Wild NBA night leads into league’s first play-in tournament


Damian Lillard crossed half court and connected from the logo. Gregg Popovich did a convincing Donald Trump impersonation. Ja Morant showed he can do it all. And a choked up Monty Williams addressed the bubble’s biggest underdog, the undefeated Phoenix Suns, knowing that eight straight might not be enough.

It all converged Thursday night, four teams separated in the standings by an eyelash fighting for two spots. By the time the day was done, the season was over for the Suns and the Spurs, with Portland, led by Lillard’s 42 points, and Memphis headed for the NBA’s first ever play-in tournament this weekend.

It was an unquestioned success, a tension-filled day of basketball for teams on the fringes of the playoff race.

It was strange to see Popovich and his Spurs walk away from the four-team crash without a postseason berth — the first time that’s happened since 1997. The Spurs’ playoff hopes were decided before they even played — eliminated after wins by Phoenix and Memphis.

And the team they had on the court, mostly rookies and unknowns, would’ve been unrecognizable as “Spurs” had it not been for their coach playing all the hits Thursday — a mixture of good-natured teasing combined with general annoyance with the media, presidential criticism and a lack of frivolous sentimentality.

Asked about the 22-season playoff streak coming to an end, Popovich shot back by asking “What streak?”

“I don’t have any thoughts,” he said in a postgame video conference. “It doesn’t enter my mind.”

“It means a lot to a lot of people, probably. But I don’t dwell on the past. … What’s important is the moment. You do what you’ve got to do and then you move on. Looking to the past doesn’t do much good.”

Instead, Popovich focused on the future — he said, “Why wouldn’t I?” when asked about returning next season — holding the play of rookie Keldon Johnson and young guards Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Dejounte Murray in higher regard than the playoff berths earned by David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Remember, that’s the past, and it’s not as important as the moment.

That’s the message that Williams, unsurprisingly a member of the Popovich coaching tree, gave to his team after the Suns won again in the bubble — their 8-0 record the best of the restart and, more importantly, a sign of promise the organization needed.

“We’re not the Suns of old,” Williams told his players after the game. “…This is special. Don’t let anybody take this away from you. You gained the respect of the league. Now, we’ve got to build on it.”

Boston Celtics' Enes Kanter defends against Memphis Grizzlies' Ja Morant on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter defends against Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

(Mike Ehrmann / Associated Press)

Memphis is ahead of schedule in its build, Morant’s second career triple-double another reminder that the likely Rookie of the Year has the Grizzlies in as good a position as the franchise has been since the peak Grit n Grind Grizzlies.

Whether or not the Grizzlies move beyond this weekend’s play-in tournament (as the No. 9 seed, they’ll have to win twice), Morant has given Memphis a likely star, the kind of player that could keep the team competitive for the next half decade.

It’s a best-case-scenario for a small-market team — a star who wants to be there, who wants to win, who wants to represent.

It’s also the exact scenario Portland has with Lillard, a player who continues to thrive in the spotlight. In the final three seeding games for Portland — all must wins — Lillard scored 154 points.

“We needed every one of them,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.

The three most impressive came in the second half, Portland at serious risk of falling out of the game, when Lillard dribbled across midcourt and launched a shot from 36 feet. It went in — there’s probably not a bad shot he can take — and Portland was able to surge and hold on to win thanks to a last-second defensive stop.

“As soon as I see an opportunity,” Lillard said of his mindset, “I rise up.”

And that’s what happened Thursday, a first-time opportunity for an extra shot at the playoffs bringing out the best from the eighth and ninth best.





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