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The Calm Before the Storm

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It's awfully hard to get much perspective beyond the last game and the next one in the flurry of regular season competition.  That's why as the All-Star break comes to a close but before the games crank up again we should take the opportunity to reset and refocus, taking a big-picture look at what's happened this year, where we are now, and what's ahead.

How's It Gone So Far?

At 31-24 the Blazers stand 8th in the Western Conference, 4th in the Pacific (sorry, flashback there)  Northwest Division behind Denver, Utah, and Oklahoma City.  The season has included some great wins like a three-in-a-row run on the road versus Miami, Dallas, and San Antonio, wins at home against the Nuggets, L*kers, Mavericks, and Magic, and the final win before the break, a 108-101 victory in Phoenix in which the Blazers had no reason to come out ahead but did anyway.  We've also seen our share of disappointing losses, including a home defeat to Denver in the second game of the season, limp efforts against the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Heat in late November/early December, a loss to the Grizzlies at home in January, getting spanked by Washington on the road on MLK Day, the woodshed-tanning Utah gave the Blazers on January 25th, and the limp-noodle end to what should have been a fierce stare-down with the Thunder at home in the penultimate game before the break.  Every time the Blazers look like they're finally falling apart, though, they manage to pull it back together.  (The Thunder/Suns games serve as a prime example.)  The most miraculous part of the whole process may be that the wheels haven't fallen off completely.  Between injuries, chemistry and blending issues, and a busy schedule Portland has seen plenty of opportunities to fall out of the race.  They've had built-in excuses for underperforming.  They've fought their way to a winning record nonetheless and remain in the playoff hunt.

What Have We Learned?

When the team was healthy opposing announcers used to marvel, "This team's second unit could start in many places."  The devastating injuries that have at one time or another claimed every member of the main rotation except for Andre Miller and Martell Webster have proved that adage apt.  Not only has our second unit started, our third unit has seen major minutes and come out ahead.  The Blazers do, indeed, have a strong bench overall.

The flip side of the coin is that "could start" is not the same as starting and performing well occasionally and/or in emergency situations is not the same as establishing yourself as a contributor.  We've seen amazing performances out of the 12th-15th players off the bench, including Juwan Howard and Dante Cunningham.  We've also seen the occasional brilliant performance out of guys from the 4th-8th positions like Nicolas Batum and Jerryd Bayless.  But for all the depth nobody new has stepped forward and defined themselves consistently.  Were every Blazer magically healthy today the positions just behind the starters would be a crap shoot.  We still don't know where we are with guys like Bayless, Webster, and Rudy Fernandez.  We don't know what we can count on them for, how long they can play, or whether they'll keep their heads above water if given more responsibility.  More opportunity has brought less surety, perhaps, when it should have provided more.

We have learned that this team still banks on its centers heavily to provide interior defense.  Without Oden and Przybilla opposing points in the paint have gone through the roof.  Providing the roster remains relatively stable even with the impressive young names and talent the Blazers will not be serious contenders without a strong defensive presence in the middle.

We have learned that if LaMarcus Aldridge is ever going to be a post presence in this league the time is not yet.  He'll never see the middle wider open on offense than it is now with Oden out, Roy not there to drive, and Miller and Bayless both forced to defer to his wishes should he enforce them.  Despite this Aldridge seems content to make an (admittedly good) living on the perimeter.  If the Blazers desire strong post play in the near future they're going to have to look elsewhere.

We have learned that whatever personnel take the court this team is not the same without Brandon Roy.  A few Blazers can cover Roy's individual attributes.  Bayless and Miller can drive, Webster and Batum can shoot, Aldridge can score in droves and put pressure on the defense, commanding double-teams.  Nobody can put all of those together in one package.  And nobody has that un-definable winning drive/desire/panache that Brandon evinces night in and night out.  There may be stars-in-waiting on this team but he is the superstar.  The Blazers suffer without him.

What's Ahead? 

With only 27 games remaining in the season, a three-team logjam just 1 game ahead of them in the playoff standings, and three other teams (Houston, New Orleans, Memphis) trailing not far behind the Blazers face a mad dash for playoff seeding.  Only 4 of the 27 games remaining involve the 6 teams bunched around the Blazers so, save perhaps against Oklahoma City, Portland has little power to directly affect the destiny of its closest rivals.  The Blazers will have to win games consistently in order to stay in the race.  7 of the 24 games are against teams which could be considered elite this year while 13 are against teams with no shot at a playoff seed.  That leaves plenty of space to manufacture those critical wins.  The most important thing for Portland will be winning the games it should.  There will be no room for mental breakdowns.  Unfortunately for the Blazers many of those games against sub-standard teams are on the road.  Portland's fate may be decided by their ability and resolve to win in places like Golden State and Sacramento.  The five-game road swing at the end of February looms large, not so much because it's an inherently difficult trip but because trips featuring the Nets, Raptors, Bulls, Timberwolves, and Grizzlies are precisely where the Blazers will earn their stripes (nor not).   A stretch from March 9th-19th features Sacramento, Golden State on the road, Sacramento on the road, Toronto, and Washington.  Portland needs to rack up a 4-1 record or better in those kind of situations.  The Blazers have shown the ability to win such games in isolation.  Heck, they've shown the ability to win against great opponents in isolation.  The playoff run will test whether they can pull it all together and win those games as a matter of course.

We probably won't have to wait long to find out what Portland's mindset is.  The first game after the break brings the Clippers to town.  They're not a great team but they have beaten the Blazers in Portland before and are quite capable of doing so again if Portland isn't sharp.  A dedicated, focused, mentally-prepared team committing to making the playoffs would come into that game razor-sharp, particularly since Boston and Utah are the next opponents on the docket and they're far from guaranteed wins.  The more typical Blazer approach this year would be to play lackluster ball against the Clips, leave the outcome up in the air, then emerge strong against one of the next two teams to steal a win.  If Portland wants to make the playoffs they need a sure victory against the Clippers and the stolen win later on.  The difference between 2-1 and 1-2 doesn't look big until you hit those final standings in the West.  We know from last year how impossibly tight those can be.

The aforementioned five-game road trip comes right after the Clippers-Celtics-Jazz homestand.  After those 8 games we'll know much of what we need to know.  If the Blazers either muddle along or dig themselves a hole they're going to regret it later.  If they come out with even a 5-3 record they're good.  Anything better would be fantastic.  Given the ease of losing 2-3 games against Boston, Utah, or Chicago and Memphis on the road, you can see just how important those easier games are.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)