LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After the first two games at the Disney restart, the Portland Trail Blazers are 1-1 and positioned ninth in the Western Conference standings, two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently occupy the final playoff spot.
The Trail Blazers are fighting for their postseason lives. The eight restart games aren’t just the final regular-season games; these bubble contests are being viewed as playoff games by the franchise.
Entering the restart outside of the playoffs, Damian Lillard still prepped ambitiously for the Orlando trip.
“I packed for the entire three months,” the All-Star guard told Yahoo Sports.
But Portland, +8000 to win the West at BetMGM, isn’t necessarily looking to overtake the Grizzlies. With the play-in scenario implemented for postseason qualification, the ninth seed only has to be four games or fewer behind the eighth seed at season’s end to force a play-in. The ninth seed has to win two straight games against the eighth seed to advance to the postseason.
Lillard took Sunday’s 128-124 loss to the Boston Celtics hard after posting 30 points, hitting five triples and tying his career high with 16 assists. He went on a second-half offensive tear, willing his team back from a 24-point deficit. His heroics helped the Blazers take a four-point lead midway in the fourth, but execution issues hurt them down the stretch.
Lillard emerged from the locker room with his head down and deep in thought. His disposition spoke volumes about the team’s urgency. Lillard had made it clear to teammates from the outset that this will not be a wasted trip.
“We came here thinking 6-2, or 7-1 and that would get us in there,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “That’s where our heads are at and we can still do that.”
The Trail Blazers have stiff competition. They’re technically tied with the San Antonio Spurs, but because they have one more win and one more loss, they are two percentage points higher. Portland is a half-game up on the New Orleans Pelicans, a full game up on the Sacramento Kings and have a game and a half on the Phoenix Suns.
“We’re just focusing on ourselves,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I think if we handle our business, it will work out. We can’t be looking at what they’re doing and all that. We gotta worry about ourselves. We knew that it was a chance that we would lose a game. We lost one, but we can’t dwell on it. We got to go to the next one and try to put a string of wins together.”
Pursuit of Trevor Ariza
A few weeks ago, members of the Trail Blazers tried to persuade Trevor Ariza to reconsider joining them in the bubble, sources told Yahoo Sports. Ariza opted out of the restart due to a one-month visitation window he had long scheduled with his son.
But because his visitation period had been amended with a conclusion date now near the start of August, there was some optimism among the players that Ariza might be allowed into the bubble to further strengthen their chances of a deep playoff run.
The possibility was explored, but sources said the Trail Blazers had to have previously applied for a hardship waiver or a late-arrival form for Ariza to be considered for entry into the bubble. Even if those steps were taken, the league would have likely denied the request because Ariza chose to opt out, wasn’t included on the restart roster and didn’t arrive with his team on July 9.
Players within the organization were upset with the outcome, sources said. Portland added Jaylen Adams to the roster as a replacement player.
The idea of checking in with Ariza arose when New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson and Los Angeles Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell left the bubble to tend to family matters. Ariza’s situation is different, but it’s still a family matter.
To be with his son, the 15-year veteran sacrificed at minimum $1.2 million in salary and $1.8 million if the Trail Blazers were to qualify for the playoffs. But that was the only time he could spend with his son, and the organization fully supported his decision.
It was important for Ariza that he be with his son, and he should be commended for that.
But with his visitation dates changing, Ariza could have accompanied his team for most of the restart.
The Cake Bandit
New Orleans Pelicans center Derrick Favors did something a few weeks ago for the first time in his life: He celebrated his birthday during the season. On July 15, the big man turned 29. In normal, non-pandemic times, this would be the offseason.
Still, Favors looked forward to celebrating with his teammates.
The rookies sang “Happy Birthday” after practice and Favors was notified that a cake awaited him and his teammates in their meal room. But once they arrived, the cake was gone.
Someone from outside the team had swiped Favors’ birthday cake.
Puzzled as to who would do such a thing, the Pelicans had to scramble to make other arrangements. An order of cupcakes was placed for the next day. They were delivered in the morning and stored in the fridge.
When members of the team went to retrieve the cupcakes, there was only one left. Someone is roaming the bubble stealing baked goods from the Pelicans.
Yahoo Sports couldn’t confirm if Favors was given the lone cupcake, and it is not certain if the Pelicans are the only victims of the dough heist.
“The Case of the Cake Bandit” remains a bubble mystery.
Wall, Beal active with Wizards
The Washington Wizards are the only team in the Eastern Conference outside of the top eight in the standings who were invited to the bubble. They are 7.5 games back of the Brooklyn Nets for the final playoff berth, so a play-in is highly unlikely.
But the Wizards are still competing and have found support from outside the bubble.
Bradley Beal and John Wall, the team’s cornerstone players who stayed home to recover from injuries, are watching daily practices and still participating in meetings and team group chats, sources said.
The Wizards have set up live video links to practices and meetings for players and staff who are not in the bubble, sources said.
Davis Bertans, who opted out of the restart due to health concerns and his pending free agency, has also been active on the live links, sources said.
If Beal misses a practice or meeting, he has made it a habit to check in with general manager Tommy Sheppard to catch up on what he missed, sources said. FaceTime has been the primary communication tool, whether contacting Sheppard, the coaching staff or the players, sources said. Wall and Beal have been in the ears of the young players throughout the restart.
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