PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers are officially going to the playoffs after a 109-86 blowout of the Phoenix Suns on Monday.
The Blazers’ starters laughed and enjoyed the fourth quarter from the bench after a 37-16 third quarter put the Suns away, whose playoff hopes are hanging by a thread.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 17 points and had seven rebounds, was enjoying a great deal of laughter at the end of the bench. After the game, he apparently joked with the team that he was happy to be going to the playoffs with them.
And in front of reporters, Aldridge continued the stand-up routine as if he was opening for the Comedy Central roast of Justin Bieber.
The subject of being unable to put opponents away for much of the season and enjoy wins like this one kept the roll going.
“We keep it interesting,” he said. “Our goal is to always keep it interesting out there, to see how many times we can come back from deficits in the fourth quarter.”
On Arron Afflalo’s continued success: “He catches it and shooting every time, so I mean how could you not be comfortable shooting it every time?” he joked before getting serious again. “I think he’s definitely being more like himself.”
Aldridge saved his last zinger for when he was asked about a fan sporting a crew neck sweatshirt that donned the face of back-up center Chris Kaman.
“I don’t even think his wife would wear that sweatshirt,” Aldridge said.
But since the All-Star break, Portland’s defense has been no laughing matter. Head coach Terry Stotts has continued to focus on the defense as his biggest concern this close to the end of the season.
After Monday, the Blazers moved up two spots to 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency since the break.
The Wesley Matthews injury magnified those struggles but when they needed it most Monday, their defense stepped up.
Phoenix ran out in transition, using a small line-up with Markieff Morris at center to end the first half. The Blazers’ lead that was at 16 earlier in the half down to six after a Gerald Green alley-oop dunk going into intermission.
“Obviously we got off to a good start in the third quarter and they went back to that same line-up that finished the first half, and we handled it really well at both ends,” Stotts said. “That was probably the most important part of the game for me because the way we ended that first half was concerning.”
“We just turned up the intensity,” Damian Lillard said. “I think defensively we got after them.”
For Afflalo, it was up as good as he’s seen them play defensively since his arrival.
“It’s right up there,” Afflalo said. “We wanted to come out the game and hopefully get some stops out of the gate and we were able to do that and score at the same time.”
The Blazers opened the second half on a 17-4 run in the first 3:53 of the second half.
The defense keyed everything for Portland in the second half, leading to early offense, as the Suns forced desperation shot after desperation shot.
Lillard scored 10 of his 19 points in the third quarter, wearing a scowl on his face. It was the type of attitude all the Blazers’ starters brought in the third quarter.
The win was Stotts’ 250th career victory.
Wednesday the Blazers face the Los Angeles Clippers, who are right behind them in the standings. But the Clippers currently have a better record and could have home court advantage in a potential 4-5 match-up.
“It could be one of those games where home court advantage could be up for grabs,” Lillard said. “We want that. I’m sure they want it too.”
The Blazers nor the Clippers will be laughing then.
The magic number for Portland to clinch the Northwest Division now stands at two.