Back as a 3 seed, Portland looks to avoid another early exit

              Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard reacts after being called for a foul against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 5, 2019, in Denver. The Nuggets won 119-110. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For the second straight season the Portland Trail Blazers earned the third seed in the West and home-court for the playoffs. This year they’re looking for a better outcome than last year when they were surprisingly swept in the opening round by New Orleans.

It won’t be easy.

The Trail Blazers take on Oklahoma City, a team that swept Portland in their four regular-season meetings.

“Being a top three team in the West is quite an accomplishment. It shows that our work has paid off — especially after last season to be able to bounce back and do it again — to me that’s proving it up,” Damian Lillard said. “That’s showing a certain amount of grit and desire to get back to this point.

“We should be proud of ourselves, but obviously our business is just beginning.”

Portland locked the No. 3 seed with a wild 136-131 win over the Sacramento Kings in the regular-season finale on Wednesday night. Rookie Anfernee Simons, just 19, had 37 points in his first career start and the Blazers used just six players.

On the surface it appeared the Blazers (53-29) were trying to sink the final game to get the No. 4 seed and a first-round matchup with the Utah Jazz. But the Denver Nuggets rallied to beat Minnesota and nail down the second seed, and Portland overcame a 28-point deficit against the Kings to win.

Though Oklahoma City swept Portland, all of the Blazers losses were by single digit margins.

“You know every game that we played against them has been a close game. We lost all four against them last season, but last season we beat them all four games,” Lillard said. “So we know that we’re capable of beating them. Each game this season came down to a possession here, a possession there. It’s going to be a tough, tough series.

“We’ve got to go out and just be aggressive going into it.”

Following a rough-and-tumble 129-121 overtime loss in Portland on March 7, center Jusuf Nurkic said he’d be “the happiest man on the earth” to face Thunder in the playoffs.

But the Blazers will have to go it without their dominating 7-foot big man, who broke his left leg after crashing awkwardly in an overtime victory at home over the Brooklyn Nets on March 25.

Nurkic was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds a game this season.

The Blazers have since relied on Enes Kanter, who was waived by the New York Knicks following the trade deadline and signed by Portland for the rest of the season. Kanter, supposed to be Nurkic’s backup for the playoff push, is averaging 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in 23 games with the Blazers, including eight starts.

“Look, we’ll miss Nurk. I mean, that’s obvious,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Nurk’s a big part of what we’ve done all season. But we don’t have him so we’ll figure something else out. Enes has got to keep doing what he’s doing.”

Last season Portland seemed confounded by New Orleans point guard Jrue Holiday, who upped his game against the Blazers and averaged 27.8 points in the first round. No sixth seed had ever swept a No. 3 in a best-of-seven series.

New Orleans, which missed the playoffs this season, in turn slowed Lillard, who averaged 18.5 points during the series — down from 26.9 per game during the regular season.

“I’m sure it had an impact on us,” Stotts said Wednesday night about last season’s first-round series. “I’m sure that having to hear about being swept and consecutive losses and all those things certainly shaped our mentality. Like we’ve said since the beginning of the season, we have to own it but we can’t dwell on it.”

This season’s playoff series appears to again be a guard-dominated battle, this time between Lillard and Russell Westbrook, who have had some heated Northwest Division duels. In their last meeting Lillard had 51 points while Westbrook finished with 37.

“I know what to expect from him, and he knows what to expect from me,” Lillard said. “Being point guards and the leaders of our teams we’ve got to put our best foot forward to put our team over the top. I don’t doubt for one minute that he’s going to try to do that and I know he knows that I’m going to try to do the same.”