PORTLAND — What seemed inevitable from the moment the Portland Trail Blazers pulled most starters out of the lineup in recent weeks became official Friday.
For the second consecutive season, Blazers were eliminated from playoff contention.
The result was confirmed midway through the first half of Friday’s eventual 138-114 loss to the Sacramento Kings when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated Minnesota 123-111 move into the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings.
Much like last year, the Blazers found themselves in no-man’s land during the second half of the season, sitting beneath the cut line for the NBA Play-In Tournament.
Hoping to make one final push up the standings, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups said the likely turning point came during a six-game road trip in early March when the team lost four of six games, including a back-breaking, 120-119 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Joel Embiid’s game-winning jumper.
“Probably the one where I was like, all right, if we do good on this trip, then we can push … and we didn’t,” Billups recalled Friday. “We had a really bad trip and obviously that Philly game was a big game and it crushed us.”
Since then, the Blazers have lost 10 of 11 games. Their only win, March 22 at Utah, was also the last game Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic were active. Fellow starters Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons haven’t played since March 12 and 19, respectively.
“It always sucks to lose,” Billups said. “When you get to this point in the season, and I didn’t think we would be here last year, to be very honest with you. But we are, and these games are tough. They’re tough on me, they’re tough on all levels.
“I understand what’s going on and where we’re at, but it sucks.”
Soon, the Blazers will turn their attention to the NBA Draft Lottery in May.
After both Orlando and Indiana won Friday, Portland has the fifth-worst record in the NBA. As it stands now, that would give the team a 10.5 percent chance of landing the top pick in the draft and the consensus top player, Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-2 professional from France widely regarded as a generational talent.
Last year, that process led to the Blazers earning the seventh pick and selecting Shaedon Sharpe, who’s been a beacon of light for the team late this season and continues to showcase his sky-high potential.
In another feature role Friday, the 19-year-old Sharpe played a team-high 36 minutes and scored 27 points with five assists and three rebounds.
“There were times (earlier in the season) that it was tough on Shae,” Billups said. “He would come in and mess up three times, and I would take him out and he wouldn’t play in the second half. And, the next game he would do better. He would earn a little bit more. Now, obviously, he’s out there, (we’re) playing through him and letting him do his thing.”
It’s not just on the offensive end. Billups sees a reduction in Sharpe’s defensive lapses and what he calls the “a-ha moments.”
During a stretch of the fourth quarter as the Blazers tried to rally back from a double-digit deficit, Sharpe had a sequence that included a tough layup falling away from the basket, before he hustled back on defense to deflect a pass out of bounds.
“That’s the guy that we have to have,” Billups said. “Earlier in the season, when he missed, he would hang his head and the first two or three steps back were jogging steps. He’s sprinting it back now. That’s just him maturing, him learning, us on his butt the whole time (and) his teammates on his butt the whole time.”
Drew Eubanks added 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Blazers and Skylar Mays, who earlier this week signed a 10-day contract with the Blazers, scored 14 points in his debut with the team.