The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 100-94, at the Moda Center on Sunday, improving their record to 50-28. The victory clinched Portland's first postseason appearance since 2011 and secured the 12th 50-win season in the franchise's 44-year history.
You can celebrate in the middle of a four-story dance club, swimming through an ocean of scantily-clad 20-somethings as a techno beat rips its way through your temples and an adult beverage swirls through your body; you can celebrate in a wooden chair on an empty beach house deck, looking out at an actual ocean, with gulls, waves and silence providing the soundtrack, and a hot cocoa in hand. You can celebrate by snorting illegal drugs; you can celebrate by donating money to charity. You can celebrate a life by throwing a baby shower; you can celebrate a life by attending a funeral. You can celebrate with an unencumbered Serena Williams scream; you can celebrate with a subdued Tiger Woods fist pump.
The Blazers made a point of saying they hadn't "celebrated" their dual accomplishments on Sunday, because celebrate is a wide word that's been pigeonholed by sports. "Celebrating" is associated with loud cheering, Gatorade baths, champagne, glory, the finish line, satisfaction, contentment. A sports celebration must be so thoroughly earned that it can't be questioned, lest "Don't celebrate too soon!" or "What do they really have to celebrate?" get wielded by critics.
Following Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, the Miami Heat told reporters that they have been motivated by the yellow rope that was brought out near the court in preparation for the San Antonio Spurs' championship trophy presentation celebration. The Spurs themselves probably should have been more than enough motivation, but God forbid anyone in the entire building act as if the game and series was over before it was completely over. That's simply against the unwritten rules. Don't spike the ball before you get to the end zone; touch home plate before you enter the mosh pit; play until the buzzer sounds and the clock hits zero.
Protocol reigned in Portland's locker room -- there was no whooping or hollering, no rap music bumping, or anything than besides total, restrained dignity -- but there were peeks at a celebration. Not of contentment, for sure, but the type of reflective, contemplative celebration you might find on that empty beach house deck, or by donating to the less fortunate, or by remembering someone important that has gone.
Three Blazers remain from the 2011 team: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. The trio watched as the rest of the locker room, and the coach's office, and the training staff, and the basketball operations staff, and the business operations staff were all overhauled. Cupcakes, Crash and the Chalupa King came and went; Major minutes, microfractures and Moda all took turns grabbing headlines. Rebuilding, reloading, rumors. It's been a long three years since these guys were last in the postseason.
"It's a great feeling," Batum said. "When you watch the playoffs on TV for two years, you're kind of mad. Back in France, it's too early."
Matthews added: "It felt like one of those long time coming things. We had to make sure we made it happen [tonight]. That was our urgency and energy in the second half."
The Blazers took control against the younger, injury-riddled Pelicans during a 29-14 third quarter. The 2011 trio combined to score Portland's first nine points of the period, erasing most of New Orleans' seven-point halftime edge in doing so. All three would turn in strong performances, with Aldridge posting his best stat line in a month: a team-high 25 points (on 11-for-25 shooting), 18 rebounds, four assists and four blocks against fellow All-Star Anthony Davis.
"The last time we went to the playoffs, that was my team," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when asked if perhaps the upcoming postseason marks a new challenge for the 28-year-old forward as an unquestioned No. 1 option. "It was kind of fresh because Brandon [Roy] had gotten hurt that year, he kinda hadn't played. Playing Dallas, that was my team."
With all due respect, it was his team, but it wasn't. Aldridge was rightfully rewarded with All-NBA Third Team recognition that year, the only All-NBA selection of his career, and he was clearly Portland's workhorse and most valuable player. He began to look like a franchise player and to produce like a franchise player that season, but it wasn't his team, not in the playoffs.
Things hadn't settled; there was too much flux. Local history will always remember Brandon Roy's 18-point fourth quarter before all else; national history will remember the series as the beginning of the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks' magical, unexpected title run. Aldridge got his numbers -- 20.8 points and 7.5 rebounds -- but that had already been forgotten by the time Jason Terry was talking smack about the Los Angeles Lakers in the locker room just minutes after Dallas eliminated Portland in Game 6.
In 2011, it was his team, but it wasn't. In 2014, there's no doubt.
"This year, it might be easier [than 2011] because we've played this way all season," Aldridge said. "Maybe that can make it easier. I've played long enough, I know my job now."
He chose his words carefully, as usual. "I'm not trying to get into burdens and all that," he added. But the spanking he put on Davis, who was limited by back spasms, was a reminder of how long three years can be for a player in his prime, and how Aldridge's growth has positioned this team for a shot at winning a playoff series for the first time since 2000.
