Damian Lillard scored 42 points and came up with a key late steal as the Portland Trail Blazers edged the Brooklyn Nets 134-133 on Thursday to keep their NBA playoff hopes alive.
The scrappy, scintillating win put the Blazers into a weekend play-in series with the Memphis Grizzlies for the final Western Conference playoff berth.
Caris LeVert, who led the playoff-bound Nets with 37 points, had a chance to deny them but missed a potential game-winning jump shot as time expired.
“So we came out here and earned another win,” said Lillard, who had scored a combined 112 points in the Blazers’ previous two games in the NBA’s season restart in a quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida.
“It feels better going into the play-in game knowing that our eight games we had to work for — so we deserve to be where we’re going.”
Portland led by two with 1:12 remaining when Lillard ran down LeVert for a steal. CJ McCollum, who scored 25 points for the Blazers, followed with a jump shot that stretched Portland’s lead to 134-130 with less than a minute to play.
LeVert responded with a three-point play, but couldn’t put it away at the end.
Despite his recent offensive exploits, Lillard said he expected a tough game from the Nets, who will face the reigning champion Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
“I knew what we were coming into tonight,” he said. “We weren’t going to come in and just get them out of there. They play with a lot of effort, they play together and they believe.”
As the eighth seed, the Blazers must beat the No. 9 Grizzlies just once to book a first-round series against the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers.
The Grizzlies need two wins, and can send the play-in series to a second game with a victory on Saturday.
The Grizzlies clinched their play-in series spot with a 119-106 victory over a depleted Milwaukee Bucks, taking full advantage of the absence of suspended Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas and Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant both posted triple doubles, Valanciunas scoring 26 points with 19 rebounds and 12 assists and Morant putting up 12 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Dillon Brooks added 31 points for the Grizzlies.
It was a heartbreaking night for the Phoenix Suns, who completed the only perfect 8-0 run in the restart with a 128-102 victory over Dallas but still failed to make the play-in series.
Devin Booker scored 23 of his 27 points in the first half, when Phoenix connected on 65.9% of their shots on the way to a 76-57 halftime lead.
The Suns led by as many as 28 points against a playoff-bound Mavs team that gave star Luka Doncic limited minutes and had Kristaps Porzingis sidelined with a foot injury.
Booker has been a revelation in the restart, averaging 30.5 points over eight games. As the Suns waited for the outcome of the Blazers game to learn their fate, he said the Suns had accomplished plenty even if they were done for the season.
“We had one objective, to get better, and we did that,” Booker said. “I think we approached this with the right mindset from the beginning, from practices, from training camp in Phoenix, from the first two weeks we got down here, everybody was locked in on all cylinders.”
The wins for Phoenix and Memphis combined to extinguish the hopes of San Antonio shortly before the Spurs took the court against the Utah Jazz.
The last time the Spurs failed to make the playoffs was 1997, and coach Gregg Popovich then presided over a 22-season run of post-season appearances that yielded five championships and a 170-114 playoff record.
After Utah’s 118-112 victory over the Spurs, Popovich praised his young team and made light of the end of the streak.
“I don’t dwell on the past,” Popovich said. “What’s important is the moment … I’m thrilled at the way they played.”
Kings beat Lakers
As the West’s four remaining playoff contenders battled it out for the two play-in berths, the Lakers coasted into the playoffs with a 136-122 loss to the Sacramento Kings.
Buddy Hield scored 28 points and Bogdan Bogdanovic added 27 as the Kings notched just their third victory in the restart.
Lakers superstar LeBron James, who was listed as “questionable” for the game with a sore right groin, scored 17 points in less than 15 minutes of action — all in the first half.
Dion Waiters led the Lakers with 19 points and Markieff Morris added 14.
“I think our guys are ready to get into that playoff environment,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “LeBron was able to get in, get a little bit of rhythm so he doesn’t have such a long layoff between games … So there were plenty of positives, but we certainly need to play better than today.”