PORTLAND — Front office executives, journalists and credentialed guests all huddled in front of the big-screen televisions inside the dining and media areas at the Moda Center on Wednesday.
As the final hours of the 2017-18 regular season ticked, there was so much uncertainty surrounding the first-round Western Conference playoff matchups that the live games were being watched in suspense on the screens.
Then finally, ahead of the Utah Jazz-Portland Trail Blazers regular-season finale, the announcer told the crowd “Denver is officially eliminated” as the Minnesota Timberwolves grabbed hold of the eight spot.
The local announcer also told everyone that Portland would be facing New Orleans with home-court advantage for the first time since 2009.
So as the teams approached midcourt for the tipoff, both the Jazz and Trail Blazers also became aware that the Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans would be their opponents, but the final outcome would determine the seeding.
After 48 minutes of action, the Portland Trail Blazers came out on top, 102-93, entering the postseason as the third seed, which is the highest for the franchise since 2000.
Utah (48-34) is now the fifth seed in the playoffs against OKC after suffering the loss on the second night of a back-to-back.
The NBA playoffs will begin on Saturday, April 14th, but the NBA has yet to release the times and dates of each series.
The Jazz had no answers for former Weber State star Damian Lillard.
The three-time NBA All-Star set the tone from the opening half, dropping 19 points in the first two quarters as the Jazz fell behind 55-41.
Lillard would end with 36 points on the night, nailing all the big shots down the stretch as the Jazz trailed by as many as 24. Lillard went 4-for-6 in the fourth quarter with nine points.
“I think this year we really got a chance to show our growth and our hard work and the development of a lot of our guys,” Lillard said. “It was a great team effort for the entire season and it feels great to bring another division championship.”
Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell struggled offensively, starting 0-for-8 from the field. He didn’t score his first field goal until the 2:49 mark in the second quarter off a driving layup. He ended with 17 points but hit just six of his 23 shot attempts.
Ricky Rubio also finished with 17 points, five assists and five rebounds with four turnovers, Rudy Gobert added 13 points and 13 rebounds, Jae Crowder scored 12 off the bench and Derrick Favors scored 10 points with six rebounds.
CJ McCollum was Lillard’s partner in crime with 19 points and Jusuf Nurkic finished with 13 points for Portland.
“We’ve had a week and a half to finally get this done,” Lillard said. “It came down to one game against a helluva Utah team and it was going to come down to the team that focused for the longest period of time.
“We had a great first half and I knew in the second half we would really have to put our foot down because they were going to keep coming but we got the stops, we executed on offense and had big makes and was able to pull away from them."
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