NBA PREVIEW

Playoff-hopeful Blazers visit Suns in key macthup

Field Level Media

March 06, 2020 at 12:43 am.

If the Portland Trail Blazers are to overcome the 3 1/2-game gap between them and the Memphis Grizzlies, the team currently holding the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, games against struggling teams such as the Phoenix Suns will be a top priority.

That will be the case Friday night, when the Blazers travel to Arizona to play the Suns.

Portland has won two straight and on Wednesday night welcomed back All-Star guard Damian Lillard from a groin injury he suffered on Feb. 12. Lillard scored 22 points in a 125-104 win over the Washington Wizards.

Portland got solid performances out of several players. Center Hassan Whiteside recorded his 48th double-double of the season with 24 points and 16 rebounds, Carmelo Anthony had a team-high 25 points, and C.J. McCollum added 22.

But with 19 games to go in the regular season, Portland has to make its move if the Blazers hope to make the playoffs for the seventh straight season.

“We have to win a lot of games,” McCollum told The Oregonian. “Don’t know how many, but we got to take advantage of every game, especially against teams that are under .500 and especially in games that we play at home. Just take it one game at a time and try to win as many as we can.”

A key stretch awaits, as Portland opens a six-game homestand Saturday. Having Lillard back is a huge boost.

“I felt pretty good,” Lillard told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “I thought I moved pretty well. I picked my moments to really explode and take off and cut hard and fight over screens and stuff like that. I didn’t feel restricted.”

The Suns have lost four straight games and have essentially played themselves out of the race for the eighth seed, trailing the Grizzlies by seven games. Phoenix has lost third-leading scorer Kelly Oubre Jr. for at least four weeks after he had surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee earlier this week.

Oubre has career-high averages of 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game this season.

“That’s our energy guy. Nobody can really do it like him when it comes to bringing energy and making tough plays on the ball and on offense as well,” center Deandre Ayton told reporters of Oubre. “Dunking on people, bringing that momentum. And the fans love him.”

Phoenix also could also be without Ayton on Friday. He left Tuesday’s 123-114 home loss to the Toronto Raptors with a left ankle injury with just 2:50 to play.

Coach Monty Williams doesn’t think Ayton will be available Friday against the Blazers. Ayton also missed the Suns’ last meeting at home against the Blazers, a 111-110 loss in December.

Ayton was serving the final days of a league suspension on that day. Oubre scored 24 points in the game, won by the Blazers on a late basket and free throw from Lillard.

If Ayton doesn’t play, the Suns will be missing his career-high averages of 19 points and 12 rebounds (though he has played in only 30 games this season).

Portland has won its last five games in Phoenix.