Starting Five: Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers, 7:30 p.m.


We’re No. 9! Wooooo!

It’s not where either team wants to be, but it’s a start. With a win tonight, the Trail Blazers (25-29) can move back to the No. 9 position in the Western Conference standings (of course, the top 8 make the playoffs). Currently, the Lakers (26-29) have a half a game edge over the Blazers for No. 9. And with Kobe Bean guaranteeing the Lakers making the playoffs (oh, how times have changed), you know the Blazers have to fight and claw for the remainder of the season against a motivated team for that last playoff spot.

Now for our *Question of the Day: When was the last season in which both the Blazers and Lakers missed the playoffs?

Think about it. Answer will be below. Now let’s hop into The Starting Five:

1. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday… and Ronnie Price

Please, play this softly in the background as you read this first passage. It’ll help.

For the foreseeable future, this is your Blazers team. Warts and all. The Blazers acquired a nice, young guard in Eric Maynor yesterday before the NBA trade deadline and waived career backup point guard Ronnie Price.

For all the grief that Price received – he couldn’t make jump shots, he couldn’t stay in front of his man, blah blah blah – I felt he was years ahead of the other option, former first-round draft pick Nolan Smith. Price, the second oldest man in the locker room, would dive on the floor for loose balls and perform as one of only two guys on the roster who was willing to sacrifice his body for a charge. (Fast forward to 2:10 to witness the greatest Ronnie Price moment in a Blazer uniform).

When rookie Damian Lillard spoke yesterday after the deadline, he seemed melancholy but opened up about his feelings in losing Price as a teammate, his “best friend on the team.”

Lillard and Price were neighbors inside the Blazers’ locker room. Often, Price’s 3-year-old son Trey would come inside the room after games and cause cuteness overload. One time while his Pops was conducting an interview, Trey escaped from Ronnie’s stall and set himself onto Dame’s swivel chair, like the prince in the kingdom. When Lillard returned from the shower, he playfully commanded Trey to “evacuate the premises!” To which the 3-year-old gave a blank stare at the word “evacuate.” After Trey finally got up, Lillard turned to Price and the two shared a laugh.

So here’s to Price, his cute son, his ability to take the charge and the advice he shared to the future Rookie of the Year.

“I think the main thing that I learned from Ronnie was to just keep pushing. Whatever happened,” Lillard said. “He told me, the first day he got here, there’s going to be ups and downs. It’s going to get hard. There might be a day when the media beat you up. It’s going to get rough. He just told me always to push through it. That’s been my mindset this whole season. If I have a rough shooting night, I’ll push through it. Even though it’s my personality to do that already, it was refreshing to hear him say that I’ll be able to survive in this league by just doing that.”

2. Hickson can exhale

For the next 28 games, J.J. Hickson will continue to masquerade as a center because the Blazers could not find a suitable deal before the deadline. So after the dust settled, Hickson received this ringing (?) endorsement from general manager Neil Olshey.

“The players that are here, the 14 guys that remain are all here for a reason,” Olshey said. “We’re not going to comment on any trade speculation on who may or may not have been involved in trade talks the last couple of weeks. This is the Portland Trail Blazers roster for the foreseeable future.”

Olshey never mentioned Hickson by name during his Thursday press conference, and Hickson had made like Trey Price and “evacuated the premises” before reporters entered the practice facility. After Tuesday night’s loss, Hickson showed flashes of aggravation when answering questions about the trade deadline (and his Valentine’s Day tweets). However, I never noticed how the trade speculation affected his play. Shoot, the man produced 25 points and 16 rebounds in the Tuesday night loss to the Suns. Although he’s playing out of position, the 6-foot-9 Hickson has been consistent with 28 double-doubles this year, matching his career best.

Still, Lillard offered this to describe the relief that may be felt among his teammates now that the deadline has passed:

“I think playing with a clear head is always better. Coming up on the deadline, guys might wonder if they can get traded, if they’ll even be here. They might not have that same passion about playing until they know what’s going to happen. I think from here on out, guys will be a whole lot focused on just the game.”

3. Put the season in focus

During the Phoenix loss, Will Barton wildly launched a 3-pointer to end the first quarter when he had seven seconds to work for a better shot. Victor Claver fouled Suns reserve forward Wes Johnson, a 28-percent 3-point shooter, while in the shooting motion beyond the arc. And Nicolas Batum gave an oops face that ID’d him as the guilty party when coach Terry Stotts was yelling while a play was not being executed properly. Stotts tried emphatically to call a timeout to fix it, but the Suns caused a jump ball and won possession.

This six-game losing streak has been burdened by moments like these. Poor defense, bad execution and a lack of focus. So, when Stotts talks about the team needing to get back to the basics, he speaks about something as simple as guys knowing what play should be run out of timeouts.

“Some things have slid at both ends,” Stotts said. “Our screening, our execution, our out-of-timeout focus. A lot of different things on the offensive end as well.”

LaMarcus Aldridge added: “We had a couple things last game where guys weren’t in the right spot or the play wasn’t known to everybody. …We just to need in mentally overall more offensively and defensively.”

4. Lakers memorialized “the greatest owner in sports”

While the rest of the NBA was caught up in minor deals at the trade deadline, the Lakers spent much of their Thursday paying respects to their late owner, Dr. Jerry Buss. Here’s one of the more touching tributes given to Buss.

5. That’s What He Said…

After the All-Star break, the Lakers started up again with a win over the Boston Celtics. So, should the folks in SoCal start planning the parade now? Maybe not, but as we’ve already mentioned, Bryant is guaranteeing the Lakers make the playoffs.

From Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:

“Kobe Bryant’s always so conservative with his views. So meek. Timid.

“It’s not a question of if we make the
playoffs. We will,” Bryant told Sports
Illustrated. “And when we get there, I
have no fear of anyone — Oklahoma
City, San Antonio, Denver … whoever. I
have zero nervousness about that.”

He didn’t mention the Clippers, but
that’s another story for another day.

The most repetitive, boring question
of the Lakers’ season was raised again
Thursday: Was their victory Wednesday
the start of a trend or a momentary
burst before a relapse into the same
old stuff?”

Prediction: Will Wesley Matthews play? The answer to that question makes all the difference in a win or loss. Although Matthews was seen shooting on Thursday, he did not practice. Status quo, as Stotts called it, for the injured starter who has not played or practiced since hurting his leg in New Orleans on Feb. 13. Newly-acquired Maynor will not play this game, he’ll be in Portland meeting with doctors and team officials. So with a possible 13 healthy bodies, the Blazers may give more minutes to Sasha Pavlovic – instead of the younger group of Smith, Claver and Barton. This would have been a good game for Price, if he was healthy and actually on the roster but moving forward, youth rules the day.

Los Angeles 114, Portland 109

Tipoff: 7:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet • 1190 AM/102.3 FM KEX

Officials of the night: Mike Callahan, Pat Fraher, Mark Lindsay

Question of the Day: When did both the Blazers and Lakers last miss the playoffs in the same season?

The 2004-2005 season. The Lakers were post-Shaq. The Blazers were pre-Roy and finished 27-55.

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