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Trail Blazers overcome adversity, negativity to reach playoffs for 8th consecutive time: ‘I think we overachieved by anybody’s standards’

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 5/17/2021 Aaron Fentress, oregonlive.com
Terry Stotts wearing a suit and tie talking on a cell phone: Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts chats with the team during a timeout as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets at Moda Center in the final game of the regular season on Sunday, May 16, 2021. © Sean Meagher/The Oregonian/Sean Meagher/The Oregonian Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts chats with the team during a timeout as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets at Moda Center in the final game of the regular season on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

Damian Lillard, a professional wrestling fan, compared the NBA playoffs to wrestling’s Royal Rumble.

In that event, multiple participants battle one another to see who will be the last man standing. So far, during Lillard’s nine seasons in the NBA, his Portland Trail Blazers have never been the last man standing. But after beating Denver 132-116 Sunday night at the Moda Center, the Blazers will be entering the postseason rumble for the eighth consecutive season.

“I think there is something to be said about our effort, year after year after year, regardless of what the circumstances are,” Lillard said. “Regardless of the adversity we run into, at whatever point in the season, we find a way.

“It’s what we do. We find a way to give ourselves a chance at the postseason. And eight years straight is proof of that.”

The Blazers needed to defeat Denver on the final day of the regular season Sunday to avoid the play-in tournament reserved for teams that finish seventh through 10th. They stormed out of the gates strong to build a 44-23 lead at the end of the first quarter and never really looked back while securing the sixth seed in the Western Conference and a first-round playoff showdown with the Nuggets.

a man with a football ball: Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (#0) holds the ball while defended by Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets at Moda Center in the final game of the regular season on Sunday, May 16, 2021. © Sean Meagher/The Oregonian/Sean Meagher/The Oregonian Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (#0) holds the ball while defended by Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets at Moda Center in the final game of the regular season on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

The Blazers reached this point by overcoming several obstacles. Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum missed significant time with injuries. Lillard had a rough month of April while dealing with several nagging injuries. The team began April losing 10 of 13 games before catching fire to win 10 of 12 to close the season.

“This might be, probably one of the bigger accomplishments in a regular season,” Stotts said, reflecting on his nine seasons with Portland. “The fact that Nurk missed half the season, CJ missed a third of the season. There were a lot of highs and lows, riding through some tough times. I thought what we accomplished is pretty gratifying because it was not an easy season.”

All of the adversity created a different feel for the Blazers’ accomplishment, said Lillard, who noted how they remained together, never splintered and never lost faith.

“Finding our way out of it and playing our best basketball of the season at the right time, to me, that’s what feels the most different,” Lillard said. “The fact that we experienced really low moments as a group. And we received a lot of criticism. We were hard on ourselves internally, as well. And we came out of it playing our best basketball of the season at the right time.”

Both Stotts and Lillard mentioned the negativity that surrounded the team during th season. Many fans were disappointed with the team’s record, despite Nurkic and McCollum missing a combined 60 games. Media members have speculated that Stotts’ job could be in jeopardy. But while storms swirled outside of the team, the Blazers remained confident in their abilities to right the ship.

“I think there was a lot of negativity out there and we persevered through that,” Stotts said. “I’m glad it’s done. I’m glad we finished where we did. I think we overachieved by anybody’s standards at the beginning of the season. I don’t think anybody had us winning 42 games. So, it was a very good regular season, all said and done, and now we’re looking forward to the playoffs.”

Lillard said he knows that many don’t believe the Blazers are true championship contenders, and that’s fine. But he knows that for the team to win, it must believe in itself first.

“What we do is give ourselves a chance every postseason and we go into it believing that we could be a team that can make a run,” Lillard said. “And if we don’t believe that, then we don’t have a chance. So, we were coming into this postseason not saying, ‘it’s our eighth straight,’ we’re coming in and to trying to make something happen. If we don’t, we don’t, but we’re coming in here to get something done. That’s what our plan is.”

Lillard said he couldn’t remember a time when the Blazers were playing this well heading into the postseason. That gives him hope that this team has a chance to make magic happen.

“I can’t express my desire, how badly I want to win it,” Lillard said. “I want that more than anything. Not just to say I won the championship, but I want to do it in this city. I want to have a parade on Broadway and ride past El Gaucho. Like, that’s what I think of.”

That drive, he said, kicks in every postseason.

“I’m going into it like, ‘Is this going to be the year that we shock the world?’” he said. “Two years ago, I thought it was going to happen … It just wasn’t our time. But every time we get here, that’s what my mind is on. Some people might look at it like, ‘oh they can’t do that’ or ‘they don’t have a team.’ Regardless of what’s the truth or not the truth, my mind is on the fact that I think we can do it. If everybody thinks that and everybody believes that, that’s when it happens. That’s when it can be done.”

The team is healthy (save for Zach Collins, who has missed the entire season), confident and fired up. None of that means that the Blazers will overcome the odds to win the NBA title. But, at least, once again, they have earned a chance and did so by peaking at the right time.

“It’s reassuring to know that what we’ve done over the last two or three weeks is sustainable, and, I think we have a good rhythm,” Stotts said. “We’re healthy, and that’s what you want going into the playoffs. Momentum can be pretty fleeting in the playoffs. But you’d rather have it that way than any other way.”

Note: The Blazers finished sixth despite Dallas losing at Minnesota because the Los Angeles Lakers also won at New Orleans. That created a three-way tie for fifth between the Blazers, Mavericks and Lakers. Consequently, Portland’s head-to-head tiebreakers over both became irrelevant per NBA rules. The first tiebreaker in a three-way tie goes to the division champion. Dallas won the Southwest Division. Portland finished third in the Northwest behind Utah and Denver. The Lakers finished third in the Pacific. Therefore, Dallas was awarded fifth place.

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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