PORTLAND — Behind a big second half, and 25 points and 18 rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 100-94 on Sunday at the Moda Center.
The win clinched them the 12th 50-win season in franchise history and a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“50 wins is always a big honor in this league, especially being in the West with so many good teams,” Aldridge said. “It’s definitely not something to take for granted.”
Head coach Terry Stotts said: “50 wins is something to be proud of. I told the team 50 wins has always been a standard, it’s been a bar in this league.”
Some 48 hours after getting outworked and turned over by a playoff-hungry Phoenix Suns team, the Blazers were similarly outworked by the lottery-bound Pelicans.
At least in the first half.
“We talked in the first half,” said Nicolas Batum, who helped spark their third quarter run with nine points and seven rebounds. “We can’t wait, we have to play. We play great the last four games before Phoenix, we play great.
“We let it go a little bit against Phoenix. The we way we were playing, the same way, we would have lost by 20 if we kept playing like that.”
The Blazers finally asserted their dominance over the Pelicans after a 29-14 third quarter swung the game in their favor.
Early in the first half, it was learned that the Memphis Grizzlies lost to the San Antonio Spurs, meaning the Blazers would clinch their sought-after playoff birth.
The Blazers made little headway on the deficit after New Orleans’ reserves took advantage of Robin Lopez’s foul trouble to take a 10-point lead.
In the fourth quarter, the Blazers continued to assert control as Stotts decided to go small, going with Aldridge playing alongside four perimeter players down the stretch with Lopez in foul trouble.
However, the small ball worked and helped them stave off a late push by the Pelicans.
After the game, the players acknowledged their accomplishment but the only player with an championship ring (as a member of the Miami Heat) likes where the young Blazers have their head at.
“Everybody act like we’ve been here before,” said Dorell Wright who got post-game compliments for his energy off the bench from Stotts. “Happy for a few minutes then back to work, know what I mean? So, we still got four more games to finish strong. Continue to build that bond and that chemistry going into the playoffs.”
Wright still sees the value in the final four games.
“Whoever we play in the playoffs, they have all this time to dissect your team, your weaknesses and things like that,” he said. “I just want us to get stronger in every aspect of our game on the offensive and defensive end.”
Batum reflected on his first playoff game when a young 54-win Blazers team took a 16-point home loss to the Houston Rockets and Damian Lillard remembers watching it as it happened.
The value of every possession was something Batum didn’t understand until the gut-punch from Yao Ming and Co., and he wants to make sure the Blazers more experienced players know that now.
“We can’t be in the playoffs surprised,” Batum said. “We didn’t know what playoff basketball was. We have to tell them to get ready right now. Playoffs will be very different.”
For the first time in three years, the Blazers and Rip City will be able to feel what “different” is like again.