Blazers look to lock down playoff spot vs. Nuggets

The Portland Trail Blazers aim to clinch a Western Conference playoff spot on Sunday night when they host the Denver Nuggets.

The Trail Blazers (41-30) will land a coveted top-six position with a victory or if the Los Angeles Lakers (41-30) lose to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Portland holds the tiebreaker by taking two of the three regular-season meetings from Los Angeles.

But a loss to the Nuggets and a win by the Lakers on Sunday would drop the Trail Blazers into the play-in round.

Portland missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth Thursday night when it lost 118-117 to the host Phoenix Suns.

“The last game of the season is now the most important game of the season,” Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said after Thursday’s loss, “so we’ve got to move on and make sure we handle our business at home.”

Portland certainly doesn’t want to find itself on the floor Wednesday night in the play-in round still hoping to reach the playoffs.

The Trail Blazers are hoping the missed opportunity against Phoenix was a glitch as the defeat snapped a five-game winning streak and was just their second setback in the past 11 games.

The game is also important for Denver as the Nuggets (47-24) are tied for the third seed in the West with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Denver holds the tiebreaker after taking two of three from the Clippers in the regular season. Los Angeles will be visiting the Oklahoma City Thunder at the same time the Nuggets are battling the Trail Blazers.

Denver has won three straight games and 13 of 17 after Friday’s 104-91 road win over the Detroit Pistons.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been looking to decrease the minutes of MVP candidate Nikola Jokic down the stretch to keep him fresh for the postseason.

But even in just 26 minutes against the Pistons, Jokic had 20 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists for his 16th triple-double of the season and 57th of his career.

“We were going to control Nikola’s minutes — we wanted to get some quality minutes, but not push him into the 30s — and he ended up with a triple-double,” Malone said.

Rookie Markus Howard and fellow reserve Vlatko Cancar made their first career starts against Detroit. Howard scored a season-best 20 points while Cancar contributed 11.

It was the third time in four games that Howard established a career-best output. He was a scoring machine in college at Marquette and wasn’t selected in the 2020 NBA Draft before catching on with the Nuggets.

“It has been awesome to get this chance to play and be able to help the team win games,” Howard said. “It means even more to do it at this point in the season.”

As for Portland, the club lost Thursday when Phoenix guard Devin Booker made two free throws with 2.4 seconds left to hand the Trail Blazers a bitter setback.

Portland owned a one-point lead and had the ball late in the contest and Robert Covington was sent to the free-throw line with five seconds left. Covington missed both free throws to set the stage for Phoenix’s winning sequence.

“This one is over, we’ve got to make sure we win this last one,” Lillard said. “It does us no good to hold on to this game and go out there and not be locked in for the next one.”

Lillard scored 41 points on Thursday and has tallied at least 30 in seven consecutive games.

Denver won both previous meetings with Portland this season. Jokic averaged 33 points.