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The Western Conference Dark Horse: Portland Trail Blazers

Upsets in basketball don’t only happen during March Madness. It seems like every year one of the lower seeds in the NBA playoffs pulls off an upset and advances to conference semis, conference finals, and, in very rare occassions, the NBA Finals.

Last season, it was the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies as the lower seeds making deep playoff runs. With such a small gap between all eight playoff teams in the Western Conference this season, it’s almost guaranteed at least one team is going to make that run again during the playoffs. That team will be the Portland Trail Blazers.

I’ve heard the negative noise counting out Portland in the West all season long, and it’s been especially loud these last two months.

“The Blazers don’t play great defense.”

“Portland has no bench.”

“They’re inexperienced.”

“Everyone wants to play Portland in the playoffs.”

Trust me, those arguments for why Portland is not going to make the deep playoff run are completely logical.

But, I was listening to Marc Stein on Zach Lowe’s Grantland Podcast, The Lowe Post, and Stein reminded listeners the same thing people are saying about Portland right now is what people were saying about the Dallas Mavericks in 2010.

Obviously, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the favorites to win the West. The Clippers are probably a tier below those two, but they’re peaking at the right time of the season. Other than those three, who else is making the conference semi-finals with a shot at the conference finals? The race is wide-open.

Portland has the pieces in place to make the same run Golden State did last season, and possibly go further than that.

The Blazers can light it up, and do so on a nightly basis. This season, Portland is second in the league in points per game, averaging 106.8 PPG, per Basketball Reference. The key to their offense is, obviously, LeMarcus Aldridge (23.3 PPG) and the matchup problem he presents to opposing teams.

Aldridge can dominate the low-block against teams who want to play the small-ball, stretch four. Or, if teams want to put a true power forward or center on him, Aldridge can step out and knock down midrange jumpers or take bigger defenders off the dribble. Aldridge is such a dynamic scorer, and teams often have to send another defender at him, which allows kick-outs to open shooters. Finally, Aldridge is back healthy again and is cleared to see more and more minutes each game.

Just as important as Aldridge to Portland’s playoff dreams, Damian Lillard can’t play like it’s his first rodeo in the Western Conference playoffs. Maybe in the East, Lillard could get by for a series without really exerting himself. Not in the West. Lillard has to get his 21.1 points and 5.6 assists per game in the playoffs, if Portland has a chance of advancing. Honestly, he’ll probably need to do more than that, and he’s every bit as capable of dropping a Curry-style 40-point game. I’ve been waiting for a break out performance by Lillard all season. He’s had some close calls to really breaking out, but hasn’t got their yet, not like Steph’s 52 in the Garden. I’m not counting out the break out performance just yet, especially not when Lillard can fill it up from 3.

Speaking of 3-point shooting, Portland’s 3-point shooting has cooled off a bit since their red-hot start to the season, but they’ve shot 39 percent from three this season, which is a decent number. Obviously, Coach Terry Stotts would love the 3-point percentage higher. If they want to make a deep run, Portland’s wing players have to make shots. Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, C.J. McCollum, and Dorell Wright will need to find the range from three. All of those players are good shooters. Would it surprise you if they suddenly made it rain four out of seven games? We watched Golden State do it last year. Be prepared to see Portland do it this year.

To make that run in the playoffs, Aldridge and Lillard will have to take their game to another level. We saw this with Steph Curry last season in the Denver series, and then again in the San Antonio series. When no one expects a certain player or a team to perform well and writes off that team in the playoffs, that’s bulletin board material. Players take that personally. Lillard and Aldridge now have something to prove. Portland now has something to prove. That’s what scares me about the Blazers, they have that nobody-believes-in-us mojo going that’s so terrifying, yet exciting in sports. Usually, that extra motivation is enough to push a team over the edge.