"Of course yeah, of course yeah," Batum said, in a sing-song cadence, when asked whether this team feels prepared to advance further than the 2009, 2010 and 2011 squads. "We are a good team. We know what we can do. L.A., Wes and me, we made the playoffs, we learned a little bit going through it. L.A. is now the go-to guy. I've got more experience and more stability than I had. It's going to be different but we know we can do it."
Aldridge was 26, Batum was 22 and Matthews was 24 in 2011. Then, Batum and Matthews were battling with Gerald Wallace and Brandon Roy for starting roles; now, both players have logged more than 2,600 minutes each already this season. Batum added 16 points (on 7-for-12 shooting), 12 rebounds and four assists against the Pelicans, another strong all-around night. Matthews finished with 21 points (on 7-for-13 shooting) and five rebounds, hitting three three-pointers in his all-important third scorer role.
"Everybody's gotten better," Matthews said. "I'm better than I was in 2011. Nic's better than he was in 2011. L.A. is better. We've added pieces, we're a different kind of team, we play at a different tempo. We've got a true rim protector. We've got the tools [to win a series], it's just a matter of going out and doing it. ... We've got a combination of everything that helps a team win. No real baggage. No headcases. Nothing like that. We've just got a great collection of players that make a great team."
There wasn't any confetti or streamers, but these reflections sure sounded like celebrations. That lottery life is for the birds, and the jigsaw puzzle pieces had finally come together in a way that allows these three players another shot at the postseason.
"I don't know it if I understood [what it meant to make the playoffs] as much my first two years," Matthews said. "You're young, coming out of college, I was in the NCAA tournament four straight years, so I don't know if I really respected that. [Making the playoffs] was one of those things, I assumed would happen. To not make it for the first time two seasons ago, and to not do it again, [makes] you really appreciate what this is."
Surely you can see that beach house deck now.
"I can't wait," Batum said, his head nodding up and down as a smile broke wide across his face. "The last two weeks are going to be boring a little bit. You just want to be there."
Whoosh, the waves roll in.
The thrill of Sunday's victory, the glances back at the journey, and the anticipation of the forthcoming postseason were soon joined by memories of lessons learned. Players spend the hours, days, weeks, months and years between successes in the same way as fans and media members, rewinding the good moments and the bad, searching for takeaways that might help next time.
"We can't waste turnovers and then get into the playoffs and get surprised," Batum said. "That's what happened my rookie year [in 2009]. We didn't know what playoff basketball was when we lost against the Rockets by  in the first game. Young guys like [Damian Lillard], all those young guys that haven't made the playoffs yet, they have to do it right now, because the playoffs are going to be very different."
He stopped himself briefly, as if pushing pause on Nas's "Memory Lane."
"I'm talking like an old guy," Batum realized, much to the amusement of himself and those around him.
"Oh my God, I remember that game," he continued, picking up where he had left off. "We were excited, we had 54 wins, a great season, home-court advantage. Our first game and we lost by . That was a tough one. Now we know -- we don't know who we're going to play, but we know that first game is going to be huge."
Aldridge might not have wanted to discuss burdens yet -- what with four games left in the regular season -- but his own takeaway from postseasons past was fresh on his mind.
"You just learn, every game is intense," he said. "Every possession matters, every shot matters. You learn that you can lose a game off one possession. You learn to value the ball and to value every possession."
This was a wake up at dawn type of day for the Blazers, not because the alarm clock was sounding but because there was a sunrise walk on a sandy beach waiting and thoughts that needed mulling. Years have passed since the "x" appeared next to the Blazers in the standings; years have passed since the Blazers played a do-or-die game in April.
The victory over the Pelicans and its aftermath might not have been a prototypical sports celebration, but it was absolutely a celebration.
"Fifty wins is something to be proud of," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, after reaching the threshold for the first time in his head coaching career. "We're really proud of what we've done so far, [it's] something that no one can take away from us."
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced at 20,036 (a sellout). A very loud cheer went up when public address announcer Mark Mason informed everyone that the Blazers had clinched a playoff spot. It was a goosebumps moment.
- Video highlights via YouTube user NBAshowdownHD10 are right here.
- Portland registered five steals and 11 fast break points but it felt like they had double each of those totals. I chalk that up to the self-deprivation Lent Effect. If you give up forcing turnovers on the perimeter for six months and then take off for the races a few times, it starts to taste like the first chocolate chip cookie after a no-sweets diet.
