Blazers withstood injury and more on road to the playoffs
The Portland Trail Blazers dealt with injuries all season, and the loss of their biggest star topped it off in the playoffs.
While the year was unusual for all of sports because of coronavirus, the Trail Blazers made it to the NBA playoffs for the seventh straight season. Upstart Portland was knocked out of the first round by the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
“It was an interesting season with a lot of different obstacles that we faced. We signed Hall of Famer (Carmelo Anthony), we had coronavirus hit, so many things going on around the world with social injustice, protesting, all those things,” guard CJ McCollum said. “We had some games postponed, came back, more injuries. But all in all I think we fought and gave ourselves a chance.”
All-Star guard Damian Lillard had already departed the so-called bubble in Florida with a right knee injury when Portland took the floor for the elimination game Sunday night. While the Blazers mounted a scrappy effort against the Lakers, they ultimately fell 131-122.
With the odds already against them as the No. 8 seed, Portland was down to just nine players for the game. The outcome seemed almost inevitable.
“We definitely competed against a lot of quality opponents to qualify (for the playoffs),” McCollum said. “We beat a good Memphis team to get the eighth seed. We went through a lot. Obviously we missed some players, but injuries are part of the game. It would have been nice to have everybody, but all in all I thought we competed. We showed signs of life and signs of an elite team at times, but we also showed signs that we need to continue to get better, collectively as a unit. I think we will.”
The Blazers earned the third seed in the Western Conference last season, going on to make the conference finals for the first time in 19 years. So expectations were high heading into the season.
Portland was just out of the playoff picture, sitting ninth in the Western Conference standings, when the league was shuttered on March 11. The layoff actually actually helped Portland heading into the seeding games, because big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins had returned ready to play.
Nurkic, who averaged 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds before he broke his leg last season, hadn’t played before the re-start in Florida. Collins had injured his shoulder earlier this season.
But the Blazers were still without Trevor Ariza, who opted out of the tournament to spend time with his son, and Rodney Hood, who tore his Achilles last season. Acquired by the Blazers in a January trade with Sacramento, Ariza was averaging 8 points and 4.6 rebounds with Portland and he had developed a good chemistry with his new teammates.
Still, Portland had some insurance in Anthony, who had been out of the game for more than a year when he was signed in November. The 10-time All-Star proved his career wasn’t done just yet, going on to average 15.4 points and 6.3 rebounds.
Anthony, who was signed to a one-season deal, said he hopes to return to the Blazers.
“Whenever you find a situation that’s comfortable and allows you to be who you are, you want to stay in that situation,” Anthony said. “There’s no need to try different things when something is working.”
Despite McCollum’s valiant efforts — he played with a fractured vertabra in his back during the playoffs — and “Playoff Melo,” it was tough for Portland in the final game without Lillard, who was named the league’s MVP of the seeding games in the bubble.
Lillard had another All-Star season, including a six-game stretch in late January when he averaged 48 points a game. He averaging 37.6 points, 9.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds in the seeding games, including a 61-point performance against Dallas.
Lillard’s right knee buckled beneath him in Game 4 against the Lakers. He returned home to Portland to be treated by team doctors the next day but will not need surgery.
McCollum won’t need surgery, either.
“I told them I don’t think I’ve been more proud of a group of guys than what they did down here in the bubble,” coach Terry Stotts said following that final game. “We weren’t expected to make it, I won’t go though all of the things that went against us, but we deserved to be in the playoffs and they made it happen.”