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No time to celebrate for Trail Blazers.

Byline: Austin Meek The Register-Guard

PORTLAND - On a milestone night at the Rose Garden, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for stopping to take a whiff.

Portland, the NBA's feel-good story for much of this season, reached the 50-win plateau with a 100-94 victory against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night. As a sellout crowd filed to the exits, more good news arrived courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs and the Moda Center's public address announcer.

"Rip City," he said, noting the Spurs' win over Memphis, "has officially returned to the playoffs."

The announcement drew a roar from the remaining fans, which was more than it received inside the Blazers' locker room, apparently. Everyone was happy about playoffs, but that was about it.

"There wasn't any hoo-rah or whooping it up," coach Terry Stotts said.

What, you were expecting a pizza party? Cake and ice cream? This wasn't the time, not with four games remaining in the regular season and a bear of a playoff series waiting on the horizon.

Fifty wins is a nice benchmark for a team that finished a collective 26 games below .500 the past two seasons, but in this year's Western Conference, it'll get you a plane ticket and an invitation to have your teeth kicked in.

The Blazers, currently fifth in the West, trail Houston by two games and lead Golden State by a game and a half. If the standings don't change, they will start the playoffs on the road against the Rockets, a team that has beaten them three out of four times in the regular season.

That's why emotions conflict when it comes to this Portland team. Winning 50 games and making the playoffs is a meaningful achievement, but if the Blazers allow themselves to feel satisfied, that might be the only thing they have to celebrate this season.

"We're really proud of what we've done so far," Stotts said. "It's something no one can take away from us. But I don't think anybody in the locker room is satisfied with where we are."

It was easy to roll your eyes when the Blazers talked about being a playoff team before the season. All teams say that, especially the bad ones.

On the surface, there wasn't much to distinguish this team from the one that finished 33-49 a year ago. But a series of moves - small ones, at the time - positioned the Blazers to be not only a playoff team, but one capable of pushing any opponent they see in the opening round.

The biggest of those moves was landing center Robin Lopez from New Orleans in exchange for Jeff Withey and a future draft pick. While giving up very little, the Blazers got a true center on the upswing of his career and filled a void in the middle of their roster.

Withey has been decent as a rookie, appearing in 53 games and averaging 2.7 points for the Pelicans. Lopez has been everything the Blazers could have hoped and more, averaging 10.9 points and a career-best 8.5 rebounds while starting every game.

Portland doesn't have a superstar, but point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge are among the game's best players at their positions. The Blazer bench, still among the least-utilized in the NBA, is stronger, at least, with the addition of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson.

Individual weaknesses exist, but the sum of the parts has been fun to watch.

"We've got the combination of everything that helps a team win," said guard Wes Matthews, another player who has started every game this season. "There's no real baggage, no head cases, no anything like that - just a collection of players that make a great team."

The Blazers proved they were capable of greatness by winning 31 of their first 40 games. The 19-19 record since then proves they're capable of being pretty average, too.

Average isn't going to get you anywhere in the West this season, which is why the Blazers can't afford to stop and savor the moment. They have four games remaining in the regular season, two of them against playoff teams in the Warriors and Clippers. That's enough time to enter the playoffs on a nice roll or limp in on a losing streak, depending on how they play.

"Right now I'm not worried about the playoffs," Stotts said. "I like accumulating wins. I like improving our playoff seed. It's not necessarily looking at matchups or anything, but I think it builds confidence when you play well."

Just because the Blazers aren't celebrating doesn't mean long-suffering fans shouldn't. This season has exceeded most rational expectations, and even if it ends in the first round of the playoffs, Portland fans have to appreciate what it took to get there.

So, by all means, have a piece of cake to celebrate the return of playoff basketball. Just understand that the Blazers won't be joining the party.

"This wasn't our ultimate goal," Aldridge said. "It was one of our goals, but we're not satisfied."

Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email
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Title Annotation:Austin Meek
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 8, 2014
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