The Portland Trail Blazers will be in an unfamiliar position as they prepare to take on the Los Angeles Clippers Friday night in Game 6 of their first-round NBA Western Conference Playoffs series. For one of the first times all season, the Blazers will be the consensus heavy favorites to beat another playoff team.
All season, Damian Lillard and the rest of the team have taken umbrage at perceived slights and used predictions of 30 wins as motivation to outperform the underdog label. The team's season-long narrative has been repeated so often it's practically become living mythology: They lost four starters, failed to sign any major free agents and went into the season with one of the lowest team salaries in the NBA, and yet they've exceeded all expectations by surging to 44 regular season wins and a fifth seed in the playoffs.
But going into a game with the "should win" label, as they will tomorrow against the Clippers, has been a rare occurrence for the Blazers and virtually unheard of on a nationally televised stage. Unfortunately, the team has not responded particularly well in the few games they've been predicted to win easily. Examples include: a last second loss to the 29-win Minnesota Timberwolves in the second-to-last game of the season; choking away a massive lead to the perpetually underachieving Houston Rockets on Feb. 25; and a 25-point shellacking at the hands of the hands of the infamously awful Philadelphia 76ers.
Blazer's Edge managing editor Dave Deckard has hypothesized that the losses are the result of losing the underdog label against inferior opponents. The team's identity has become so wrapped up in fighting back against #they, that when #they is actually with the Blazers, the team loses its mojo.
Given that, Friday's Game 6 against the Clippers will provide something of a litmus test. Although on-paper analysis suggested they would win Game 5 easily on Wednesday, there was still apprehension. The Blazers have played poorly away from the Moda Center all season and the Clippers would hold an element of surprise with their lineups and gameplan. For some observers, Game 5 was far from a sure thing.
But with their 108-98 win on Wednesday night at Staples Center, the Blazers have effectively removed any doubt. They took the best shot the Clippers had left, adapted to unexpected lineups, shot terribly in the first half and still pulled away relatively easily in the last quarter. Thus, the only challenge that remains on Friday is to see if the Blazers can pass the test of playing as odds-on favorite.
Importantly, Game 6 will also provide Lillard and the Blazers with some unexpected and important on-court experience. All season a debate has raged about whether or not making the playoffs and losing a draft pick would be better for the team in the long term.
Proponents of making the playoffs argued that playoff experience will be invaluable in future years.That argument is a bit dubious, however, as the Blazers roster is in flux and many of the players will likely be gone form the team in the very near future. Those who will likely stick around, namely Lillard and McCollum, have already experienced playoff-level intensity and acquitted themselves to varying degrees.
But the circumstances surrounding Friday's game now offer a new level of playoff experience for Lillard as a leader. The game will provide an opportunity for him to lead a team as heavy favorites and step on the throats of a weakened opponent for the first time in his career - a chance to find motivation beyond the perpetual "chip on his shoulder."
This experience could prove vital because, if all goes according to plan, the Blazers will be conference heavyweights in 2-3 years and Lillard will lose the option to use the "underdog" mentality in earnest in coming seasons. Tomorrow's game will give him a chance to test those waters so that the (hopeful) eventual transition to Vegas sweetheart will be less traumatic.
The Blazers have seen how important this can be in recent years - in 2009 an upstart and inexperienced Blazer team was totally overwhelmed by the lower-seeded Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the playoffs at the Rose Garden. The hope is that Game 6 against the Clippers will help stave off a similar result in future seasons for Blazer teams led by Lillard.
Thus, ostensibly Friday's matchup against the Clippers provides the Blazers a chance to do more than unexpectedly win a playoff series - they can lay the groundwork for future seasons with a solid performance while also atoning for previous losses to weaker teams from earlier in the season. Hopefully, Lillard and his teammates are up to the task.
Readers - let us know what you think in the comments. How will the Blazers respond to playing as heavy favorites?