- So many kids and so many signs at this game. Signs: "Pelicans no-fly zone," "It's Lillard Time," "It's my birthday let's get a win and a title," "It's my birthday, big screen!" "The Great French Eagle," "Rock 'em Robin" "I would leave her for Robin Lopez" and "I would leave him for Robin Lopez," "Pelicans drool, Blazers rule," "Pelicans? N.O. Pelican't," "Keep Calm and Rip City," "Nice Basket Aldridge," "Blaze the Birds," "There's nothin' tame about Dame," "It's ROLO Time," "Go Mo," "Blazer Believers," "Blaze Thru The Pelicans," "Fly Robin Fly," "Make Room For Batum," "Show em the Dame Face," and "Yolo Rolo."
- In his post-game comments below, Terry Stotts said that he will continue to play for wins right now as the West's seeds aren't yet official. He also said that his top priority over the remaining four games is to get the Blazers back to "valuing possessions" like they were during their recent four-game winning streak. Portland had 15 team turnovers against New Orleans.
- The Blazers are now two games back of Houston with four to play. They don't have the tiebreaker, though, so that one is just about wrapped up. Portland is also 1.5 games up on Golden State and the Warriors still have five games to play. That remains the race to watch.
- Damian Lillard got rim-checked on a dunk but the ball still went in, which is no easy task. Lillard often looks like he's headed for a rim check but usually finds a way to get just enough lift to finish the play.
- The Nicolas Batum, to Lillard, back to Batum alley-oop sequence midway through the third quarter was as pretty as it gets.
- Poor Robin Lopez was burdened with foul trouble throughout and he was assessed a technical foul after his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. Bruce Ely of The Oregonian reported on Twitter: "Lopez sarcastically telling ref 'good job' [earned] him a [technical]. [The referee] tells him: "If you wanna keep laughing, I'll laugh last."
- They brought some crazy t-rex onto the court to promote a dinosaur show that's coming to the Moda Center in Deecmber.
- During my last Media Row Report, I noted that I interviewed Blazers president Chris McGowan for more than an hour on Friday for a periodical piece that's set to run later this month. Here are a few more notes from the interview.
- McGowan likes the team's game operations crew but he wants to take the in-game stuff to another level next season. He feels the presentation is still too generic; he brought up the idea of adding live music to the mix during games.
- McGowan has already begun strategizing for the team's next television deal, and he considers improved distribution a must-have item. He "hopes" that the deal will be worth significantly more than the current agreement with Comcast, which has three years remaining. He noted that negotiations on a new deal could begin as much as 18 months prior to the deal's conclusion.
- McGowan said it was "tough to say" whether he would have signed the current TV deal, noting that he didn't want to second-guess decisions made prior to his arrival. His body language and facial expression hinted that his real answer was closer to, "No way in Hell."
- McGowan said the biggest thing he has learned about basketball since taking over is "how physical the games are." He also marveled at the speed of the game. "Mo Williams can move."
- McGowan said he hoped he would still be in his current position 10 years from now. He said one intriguing future job would be as an NCAA athletic director, a la former Blazers executive Steve Patterson, who was recently named AD at the University of Texas.
- Asked how he wants the Blazers' business partners to describe him, McGowan said: "Accessible, involved, hard-working and innovative."
- Nicolas Batum on who the Blazers want to match up against in the playoffs: "We're in the West so I don't really care. Whoever we play is going to be tough anyway. From San Antonio to Phoenix, Memphis, Dallas, Houston. That's your job to choose and debate. That's not mine."
- Wesley Matthews said that "staying healthy and remaining healthy" was the Blazers' top priority between now and the playoffs. Asked if he wanted some extra rest before the playoffs, Matthews replied: "I want to play. I see the logic in that, the safeness in that. We're trying to lock up that fifth spot. Maybe, possibly, off-chance sneak that fourth spot. I don't know what's really going on with that, but I want to play, win out."
- Lillard on the prospect of his first postseason appearance: "I'm excited about it. When it gets closer, when we get here for the first game, or whatever locker room for the first game, I think that's when it will really hit me. Right now, we've got important games coming up. That's what we're concerned with."
- Lillard said his body feels better than last year at this time and he will do whatever Stotts wants to do when it comes to rest.
- Aldridge on 50 wins: "Fifty wins is always a big honor in this league, especially being in the West with so many good teams. It's definitely not something to take for granted. Guys are happy about it, we're happy to be locked into the playoffs. We're not satisfied with it. It was a really good night for us."
- Aldridge compared this year to previous years: "They're all special to me. I wouldn't say this one is more special than any other one. Any time you can win 50 games, it's big."
- Aldridge on whether this team is ready to take the next step this season: "This team has been tough all year, we've met most challenges this season, our chances are good. Every top team we've definitely played them well this year, that's good for us."
