NBA: Clippers down Trail Blazers to close in on playoff berth
LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points and Norman Powell added 23 off the bench as the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Portland Trail Blazers 136-125 to edge closer to an NBA playoff berth on Saturday.
The Clippers moved into fifth place in the Western Conference with the same record as reigning champions Golden State.
But their fight to avoid the play-in for the seventh- through 10th-placed teams will come down to the final day of the regular season on Sunday, when every NBA team will be in action.
“We started a little slow,” center Ivica Zubac said of the Clippers, who trailed Portland by as many as 10 before cutting the deficit to six at halftime.
“We knew we had to pick it up, we needed a win so we came out with a lot of energy and we got the job done.”
Leonard scored 13 points in the third quarter as the Clippers came alive, out-scoring the Blazers 45-26 to seize control.
They made eight of their 12 three-pointers in the third, then pushed the lead to as many as 19 in the fourth.
The Clippers win ensured that the Minnesota Timberwolves will be among the four play-in teams battling for two playoff spots, even after Minnesota’s monster 151-131 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, will try to confirm their playoff berth with a win over the fourth-placed Phoenix Suns on Sunday in what could be a first-round series preview.
The Timberwolves drilled a season-high 24 three-pointers and set a franchise record for points scored in their win over San Antonio.
Anthony Edwards made four three-pointers and scored a game-high 33 points.
Karl-Anthony Towns added 22 points for the T’wolves, who can finish no worse than ninth and could move up if they beat eighth-placed New Orleans in their regular-season finale on Sunday.
The Pelicans will be looking for a win in that game to keep the pressure on the seventh-placed Lakers, who close the regular-season against Utah.
Denver who had already locked up the top seed in the West for the first time, fell 118-114 to the Utah Jazz in a contest that Nuggets coach Michael Malone acknowledged was a balancing act between keeping his players, including two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, sharp and letting them risk injury.
“Number one is not getting hurt,” Malone said of his team’s aims before the game. “It’s such a delicate balance. Nikola’s played in one of our last five games now. Jamal (Murray) has been out with a thumb.
“On one level I would love to get our starting group some real minutes together. The flip side is you don’t want anybody getting hurt.”
Ochai Agbaji scored 28 points to lead the Jazz and Luka Samanic scored a career-high 23 points,
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21 for the Nuggets. Murray added 20 points while Jokic had six points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
Two days after all five of Denver’s starters sat out a loss to Phoenix, the Nuggets got off to a slow start and trailed by as many as 19 in the first half.
They missed seven of their first eight shot attempts, but had cut the deficit to 58-55 at halftime, and surged to the lead late in the third quarter.
But with Denver’s starters on the bench in the fourth, Utah rallied.