonja was a spark in the first half while Trent Jr. picked up where he left off back in March with solid shooting and dogged defense, particularly in overtime against Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant.
“Especially in the first half, Gary was scoring and Rio played under control and made some good plays; defensively Gary’s been really solid,” Stotts said. “But playing eight guys and those guys being productive off the bench -- you can throw Hassan in there, too -- it's that they play well with the starters. It’s a team game so you gotta have that contribution.”
The bench provided needed support to the Blazers starting lineup that carried much of the load. CJ McCollum was brilliant, Jusuf Nurkic made up for 400-plus days between real games by filling the box score in every manner possible and Carmelo Anthony kept the Blazers playoff hopes with two massive three-pointers at the end of regulation and game-icing free throws in overtime.
So while this was a “seeding game” in name and the Blazers still have seven more before the actual postseason will begin, this looked and felt like the biggest game of the year. Because it was.
"We’ve been preparing for this, especially this game," Anthony said. "I look forward to these nights. This is a different mindset that you have to have. Some teams have the luxury of kinda feeling their way through and getting through it, but not for us, and you saw the intensity tonight.”