Damian Lillard isn’t ready to leave Orlando. The Blazers had their backs against the wall Thursday night, needing a win over Brooklyn to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Nets showed plenty of grit, taking Portland all the way to the wire in a riveting 134-133 Blazers triumph. Caris LeVert, who paced Brooklyn with 37 points on superb 16-of-29 shooting, had a chance to send Portland packing, but his step-back jumper at the buzzer rimmed out, letting the cardiac Blazers live another day.
By virtue of their victory in Thursday night’s nail-biter, the Trail Blazers will face Memphis in a tiebreaker series this weekend. Because Portland holds the higher seed (eighth), the Blazers need just one win to punch their postseason ticket. Whoever wins the tiebreaker series will advance to face the top-seeded Lakers in Round 1 of the Western Conference playoffs. Saturday’s tiebreaker game will be aired at 2:30 PM ET on ABC with Sunday’s game (if necessary) scheduled for 4:30 PM ET.
Coming off a 61-point eruption in Tuesday’s win over Dallas, Lillard delivered another clutch performance in Thursday’s seeding finale, pouring in 42 points on 13-of-22 shooting including 8-of-14 from distance. Twelve of his 42 came in the final period as the All-Star guard helped Portland erase a seven-point, fourth-quarter deficit. Among his highlights were a 35-foot three from the center-court logo and a pivotal steal with 1:12 remaining. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Lillard’s combined 154 points are the most a player has ever scored over his final three-regular season games. He’s also the first player to finish a season with three straight 40-point outbursts.
Four teams—the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs—entered Thursday’s action within a half-game of the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed. The Grizzlies secured their spot in the tiebreaker series by downing the Bucks, who were playing without star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (he was serving a one-game suspension), 119-106. Jonas Valanciunas (26 points, 19 rebounds, 12 assists) and Rookie of the Year hopeful Ja Morant (12, 13 and 10) each logged triple-doubles while Dillon Brooks chipped in with 31 points in the victory.
The Suns put forth a valiant effort, improving to 8-0 in the bubble with Thursday’s rout of Dallas, but Portland’s win in the nightcap extinguished their flame once and for all. Phoenix’s season-ending eight-game win streak is the longest ever by a non-playoff qualifier (hat tip to ESPN Stats and Info for that knowledge bomb). Meanwhile the Spurs, who finished on the losing end of a 118-112 decision against Utah Thursday, will miss the postseason for the first time since Gregg Popovich’s debut season in 1996-97. San Antonio’s remarkable run of 22 straight playoff appearances ties the league record set by the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers between 1950-71.
Aside from the Lakers, who await the winner of this weekend’s tiebreaker series, each of the other opening round matchups are set with Milwaukee facing Orlando, Boston playing Philadelphia, Toronto against Brooklyn and Miami versus Indiana to round out the Eastern Conference slate. Out West, the second-seeded Clippers will go toe-to-toe with Dallas with Denver opposing Utah in a rematch of last weekend’s overtime thriller and Houston drawing OKC in the 4/5 matchup. If the playoffs are even half as good as the past two weeks of seeding play, we’re in for an epic postseason.