Blazers Playoff Preview: A First Round Upset?

The Portland Trail Blazers seemed resigned to the lottery heading into the 2015-16 season, especially after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez. Nevertheless, management had other plans. Realizing that the salary cap would be rising significantly in 2016-17, General Manager Neil Olshey signed several veterans that didn’t seem to fit the portfolio of a rebuilding team. The contracts for Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis actually seemed overly generous.

Now, the Blazers find themselves in sixth place in the playoff race with an opportunity to pass Memphis and slide into 5th. They have  enough cap room and talent to entice premier free agents in the summer. They should also be able to keep players who have made a leap forward this season such as guard Allen Crabbe. Portland may have enough skill to pull off a first-round upset, but given the bleak preseason predictions, it feels like the Blazers are playing with house money all the same.

It’s not surprising that Portland’s catalyst is guard Damian Lillard. Lillard scored 21.2 points last season which has increased to 25.3 in 2015-16 as the Blazers have relied on him for even more offense. While his two-point shooting has been less efficient this season, Lillard has managed to hit 37.7% from behind the arc compared to 34.3% during 2014-15. He’s a major facilitator with an average of 6.8 assists as well as being Portland’s most dynamic offensive weapon.

The Blazers starting backcourt has delivered on expectations and then some. Lillard is the main star, but C.J. McCollum took a major leap forward in 2015-16. He played 15 minutes per game last year but has started every game in 2015-16 on his way to 20.7 points per contest. Even on a per-minute basis, that’s a major improvement as he scored fewer than 7 points per appearance last season. McCollum has always been a good long-range shooter, but until now he had never cracked 40%. Moreover, there are few players better at making the 15-19 foot jump shot on a regular basis.

The Blazers don’t have star forwards, but they’ve been able to win with a committee of sorts. Al-Farouq Aminu has been the standout hovering around 10 points per game to go with 6.2 rebounds. He has major athleticism but played only 18 minutes a night with Dallas last season. Second-year player Noah Vonleh has played sparingly since he lost his starting job in mid-March.

Portland has already lost Meyers Leonard for the season due to a shoulder injury. That has meant more minutes for Maurice Harkless, who has often responded with double digit points since his insertion in the lineup. Harkless has benefited from his team’s style of play, saying: “Offensively with our system, positions are interchangeable. One possession I can be playing the 4 and the next possession I can be playing the 2.”

At center, Mason Plumlee isn’t flashy but is capable of a double-double on any given evening. Ed Davis is something of a tag-team partner at the center and power forward positions, thanks to his shot-blocking and rebounding. That is reflected in the team’s good numbers especially on the offensive glass. Davis also boasts the best defensive rating of any regular Portland player in terms of points allowed per hundred possessions. As he put it, “defense is my calling card.” Chris Kaman is another big man off the bench, but his starting days are long gone.

Allen Crabbe is the most prominent guard off the bench, as the University of California product has made the most of increased playing time in his third year with Portland. Crabbe’s three-point shooting is a major asset and he’s a threat to steal the ball on the other end of the floor. The Blazers doubled his minutes from 2014-15 and his field-goal percentage has risen to 46% with a free-throw percentage of 86%. Gerald Henderson, who left the Hornets after six seasons in Charlotte, has also been a positive presence when either starting guard is off the floor.

The Blazers rank 4th in 3-point makes, just behind Golden State, San Antonio and Toronto. But their defense is another story.

They rank just 19th in points allowed, which is a major reason they’ll have their hands full in the first round. Golden State has allowed a similar figure this season, but at least the Warriors outscore their opponents by 11 points per game. The Blazers defend three-pointers poorly with an opponent success rate of 37.0%, that puts them 25th league wide. Portland has hurt itself, at times by losing the turnover battle. They commit 14 per game compared to only 12.6 for their opponents.

Lillard has carried the Blazers for much of the year, so it’s not surprising that the team seems to play its best when he dominates. On March 8, it took overtime for Portland to beat the Wizards. Lillard finished the night with 41 points and 11 assists, giving him 15 straight games of 20 points or more. Only Kevin Durant held such a long streak this season. Lillard also dropped 51 during a February 19 rout of the Warriors and 50 more on March 4 in Toronto. Portland would love to win in the postseason as an underdog, but it will likely require another explosive performance from their main man.

 

photo via llananba