The Portland Trail Blazers could be entering a make-or-break stretch when they open a six-game homestand with a crucial matchup against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday night.
Both teams are 3 1/2 games behind the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs are another half-game behind.
Portland is just 11-23 on the road, which raises the stakes for a homestand that includes a key game against the Grizzlies on Thursday.
But first the Trail Blazers need to move on from a disappointing 127-117 road loss against the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.
“I can assure you we were trying to win, just didn’t play well,” shooting guard CJ McCollum said afterward. “They came out with more energy, they made shots, we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well to start, and then we got behind the 8-ball.”
Portland never led, and it trailed by as many as 26 points during the subpar effort. The club also had no answer for Phoenix big man Aron Baynes, who established career highs of 37 points and nine 3-pointers.
Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside had 23 points, 20 rebounds and four blocked shots but also was one of the players who couldn’t extinguish Baynes’ hot hand.
“He had a career night, bro. It happens,” Whiteside told reporters. “He took 23 shots. He got hot. Once he hit a step back over (Damian Lillard), I knew he was feeling good.”
McCollum, who had 25 points and eight assists, has scored 20 or more points in 10 straight games.
Lillard shot just 6-for-16 against Phoenix while playing in his second contest after sitting out six with a groin injury. Lillard is averaging 23 points in his two games back.
Sacramento has dropped 12 straight games in Portland since last winning there on Dec. 8, 2012.
The Kings had won six of their past seven games before falling 125-108 at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.
Sacramento committed 18 turnovers in an effort that greatly disappointed coach Luke Walton.
“It was kind of how we approached the game for some reason,” Walton said of his club’s play. “There’s always going to be turnovers that the other team forces, but it seems like there were four or five that were completely uncharacteristic of us.”
The Kings are certainly aware of the importance of the current stretch of game. They return home for four games after the stop in Portland.
Sacramento has missed the playoffs in each of the past 13 seasons, and that only raises the stakes.
“Teams are fighting for position and fighting to get in,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said, “so everybody is playing with more of a sense of urgency. You kind of feel it tighten up a little bit.”
After the upcoming homestand, Sacramento faces a four-game road trip.
Taking care of business now is crucial in the eyes of shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic.
“In this league, you can’t relax — that’s what I learned, there’s no space to relax,” Bogdanovic said. “All the teams and all the players are here for a reason, and everyone is ready to step up and have a big night.”
Fox scored 23 points against Philadelphia while backup shooting guard Buddy Hield scored 22 to halt a stretch of six straight games of being held under 20.
The Kings also could get back power forward Richaun Holmes (shoulder) next week. He last played on Jan. 6.
The Trail Blazers are preparing for the pending return of center Jusuf Nurkic, who hasn’t played since badly breaking his lower left leg late last season. He is targeting March 15 against the Houston Rockets as his first game back.
Nurkic’s return would give the Trail Blazers a second strong big man to go with Whiteside, who has eight games of 20 or more boards this season.
–Field Level Media