This column's intention on a weekly basis is to bring national stories into the conversation about the Portland Trail Blazers, hopefully providing some context to the issues and storylines related to the team.
But let's face it: The Blazers are among the few teams that are the national stories in the NBA right now. Now rolling a hot November start into December, Portland is continuing their winning ways, going 4-1 since the start of the month.
With that in mind, it seemed appropriate this week to not look at national stories through the lens of the Trail Blazers, but rather to view the Trail Blazers through the eyes of an audience around the country.
There have certainly been a number of national writers that are paying more attention to the Blazers, from ESPN's Grantland guru Bill Simmons to other Mothership personalities. Ben provided a recap on Friday of all this coverage.
However on a game-by-game basis, SB Nation authors affiliated with the Blazers' opponents give rapid reaction after each game just like Dave does here on Blazer's Edge. The game recaps of those affiliates add even more to the story of how the Blazers are winning games night in and night out.
The part of the narrative these other sites provide is through analysis and emotion. In those moments, it's often a good time to see how analysts truly feel about the Blazers once a game is immediately over.
From the SB Nation affiliate's perspective, observations of the Blazers can be boiled down to two general statements:
1. Portland does a great job of capitalizing on the opponent's weaknesses, often with in-game adjustments. Sometimes these weaknesses are youth and inexperience, and sometimes they are simply mistakes made during games that the Blazers take full advantage of.
2. The Blazers are a good team, but not a truly dominant one.
The first statement is really made in two parts. First, the team is doing a better job of burying inferior teams. As seen most recently against Utah, it was a halftime adjustment (likely mental) that sparked Portland's devastating 16-1 run to start the third quarter. As alluded to by Shums at SLC Dunk, Damian Lillard also took advantage of Trey Burke's inexperience on the defensive side and his lack of playing time, which allowed Lillard to attack all night.
In the win over New York, Posting and Toasting spoke to the defensive breakdowns of their beloved but lesser Knicks. Seth Rosenthal wrote mainly on how the Knicks tried to make runs in the second half, but Portland always had an answer. A Wes Matthews transition three-pointer in the fourth quarter sealed it for the Blazers, another example of the team exploiting the Knicks' miserable defensive effort.
The second part of exploiting weaknesses is doing so against quality opponents. Really, in reading between the lines of SB Nation writers, this means that teams are going to make mistakes during the course of the game. Portland is simply trying to be the team that makes less of them, while taking advantage of any human errors.
The games against Indiana and Oklahoma City this week are perfect examples. Against Indiana, as written about by Tom Lewis of Indy Cornrows, a slow start by Roy Hibbert was critical in the outcome of the game. Portland also benefited from some fatigue: Lance Stephenson was generally non-existent until the thunder-smack in front of Mike Rice after fouling out, and David West obviously had tired legs in the second half when covering LaMarcus Aldridge. It was these errors (both mental and physical) that the Blazers used in their favor, ending up victorious.
The win over Oklahoma City also afforded a few opportunities that teams normally don't come by. J.A. Sherman noted in Welcome to Loud City that the final few possessions saw Kevin Durant miss two three pointers that he normally buries. On the other side, Nic Batum caught Durant napping for the dagger three. Additionally the Blazers came out like gangbusters in the third quarter, just like they did against the Jazz, quickly dissolving the Thunder lead.
The second overarching point to opponent game recaps is that while the Blazers are clearly a good team, there still isn't the sense that they are one of the game's elite. Yes, it's fair to say that the season is only a quarter of the way through and that Portland has given no indication over the last decade to be considered in that top tier. Yet the Blazers are still leading the Western Conference, hold the second-best record in the NBA and already have a win over the team leading them in the overall league standings (Indiana).
All that being said, any thought of Portland being "elite" doesn't necessarily resonate with the SB Nation writers surveyed -- at least yet. It's a subtle difference, but Portland is more commonly referred to as "the Western Conference leader" like they were in the recent Mavs Moneyball recap of Saturday night's game, rather than "Western Conference contender" or "prize of the West." By comparison, earlier this season Mavs Moneyball used descriptors like "dynamic" and "highlight-reel quality offensive attack" to describe Oklahoma City, who beat the Mavs 107-93 in the game. Interestingly, Portland's 106 points Saturday were just a tick off OKC's "dynamic" pace.
Portland, by record, is one of the best teams in the league. On a national stage the Blazers have received a tremendous amount of coverage for their season as a whole, especially after big wins this week. When broken down game-by-game, though, writers around SB Nation aren't giving the same kind of praise.
In sum, the writers surveyed are portraying the narrative that the Blazers have been great in individual bit but not yet truly great in the bigger picture. Only time will tell whether these writers will eventually declare, "Portland was simply too much to handle tonight."