The totally revamped Portland Trailblazers are the hottest team not named the Golden State Warriors. They have won 17 games in 49 days. They have lost 4 games in 49 days. That’s a winning percentage of 80%. In that time span, they are 11-3 at home and 6-1 on the road, including an overtime win at Memphis. They are scoring at a greedy pace, 108 points per game, while giving up 101 points per game, a defensive number that will allow them to (possibly) move past Memphis and take over the 5th seed, if they can get through their tough road schedule these next six weeks with a winning record. Already, this much is clear even to the novice. Neal Olshey had a plan after LaMarcus Aldridge severed his Portland ties. He incentivized the backcourt to be the foundation of the new look Blazers. It took a while to come together, but it is working in a big way.
The January 16th Saturday night when the Blazers walked into the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and were blown out by the miserable 76ers on a second night of a back-to-back was a gut-wrenching low point. The backcourt was terrible, the front court invisible. It was a heart check moment. What came next said everything about what type of team the Blazers believed they could be.
Who you think you are is followed by what you show you are. What came next for the Blazers was dominating the Wizards in D.C. January ended. February began, and the Blazers continued to win without their All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Out of sight, out of mind.
February’s low points were losing to the Raptors at home and blowing a game against the Rockets. The Raptors are the second best team in the East, a contender that the Blazers couldn’t defend, particularly Kyle Lowry who dropped 30 points. Before the Raptors loss, the Blazers had won 5 in a row. After the loss, the Blazers were back on the road and won 2 in a row at tough places, in Memphis and Houston. Since then, their only loss was a few days ago when they were demoralized in the 4th quarter when Houston outscored the Blazers 33 to 12 to erase a 7 point deficit entering the quarter. No one on the Blazers had an answer for James Harden.
What did Olshey know about the Blazers in July when Aldridge didn’t look back?
Did he know the Blazers with Damian Lillard were resilient? Did he know C.J. McCollum would be a 20+ point scorer? Did he know that when the Blazers lose, they brush it off and come back the next game and win? Did he know the Blazers would not lose two games in a row after January 8th? Did he know the Blazers backcourt was too much for most teams to handle?
The Blazers still have four more games on this trip. The Knicks are a winnable game. The Celtics play well at home and have great team chemistry without relying on a superstar the way the Blazers rely on Lillard. Then it’s on to Toronto, a place Lillard would remember had he been an All-Star invitee. Instead, he stewed about the snub at home and took it out on the Warriors.
In Toronto, the Blazers have a big challenge. The loss to the Raptors is still fresh. The Raptors have a dynamic backcourt that doesn’t give the usual Lillard-McCollum suffocation any advantages. Kyle Lowry is a great clutch shooter and DeMar DeRozan is an iso player who leads the league in drives to the rim. They are the reason the Raptors are as good as they are just as the Lillard-McCollum duo are the reason why the Blazers are as good as they are. This game will be a good test to see if in three weeks the Blazers have actually gotten better defensively.
The Pistons are the last team on the trip, a tough matchup because of their size and skill up front which is a Blazers weakness. The Blazers come home to play the Wizards and then go to Golden State where the Warriors will have revenge on their minds.
Early November, when the Blazers lost 7 games in a row, a losing streak that began when the Pistons overwhelmed the Blazers with their physicality, it looked like a very long season without a dominant front court player to rely on. But here we are. The Blazers chemistry has kicked in and they have learned how to play with one another. A heavy dose of Lillard and McCollum with added contributions from everyone else is the prescription for avoiding death by superstar.
Life without Aldridge is different. This time last year, the Blazers had won 41 games.They still need to sign a quality big man who can score and rebound. But, Blazer life is not what all the experts thought, that a major rebuild and three or four years away was staring them in their Rip City faces.
The Blazers are on pace to win 43 games, 8 less than last year, which would put them in the playoffs, in the lower tier, which would put them in striking distance of signing an elite free agent come summer with all of their available money.
Terry Stotts is Coach of the Year. C.J. McCollum is Most Improved Player of the Year. Damian Lillard is All-Star Who was Snubbed for No Apparent Reason. And the Blazers are the team everyone said had to start over with the loss of Aldridge.
Wrong. There will be no starting over. The future is now. Right now.
photo via llananba