For the Blazers, a week to rest up

The Blazers won handily over the Denver Nuggets at Moda Center last night. And it was a most meaningful victory, in that the Lakers also prevailed in New Orleans, putting Portland in a three-way tie in the final season standings with the Lakers and Dallas. By virtue of having the tiebreaker with the Lakers, the Blazers avoided this week's dreaded "play-in tournament." The Blazers are now locked into the no. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers are forced to "play in."

Portland's first-round playoff opponent will be Denver, who held on to the no. 3 seed despite losing to the Blazers last night. Denver held on because the Clippers somehow lost in Oklahoma City, thus staying at the no. 4 seed. More than a few people suspect that the Clips blew their second straight game to a weak opponent on purpose, because of the threat of a first-round matchup with the Lakers if they moved up to no. 3.

Indeed, the Nuggets' loss to Portland could be explained the same way. I said yesterday that you would be able to tell if  Denver was really trying by watching their Argentinian point guard, Facundo. (He has a last name, but if your first name is Facundo, you don't need a last name.) Facundo played only 14 minutes and had only 2 points and 2 assists last night. QED, Denver wasn't really trying.

Another suspect loss was Dallas being beaten by a mile in Minneapolis. That game would have been meaningful for Dallas only if the Lakers had lost. The Mavs went through the motions and took a loss that didn't change their no. 5 seed at all. Their main guys didn't play much. They were probably just sneaking in another night of relative rest.

Whatever the teams might have been thinking, the final standings are in, and the "play-in" experiment is about to begin. The Blazers will get to put their feet up, crack open a Biofreeze, and watch that "tournament" on TV. The Warriors play the Lakers in Los Angeles, and Memphis hosts San Antonio. The winner of Lakers-Warriors earns the no. 7 seed. The loser of Lakers-Warriors plays the winner of Memphis-San Antonio for the no. 8 seed.

But enough about them. Can the Blazers win 4 out of 7 against Denver? It sure looked like it last night. But the real Nuggets, probably absent last night, will show up in the playoffs, and they will have home court advantage. They play in mile-high elevation, and they have a playoff score to settle with Portland. They will be a tough foe, but I think the Blazers, who have flipped the switch and are peaking right now, have a real shot at taking the series.

If they do, their next opponent will be Phoenix, the Lakers, or San Francisco. And if they win that second series, their opponent in the conference final could be any one of seven teams at this point.

The "play-in" games are of interest in that they will eliminate a potential second-round playoff opponent for Portland. Whoever wins the the Warriors-Lakers game on Wednesday will play Phoenix in the real playoffs, with the winner of that playoff series playing the Blazers or Nuggets in the second round. Whoever loses the Warriors-Lakers game wouldn't play Portland (if at all) until the third round.

The Western Conference has been so crazy this year that I honestly believe the Blazers are one of a handful of teams who could find themselves in the NBA Finals out of the West. The last time the Blazers did it, I bought a T-shirt commemorating the final series. On the shirt were cartoons of Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan. I suspect the Western Conference title will go through Los Angeles, either the Lakers or the Clippers. The Blazers might have to beat at least one of them, and maybe both, before I bought my next T-shirt. 

The Clippers worry me the most, truth be told. In addition to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, nowadays they have Rajon Rondo, who wins playoff games. The team historically finds a way to self-destruct, but Rondo may be the glue that holds them together. That said, the idea that they may have tanked their last two games because they're scared of the Lakers doesn't inspire confidence, or respect.

At some point, I guess we need to see what's going on in the Eastern Conference, too, but my impression is that it's the overrated 76ers, the store-bought Nets, the choking Bucks, and everybody else, with the Heat being the sharpest of the everybody else. The Knicks are finally good, but as they say in the Racing Form, "can't run wth these." Other squads hanging around for now are the Hawks (no. 5), and "play-in" mania with Boston and Washington needing one win and Indiana and Charlotte needing two.

At the rate things are going, the playoffs will drag on past Fourth of July. I hope we're still talking about the Blazers as we're waiting for the fireworks to start.