LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — A fourth consecutive down-to-the-wire finish, a fourth consecutive win for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They needed all that just to get into the playoffs.
Damian Lillard scored 31 points, CJ McCollum had 14 of his 29 in the fourth quarter — including a pair of big jumpers over Ja Morant late — and the Blazers clinched the NBA’s final playoff spot by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 126-122 on Saturday.
Portland’s reward: a matchup with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, starting Tuesday. Jusuf Nurkic had 22 points and 21 rebounds for the winners, who got 21 points from Carmelo Anthony.
Morant scored 35 for Memphis, which got a 22-point, 16-rebound day from Jonas Valanciunas and 20 points apiece from Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke.
It was the start, and the end, of the Western Conference play-in series — a wrinkle the NBA added to the restarted season because the coronavirus pandemic meant no team would play its allotted 82 games. Portland finished eighth in the West, Memphis was ninth, and the Grizzlies needed to sweep a two-game matchup to advance.
They had a chance, up eight in the final quarter, before Portland did what Portland does in the bubble — find a way at the end. The Blazers’ last four wins have come by a combined 11 points.
Nurkic, playing with a heavy heart because of his grandmother’s death, grabbed an offensive rebound and wound up converting a three-point play with 2:39 left to put Portland on top for good.
McCollum connected on a 3-pointer and another long jumper late, both times guarded by Morant, to ensure Portland kept the lead, and Anthony’s 3-pointer with 20.2 seconds left was the last big shot the Blazers needed.
Nurkic revealed on Instagram about 90 minutes before the game that his grandmother, back in his native Bosnia, had died. His post did not disclose the cause of death, but Nurkic said last month that she had tested positive for COVID-19 and briefly slipped into a coma in recent days.
“People don’t understand how serious this … is,” Nurkic said at the time, referring to the virus.
Nurkic had one foul in the game’s first 39 minutes.
He then committed three in a span of 19 seconds between the 8:50 and 8:31 mark of the final quarter — two of them offensive fouls, the second of those costing Portland a timeout and its challenge, which was unsuccessful.
That’s when Memphis got on its best roll, but the Grizzlies couldn’t finish it off.
Memphis led 94-89 going into the fourth quarter, the last three points in that five-point margin coming on a brilliant recovery by Morant.
The soon-to-be Rookie of the Year attacked the rim, his drive thwarted by the outstretched arms of Blazers 7-footer Hassan Whiteside. Morant, undeterred, simply ran down the loose ball and tapped it out to the right corner where Clarke connected on a 3-pointer.
Grizzlies: Memphis got down by 16 in the first quarter, then erased the entire deficit and more in a span of 4:48 — turning that deficit into a 36-33 lead with a 22-3 run. … The Grizzlies’ 42-point third quarter matched the second-highest scoring period of the season for Memphis and was the second-highest scoring third quarter in franchise history. They had 46 in the third against the Lakers on Jan. 9, 2007.
Trail Blazers: Nurkic’s previous first-half high for rebounds was 12. He had 17 at the break on Saturday, while none of his teammates had more than one. … Lillard was briefly shaken up when Valanciunas’ knee fell on the back of his neck during a second-quarter scrum for a loose ball. Lillard remained in the game.
Among the players in attendance: Miami’s Meyers Leonard (a former Portland center) and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo. NBA players are permitted to request access to other games within the Disney bubble, when schedules allow. Lakers assistant Jason Kidd was also at the game, as was National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts.
The Lakers went 2-1 against the Blazers this season, with the road team winning all three games. Anthony Davis (32.0 ppg) and LeBron James (24.7 ppg) led the Lakers; Lillard (36.0 ppg) and Whiteside (22.0 ppg) led the Blazers.
The Blazers will go on to face the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
Lillard wins Bubble MVP, Williams picked as top coach
Portland’s Damian Lillard has been unanimously selected as the top player of the NBA’s seeding games at Walt Disney World, after averaging a league-best 37.6 points in the eight games.
Phoenix’s Monty Williams, who led the Suns to a perfect 8-0 record in the bubble, was chosen as the top coach of the seeding-game schedule.
Joining Lillard on the first team for games played at Disney between July 30 and Friday’s end of the seeding-game season was Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Indiana’s T.J. Warren, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Houston’s James Harden.
Booker was second in the Bubble MVP race, with Warren third.
Second-team selections were Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert, Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. and Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis.
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports