PORTLAND — Just when everyone was convinced that the Trail Blazers were tanking, they showed they still have something left in the tank.
Maybe it was a fleeing moment. Perhaps it was an anomaly. But after beating the Grizzlies 97-93, Portland looked less like a lottery team and more like one playing power ball.
Of course, you can never make any serious evaluation based on one game. The Lakers’ most recent championship run with rife was with regular-season losses to the Bobcats. However, two nights earlier, when the Blazers fell to the sub-.500 Bucks by 29 points in their own building, the thought of beating the team with the fourth-best record in the west sounded like nothing more than pure fiction.
And yet — there was Nicolas Batum taking a charge from Marc Gasol midway through the fourth quarter to boost the crowd-nose to Rose Garden expectations. There was Wesley Matthews drilling a 3-pointer with 3:47 remaining to put Portland up by six. There was Jamal Crawford stroking home all 10 of his free throws — seven of which came in the fourth quarter — to ice the game and, more importantly, cool talk of an irreconcilable season.
“There are 19 more games. We look at the standings on NBA.com, and when there’s a little cross next to a team, that means you’re not in the playoffs,” Batum said. “We don’t have that cross yet.”
The Blazers (22-25) currently lie 3 1/2 games behind the Rockets for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoff race. Just as significantly, three teams (Utah, Phoenix an Minnesota) sit between Houston and Portland in the standings, meaning very few losses can be spared.
The roster implosion at the trade deadline last week — in which the Blazers fired coach Nate McMillan and traded Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace — suggests the organization is intentionally setting itself up for failure, and has some fans optimistic about attaining high draft picks this summer.
But relay that mentality along to a player, and well …
“It’s kind of like a spit in the face,” said Blazers point guard Raymond Felton, whose team will meet the Lakers in Los Angeles Friday. “That’s motivation to me. To hear it — and everyone’s starting to hear it more — you can see it everyone’s eyes ‘let’s prove everyone wrong.’ “
Batum led all scorers Thursday with 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Additionally, his defense was lauded by Portland interim coach Kaleb Canales, who praised the Frenchman’s ability to get deflections and guard with speed.
The aforementioned charge he drew on Gasol led to a Memphis technical, which animated the previously dormant crowd.
The noise that ensued? A pleasant reminder of how much an arena can spike one’s adrenaline.
“We’ve played so bad the past 20-25 games, and (the fans) are still here,” said Batum, who helped keep Memphis forward Rudy Gay to 10 points, 9.2 fewer than his season average. “We have the best fans in the world in the good times and bad times.”
Gasol led the Grizzlies (25-20) with 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Tony Allen added 17, and Gilbert Arenas, who played in his first game since the Magic waived him via the amnesty clause at the beginning of the year, tallied two points and three assists.
“I thought I played alright for coming off the couch,” Arenas said.