• A fifth straight trip to the playoffs was assured before tipoff. With the Memphis Grizzlies putting up a surprisingly strong fight yet again, though, the Portland Trail Blazers, eventually played like the postseason was on the line.

    The Blazers used an utterly dominant third quarter to beat the Grizzlies 113-98, exacting revenge for a loss at FedExForum last week and keeping pace for the third seed in the Western Conference. The Minnesota Timberwolves lost minutes into the first quarter of Sunday’s game, automatically granting Portland a berth in the postseason regardless of whether or not it defeated Memphis. The Blazers played like their fate had already been decided, too – at least for awhile.

    But Portland used halftime as a springboard, extending their five-point lead at intermission to 24 entering the final stanza by outscoring the Grizzlies 43-19 in a highlight-filled third quarter. Damian Lillard, who had a team-high 27 points and nine assists, and C.J. McCollum combined for 23 points in the third quarter alone, and got an expectant Moda Center crowd into a frenzy by throwing down three dunks between them during a game-deciding run.

    Meyers Leonard, who assisted McCollum with a tough lefty catch and bounce pass on the run for a slam, received extended minutes for the first time in weeks as the result of Ed Davis’ ankle sprain. He had six points, five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes off the bench, showing off the activity and skill level that once made him a darling of Blazers obsessives. First-round pick Caleb Swanigan was impressive, too, scoring four points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing two slick assists in just nine minutes of play.

    Prior to tipoff, Davis told reporters he planned on returning from a sprained right ankle before the end of the regular season, against the Denver Nuggets or San Antonio Spurs. That’s an ideal scenario; Portland doesn’t need a key rotational cog like Davis being thrown to the fire in the thick of a first-round series. But if he or another big man needs relief in the postseason, Sunday’s game sure made it seem like Leonard, and perhaps even Swanigan, would be a solid emergency option.

    According to the Blazers, though, that’s thinking too far ahead. Another trip to the playoffs was much less than a formality as recently as three weeks ago, and in a loaded Western Conference, two of the league’s better teams will be on vacation April 14. Not Portland.

    “We still have some more goals to accomplish,” Stotts said after the game, “but it’s something to be proud of.”

    The Blazers have three games on the fourth-place San Antonio Spurs in the loss column, and four on the Oklahoma City Thunder with five games left on the schedule. The odds of retaining the three seed are certainly in their favor. But the next four of those remaining contests are on the road, and the final four against teams that have already qualified or are fighting tooth and nail for the playoffs – including a tilt in the Alamo City with the Spurs.

    Moe Harkless won’t be back until round one, and Davis’ timeline for recovery seems awfully optimistic. Portland made 12-of-38 3-point attempts against Memphis, 31.6 percent shooting that qualifies as progress given recent team-wide struggles from the beyond the arc. It’s been months, somehow, since Lillard and McCollum scraped their ceilings in the same game. Defensive engagement versus the Grizzlies came and went as the Blazers pleased, too, reminding of inconsistency on that end of the floor that plagued them more lately than anyone would like to admit.

    The next fives game won’t necessarily be easy, and could prove a harbinger of Portland’s chances of winning a first-round series regardless of home-court advantage. There’s much work left to be done, basically, and Lillard has big ambitions before setting his sights on a trophy.

    “We haven’t won a game against Houston this season,” Lillard told Kerry Eggers of The Portland Tribune after the game. “If we win, we can sweep Dallas. Each game has significance. I’m looking forward to all of them. If we get the job done, maybe [the starters] can get some rest to finish up [the regular season].”

    Just in time for a playoff appearance, and a potential playoff run, that’s finally been confirmed.

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