Media Row Report: Blazers 102, Grizzlies 89

The Portland Trail Blazers clinched the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference by putting away a tanking Memphis Grizzlies team, 102-89, on Tuesday night in the Rose Garden. For all intents and purposes, the 2010-2011 NBA regular season is now complete; a meaningless game at the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night, in which Blazers coach Nate McMillan says he will rest key players, will officially close the books on a down-and-up season.

Entering the season's final day, though, there were still scenarios in which the Blazers could face the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks or Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. (Full breakdown here.) Uncertainty reigns for 24 more hours.

That wait will likely be more painful for anxious Blazers fans than the Blazers themselves. The locker room was jubilant tonight, as the players were glad to be able to sit back and watch the Los Angeles Lakers on a flat screen TV, the pressure of being able to influence their own destiny suddenly removed for the first time in months. 

"It's big, especially for the mental part of it," Blazers point guard Andre Miller said of clinching their spot. "Knowing what we've been throughout the season, guys being injured, sitting out. Six sounds better than eight."

Blazers center Marcus Camby echoed that sentiment, his optimism buoyed by Portland's 14-6 close to the season."I feel more excited than last year going into the playoffs," Camby said. "I think the acquisition of Gerald [Wallace] brings us more versatility and more depth, we can rely on this bench a whole more... Just the way we've been playing, the depth that we have, the acquisition of Gerald Wallace gives us more balance out there as a team."

Tuesday's result was fairly academic because Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins elected to sit forward Zach Randolph and guard Tony Allen without prior warning. The Grizzlies, as a whole, were a late-arriving group: Only veteran forward Shane Battier was out on the court getting work in early before the game. 

After the game, Hollins attributed his decision to rest Randolph and Allen to minor injuries. "I didn't want to play Zach these last two games because I wanted to get him rested. He hurt his elbow, he's got the bad knee, I just didn't want to have him out here banging for two more games when we have the playoffs going ... Tony was hurt. His knee and his ankle both swelled up on him last night. He's had injuries all year long but he's been able to play through him but I didn't want him to play through them. He would have played if I had let him."

Asked by a reporter if perhaps tanking to set up a particular playoff match-up was a factor, Hollins snapped fiercely at the notion. "Tony was hurt. Do you understand English? Tony was hurt. I chose to sit him out because he was hurt." Well then. 

With the Grizzlies giving the likes of Hamed Haddadi and Ish Smith meaningful minutes, the Blazers were eventually able to capitalize on their significant talent advantage in the second half. A key was the play of guard Rudy Fernandez, who snapped out of a week-long slump to hit four of his five three-pointers on his way to 18 points. 

"I'm so happy to play good tonight," Fernandez said, sounding genuinely relieved to rediscover his jumper, after shooting 1-15 from the field in the last three games. "I'm happy to feel good on the court with my shot and my defense." This photo by Bruce Ely of The Oregonian beautifully captures relief in motion.

Besides Fernandez, LaMarcus Aldridge did the heavy lifting -- with 22 points and 11 rebounds -- while Nicolas Batum chipped in 16 points, despite struggling with his shot. Wesley Matthews, like Fernandez, was knocking down his open shots, scoring 13 points, including three three-pointers.

When the post-game talk turned to preferred playoff opponents, the Blazers mostly clammed up. Camby provided the most thoughtful take. "All the talk I'm hearing is that we're trying to avoid the Lakers," he said. "But my take on that is in order for us to be where we want to be at the end of the year -- which is to win a championship -- we're eventually going to have to play that team. We're not ducking anybody."

In that same vein, Blazers president Larry Miller shook Bill Schonely's hand in the back hallway, smiling and saying simply: "Bring on whoever."

McMillan, meanwhile, clearly set his goal publicly: advance to the second round, something the Blazers were unable to do in 2009 and 20010. "We've been here twice. We know that that is the next step for this team," McMillan said, before waiting a half-beat. "And for me."

OK, coach, I see you with the self-imposed expectations.

