Simply making the playoffs would have been a step in the right direction for the young Portland Trail Blazers. A late surge, however, has set the bar higher for them.
The Blazers continue their battle for home-court advantage in the first round as they try for their ninth win in 10 games in a matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.
Portland (52-28) has clinched its first postseason berth since the 2002-03 season with its highest win total since going 59-23 in 1999-2000.
The remarkable season for the youthful Blazers is a result of a roster overhaul in 2006. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge - the team’s top two scorers - were drafted that summer, and Portland also starts rookie forward Nicolas Batum while relying heavily on rookie reserves Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden.
Despite their inexperience, the Blazers - who missed the playoffs with a .500 record last season - have established themselves as contenders in the deep Western Conference. By winning eight of nine, they’ve climbed from seventh place to tied for the third-best record in the conference.
Portland continued its rise with an 87-72 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night. The Blazers struggled early after pulling out a home win over the conference-best Los Angeles Lakers the previous night, but held off the Clippers for their fourth straight victory.
“We weren’t sharp, but we kept fighting and we had some guys to step up in the second half and break it open. If I had a hat, I would tip it to our guys because they’ve just been gutting it out,” coach Nate McMillan said.
“To pull out this game tonight after an emotional game in our building last night against the Lakers and just find a way to stay together and win was huge for us.”
That was the fourth game in five nights for the Blazers, who hope to benefit from an off-day Sunday. McMillan said rest has been integral to his club’s success down the stretch.
“We’ve worked on recovery all year long and giving guys days off and that has really come into play this last month,” he said.
Oklahoma City, another of the NBA’s youngest teams, was also off Sunday after playing four games in five days. The Thunder (22-58) went 1-3 in that stretch and have dropped 12 of 16.
Oklahoma City has also lost four straight at the Rose Garden, where the Blazers are 32-7 this season. Roy led six Portland players in double figures with 22 points in a 106-92 win over the Thunder on Feb. 11, the teams’ first meeting at the Rose Garden.
This will be the fourth matchup between Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Oden, the second and first overall picks in the 2007 draft, respectively. Durant, last season’s Rookie of the Year, has averaged 21.3 points despite getting held to 41.5 percent shooting in those head-to-head matchups.
Oden, who missed all of last season while recovering from microfracture knee surgery, has scored 9.3 points and grabbed 6.7 rebounds in three games - two starts - against Oklahoma City in 2008-09.
The Blazers finish the regular season with a home game against Northwest Division-leading Denver on Wednesday. The Thunder close on the road against the Clippers that night.