Extra motivation also works wonders for role players. It can turn good players into great players for a game. Portland’s starters are as good as any in the league. They know their roles and play together well. The bench, as critics have pointed out, is pretty weak. There’s no Jamal Crawford or Vince Carter to eat minutes and sustain the level of play without a drop-off. Other than Mo Williams, no other Blazer off the bench plays more than 14.5 minutes per game. Depth is an issue, especially considering they’re not particularly healthy either. Back-up big man Joel Freeland has been out since the middle of February with a knee injury.

But, it’s not like Portland’s second unit is a bunch of scrubs either. Mo Williams has tons of playoff and big game experience. C.J. McCollum is going to be a really good player. Together, Williams and McCollum are good enough to get the job done. Other than the Clippers, the other West teams have spotty backcourt bench play anyway. As far as I’m concerned, the bench play isn’t going to be the difference in a series with Portland, especially not with Portland’s starters going all out for 40 minutes.

If anyone on Portland’s roster is going to need some extra motivation in the playoffs, they’ll surely get it from the Moda Center crowd. Like the Oracle Arena, the Moda Center is one of the toughest places to play and best home court advantages in the whole league. Plus, the fans are crazy and they show up every night, which gives the Blazers a huge energy boost. This season, Portland has taken care of business at home, posting a 27-9 record. In the West, every playoff team wins at home, so any advantage is that much more crucial. Fortunately for the Blazers, the Moda Center gives them that advantage.

Every team has an X-factor player and if he plays well, the team is going to be very successful. That player for Portland is Nic Batum. Batum has all the tangible qualities to be a very good player. He’s long, athletic, and he’s a decent shooter. Batum’s also a very underrated passer and is averaging 5.1 assists this season. He’s been the facilitator all year long when Lillard goes into scorer mode. Batum’s the second-or third-best small forward in the West, and if he can create opportunities by penetrating and dishing or using his length to deflect passes, I like Portland’s chances.

How much do I like Portland’s chances?

It depends on seeding and how the rest of the season shakes out. Right now, barring some catastrophic meltdown by Portland or the four teams ahead of them, Portland would be the fifth seed playing the Houston Rockets in the first round.

In that matchup, I like Portland. Both teams are banged up, but Houston definitely has more injury problems to deal with. If you haven’t heard, Patrick Beverly apparently is going to play through a torn meniscus the rest of the season, which has to be difficult, not to mention excruciatingly painful. Dwight Howard has been in-and-out of the lineup with a lingering ankle injury. Houston isn’t good enough to beat Portland without those two at least close to full strength.

Even if Beverly and Howard were healthy, Houston, to me, isn’t good enough defensively to stop the Blazers. Then again, Portland isn’t good enough to stop Houston either. If this series happens, and it looks like it will, it’s going to be such a fun series. It’d be an absolute run-n-gun, 3-point shootout for at least six games. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Another possibility is the Clippers-Blazers matchup. Either the Clippers would have to fall back the fourth seed or Golden State would pass Portland for the fifth seed, dropping Portland back to sixth for this matchup to happen.

Doc Rivers has done a great job with this Clippers team, especially on defense, but they have their flaws like anyone else. Aldridge is a matchup problem for Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan, but Griffin is also matchup problem for Aldridge or Lopez. In this matchup, the Clippers would obviously be favored, but can we really trust the Clippers anymore than we can trust the Blazers? Definitely not.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Portland is going to win the NBA title or anything remotely close to that. Think of what you’ve just read as a reminder that Portland isn’t going to be a doormat for the other playoff teams to walk all over. It’s never that simple. Anyone who thinks differently has forgotten what playoff basketball is like.

Remember LeBron’s last year in Cleveland? The Cavs skated through the season, posting a 61-21 record before being upset by the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics.

Remember the Western Conference Finals from two years ago? Oklahoma City was down 2-0 to the Spurs before winning four straight to win the conference and move onto the finals.

Remember last season when Beverly tore Westbrook’s meniscus on a freak play, which caused the Memphis Grizzlies to battle the San Antonio Spurs for the Conference Finals?

Something like that is going to happen this year.

Why not Portland?


Tags: 2014 Playoffs NBA Portland Trail Blazers Western Conference

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