LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard rose up and hit a 3-pointer while being fouled to put Portland ahead by two with 2:53 remaining in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, he turned and looked at the scoreboard.
“I just remember looking up there because I wanted to get to the point where we took the lead and then just keep the lead instead of playing from behind. Because that’s uncomfortable to be like, ‘You’re down two. If they score, they can go up 5 if they make a shot.’
“So I just looked up there like, ‘OK, now let’s walk away from them. Let’s close the game out. Let’s stop messing around with our season.’ That’s really what I was thinking when I looked up there. Like, ‘All right. Let’s do this.'”
Lillard proceeded to do just that. After missing two free throws and a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the final 20 seconds of Saturday’s loss to the LA Clippers, he responded by scoring 51 points while adding seven assists in 40 minutes to power the Blazers to a 124-121 victory over the Sixers inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort.
With the victory, Portland moved within a half-game of the Memphis Grizzlies — who lost to the Toronto Raptors earlier Sunday — for eighth place in the Western Conference and eliminated the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings — both of whom lost Sunday — from contention for a spot in the league’s first play-in tournament.
It looked for a significant stretch of the fourth quarter like Portland might suffer a disappointing loss to an undermanned opponent for a second day in a row. After losing to the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard rested for the whole game and Paul George on the bench in the dying moments, the Sixers — already without star Ben Simmons because of a left knee injury — lost Joel Embiid six minutes into the game because of a left ankle injury.
Yet the Blazers saw their offense grow stagnant thanks to tired legs in the second half, and the Sixers — led by 28 points from Josh Richardson — made a push and took a 114-108 lead on a Richardson 3-pointer with 4:23 remaining.
Portland responded with 12 unanswered points over the next two minutes — capped by seven straight points from Lillard on the and-one 3-pointer and a pull-up triple on the next possession — that gave the Blazers the lead for good and allowed Lillard to bounce back from Saturday’s disappointment.
“I don’t think anyone thinks anything less of Dame because he missed free throws,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Tonight, he showed his determination and will that he’s shown throughout his career.
“I don’t think anybody was concerned about how he was going to come out and play tonight.”
The same could be said for center Jusuf Nurkic, who gave the Blazers 15 points and six rebounds in 29 minutes while playing in the first back-to-back games he has participated in since his return from the gruesome leg injury he suffered last season.
“I was not prepared for the back-to-back,” said Nurkic, who said he decided to play after Hassan Whiteside was ruled out for a second straight game because of a hip injury. “After that loss, I couldn’t afford not to play. So I tried to fight through, and I’m glad we won this one. We know our season is on the line right now, and we can afford no more losses.”
The Blazers have two games remaining: Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks and Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets. If Portland wins both, it is guaranteed a place in the play-in tournament, which starts at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on ABC.
Thanks to Lillard’s heroics, he was both able to erase Saturday’s disappointment and move Portland one win closer to achieving the goal of making something out of this opportunity by making the playoffs, a goal Lillard set for the Blazers before they arrived in Florida.
“After the game, I was irritated with myself,” Lillard said. “I was frustrated. But it is what it is. I talked with one of my best friends, and he was like, ‘This happened for a reason. You’ve had a lot of big moments, and you usually come out on top. … You’ve got to expect there to be some type of balance. You’ve got to expect that sometimes you’re going to have to respond to some type of adversity.’
“I had a chance to get back on the court today, so I moved from it.”
A small part of the victory was Carmelo Anthony, one of the best scorers in NBA history, moving past John Havlicek and Paul Pierce and into 15th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Anthony said that isn’t something he is going to celebrate right now, as Portland fights for a playoff spot and the NBA’s players are making a push to end racial inequality and promote social justice.
“Well, first of all, it’s an honor, and I’m blessed to still be able to do it,” Anthony said postgame. “To reach that top 15, I wouldn’t take it for granted. Some greats on there.
“[But] it’s kind of hard to celebrate that at this moment. I appreciate it … it’s a great milestone. I don’t want to downplay it. [But] it’s very hard to harp on it and talk about it when you’re still in this dogfight because there is so much we have to accomplish.”