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Playoff Basketball

One of the tantalizing topics that keeps popping up on the podcast and the sidebar is how real the Blazers’ chances are of making the playoffs and advancing.  I can just hear the calls of “cheeky” and “hubris” from the NBA Grumpy Zone about a team that hasn’t been there in five years relying on young players even talking about such a thing, but people are, so we will.


I’m already on record saying this will be the year the Blazers return to the post-season, but some people are one-upping that prediction and speculating about a high seed and maybe a deep run.  That would be an amazing occurrence and one I’d support wholeheartedly, but a couple decades of consistent playoff appearances (some more successful than others) taught us a few things that we’d do well to remember.


The golden rule of playoff runs has always been this:  less successful teams think they’ll make it, more successful teams know they’ll make it.  This year, for instance, Blazer fans are saying, “With the development of Oden plus the maturation of Roy and Aldridge, plus Rudy on board we have a shot at a top four seed.”  Meanwhile, here’s the dialogue elsewhere:


L*kers:  We’re going to be the number one seed.


Spurs:  We’re going to be the number one seed.


Hornets:  We’re going to be the number one seed.


Rockets:  We’re going to be the number one seed.


See the difference?  Obviously only one of those teams will hit that goal, but the other three are going to land somewhere.  Right now all of them are in a better position than Portland to end up in those top seeds.


Because of the way the seeding goes conference champions get automatic berths into the upper echelon.  Portland does have that avenue of approach.  Even here, though, the Jazz are saying, “We’re winning this division” whereas Portland is saying, “With a few breaks and some good play we could win this division”.  That doesn’t guarantee anything, of course, but right now you have to say Advantage Jazz.


In general teams with fewer questions to be answered do better than teams with more.  All of the above-mentioned teams have fewer questions to be answered than Portland does.  That doesn’t bode well for our top-seed chances.


As far as advancing once we do hit the post-season, it’s possible with a good matchup, but the chances of us making significant waves this year are slim.  Playoff experience matters.  The playoffs are a whole different animal than the regular season and you don’t really understand that until you get there.


In the regular season teams play you as part of a 2-5 game schedule in their week.  There’s little time for concerted practice preparing for specific opponents.  You get scouting reports, a film session, and the shoot-around to prepare.  Then you go out and play, then lather-rinse-repeat the next time.  After 82 games it all blurs.


In the playoffs your opponents only have one team to prepare for.  Their survival depends on overcoming you and only you.  They have days to prepare.  You bet there are practices and drills as well as the usual film sessions and scouting reports.  And they play you again…and again…and again…and again.


If you have a good Plan A you can win a lot of regular season games.  If you have a great Plan A and a good Plan B you will probably win most of them.  In the playoffs they take away your “A” option and most of your “B” option and get you down to “C”.  At that point one of two things happens.  Sometimes your Plan C is good also, which breaks their back because they can’t contain everything at once, which then allows your Plans A and B to shine through again.  Then you win.  Sometimes your Plan C isn’t good enough and you fold like a barbeque napkin when they decide to take away your favorite stuff.  There’s a reason Kobe needed Shaq.  There’s a reason Jordan needed Pippen and at least a couple of important game-winning shots came down to Steve Kerr and John Paxson anyway.


This is where the playoff experience--and just regular old NBA experience--comes in for a team like the Blazers.  We’ve already gotten hints that Portland will have a great Plan A.  If you don’t guard them, if you don’t shut them off, they’re going to pound you with Oden and the Wonder Kids.  We’ve also seen hints that when the Blazers have to switch to Plan B things get a little more shaky.  We’re going to see that more in the regular season.  We haven’t even seen Plan C yet.  I don’t know that the Blazers know they have one.


If and when Portland gets to the playoffs this year it will be because they’ve worked on, perfected, and prosecuted Plan A.  They’ll probably need some B to work as well.  A team this young won’t ride many more horses than that.  Maybe that Plan A will be enough to bull over one opponent in a seven-game series provided, as we said above, we get the right matchups.  But seriously, most of those upper echelon teams we mentioned will see Plan A coming from a mile away and know most of B as well.  It’s far more likely they’ll hobble our favorite horse, tie it to a tree, and say, “What are you going to ride now?”  It’s hard to dance with the girl that brung you if she’s in handcuffs and cement galoshes.  The only thing harder is switching to another plan midstream…one that you haven’t been practicing over and over for 82 games.


In short, winning in the playoffs isn’t about what happens when everything goes right, it’s about whether you can still win when everything goes wrong.  Playoff-tested, veteran teams learn how to do it.  But you can’t learn it in theory, you have to see it working in order to get it and then use the next 82-game season as the proving ground for your fitness.  That’s exactly the experience that lets you come in next season and say, “We’re going to be the number one seed.”


Hopes, dreams, and aspirations are great, but if you looked me in the eye and asked me to give you a stick by which Portland’s success could be measured I would say this:


1.  Make the playoffs this year.


2.  Next year win the division crown and advance at least a round, if not seriously bidding for the Conference Finals.


3.  The year following, contend.


That progression would be plenty for any young team and would be a fantastic ride as well.  Health allowing, I think the Blazers have a pretty good chance to do it.


--Dave (