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Blazers' overall good season ends on a disappointing note

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, dribbles past Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in Los Angeles. The Trail Blazers won 104-96. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Another late-season surge, another first-round exit.

The Portland Trail Blazers head into the offseason with plenty of questions, with speculation that big changes could be ahead. Minutes after the Blazers were swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening round, Blazers coach Terry Stotts was already addressing how Portland gets better going forward.

Stotts said he has confidence that Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey will keep the team pointed in the right direction.

"It's tough to evaluate after a playoff loss," Stotts said. "We had a good regular season. We did a lot of positive things in the regular season, but ultimately you're defined by the postseason. I think it's still a little early right now to say what direction we're going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is that Neil is really good."

Portland made it to the playoffs for the fifth straight year after finishing the season 49-33 and winning the Northwest Division title for the seventh time in franchise history.

The Blazers were boosted by a 13-game winning streak that started with a victory over the Golden State Warriors just before the All-Star break, and secured the third seed in the Western Conference. The team's streak matched the franchise record.

Damian Lillard drove the team's success during that span. In March he averaged 27.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists. He also set a franchise record by making 64 straight free throws. He was named the West's player of the week twice.

But New Orleans was able to contain him in the playoffs. He averaged 18.5 points during the series, after scoring 26.9 per game during the regular season.

"We had ups and downs early in the season, but we were really solid. We had a great group. We played together for the entire season. We stuck together for the entire season. You work so hard to give yourself the opportunity to play in the playoffs and it's disappointing to lose it," Lillard said.

The Blazers have lost 10 straight playoff games. They were understandably stunned when the Pelicans took the first two games at the Moda Center. While they fought in Game 4, it was too late. New Orleans had the momentum.

No sixth seed had ever swept a No. 3 in a best-of-seven series.

But the cracks were already there, when the Blazers lost four of their last five to end the regular season. Perhaps that late-season surge had caught up with the team.

"We had a very successful regular season, but kind of faltered down the stretch," CJ McCollum said. "We lost games that we felt like that we should have won, but put ourselves in a position to have home court, but lost home court as well. Losing in the first round is never ideal and never something that you want to experience, but it is what happened and we have to learn from it."

Already there were rumors regarding Stotts' future with the team, not to mention the status of several players. Olshey emphasized on Sunday that there would be no hasty decisions, especially in light of what the team accomplished during the regular season.

"It's our job to be measured and not overreact," Olshey said.

But like many of the players who faced reporters following exit interviews, Lillard was unsure of the solution.

"I'm not sure. I'm not the guy making decisions," he said. "It's a great organization. I think everyone has done a great job. Coach Stotts has done a great job since Day 1. We've been in the playoffs five years straight."

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