This could happen only to Portland, the NBA's unexplained karmic losers. For two years, the Blazers searched for a bench that wouldn't give away leads their vicious starting five built up. They finally appear to have found one — right as injuries ripped apart that starting lineup, and with three-fifths of it headed into free agency during a summer that could define the franchise's next half-decade.
Lowe notes how the Trail Blazers season started with an attack everyone knew was near the top in the NBA, executing Terry Stotts' "flow" offense to perfection. He mentions the Blazers improving their defense to top-5 status as well. Then it all went to . . . somewhere.
Which is why it's important to appreciate the silver linings that could make Portland a grittier out than the West juggernauts might imagine: C.J. McCollum has been playing his ass off since Matthews's injury, and especially over Portland's last dozen games, in which he's averaged 13 points on 52 percent shooting — including 42 percent from deep. He's the off-the-bounce bench weapon it's never really had, he can play alongside Damian Lillard in some matchups, and he has eased into a background role when he's on the floor with Portland's stars.
Lowe has a full analysis of how much McCollum's offense has improved this season with videos and stats to reinforce his view. He discusses McCollum's roller-coaster start to his career and how an incident early this season aided his offensive development:
He had a flashbulb NBA moment earlier this season when talking to J.J. Redick about life as an off-ball threat. "He told me that my mind-set has to be that every play is being run for me, even when I don't get the ball," McCollum says. "He thinks every play is for him. He's always running around, trying to get the ball."
Lowe continues with lots more on McCollum's offensive improvement. Eventually he gets to his defense and suggests that C.J. has made great strides on that side of the ball, but because of his size will likely never be a lockdown wing-defender.
Lowe goes on to discuss the precipitous drop in Portland's team defense and says there is not a single obvious explanation for the collapse (Willy Raedy will have an analysis on this issue here on BE on Monday). Lowe does suggest that Lillard and McCollum together may be an unplayable combination and Stotts evidently agrees:
"They just won't play much together [against opposing starters] the way the roster is constructed now," Stotts says. "We'll see what happens down the road."
After considering the various reasons for the defensive falloff, Lowe thinks the Trail Blazers can still be a force in the playoffs:
But if the math does tilt back in Portland's favor, the Blazers won't go easily in the first round — especially because they appear to have unearthed a new weapon in McCollum. The Matthews injury almost certainly ended their chances of winning three straight series, but these guys won't be pushovers.
Lowe finishes with this version of the sports cliche, Wait 'til Next Year:
McCollum's emergence means the Blazers might finally have the team they want next season — if Matthews recovers, and all three of Matthews, Aldridge, and Lopez come back. But that's still an "if."