The Blazers charge back into the Rose Garden tonight for a game against the 12-21 Orlando Magic the game tips at 7:00 p.m. and will be televised on CSNNW.
12-21 is hardly the worst record in the league right now. The Orlando Magic are hardly the worst team in the league right now. They're just the team on the league's worst losing jag. They've dropped 8 straight. If losses were double shots of espresso they'd be Starbucks. This has been the story of their season. They get a little hot, find a favorable niche in the schedule, and they rattle off a couple wins. Then they lose for two weeks straight. Lather, rinse, repeat. They've lost close ones. They've lost big. They've lost in the 90's and in the 110's. No matter how well they play in a given quarter, they still find ways to make sure their opponent ends up ahead.
Part of this is lack of core leadership. Arron Afflalo was considered a tantalizing role player in Denver, a guy that basketball insiders nodded at sagely. Now thrust into a high option spot in Orlando's offense, bereft of help from his teammates, his production hasn't kept pace with his usage rate. He's not doing poorly; he just functions better as the role player that insiders favor than he does with a team on his back. Ditto Glen Davis. He wanted to be a bigger cog in the Boston operation. Now in Orlando he's got as many touches as he can handle and he's...average-ish. Jameer Nelson hasn't been more than average for years. J.J. Redick is approximately a billion points off of last year's three-point shooting percentage, which is about the only thing he does well. The bench is pedestrian on good nights. You're starting to get the picture.
The one guy the Magic can point to as an unmitigated success story so far (understanding that the other guys, particularly Afflalo, aren't failures by any means) is Nikola Vucevic. He's shooting efficiently, grabbing tons of rebounds, and as Blazers fans well know, true centers can be pains in the rear for Portland. But even Vucevic still falls into the "tantalizing, sagely-winked-at role player" category right now when the Magic need pillars and stars.
The Magic have a pretty average defense and a below-average offense. We could break it down, but that's not the point. Whether you call it "growing up" or simply heightened expectations brought on by a 3-1 road trip, the Blazers are in a different place right now than they were a month ago. It's likely that this is as close as the team will get to serious playoff aspirations all season. Nevertheless, they've staked their claim to being in that discussion. It's still an incredibly early stage, but it's there.
That progression, even if it's temporary, brings these games into a slightly difference focus. To normal eyes this is just an average mid-season game between two not-so-exciting opponents. As long as the Blazers are thinking about a playoff seed they have to understand that games like this can make the difference between seeds or between getting in the playoffs and missing out. This is a game the Blazers should win. Given expectations, recent performances, and momentum that translates to, "This is a game the Blazers can't afford to lose." It's 1 of 82 contests, but sometimes the message is more important than the math. Losing tonight would be tantamount to announcing, "Don't believe in our capacity to make a playoff run. We're going to win some but we'll give it all right back." It's likely the "no playoff run" will come to fruition anyway, but you want to see the Blazers fighting against that every step of the way. You make opponents and the schedule rip that aspiration from you. You don't give it up willingly by losing games like this. In other words, it shouldn't matter what Orlando does or doesn't do. The Blazers should be motivated, focused, and talented enough to take this game anyway.
How often have we dared to say that about this team in 2012-13? If they want it repeated, they better live up to it.
Even if the Blazers do win tonight, the playoff-bound mindset requires familiarity with the concept of necessary, but not sufficient. Young teams, teams not going much of anywhere, get pats on the back for every win. The victory in itself is sufficient to fulfill their goal for the evening. The more important the victory, the more fulfilled they are. If the Blazers are serious about a playoff run the response tonight needs to be, "Yup. We won. And what's next?" This is the mindset that allows a team to, say, win a first round matchup and immediately turn around to demolish their second-round foe. The Blazers aren't anywhere close to that level yet, but this is good practice. How do you go all-out, execute masterfully, win a game, and then nod and march on to the next one instead of expecting a cookie? How do you celebrate a win, or even a 4 of 5 winning stretch, without thinking that you've done everything you set out to do...realizing that the job just got bigger and harder, not smaller? This is a tough lesson for a young team to learn.
Fortunately the Blazers are stocked with the kind of personalities that should make this easier. They're more likely to lack focus than they are to overplay their hand. But they need to marry all the important concepts now: crisp and professional attention to detail, passion to win the game, commitment to use this win to build onto the next. Do everything necessary without thinking that your job is finished when you've done so.
Will we see the Blazers do everything necessary tonight? Will this be the beginning of a transforming homestand or will it be the last win versus an easy opponent for a while followed by a predictable regression? We know the Blazers are skilled, occasionally gritty, often inspired, and becoming ever more proficient as a unit. The question remains: can they be professional in the same way the really good teams are? Even if the aggregate talent level isn't quite there yet, that kind of development would be a great sign. The first step to demonstrating that quality is a win tonight.
It may be a mundane game to most eyes, but the Blazers have plenty of questions to answer tonight.