LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When the idea of the NBA creating a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort was first floated, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard had one request: if he was asked to come play in Florida, that the NBA give him the opportunity to make the playoffs.
Lillard and the Blazers were given that opportunity — and he made sure they took advantage of it.
While it might not have been of the same vintage as his 51- and 61-point explosions in the prior two games, Lillard finished with 42 points Thursday night — including 12 in the fourth quarter — as Portland eked out a 134-133 victory over the Brooklyn Nets to earn the second spot in the league’s inaugural play-in tournament this weekend.
Portland has to win just one of the two potential play-in games — Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET, both on ABC — against the Memphis Grizzlies in order to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, have to win both games to make the postseason.
While the two teams in the hunt for play-in tournament spots that won earlier Thursday — the Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns — scored victories against depleted Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks teams, respectively, that were preparing for the playoffs, the Blazers got a full effort from the Nets.
Brooklyn will be playing the Toronto Raptors beginning Tuesday in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but after the Nets have had guys in and out of the lineup over the past several weeks, they chose to play their full rotation its typical allotment of minutes in order to prepare for the postseason.
“We’ll have our starting lineup that we’ve had the last couple games and see how those guys progress,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said before the game. “We’ll monitor those guys — but it’s about us having a rhythm and kind of progression as we lead into the playoffs.
“So we’ll assess the game, see what the game renders, but those guys have the mental makeup right now that they’re playing a competitive basketball game.”
The Nets certainly kept that focus throughout, as Caris LeVert (37 points on 16-for-29 shooting, with 9 assists) led Brooklyn to a 10-point lead late in the third quarter, as the Nets as a team shot a scorching 59.7% from the field through three quarters against Portland’s flammable defense that entered Thursday’s game ranked 21st in defensive efficiency.
But Portland, as it did against both Philadelphia and Dallas, fought back, and took the lead with 1 minute, 47 seconds remaining on a layup by Jusuf Nurkic that made it 132-130 Portland, and CJ McCollum doubled the lead with a free throw line jumper with 53.4 seconds left following a frenetic sequence that saw both Nurkic and Lillard diving on the floor for loose balls.
The Blazers gave up a multitude of offensive rebounds in the fourth, however, and it appeared that would come back to cost Portland dearly when LeVert scored over Nurkic, plus a foul, with 37.7 seconds left, cutting Portland’s lead to 134-133.
Portland had a chance to seal the game when Carmelo Anthony had a wide-open look in the corner that would’ve pushed the lead back to four, but Anthony missed. Brooklyn then came down and chose to play for the win, with LeVert isolated against McCollum — whom he’d relentlessly attacked in the fourth quarter.
But though LeVert got off a quality shot, it went wanting, and the Blazers escaped with their playoff lives — and live to fight again Saturday.