Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.
For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.
For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.
And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series; the Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”
Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.
“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”
The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.
Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.
“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”
Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.