There’s an old song that goes: “what a difference a day makes, 24 little hours.” Yup, in a matter of hours, the leaderboard has rocked and rolled. It is the homestretch, and it’s the Blazers – with the unstoppable guns of gametime Damian Lillard – blazing the trail for the last seat to the playoffs. Indeed, what a difference a Dame makes!
With just 1 game each left for the 4 hopefuls for this year’s NBA playoffs, it looks like we have a photo-finish in the making in the Western Conference. Attention has now shifted from the league-leading Bucks (56-16) and the showtiming Lakers (52-18).
The spotlight now focuses on the 4 bloodied but unbowed gladiators still engaged in mortal combat. The Portland Trail Blazers (34-39), with the dazzling Dame demolishing the opponents. The Memphis Grizzlies (33-39), with Ja Morant jamming more runs. The Phoenix Suns (33-39), with the divine Devin Booker booking 7 straight wins for a fabulous Phoenix finish. And the San Antonio Spurs (32-38), with the X-Men’s Professor X disguised as coach Pop, willing his band of non-stars into the playoff equation. At stake is the 8th and last seed in the West, and the chance to exchange elbows with Lebron and the mighty LA Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
For their final restart games on Thursday, the Blazers take on a lighter assignment in the Brooklyn Nets; the Grizzlies go up against the league leaders themselves, the Milwaukee Bucks; the Suns trade shots with the Dallas Mavericks, and the Spurs face the Utah Jazz.
After the final games, an NBA-agreed ‘play-in’ insert will have the 8th place team collide with the 9th place team for the final spot in the playoffs. With the 8th place team enjoying a ‘twice-to-beat’ advantage.
With Damian Lillard chalking back-to-back 50-plus games, and a rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony providing support fire, the Blazers are taking centerstage in the battle for the last slot. It is a clear statement to the Lakers that facing the Blazers will not be a picnic come the playoffs. Dame’s 61-point rampage against the Dallas Mavs – his 3rd 60-plus game for the season – carried the Blazers, who were then facing the great certainty of elimination. Dame’s heroics are nothing new to the Blazers, having rode on his back for the past so many playoffs. Now, all they need is a win over the Brooklyn Nets, and they have the 8th spot and a favored place in the play-in mini-series.
At the start of the shortened series, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies seemed like a cinch for the 8th spot. But consecutive mishaps allowed the rest to cut the lead, with the Blazers eventually surging ahead yesterday, with just a game left to play. Today’s match-up against the Milwaukee Bucks will be a crucial character game for the young Grizzlies. But win or lose, they will have learned valuable lessons that will help them in their future battles.
The Phoenix Suns, on the other hand, have sustained a fantastic charge of 7 consecutive wins in the shortened restart, a feat no other team has been able to match. With Booker displaying all-star form, the Suns have kept their hopes alive for a playoff spot. Along with the San Antonio Spurs, these teams’ over-achieving ways have made the battle even tougher.
But it is Dame’s late heroics that are causing recurring nightmares for opposing teams. The cage world has marveled at the tons of highlight reels of the Dame burying dramatic buzzer-beaters and engineering game-changing offensives. This year has been no less spectacular. With a super-focused Dame, expect the Blazers to be in the thick of the post-season fight.
The season’s play-in for the 8th and final playoff spot is coming soon this weekend. My crystal ball says it will be the Blazers against either the Grizzlies or the Suns. Expect the Dame to play a crucial role, if not the most important role, in the ensuing drama. Watch for it.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover pic courtesy of ClutchPoints. Other photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, Arizona Sports, Pounding the Rock, The Boston Globe, Blazers’ Edge, The Commercial Appeal, Azcentral.com, Reddit, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and Hoops Habit.