Damian Lillard gets help moving Portland out of the Yacht Club

By Marc Stein

The NBA and the league’s television partners did not get their dream first-round playoff matchup pitting LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. The solace for those parties is that the fallback option will offer no shortage of offensive flammability and star power.

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers secured the NBA’s last undecided playoff spot Saturday with a 126-122 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies at Walt Disney World — on an afternoon that Lillard received considerable help. CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony all played major supporting roles to ensure that the Blazers, after Lillard scored a ridiculous 154 points in Portland’s previous three games, seized the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

It was the first playoff play-in game in NBA history, and the Grizzlies, as the West’s No. 9 seed, had to win to force a winner-take-all rematch with the Blazers on Sunday. Despite holding Lillard scoreless for the final nine-plus minutes and unleashing Ja Morant, the presumptive Rookie of the Year award winner, for 35 points of his own, Memphis could not contain McCollum and Anthony late. The Blazers thus advanced to a first-round series with the top-seeded Lakers that begins Tuesday night.

McCollum, playing through a fracture in his back that he sustained July 31 in Portland’s first game of the restart against Memphis, scored 8 of his 29 points in the final 3:08, including two big shots over Morant. Anthony, the former New York Knick whose career appeared to be over before the Blazers signed him in November, sank a clutch 3-pointer from the wing with 20.2 seconds remaining in regulation and finished with 21 points. And Nurkic, who announced via Instagram before tipoff that his grandmother had died from COVID-19 in his native Bosnia, was immense with 22 points and 21 rebounds — including 15 points and 17 rebounds by halftime.

Lillard, who still managed to lead Portland scorers with 31 points, gratefully accepted all that help on a day that began with the All-Star guard being named the outstanding player of the NBA bubble so far. The league handed out awards Saturday for the eight “seeding” games that each of the 22 teams played from July 30 to Friday. Lillard averaged 37.6 points in those eight games and was a unanimous winner of the bubble’s MVP honors.

“We didn’t fight as hard as we did in the bubble to get the eighth seed and get beat up on,” Lillard said, quickly turning his attention to the looming showdown with James and the Lakers.

Nurkic, paying tribute to his late grandmother, said, “I didn’t want to play. I think she made me play.”

The Grizzlies arrived in Florida as the West’s No. 8 seed and held a 3 1/2-game lead over their closest pursuers, including Portland. But the new play-in concept gave teams such as Portland and the Phoenix Suns — who were 8-0 before being eliminated — playoff hope as the Grizzlies skidded to a 2-6 record while also losing Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) and Justise Winslow (hip) to injuries.

Memphis fell behind by 16 points early Saturday but rallied to lead for much of the fourth quarter, exposing the defensive frailties that have plagued Portland despite one of the most prolific scoring runs of Lillard’s career. Like Lillard, Morant received no shortage of assistance, too, with Jonas Valanciunas totaling 22 points and 17 rebounds, and Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke adding 20 points apiece.

The Blazers, though, have made a bubble habit of finding ways to escape in these sorts of games. It was Portland’s fourth successive win — by a total of just 11 points — and a cruel ending for the Grizzlies. Memphis had been widely projected as a bottom-feeder coming into the season, only to exceed last season’s win total of 33 in nine fewer games.

“We should be proud of what we did this season,” said Morant, who revealed afterward that he had been playing with a fractured right thumb for the past four games.

Along with the other five teams in Florida that did not hold a playoff spot when the regular season was suspended indefinitely in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Portland has been staying at the Yacht Club, widely regarded as the third-choice property out of the trio of hotels that are housing NBA teams at Walt Disney World.

But turning back the Grizzlies has earned the Blazers an upgrade. In coming days, they will be moved into the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s flagship resort and where the Grizzlies had been staying.

“We played worthy of that hotel throughout the season,” McCollum said of the Yacht Club, referring to the Blazers’ 29-37 record through March 11.

At 7-2 in the bubble and with Nurkic back from a bad leg injury, Portland has frequently been promoted by NBA pundits, most notably Charles Barkley of Turner Sports, as a team that can push the Lakers despite its defensive issues and mounting fatigue.

“We knew when we got here that we had real action if we can take care of our business,” McCollum said. “We can compete with anyone; we know that.”

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, “What we’ve done in these two weeks is really special. I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys, because we were up against it every game, nine straight games, where our season was basically in the balance.”