When the final buzzer sounded, the man who will probably go down as the greatest Trail Blazers of all time, bent down and braced the weight of the franchise on his knees.
The scoreboard showed Portland had beaten Brooklyn 134-133 to advance to the NBA play-in game this weekend, but there was no celebration, no elation.
Just his hands on his knees in complete exhaustion.
“Shit,” Damian Lillard said. “I was tired.”
Lillard was tired for good reason. The final quarter of the game felt like it was point game with the caveat “win by two.” The Nets and Blazers exchanged buckets, defensive lapses, and bricks seemingly all quarter. But that is what it takes, leaving it all on the line in a win or go home game.
Portland center Jusuf Nurkic saw a loose ball rolling towards the baseline, and immediately hurled himself to the hardwood to gain possession. When you are 7-feet and more than 280 pounds, you normally think twice about throwing yourself to the floor. But in the do or die situation, there was no second guessing for Nurkic.
After the game, he was headed for a cold-tub treatment, and already his left wrist and knees were wrapped in ice.
“I mean, whatever it takes,” Nurkic said.
It has been that way for the Trail Blazers for two weeks now. Eight games, eight nail-biters. Eight games, six wins. Eight games, and total exhaustion.
“It did take all that we had,” coach Terry Stotts said.
The Blazers finished this wild and historic ride at the NBA restart with the eighth seed, but with little to celebrate. They will play Memphis on Saturday, and a win will place the Blazers in the playoffs Tuesday against the Lakers. If Memphis wins on Saturday, a do-or-die game will follow on Sunday for the right to play the Lakers.
So with all the emotion, all the energy and all that still was unfinished, it wasn’t surprising that those outside the Blazers locker room after Thursday’s game said there was no celebration. They were too damn tired.
In the wise words of Kobe Bean Bryant, “the jobs not finished.”
Beyond the fact that the jobs not finished yet, the Blazers have some glaring issues to correct if they don’t want their run to end prematurely.
The Blazers defense got carved up for 133 points by Caris LeVert and a bunch of guys picked up off the streets of Brooklyn as the Nets made their way to the bubble. And that isn’t a one time situation. Portland has been carved up nightly, all season, and even more so in the bubble. That defensive effort won’t be acceptable against the Los Angeles Lakers, if they make it to that far.
Questions about Zack Collins’s strength and toughness down low have been raised, as well as returning concerns about Nurkic’s point-blank misses, which he struggled with in his early years.
Still, for all the worries about this team, the Blazers are here, and with the advantage in the play-in series. It was an accomplishment going 6-2, with the losses coming in the final seconds to Boston and the Clippers, and in the process, Portland has established itself as arguably the most potent offensive team in the league.
The Blazers will be a wild card simply because nobody has figured out a way to stop Lillard. Every night he explodes for 40+ and the 4th quarter turns into Dame Time.
On Thursday, the Nets started double-teaming him BEFORE HALF COURT! On one possession it was 10 feet before half court.
Lillard responded to the double teaming by simply extending his range to half court. He dribbled just past the half court line and drilled the 3, seemingly giving the Blazers a jolt of needed energy. This was in the fourth quarter, with the Blazers trailing by seven. And he had the confidence to shoot it from the NBA logo at half court.
Before that shot, Lillard was avoiding the double team by making the tactically correct play — pass to the wing, who would swing the ball to an open man in the corner. But with the Blazers’ season slipping away with every missed corner 3 by Gary Trent Jr. and CJ McCollum, Lillard had to make a decision.
“I was just thinking, like should I just keep making the right play, or is it time for me to start searching for a shot? I just didn’t want to be too passive,” Lillard said.
Lillard finished the game with 42 points, 12 of which came in the 4th quarter, to have his 3 game point total reach 154. Head coach Terry Stotts was asked about Lillard’s 154 points in the last 3 games, saying “we needed every one of them.”
Teams are desperate for an answer to slow down Lillard and nothing is working. But the Grizzlies are up next, and must find an answer. If not Dame and the Blazers will continue their journey against the 1 seed Lakers.