Random Game Notes
  • Tonight we bid goodbye to longtime local writer Brother Wendell Maxey who is heading to Germany with his family in May. Maxey is a throwback, a natural storyteller whose pieces usually took a twist, often closed with a flourish and always, always came across in his voice. I was lucky enough to meet him in 2007 and he hasn't stopped cracking on me since. As low-key and principled a person as you'll ever meet, he promises we'll still see his work online. If you get a chance, send him a note (his website: BeyondTheBeat.Net) or a tweet (@w_maxey). Best wishes to Wendell and his family.
  • From the game notes: "Every team in the NBA will play on the final day of the regular season tomorrow for the first time since 1956-1957."
  • Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo flashed the three goggles and was roundly booed for it by the Rose Garden crowd.
  • LaMarcus Aldridge tried to give a brief "thank you" message to the crowd before the game and received a standing ovation instead. Great, validating moment for him after an All-NBA caliber season. He almost looked a touch embarrassed.
  • Luke Babbitt was deactivated to make room for new signing Earl Barron tonight. No truth to rumor that Zach Randolph, Tony Allen & Babbitt all sat on the same night so that they could play $100/hand boo ray in the locker room.    
  • Video of Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum's knee injury (via @jose3030). MRI coming tomorrow. It's being called a hyper-extension. Obviously his absence would change everything.

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Clinching

Great. We didn't play sharp basketball. I thought we lost focus when they didn't play their guys. Lionel pretty much rested some of his players. I thought we just played down to the level of the competition but we got it done, we clinched, was able to close it out and get to the sixth spot. I think it's a great accomplishment for this team, for all they had to go through, different guys having to fill in. Make adjustments, guys stepped in, played good basketball, gave us an opportunity to play post-season basketball. Now we're there, clinched the sixth spot, try to get better, our next goal is to get out of the first round.

Grizzlies resting their guys

At this time of the season you've got to know your team and how to get your team prepared for the playoffs. I don't know his reason for doing that but that is his call. He's in the playoffs. He's trying to get his guys ready for the playoffs.

Rest guys tomorrow night at Golden State?

We will look to sit some guys, get some guys some minutes. I'm going to talk to our guys and Jay [Jensen] tonight and we'll make a decision tomorrow. LaMarcus definitely.

Run in the third quarter

We needed to flip that switch on. That team was aggressive, playing pretty loose. This, the approach tonight was a closeout game. That was the mentality, the approach I wanted to see tonight. Having an opportunity to close a team out. We hope to have that opportunity in the first round, to close out a team. We really never got to that and did enough to win this game.

Rudy's shots falling

It was great. It really was. He gets too unselfish again and passes up an open shot. He has to shoot the ball. It is good to see him knock down some shots, get his confidence, hopefully that will carry over to tomorrow's game and into the playoffs.

Ceiling for this team when he plays well

It's a spark that's needed coming off the bench. His energy -- I think the team feeds off of that. When he is attacking the basket, getting to the free throw line, making plays, whether he's stealing the ball or making an assist, certainly when he's knocking down his three, he becomes a weapon out there that teams have to defend and play. He certainly spreads the floor with his ability to knock down some shots. Even though he hasn't been knocking down shots, teams still respect him and they guard him. When he's playing with LaMarcus he keeps the defense off of L.A. a lot of times.

Looking ahead to a series victory already?

Yeah no question. We've been here twice. We know that that is the next step for this team. And for me. We've been in the playoffs two years. I think this was talked about at the end of last year, getting out of the first round. We don't know who our opponent is going to be but we've been here before, most of us, if not all of us. That's the next step for us.

How are you playing right now?

Tonight -- that wasn't a good game. The fact that we're healthy. We have everybody back. We've been playing some pretty good basketball lately. I know that we're playing good basketball and we can play better. Which we're going to have to do, going into the playoffs.

Nic getting to the free throw line

Yeah, well, I thought we were settling for jumpshots tonight. They had no shotblocker in the game. That's the goal, get to the free throw line, get into the penalty early. I thought he settled a couple of times but he was able to get to the basket. You've got to make your reads. You can't force it but there were times that teams were closing out, he had the opportunity to drive, he took some contested shots and you've got to make your read and if the weight is forward as far as the closeout then attack it. They didn't really have a shotblocker, we wanted to get to the basket.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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