For the first time in 22 years, the Portland Trail Blazers will be on the outside looking in at the postseason.
That doesn’t mean they can’t have an influence on the Western Conference playoff race.
The Blazers will try to play spoiler in their regular-season finale against the Los Angeles Lakers, who are still looking to win the Pacific Division title.
Denver officially eliminated Portland by beating Sacramento on Monday night, shortly before the Blazers suffered a 78-66 setback to the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Portland’s 21-season playoff streak was the longest active run in the league, and just one shy of the NBA record.
Despite the defeat, Portland coach Maurice Cheeks believes the Blazers laid the foundation for a bright future during a season in which they dealt away disgruntled players such as Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells.
“I know there’s a lot of disappointed people out there since we didn’t make the playoffs, but my message to them is that I think we’ve got something special here to build on,” Cheeks said.
A win over the highly touted Lakers, battling for the No. 2 seed in the West with Sacramento, would doubtlessly be a strong closing act for the Blazers.
Los Angeles kept its hopes of winning the Pacific and earning the No. 2 seed in the West by beating Golden State 109-104 on Tuesday.
Kobe Bryant, coming off an eight-point performance in Sunday’s critical 102-85 loss at Sacramento, scored a season-high 45 points on 14-of-29 shooting. He also hit 17-of-18 free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and handed out eight assists as the Lakers forged a first-place tie with the Kings atop the division.
Sacramento holds the tiebreaker advantage over Los Angeles, putting the pressure on the Lakers to beat the Blazers and hope for a Kings loss in Golden State on Wednesday.
Los Angeles, currently one game behind third-place San Antonio in the conference standings, could earn the No. 3 seed with a win and a Spurs loss to Denver by virtue of a 3-1 advantage in the season series with the defending NBA champions.
Bryant, who came under criticism for his effort against the Kings, denied that he had purposely played poorly after coach Phil Jackson suggested he had been shooting too often in previous games.
“I’ll take full responsibility for us losing the game,” Bryant said prior to Tuesday’s game. “Sabotaging the game? That’s ridiculous. I don’t go out there and toss games. Are you kidding me? There is no way I would disrespect the game like that.”