Blazers continue their rise, with biggest challenge ahead
Like an Olympic gymnast expertly working the balance beam, the Trail Blazers have negotiated their schedule to near perfection over the past month.
Heading into Tuesday night's Moda Center matchup with lowly Brooklyn, Portland has won five in a row and 10 of its last 11 to earn consideration as the NBA's most surprising team this season.
Terry Stotts is a candidate for the league's coach of the year award for his work with the Blazers (29-27), who already have surpassed expectations by most Las Vegas oddsmakers for wins for the entire season.
With Sunday's 115-111 victory over Utah, backcourt mates Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and their supporting cast are in seventh place in the Western Conference, a half-game behind sixth-place Dallas (30-27) and only 3 1/2 games back of No. 5 Memphis (32-23).
The top four teams in the West -- Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers -- are out of reach, so barring a Clipper collapse, homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs is not on the table.
But a fifth or sixth seed finish would allow Portland to avoid the Warriors and Spurs in the first round, a carrot all those in the Blazer camp would love to land.
"A month ago, our goal was, 'Let's see if we can sneak into the playoffs,'" Portland forward Ed Davis says. "Our mindset now is, 'Let's get a fifth or sixth seed, or however it goes, and maybe win a series.' We're raising the bar for ourselves, and it's starting to show."
No NBA team has showcase wins over Cleveland (105-76) and Golden State (137-105) as do the Blazers. No team outside of the Warriors is playing better basketball than has the local quintet over the last six weeks.
Portland was 15-24 after a 128-108 pasting by Golden State on Jan. 8. Beginning with a 115-110 triumph over OKC two days later, the Blazers are a smoking 13-3. The turnaround has been triggered by a surge on the defensive side.
"We knew if we wanted to make a push to make the playoffs, the only improvement was going to be at the defensive end," Stotts says. "We've been a solid offensive team throughout the year, but our defense had been lacking."
In nine of the last 16 games, opponents have shot less than 45 percent from the field. In eight of the last 10 games, foes have shot lower than 37 percent from 3-point range. Until Utah had only 11 turnovers in Sunday's game, the Blazers were working on a string where the opposition had at least 14 giveaways in 10 straight games.
"That hasn't been by design," Stotts says. "We wanted to be more aggressive, but the message was never, 'We want to create more turnovers.' It was to be more focused, be in better position, be in better position on the ball. But I've always felt like if you're in position and alert, you're going to create some turnovers."
The offense is built around the talents of Lillard and McCollum, the latter averaging 20.9 points as he veers toward the league's most improved player award this season. But there's a camaraderie, an esprit de corps about this Portland team that is paying big dividends through the second half of this campaign.
"I'm shooting well, but it's because of the way we're playing as a team," says Lillard, the only player in the league ranked among the top six in scoring (25.0 points per game) and assists (7.3). "We're getting stops. We're getting out on the break. We're playing fast. Guys are trusting each other, making the right plays, executing well.
"Over the past few weeks, we haven't changed anything. We've been consistent in playing physical, having our hands active, trusting each other, being together. It's been working for us."
Allen Crabbe has been a major contributor at both ends all season -- "probably our most consistent wing defender," Stotts says -- and Gerald Henderson has come on during the recent hot streak, rounding into shape after offseason hip surgery. No team can match Portland's backcourt foursome of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe and Henderson right now.
"Lillard is aggressive," Utah coach Quin Snyder says. "He creates offense for himself and his teammates, and if he misses, they do a great job of rebounding.
"They become a little different team when they sub in Crabbe and have just one of those two guys (Lillard or McCollum) in the game. They're very good at screening. They're a throwback team in terms of flare screens and pin-downs. There aren't many teams doing that right now. Some teams use that with singular players -- the Clippers do it with (JJ) Redick -- but (the Blazers) are able to integrate that with Crabbe and McCollum. It gives them a different look.
"They can take you off the dribble, they can take you off pick-and-roll, they can finish and they can come off screens. They force you to guard a lot of actions that are different, and that puts a lot of pressure on defenses."
Then there are the role players.
There is Davis, coming off the bench to rebound and defend and shooting a lusty .609 from the field.
And center Mason Plumlee, who is averaging 9.1 points and 7.6 rebounds, shooting .512 and delivering the best backdoor bounce pass of any of the league's pivots.
"We've been hitting (Plumlee) in the pocket," Lillard says. "The pressure is on him to make the next play or finish at the rim. He has done a great job of it.
"When we make mistakes on the perimeter, he is getting deflections on the back line of the defense, and he's challenging the back side of the rim. He's running the court. He's kind of a glue guy for us."
Then there is the recent emergence of Moe Harkless, who lost his spot in the regular rotation for seven games. When power forward Noah Vonleh went down with a sprained ankle, Harkless regained his spot. Over the last five games, the 6-9 Harkless -- who doesn't turn 23 until May -- has come off the bench to average 12.4 points on 29-of-46 shooting (.630) and 7.2 rebounds.
Harkless' athleticism is off the charts, and several of his dunks have been SportsCenter top 10 play-worthy.
"Moe didn't pout about (his demotion)," Lillard says. "He continued to put his work in. When the opportunity came up unexpectedly, he was ready to step up and impact the game.
"Now he's changing every game for us. Every time he's out there, he's getting us extra possessions, he's getting to the line, he's able to match up with (power forwards) who can pick and pop. And he allows us to get out and play faster. He can handle the ball and get out and run the court. He can make shots, and he's athletic as I don't know what. He has been great for us."
The Blazers are one of the league's youngest teams, with Henderson as the graybeard of the rotation group at age 28. They've gotten used to playing with one another, and the young players are maturing.
"I like how everybody is contributing," Plumlee says. "We have a lot of guys playing at a high level, and we're playing together. It's fun to play when everybody is sharing the ball and being unselfish. We have some shared experienced together now. It's happening slowly but surely."
Observes Snyder: "One of the strengths of their group, they not only know their roles, they embrace them. That's a big advantage."
The biggest challenge of the season is on the horizon. After the Brooklyn game, Portland plays host to Houston on Thursday, then faces a schedule that features 11 road dates in the next 13 contests. Among the opponents away from home over that stretch are Boston, Toronto, Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
Lillard doesn't anticipate a major swoon.
"We won't have to worry about that if we continue to do the things we've been doing," he says. "That doesn't mean we're going to win every game, but it will allow us to be consistent. We won't start dropping two or three games in a row."
Stotts is quick to point out that plenty of work is yet to be done. The Blazers are only a game and a half out of ninth place in the West.
"I'm pleased with the growth we've made, with the way we're competing," the fourth-year Blazer coach says. "We've strung together some wins. (Routing) Golden State was a high.
"But this is a fragile league. We have (one-third of the season) to go. Nobody is sitting around patting themselves on the back right now."