Ben Golliver writing in Sports Illustrated explores the playoff picture.
Let's start with what we know, now that all 30 teams have played at least 60 games: Atlanta will cruise to the East's No. 1 seed, Golden State looks poised to take the top spot in the West, and 11 other teams (Memphis, Houston, Portland, Clippers, Dallas, San Antonio, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, Washington and Milwaukee) will join them in the playoffs barring a crazy collapse, leaving three unclaimed postseason berths.
Golliver suggests those last three berths may be up for grabs for a long time since several teams remain in the mix.
He says the Cleveland Cavaliers are surging and the Toronto Raptors are swooning and then he lists the teams surging and swooning according to how their offense and defense are playing.
The teams surging are the Houston Rockets (offense) and the Utah Jazz (a salute to Rudy Gobert and how he's improved their defense, not their playoff chances).
The swooning teams are the Dallas Mavericks (offense) and Portland Trail Blazers (defense).
On the surface, Portland looks like a team that has a claim to be in the contender discussion. The Blazers have a top-five record in the league, they possess two All-Stars, they rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball for the season, and they are coming off a playoff series victory.
Look a bit deeper, though, and hesitation is warranted. For the second straight year, Portland raced out to a strong start, only to fall off that pace as the season progressed: a 22-6 start gave way to a humbling 10-10 stretch. Injuries to big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland factored into the hiccups, as did a more difficult schedule.
The regression has been very real on the defensive end. Before Jan. 1, Portland ranked third overall in defensive rating. Since Jan. 1, Portland ranks 13th, which is only marginally better than where they finished last season. In terms of the biggest swooners—those teams whose defensive rating has fallen by the most since Jan. 1—Portland ranks third.
Golliver's biggest concern for the Trail Blazers is the loss of Wesley Matthews and what it does to their bold trade deadline move of acquiring Arron Afflalo to bolster the bench. Having Afflalo start for them trashes that plan.
Unfortunately, it looks like the injury to Matthews will raise the same old questions—depth, defense—that have plagued the Blazers in recent years. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are fully capable of delivering a series victory, but Portland's recent slippage defensively coupled with the loss of Matthews makes it harder to envision the Blazers taking the next step by reaching their first conference finals since 2000. Blazermaniacs might want to cross their fingers and hope for the Mavericks under the assumption that Dallas' offensive fall-off will be more crippling than Portland's recent defensive shortcomings.
Are you concerned about a possible season-ending swoon?