LOS ANGELES — After the Portland Trail Blazers lost that overtime heartbreaker to the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, they awoke the next morning to a harsh reality.
The Houston Rockets and Thunder had leapfrogged them in the Western Conference standings, knocking them from third to fifth place and momentarily snatching away home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It was a not-so-subtle dose of déjà vu, a reminder that the chase for home-court advantage — and the final month of the season in general — will be tough.
“I’m fine with where we are, but we have a lot of work to do,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Look at the swings in the standings this past week. Every game has importance. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a chance to catch our breath, because it’s so tight from three through eight in the West.”
The Blazers helped their cause Tuesday night, riding the hot fourth-quarter shooting of CJ McCollum and the all-around brilliance of Damian Lillard to an impressive 125-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. But it only maintained the status quo in a playoff race that is shaping up to be as competitive as ever.
With 15 games left, the Blazers (41-26) are in fifth place in the West, neck and neck with the Thunder (41-26) and 2½ games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs (39-29). Things are so tight heading down the stretch, third place and eighth place are separated by just 4½ games. Every key team seems to be playing well. The Rockets have won nine of their last 10. The Clippers and Spurs — whom the Blazers visit on Saturday — have won seven of 10.
While the Blazers will face plenty of lightweights over the final month — they have upcoming matchups against Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and a hobbled New Orleans team, for example — eight of their final 15 opponents have winning records.
“There’s not a team in the West you want to face,” Stotts said. “Three-through-eight is still up in the air, and one and two are pretty good. There’s not anybody out there that you look forward to playing.”
Ask the Blazers, and they will tell you they feel good about two things heading into the final 15 games.
For starters, they are also playing pretty darn well, having won seven of eight since the All-Star break. But even more, there is comfort in the fact that this is not their first rodeo.
In 2016, a late-season surge lifted them to fifth place in the West and they punked an injured Clippers team in the first round of the playoffs. The next season, fueled by the addition of Jusuf Nurkic and the scorched-earth play of Lillard, they saved a lost season by sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed. Last year, before their playoff meltdown against the Pelicans, the Blazers were one of the NBA’s hottest late-season teams as they surprisingly surged toward the third seed.
“This is typical,” Lillard said of the nature of this season’s playoff chase. “I think the last four or five years it’s been like this in the West. Just really close. You drop a game, then you drop a few slots in the standings. Win a few and move up. It’s a tight race once again, like it always is. A more inexperienced team might have trouble with it — dealing with a big loss or a few losses in a row and bouncing back from it and just knowing how to handle it, as far as your mental state. But we’ve been through it; it kind of prepares you for a tight race going down the stretch.”
Added Stotts: “What I like is we’ve done it before and we know what it takes.”
This time around, the Blazers’ stretch run has been bolstered by the late-season additions of Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood, who add a mix of playoff experience, depth and experience. This is the Blazers’ deepest, most versatile and most battle-tested team in years.
So while they are in for a dogfight over the final month of the season, they also feel like they’re ready.
“I love where we are,” Lillard said. “It feels like (we are) a complete team. It feels like our style of play is very sustainable for us. We can be successful like this. I like that about the way things are right now.”