So I was in a packed sports bar in Southeast Portland on Friday night, happy as can be with a week of work behind me and nothing but basketball in front of me – two Sweet Sixteen games and the Blazers were all on at once.
While my eyes eagerly darted back and forth between the three screens, I was mostly watching the Blazers game. Based on the reactions of the gathered crowd, it seemed to be the other way around for most everyone else.
Even as the Blazers came back on the Suns with a dominant fourth quarter, there was little acknowledgement of it throughout the bar. Only a small pocket of cheers came intermittently from a group in the corner.
I spoke to these guys after the game, exchanging exuberance over a desperately needed win. They mentioned that they had gone to Spirit of ’77 first, but they weren’t showing the Blazers.
Wait. Let me get this straight. A well-known Blazer bar, NAMED after the team’s championship season, equipped with multiple TVs…wasn’t even showing the game?
A similar phenomenon was on display at Monday’s postseason-clinching win, as there was a number of empty seats. At a key stretch run contest. With home court advantage on the line.
Where are you, Blazer Nation?
Okay. So I get that the weather has been awesome lately. Take advantage of it when you can, right? Maybe you have a life and have other things to do, in which case, congratulations on your superior ability to prioritize. Maybe you’re caught up in March Madness. Maybe your attention is totally captivated by the approach of baseball’s opening day. (Really?)
Or most likely, these instances betray a shift in expectations, accompanied by a flagging enthusiasm.
Yes, that East Coast road trip was ugly. Yes, the Blazers have struggled to find their groove over the last month, going 7-6 since Wes Matthews’ injury. But are things really that dire, two weeks from the playoffs and everything to play for tonight at home?
Well, since Wes got hurt, the starting lineup of Damian Lillard, Arron Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez has posted a defensive rating of 112.2. As far as team stats go, that number would get you dead last in the NBA over that time period, and dead last for the season.
The group’s Defensive Rebounding Percentage at 72.2% would be just .01% from last in the league for the season.
On the plus side, this group has put up an insane 110.8 offensive rating over the last month—for comparison, the top-ranked Warriors stand at 109.6 on the season. But you may notice that this means that the starters have a minus Overall Rating currently (-1.4).
Yet the stats say the bench has really stepped it up, in case the eye test hasn’t done it for you. Overall as a team since Wes’ injury, the Blazers are fifth in the league in Defensive Rebounding %, Overall Rebounding %, Effective Field Goal %, and True Shooting %. There’s been the re-emergence of Dorell Wright and Joel Freeland, Chris Kaman has looked healthier than he has in a while, and we’ve seen a strong showing by C.J. McCollum. The sophomore combo guard has averaged 11 points in 22 minutes over the last 7 games while shooting 47.6% from the field and 40.9% from deep.
So while the new starting lineup clearly has some work to do as far as cohesion on defense, there is reason to hope the Blazers can right their ship before the playoffs. And the ability to hold home court advantage in the first round is still very much in their own hands.
Tonight will be a big test, the first of five games over two weeks against playoff hopefuls. Who Portland will meet in the playoffs remains to be seen, but most likely it will be a team currently ranked between 2nd and 6th: no easy outs there.
Which is probably fine with the Blazers—this team has never been shy with adversity in the room. If you ask them, I’m sure they’ll tell you there has been no change in their expectations.
But how about the fans? Where’s your head at right now?