Playoffs still in sight for Blazers

Portland trails Lakers by 21/2 with 12 games to go

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. -- The door just won't slam shut in the Western Conference playoff standings.

So, while teams ahead of the Trail Blazers continue to lose games, the slippage has pumped energy into Wesley Matthews.

At the end of Tuesday's practice, Matthews -- who knew better -- fearlessly caught alley-oop passes for thunderous throwdowns. The joy on his face did not reveal a hint of pain the dunks must have caused his nagging left leg injury. Good thing Matthews' hope can drown out the discomfort.

"It's almost set up for us to take it," he said of the eighth and final playoff seed. "Everybody keeps dropping in front of us (and) they still have to come through us. At the end of the day, we've got 12 left, eight at home, all against the best competition, which is when we play our best."

"I'm excited," Matthews continued with a big smile plastered on his face. "You see, you got me out here, dunking over here. I should not be doing that. I'm going to take three Ibuprofens and get in the cold tub. My body's dead, but I'm excited."

The Blazers (33-37) stand just 21/2 games behind the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who dropped their third consecutive game on Monday night.

It's not just the Lakers' losses that have given the Blazers confidence.

Portland's own recent play has also promoted this optimism.

For example, the Blazers won on back-to-back nights in Chicago and Atlanta during the recent five-game road trip.

"We're in the hunt," coach Terry Stotts said. "We've got a lot of work cut out for us. The Chicago and Atlanta game(s) gave us some life, gave us some confidence in how we played and how we won. For 31/2 quarters in Oklahoma City, we played well. It's not going to be easy, but you have to have a certain amount of confidence if it's going to happen."

Even in the three losses, Portland could glean a few positives.

The one-point defeat in Philadelphia, the comeback in Milwaukee, the halftime lead in Oklahoma City -- all signs pointing to a team that could compete during the final stretch of the season.

Moreover, even after returning from the road trip with a losing record, the fact that they are still as close as they've ever been has encouraged the Blazers.

"It's kinda weird," Damian Lillard said. "On this tough road trip, you go 2-3. You think teams might get some separation on us, but they've lost games, too."

Still, Lillard could not help but look back at the blown chances.

"We want to make it. It's good to know that (other teams) didn't create space on us, really. Especially after going 2-3 on the road," he said. "But at the same time, you're kind of disappointed (that) we didn't take advantage of it. If we would've won the game that we lost by one in Philly. If we would've played better in Milwaukee. If we would've won those two games, we might be even closer right now."

The regret can only last so long because the Blazers return to the Rose Garden tonight against the Brooklyn Nets. Then on Friday, Portland hosts the Utah Jazz, currently ninth in the standings and struggling with a 3-7 record over the last 10 games.

Besides the last road game against the Jazz on April 1, the Blazers will also get another shot at the Dallas Mavericks (April 7) and host the Lakers (April 10) -- two targeted teams ahead in the standings.

The regular season ends in the Rose Garden against the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, but Matthews hopes the games will continue long after the home finale.

"We might as well take it. Stop playing around," Matthews said, then worked out the Blazers' 12-game path with reporters. "(Finishing) 8-4 with a lot of help, we might be able to do it. Nine and three with some help. Ten and two -- we can do it. We take home, split the road, which is what you always want to do. I feel like I'm gong to be talking to you guys for a little bit longer."