Slipping into ‘play-in’ territory, Blazers visit Pacers
By losing five consecutive games and nine of their past 11, the Portland Trail Blazers have slipped to seventh place in the Western Conference.
Portland (32-28) hopes to halt its skid Tuesday night when it travels to Indiana to face the Pacers (29-31), who are staying afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff chase despite the absence of multiple key players.
Both teams are now positioned to play in the NBA’s new play-in tournament among the 7-10 seeds in each conference, which would seem to be fine for the surviving Pacers (in ninth place in the East), but quite the comedown for Portland, which has made the playoffs seven years in a row.
The Blazers, after all, were 29-18 on April 1, in sixth place and just a half-game out of fourth. Now, they have to finish strong to avoid the extra game or two required to actually get into the playoff bracket.
Indiana, meantime, has won three in a row and is 3-2 while missing Domantas Sabonis (back strain) since April 18. The Pacers were also without Myles Turner (foot), Jeremy Lamb (knee) and Goga Bitadze (ankle) on Sunday, but still beat Orlando 131-112.
Malcolm Brogdon picked up the slack with 24 points, and Edmond Sumner had 21 points for the Pacers, who made 15 three-pointers and shot 54.9 percent overall.
“Everyone’s aware of the standings and that there are so many teams bunched up together,” Indiana coach Nate Bjorkgren said. “Every game is important, and the opponent doesn’t matter who you play because every team is good.
“Our guys just want to continue playing the way that we are — moving the ball and fighting like crazy on the defensive end.”
Sumner, a fourth-year guard out of Xavier University, has started the past four games and sparked the Pacers offensively, averaging 15 points and 2.8 assists during that stretch while shooting 56.1 percent overall and 53.8 percent from 3-point range.
“He just puts so much pressure on the defense after makes and misses,” Bjorkgren said. “Guys want to get him the ball in the open court.”
The Pacers’ three wins during their current streak have come against non-playoff contenders Orlando, Oklahoma City and Detroit.
The Blazers present a tougher obstacle as they try to climb back into one of the top six spots and avoid having to play in the play-in tournament. Portland hopes star guard Damian Lillard can return to form soon.
Lillard finished with 23 points, six rebounds and five assists Sunday in a 120-113 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Since returning from a three-game absence due to a hamstring issue, Lillard is averaging 24.0 points and 5.0 assists — below his season averages before the issue of 28.4 points and 7.5 assists.
“Right now, I’m not really sure,” Lillard said about his recent struggles. “The only thing I can do is look in the mirror at myself, evaluate myself. Just not playing well enough. I’ve just got to be better.”
Lillard is also shooting 34.7 percent from the field and 29.0 percent from 3-point range over the last three games – well below his season marks of 43.4 and 37.4.
“He’s missing some shots that he normally makes, but I think that he’s competing,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “His ankle is a little bit sore today from the last game. But that’s what I see.”
–Field Level Media