PORTLAND — Keeping one’s emotions in check is a key to surviving an 82-game season, ask anyone who has had to endure one. But Wednesday night, moments before the tip-off of Game 82, the Trail Blazers couldn’t hold it in any longer.
There were the smiles and celebratory hand shakes. Raised eyebrows from Ed Davis and an unusual pep in his Terry Stotts’ pre-game steps, having just found out the news his team locked up the fifth seed before walking out to the court.
They accomplished what not even they thought was possible and making things even better, they got who they wanted the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs.
The Blazers are the fifth seed in the Western Conference and are headed to Hollywood to face the Los Angeles Clippers this weekend, a match-up sealed before the tip-off against the Denver Nuggets thanks to a Spurs victory at Dallas.
The game against the Nuggets became a formality and before the second half started, the Blazers’ in-house DJ appropriately played the beat to Notorious B.I.G’s famous song “Goin’ Back To Cali.”
The Blazers won, 107-99, fitting of the celebration that took place before the game and walked off the court to the chants of “Beat L.A.”
“It’s been a very rewarding regular season and we’re looking forward to playing the Clippers,” Stotts said after the game.
Around here, in the shadows of an All-Time team and an All-Time great playing his final game, fifth place might as well be first.
The team that everyone forgot, the one that built cohesion and belief when nobody was watching is ready for their close-up against a team they don’t like very much.
“Even from preseason man, the last preseason game we had against them, you saw the incident our coach had with the other coach,” Crabbe said in reference to a shouting match between Stotts and Clippers coach Doc Rivers in the preseason. “Dame, immediately after that game he said this is going to be a season where it’s just us against everybody.”
The Blazers return to the postseason with the same seed as they did last year before losing four starters from last year’s team including All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
“All their expertise about what we were going to do this season and I think that’s the thing that not just me, but everybody remembered,” Allen Crabbe said of the outside expectations for the Blazers this season. “One person picked us 15th out of 15 in the West. The list goes on. I just feel like everybody, we were like, we feel disrespected. That’s not what our season is going to be.”
In a speech for Fan Appreciation Night, CJ McCollum thanked those in attendance for their “unwavering belief” even when “they” doubted, the fans didn’t, he said.
It’s clear what Wednesday night was for the home team: a celebration.
During the early part of the game, rookie Pat Connaughton could be seen tightening his sneakers in preparation for a longer run than usual, as the end result no longer mattered for the home team.
McCollum urged fans to “get ready for the playoffs” and although focus on the task at hand was their mantra leading up to the game, that no longer became true when the result from Texas came in.
The Nuggets, playing their final game of the season like 13 other teams, were the more aggressive team in the early going. Rookie Nikola Jokic was especially active early, scoring 11 first quarter points.
Veteran guard Gerald Henderson was given the night off as Connaughton got his usual allotment of minutes, a reward to the rookie for a season’s worth of practice and almost no playing time.
Connaughton played a team high 30 minutes, which was a season-high for him.
Stotts said after the game that Henderson likely would have played through a calf issue had the Mavericks held on against the Spurs.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both played their normal minutes in the first half and the Blazers held a 58-56 lead despite the slow start.
In the second half, Lillard made some history on a historic night in the NBA, surpassing the franchise record for 3-pointers previously held by Wesley Matthews, giving more life to the party.
Lillard and McCollum didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
However, Lillard getting to 21 points on the night insured that he would finish the season averaging 25 points per game.
“Anytime you break a record like that, part of an organization like this, it’s an honor,” Lillard said. “I’ve been here 4 years now and it’s come a lot quicker than I would have called. But it’s an honor to be at the top of the list.”
As they return to the scene of “Us Against Everybody,” does Lillard have any advice for his less-experienced teammates in a match-up that will be full of drama and emotion?
“You just don’t say too much,” Lillard said. “Because at the end of the day it’s still a basketball game. It’s a little more physical, things might get let go as far as fouls go. We’ll have to trust each other. We’ll have to really defend. It’s going to come down to those types of things and we have to be able to execute.”
The Blazers’ storybook regular season has come to an end. But a villain awaits.