Thunder, Trail Blazers set for important playoff race battle

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder are in the thick of a Western Conference playoff race so tight, every spot from No. 3 to 10 remains up for grabs with five weeks left in the regular season.

Another showdown looms Saturday night at Moda Center when the Trail Blazers (36-26) play host to the Thunder (37-27), who will be playing the second of back-to-back games after a 124-116 win at Phoenix on Friday.

OKC has won in five of its last six outings and stands percentage points behind Portland, which has prevailed in five in a row and has won 12 of its last 13 at home.

The Blazers are 2-0 against the Thunder this season, having won 103-99 at home on Nov. 5 and 117-106 on the road on Jan. 9. Damian Lillard (36 points, 13 assists) won a personal duel of All-Star point guards with Russell Westbrook (25 and nine) in the first meeting. Lillard (calf) did not play in the second encounter, but Shabazz Napier stepped in for Lillard and scored 21 points to go with CJ McCollum‘s 27.

OKC has lost seven consecutive games in Portland dating to February 2014.

“There’s no question we’ve struggled against some teams on the road,” coach Billy Donovan told reporters. “Portland has always been a difficult place for us to play.”

The Thunder have won enough close games against inferior opposition of late to lead critics to wonder about a lack of intensity.

“What’s our record against the best teams in the league?” asked Westbrook, who went for 43 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists against the Suns. “We’re not worried. I’m not worried. Sometimes it happens like that. We know we’re going to (opponents’) best shot. As long as we continue to win, that’s all I care about.”

OKC has beaten Golden State (twice), Houston and Cleveland this season and is 5-3 against teams with at least a .600 winning percentage. Portland is a tad shy of that figure, but has won 13 of 18 after beating Minnesota 108-99 on Thursday in a push for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

“This game was huge because of where (the Wolves) are and where we are,” Lillard said afterward. “The race is so tight, every game matters. If you can knock a team off that is right there where you are, it’s even better.”

The Blazers trailed the Wolves by 10 points late in the third quarter.

“We may not have won this game earlier in the season,” coach Terry Stotts said. “We’re playing with more resolve and more confident now. We had the belief that it was going to break at some point.”

“Over the course of a season, some teams get better; some teams don’t,” Lillard said. “Some teams figure it out; some teams don’t. Historically, we’ve been a team that as the season goes on, we have ups and downs, but toward the end we start playing better.

“We’re at a point where things that would have happened earlier on in the season aren’t happening now. That’s the sign of a team that’s maturing, that it’s growing and getting better.”

Starting small forward Moe Harkless (knee) is questionable for the Blazers Saturday night. This is the first time Portland has been 10 games over .500 since finishing the 2014-15 season at 51-31.