- Anthony Davis had 11 points in the first quarter and just four more points the rest of the way. Aldridge said the difference came down to ignoring the tendency-based scouting report: "[The reports] said he likes to go left, so I was giving him right. And he made every shot going right, so then I just stopped doing that." Simple as that, haha.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian believes Blazers GM Neil Olshey should win Executive of the Year. Portland's most-likely first-round match-up, the Houston Rockets, boasts a strong contender for that award in Daryl Morey.
- It was so depressing that former Blazers forward Luke Babbitt, making his first return to Portland, was the only healthy member of the Pelicans to receive a DNP-CD. I hate to break it to Monty Williams, but that decision just broke a tie between him and Kaleb Canales for most popular former Blazers assistant. This was a legacy-altering coaching move. Give the people what they want! Kaleb, you're in sole possession of first place now.
- Big, big kudos to Brian Roberts for atoning for Williams' coaching decision by fouling Lillard with less than three seconds remaining, even though New Orleans was trailing by five points. That decision gave Lillard the chance to deliver free McMuffins from the charity stripe in the game's closing seconds. Now that's a fan-friendly move by Roberts.
- There were some cheers as Roberts ensured the free food, but no chants of any kind.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Fifty wins is something to be proud of. I told the team, 50 wins has always been a standard, a bar in this league. I think the Trail Blazers have been such a great franchise and it's only the 12th one. We're really proud of what we've done so far, something that no one can take away from us. I don't think anyone in the locker room is satisfied with where we are. It's an accomplishment and we need to enjoy it and get ready for [Sacramento] on Wednesday.
Was there a celebration or an acknowledgement after the game?
An acknowledgement. There wasn't hoo-rah or whooping it up. It was a win we needed to have. Like we said going in the season, making the playoffs was a goal but we weren't going to be satisfied with just making the playoffs.
Sluggish in first half, turned the screws later
It's the definition of your first half. First quarter we got off to a good start, kind of back and forth. Second quarter we got a little loose with the ball, I don't if it was necessarily sluggish. I really liked the energy we had in the third quarter. I thought Dorell Wright came in and gave us a spark. Robin [Lopez] being sidelined with foul trouble obviously changed the dynamics of the game in the first half. He had an impact on the game until he got his fifth foul. We were just kind of patching it together in the first half. I really liked the way we played in the third quarter.
LaMarcus Aldridge's defense
L.A. was great. He had some blocks, his rebounding, he had good hands. He's a really good communicator out on the court, he knows angles. I've said this a few times -- I think his defense is underrated. He's always locked into the game plan. He knows personnel. He can bother shots and he can rebound.
What's focus now?
We're not prepping for the playoffs. We want to keep going in the right direction. Like I told the team, our four-game recent win streak was about the process of getting better and going in the right direction. For us, that's the most important thing. Right now, I'm not worried about the playoffs. I'm concerned about Sacramento, they played Dallas tough tonight. I like accumulating wins. I like improving our playoff seed. It's not looking at match-ups or anything, but I think it builds confidence when you play well.
Did you discuss Memphis/San Antonio score at halftime?
Process of constructing this roster to suit your coaching style
I've said it many times -- getting Robin Lopez was a perfect fit for our team, getting Mo Williams was a perfect fit for our team. Getting Dorell Wright gives us the ability to play three or four. The young guys have improved. Those three guys in particular fit what we needed. We needed coming into the season, we needed a defensive-minded center, we needed a back-up point guard, and we needed scoring off the bench. [GM] Neil [Olshey] did a terrific job addressing those needs.
Did you see this coming earlier in the season?
I'm a little reluctant to do a retrospective on the season already. I'd rather look forward to Sacramento. I think we all felt like this could be a special year. It's a marathon and it's not over yet.
What was it about the team that made you think this would be a special year?
The four guys starters coming back from last year, they all showed last year how competitive we were with them on the court. The fact that we were able to bolster the roster with Robin and Mo in particular, also Thomas [Robinson] and Dorell. I felt like we had more depth. We were able to get the minutes down. I didn't necessarily foresee Joel Freeland making the jump that he did. Joel has kind of got lost in this whole thing because of his injuries. He's had a major influence on our play until he got hurt.
I felt like the players we had coming back from last year, with the additions, I didn't see any reason why we couldn't be competitive.
What do you want to see the rest of the regular season?
The biggest thing I enjoyed about the four-game winning streak was how in tune we were -- there was a sense of, I don't want to say desperation, but there was a seriousness that we stayed focused throughout the game. I thought that four-game stretch, we had fewer lulls throughout those games than any four-game stretch throughout the season. That's what you need to do in the playoffs. We've clinched a playoff spot -- the challenge is to maintain that edge, that's going to be the biggest thing going into the playoffs, valuing every possession. The playoffs are more of a mental grind than a physical grind. Sustaining that is going to be what I'm going to be looking for more than anything.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter