This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They came into the season with a new head coach, new general manager and two lottery picks who were poised to play significant minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge was the only starter or key rotation player with more than 400 NBA games on his resume.
On top of that, their roster lacks a traditional starting center so they have been masquerading a 6’9″ forward in J.J. Hickson as their centre most nights.
Throw into the mix that one of those lottery picks, little-known point guard Damian Lillards would be starting and playing heavy minutes and things looked pretty bleak in PDX.
Turns out that a relatively-weak early schedule paired with strong play from Lillard has pushed Portland to a 16-14 record to start the season and the team is inching closer to a spot in the playoffs.
“We have had a lot of home games recently and we took care of business at home,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said prior to his team’s game in Toronto. “We had struggled a little bit on the road and we came back and we lost to Sacramento at home and then we won five straight at home. It started against Toronto at home and we were kind of reeling from our East Coast trip and a home loss, but it helped that we played well at home and we got healthy. When our players got hurt other players stepped in and got comfortable with roles and minutes.
Going into their game against Toronto, Portland was in the midst of a stretch that saw the team go an impressive 10-4. During that run of impressive play, they had wins against some of the NBA’s elite teams in New York, San Antonio and Denver.
One of the high points was Lillard marching into Madison Square Garden and ripping the hearts out of one of the top teams in the NBA with 30 points and a dagger three at the buzzer.
“I think we’re starting to gain confidence as a team,” Lillard explained. “We’re starting to play together. Offensively, the ball is moving and we’re finding the open guy and making the extra pass. Guys are knocking down shots and they are doing all the small things to win games. On the defensive end I think we are just taking more pride in getting stops. We have been flying around in our rotations.”
Their recent play, however, might be fool’s gold.
When Portland and Toronto met up on Dec. 10, it was an embarrassing night for the Raptors. Portland held Toronto to 35.1 percent from the floor while holding a 54-26 advantage in the paint. When the two teams met in Toronto for the rematch on Wednesday, the game showed Portland’s flaws. Their talented rookie appeared to be showing the first glimpses of hitting the rookie wall, they were sloppy with the ball and had nearly as many turnovers (18) as assists (19), and on defence they allowed Toronto to shoot 53 percent from the floor because they were slow in their rotations and failed to close out on shooters.
Basically everything that Lillard boasted about before the game evaporated in a couple of hours. That or the nasty customs officials in Canada pulled a nasty move and confiscated Portland’s newfound swagger.
All kidding aside, some of Portland’s struggled can be explained by the team arriving in Toronto late after a game in New York the previous night, but it will be interesting to see how a couple of tough road trips over the next two months will play out. The Blazers just got through a big stretch of home games and only seven of their wins have come against teams that currently have winning records.
The team has currently been buoyed by the all-star play of Aldridge, but it remains to be seen how his body will hold up this season. Already he has been nicked by injuries to his sternum, chest, ankle, wrist and slowed by back spasms. If his body is this banged up after 30 games it’s scary to think what it will be like at the end of the regular season.
Having to endure a couple of rough road trips, injury concerns to their franchise player and how Lillard deals with the upcoming rookie wall will all be key to determining if this team can sneak into the playoffs this season.
But, it’s not like the team had lofty expectations heading into this season anyway. Just the idea of making a run at the playoffs is more than what most fans of the team envisioned a couple of months ago.