Blazers lock up 6th spot in the West with win

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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PORTLAND — For 81 games, Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan dismissed all questions pertaining to anything other than the immediate future.

"Let's get tonight," he'd say when asked about resting players down the road.

"One game at a time," he'd respond when pressed about playoff seeding.

But Tuesday, after Portland downed the Grizzlies 102-89, McMillan was finally willing to gaze ahead, even if it was just a little bit.

"The next goal is to get out of the first round," he said. "To get to the six spot, I think is a great accomplishment for this team with all they had to go through this year."

The Blazers (48-33) still have to play Golden State on the road in their final regular-season game of the year, but the outcome is irrelevant as they locked up sixth place in the Western Conference Tuesday. They also are still unsure as to whom they'll play, as the Mavericks and Lakers are yet to sort out the second and third seeds in the West.

But all the Blazers have ever been able to control are their own results, and Tuesday required a surge in the second half to attain a positive one. Portland and Memphis (46-35) ended the first half tied, which was particularly surprising given how Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins opted to rest leading scorer Zach Randolph and key shooting guard Tony Allen.

Had Memphis won Tuesday, it would have leapfrogged Portland for the No. 6 spot, but Hollins justified his decision by saying "Tony's hurt" and that he "didn't want to play Zach these last two games because I wanted to get him rested and fresh."

His choice, but in the final two quarters, the Blazers took advantage.

LaMarcus Aldridge posted a game-high 22 points Tuesday while grabbing 11 rebounds and shooting 10 of 16 from the field. But the big surprise came by way of Rudy Fernandez, who hit 4 of his 5 3-point attempts en route to 18 points. Before Tuesday, Rudy had gone a combined 0 for 11 over his previous three games.

"It was frustrating. My shot wasn't feeling good." Fernandez said. "This helped me a lot with my confidence, because when you miss a lot of shots, you start to think about it. This helped."

Fernandez did pass up one open 3-pointer toward the end of the game, which resulted in a Blazers 24-second violation.

McMillan was happy to see the Spaniard shooting well, but hopes that past struggles don't effect his willingness to put the ball in the air.

"It was great, it really was," McMillan said of Fernandez's hot hand. "He gets too unselfish again and passes up an open shot. He has to shoot the ball."

Nicolas Batum added 16 points for Portland and Gerald Wallace pitched in 14, all of which came in the second half. And in his first game back since straining his neck against the Warriors last Tuesday, Marcus Camby played 30 minutes and grabbed 11 rebounds.

McMillan said that he will look to rest certain players tonight.

After the game, the Blazers locker-room didn't seem particularly animated compared other victorious evenings. After all, this team hasn't made it out of the first round since 2000, when they lost to the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.

But as Aldridge said regarding their chances: "People thought we weren't going to make the playoffs, now we're a six seed, so I think as long as everybody comes to play, as long as we bring our A-game, then anything is possible."

A Lakers win or a Dallas loss in their final games of the regular-season will pit Portland against the Mavericks in the first round. Should Dallas win and the Lakers lose, the Blazers will get Los Angeles.

The unspoken feeling is that, in a best-case scenario, the Lakers are to be avoided, but as Camby stated after the game, "if we want to win a championship, we're going to have to face that team."

Blazers president Larry Miller was a bit more pithy when roaming the Rose Garden halls after the game.

"Bring on whoever," he said.

BLAZERS SIGN BARRON

Tuesday, the Blazers signed center Earl Barron for the rest of the season.

The 29-year-old has played parts of five seasons with Miami(2005-08), New York (2009-10), Phoenix (2010-11) and Milwaukee (2010-11), averaging 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per game over that span.

The 7-foot Memphis product averaged 3.8 points and 3.3 rebounds with the Suns and Bucks this season.

He wears No. 40 and scored two points Tuesday. The Blazers roster now stands at 15 players.