February 28, 2018, 2:06 am
The process really does matter more than the results. But for the Portland Trail Blazers, fighting tooth and nail with five other teams for four spots at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff field, any win is cause for celebration – yes, even one at home against arguably the worst team in basketball.
The Blazers beat the Sacramento Kings 116-99 at Moda Center on Monday night, winning their fourth straight game and moving to 35-26 on the season. Damian Lillard, naturally, led Portland’s ultra-efficient offensive effort with 26 points and 12 assists on 10-of-17 shooting. Jusuf Nurkic had 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Shabazz Napier broke out of a mini shooting slump to score 20 points on just seven shots. Ed Davis and Zach Collins got going again, too, combining for 17 points – including two triples by the rookie – and eight rebounds off the bench.
C.J. McCollum, who managed just 11 points on 18 shots, was essentially the only Trail Blazer who struggled in a performance that saw Terry Stotts’ team shoot 52.5 percent from the field, connect on 13-of-30 from beyond the arc and set a new season-high with 20 fast-break points. When Portland wasn’t running off one of its 10 steals and Lillard not abusing every defender Sacramento threw his way, the offense often made beautiful plays like this, harkening back to the heyday of Stotts’ ballyhooed flow attack.
— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) February 28, 2018
Defense, though, was a (relative) problem for the Blazers almost from the opening tip. They allowed 53 points in the first half, and allowed a whopping 50 points in the paint overall – more than any team averages this season except the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans. Zach Randolph led the Kings with 20 points, and Willie Cauley-Stein added 17 points and 10 rebounds.
More troubling than any lack of resistance at the rim, though, was the number of open shots Sacramento missed. Dave Joerger’s team, which entered Monday’s action shooting 40.7 percent from deep over its last five games, made just 7-of-22 from beyond the arc against Portland, including 1-of-5 shooting from the left corner. The majority of the Kings’ missed 3-pointers were very makable looks, ones that a more seasoned team would knock down with regularity.
All that said, the Blazers should leave this game feeling good. Now fifth-place in the West and nine games over .500 for the first time all season, their odds to make the playoffs, low as they still may be, have never been higher. Lillard has been playing at a legitimate MVP level for weeks, while the collective bench made a huge impact – Napier, Davis, Collins and Evan Turner had 39 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and five steals between them – for the first time in what feels like a month. The division-leading Minnesota Timberwolves, missing an injured Jimmy Butler, come to town on Thursday, too, for a nationally-televised road matchup against a team suddenly trailing them by just one and-a-half games in the standings. If Portland beats Minnesota, there’s a good possibility this team enters the weekend in line for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
That type of hopeful optimism is still premature, and frankly, wouldn’t much change the Blazers’ chances to beat the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors in a potential Western Conference Semifinal. Portland has already established itself as a worthy playoff team this season; that much alone ensures 2017-18 will be a minor success. But to make it something much more than that, the Blazers need to create a mix of defensive and offensive effectiveness that was absent even during their strong start to the season and stronger play of late.
Little in this win over the Kings makes that development seem more likely to transpire. What another victory does do, though, is increase the likelihood of Portland getting extra opportunities to achieve that two-way success in late April and May.
A win, especially in the 2018 Western Conference playoff race, is still a win.