Lillard, Trail Blazers look to drive past Rockets

The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Portland Trail Blazers have put themselves in the driver's seat in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Now the Trail Blazers have to stay on course.

Portland (36-38) edged ahead of Denver (35-39) with a 122-113 victory over the Nuggets on Tuesday night at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won the season series 3-1, which is the tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same record.

Portland has six of its final eight games at home, beginning Thursday night against the Houston Rockets. The Nuggets will play six of their last eight games on the road.

"You're in the driver's seat when you control your own destiny," Portland's Damian Lillard said. "We got in the driver's seat after the Lakers' game (a 97-81 win Sunday), but we didn't have the keys to the car.

"(Tuesday) was a battle for the keys to the car. We got the keys; now we have to control where it's going. We know what the destination is, but we have to make sure to stay locked in to get it to where we need to go."

Portland has won 12 of its last 15 games. Guard C.J. McCollum scored 39 points against Denver, but the spotlight was on center Jusuf Nurkic, who recorded a career-high 33 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots against the team that traded him in February.

"I knew he'd be ready to play," McCollum said. "He's had this game circled since he got here. We have a slogan for the big Nurk: 'From the bench to the playoffs.' We knew he'd be aggressive, he'd be efficient. He did what we expected."

It's not clear what kind of lineup Houston (51-23) will field when it visits Moda Center. Guard James Harden is struggling with a sore left wrist, and coach Mike D'Antoni may choose to rest him Thursday night. Forward Ryan Anderson is already out for most of the rest of the regular season with a sprained ankle.

Harden made only 5 of 20 shots in a 113-106 loss to Golden State on Tuesday night, but he finished with 24 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for his 20th triple-double of the season. It's the first time in NBA history that two players (Harden and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook) have had at least 20 triple-doubles in the same season.

If it's up to Harden, he'll play against the Trail Blazers. Harden said he is determined to play in every game this season.

"I think it matters, because you aren't leaving your teammates out to dry," he told the Houston Chronicle. "I worry about always having my teammates' back. No matter what, I am always going to be out there unless I'm injured. For the coaching staff, the fans, the front office, I am here to play.

"It's my job to make my teammates better. As long as I can do that at a high level, everybody eats."

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