For the second time in a week, Carmelo Anthony has kept the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoff hunt.
Four days after delivering a last-minute dagger three-pointer in overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies, Anthony did the same in the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets. His triple with 54.6 seconds left gave the Blazers a two-possession lead en route to a 109-102 victory with significant playoff implications.
The Blazers held onto ninth place with the victory, a half-game up on the San Antonio Spurs and within 1 1/2 games of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies. With five games still left on their schedule and just two games separating Portland from the 13th-place Sacramento Kings, plenty can happen between now and Aug. 14, but the defending Western Conference finalists are a different animal than the other challengers.
Damian Lillard is the best player on any team with eyes on the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, and he proved it again on Tuesday, even on an off shooting night. He scored eight of his team-high 21 points in a closely contested fourth quarter, adding nine rebounds and eight assists on the night. C.J. McCollum added 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists, as Portland won a battle of star-studded backcourts.
“We understand what’s on the line, and we know what we’ve got to do to give ourselves a chance in the postseason,” Lillard, gunning for his seventh straight playoff appearance, said on the TNT postgame broadcast. “That’s what we’re doing. It’s not going to be pretty. We’ve been off for four months. Our rhythm and timing and playing every other day, it’s going to take effect. We just know that we’ve got to compete, we’ve got to be together, and we’ve got to want it more than other teams when it comes down to it.”
Anthony finished with 15 points on 14 shots and 11 rebounds.
The Rockets fell two games behind the third-place Denver Nuggets with the loss. Houston and the Utah Jazz own identical 42-25 records, but the Rockets are sitting in fourth place by way of a tiebreaker. Both teams are only a half-game ahead of the sixth-place Oklahoma City Thunder. Matchups are far from set.
Neither of Houston’s former MVPs, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, were saviors. With Harden nursing five fouls and Westbrook resting late in the third quarter, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni instead turned to Jeff Green (22 points) and Danuel House (17 points) as go-to options in a seldom-used lineup. Along with Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Robert Covington, they erased an 82-74 deficit in seven minutes. When Harden and Westbrook returned with 8:37 left in the fourth, the teams were tied, 88-88.
The Rockets had previously played just 409 non-garbage-time possessions with both Harden and Westbrook off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. Add to that fact tertiary playmaker Eric Gordon was out with an ankle injury, and Houston had played only 142 possessions without any of them available.
But Lillard made a step-back three-pointer to break the tie inside of a minute of Harden and Westbrook checking back in, and the Blazers never trailed again. Green scored nine straight points to deadlock the game again at 98 with five minutes left, and a thunderous Westbrook tied it at 100 a minute later. But three-pointers from Gary Trent Jr. and Anthony down the stretch sparked a 10-2 run to close out the contest.
Trent’s play in Orlando has been a revelation, and the return of starting center Jusuf Nurkic has helped make the Blazers a serious playoff threat again. Trent scored another 16 points off the bench on Tuesday. He is averaging 18 points on 55 percent shooting in the bubble, including 15-for-25 three-point shooting. Minus some late miscues, Nurkic submitted a third straight solid outing since returning from a leg fracture that had kept him out all season. He finished with 18 points, 19 rebounds, three assists and three blocks.
Harden and Westbrook combined for 38 points on 12-for-31 shooting, a number both are accustomed to on their own. The Blazers trapped Harden after he stepped over halfcourt for almost the entirety of the night. Westbrook often provided an outlet at the top of the key, creating advantageous attacks that often led to open three-point shots. Houston got nine threes from Green and House, and it still was not enough.
It is all evidence that Portland could be a less-than-ideal first-round opponent for the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. When last the two teams met, Lillard dropped 48 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a Blazers victory. Since then, Portland has added Nurkic and Zach Collins, and the Lakers lost Avery Bradley.
First, though, the Blazers must navigate the final five games of their schedule, starting with games against the Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, two more teams that will test the resolve of Lillard and company.
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