Having clinched a playoff berth with a home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, the Portland Trail Blazers now focus on winning out for a shot at the fifth seed. They have two games remaining on their schedule; one against the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 9 and one against the Denver Nuggets on April 13. The Trail Blazers (43-37) are favored in both match-ups.
Although the team’s approach to these games has not changed, players are eager for the postseason; especially fourth-year forward Moe Harkless, who has yet to experience the NBA playoffs firsthand. There is no doubt that his mind is in the present, but he was visibly excited to talk about what comes next at the Trail Blazers practice on Friday.
"You dream of this when you’re a kid," Harkless said, "being on a playoff team—starting on a playoff team. Stuff like that is surreal, but I think I’m ready for it and I’m looking forward to it."
Harkless, who was in and out of rotation for much of the season, started receiving more consistent minutes when teammate Noah Vonleh suffered an ankle sprain on February 2. Harkless performed well in his allotted time and was later rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup. Through 12 starts this season, he has averaged 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game; figures that would make him the team’s third-best scorer and rebounder if sustained for the full season. The Trail Blazers boast a 9-3 record with him in this prominent role.
Harkless had similar spurts during his three-year stint with the Orlando Magic, but they were short-lived due to fluctuating involvement and arguable mismanagement by then head coach Jacque Vaughn. With the trust of Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, Harkless is experiencing unprecedented individual and team success; something that is not lost on him as he notes a sense of purpose.
"It’s an amazing feeling." He said, smiling. "I was telling the guys on the team the other day, at this point last year, my season was already over. It was over a month ago. So this is a lot of fun where every game counts, we’re locked in still every game, and we’re not just playing for no reason. We’re actually playing for something. That’s big."
In fact, this marks the first time that Harkless has been a part of a team that has won more than 25 games, much less achieved a winning record or earned a playoff berth. His late-season breakout had a direct impact on the Blazers’ success, and now he gets to show why on the biggest stage of his young career. He deserves to be happy about that.
Yet, there is no mistaking the challenges ahead. He knows it, and his teammates know it. The playoffs are not a prize, they are a test. The Trail Blazers come in much younger than most, with minimal experience in many cases. Team leader Damian Lillard is prepared for his third postseason trip and had some words of wisdom for Harkless and the rookies.
"I’d just tell them that in the playoffs, players got to play. Teams going to know sets, it’s not like they got a back-to-back and they got to go see another team—they just focused on you—so they’ll know the plays, they’ll know tendencies." Lillard imparted. "The things that work during the regular season probably won’t work as well. It’s going to be a lot more physical."
Stotts echoed Lillard’s sentiment, when queried.
"The intensity goes up, the focus, the ‘every possession’ mentality. It’s a different level. That’s why I’m always a little reluctant to compare a regular season game to a playoff game, because you have to be in a playoff game to understand. The crowd’s into it, everybody in the league is watching your games. It’s just a different thing that they have to experience themselves."
Soon enough, Harkless will get his opportunity to experience and understand the playoffs for himself—something that’s been on his mind for a long time. Continued high-level play in the postseason proving grounds could help him establish himself in this league after a shaky start. Although the Blazers’ first round opponent has not yet been decided, Game 1 is a mere eight days away.