With less than 20 games left for each NBA team in the regular season, there’s still no clarity on what the playoff picture will look like. Part of that is due to the play-in tournament adding some extra intrigue, but in the Western Conference especially, there are a number of teams neck-and-neck, making all games left on the schedule almost must-win games.
The Golden State Warriors, currently the No. 6 seed in the conference, are only up two losses to the 10th-seeded Utah Jazz. The Trail Blazers, currently sitting at 31-36, are 1.5 games behind Utah and one back of Oklahoma City right outside of the play-in picture.
Although it’ll be a mad dash to get to the playoffs, the Blazers are most certainly not out. They still have Damian Lillard playing at an All-NBA level, traded for some added wing depth, and have gotten reinforcements like Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic back from injury.
When looking at the stretch run for Portland, it certainly won’t be easy to make the playoffs as they match up with teams like the Celtics, Clippers, Grizzlies, Knicks, and Kings, some of whom they’ll play multiple times.
With that in mind, here are the five most important games for the Trail Blazers to win if they’re going to make the playoffs.
Must-Win #1: March 12 at New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are one of the other teams that are right in the mix with the Blazers and present one of the best chances for the team to snag just a bit of separation in the standings. It took a 40-point performance from Brandon Ingram a week ago to beat Portland, and earlier in the season, Jerami Grant led the Blazers to victory in New Orleans.
In the new year, New Orleans has seen their dream season sink under the surface due to injuries to Zion Williamson and Ingram. In 2023, the Pelicans are 9-21 with only the 25th-best net rating over that stretch. That’s due to a declining defense and listless offense that hasn’t been able to get much out of their star players.
With Zion still out for at least the next two weeks, the Blazers have an opportunity to strike a blow against a team close to them in the standings who will assuredly be down their superstar. Although Ingram cooked Portland on the road, he’s only topped 30 points six times this season.
The Blazers will need to rely on Lillard even though he’s been a bit worse on the road this year, as well as Simons and Nurkic now that they’ve returned to the lineup. If they bring their “A” game, they could send New Orleans out of the playoff picture altogether.