Viewed in small slices, the calendar looks fairly typical: 15 back-to-backs and 55,000-odd miles of travel...the usual for Portland. The most striking micro-change is the elimination of 4-games-in-5-nights series, a move made for all teams to allow players more rest.
Zoom out, and well-defined, long-game trends become apparent. They tell the story of early opportunity followed by pronounced danger. A gargantuan, and relatively easy, series of home games will precede a tough middle and mind-boggling end to the season. Nothing will come in small measure. Like the Biblical Joseph, the Blazers will need to store up while the wheat is high to avoid the potentially ghastly effects of impending famine as the year comes to a close.
The season starts on a rough note for the Blazers. Opening Wednesday, October 18th in Phoenix shouldn’t test them too much, but then they fly East for back-to-back games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers on the 20th and 21st. Their home opener doesn’t come until the fourth game of the season. Even then, it’s against the New Orleans Pelicans. Another home game against the Clippers follows. This isn’t a killer schedule but it’s not a safe start either. Factor in opening night adrenaline and none of the games is a true gimme. Travel and tough opponents overlap in concentrated doses, a microcosm of the season to come.
The Huge Home Stand
The aforementioned game against the Pelicans begins a three-week span of Moda Center appearances for the Blazers. 11 of their 13 games between the October 24th and November 18th will come at home. As odd as it seems to talk about must-win games in November, this stretch will be critical. The season is a marathon. Portland starts with a small hill early. Bigger hills will come soon. This home stand is the flat stretch allowing Portland to put distance between themselves and their competitors. Playoff positions can’t be won in November, but they can be lost. If the Blazers do not emerge from this long stand against mediocre teams with a sterling record, the entire season will be in doubt.
The Blazers bid goodbye to Moda on November 18th against the Sacramento Kings, then enter what may be their hardest segment of the schedule, pound for pound. They’ll spend late November on a five-game road trip, facing the Grizzlies, Sixers, Nets, Wizards, and Knicks. That’s the easy part of the run. Returning home for a four-game layover would normally provide respite, but the opponents during that mini-stand are the Bucks, Pelicans, Wizards, and Rockets, all in a row. After that comes another five-game travel session featuring Golden State, Miami (a cross-country journey in two days), Orlando, Charlotte, and Minnesota. If you’re counting, that’s 10 out of 14 games on the road during this stretch with a tough opponent every night at home.
Sanity hits the schedule for the first time in late December as extended trips and murderer’s rows go by the wayside. Between December 20th and January 7th, the Blazers will face 9 opponents, 5 at home and 4 away, with venues interspersed. The list includes the Spurs twice and the Cavaliers once, but all other contestants are middling or worse. Consider this a breather.
On January 9th as the Blazers head out to face the Thunder, Rockets, Pelicans, and Timberwolves on the road. 4 of their next 5 will come at home but then they’ll be away for 5 of 6, including tough games against the Clippers, Raptors, and Celtics. When they face the Kings in Sacramento on February 9th, the Blazers will have played 11 of their last 17 games on the road, with only 3 of those 11 looking easy.
Home Again, But...
Between February 11th and March 23rd, the Blazers enjoy their second large spree at home, playing 14 of 18 in friendly territory. The infrequent road games should be simple but the home games feature the Jazz, Warriors (twice), Timberwolves, Thunder, Cavaliers, Rockets, and Celtics. Portland could gain ground here, but they’re not guaranteed large swaths of it.
A Tough Ending
From March 25th until the end of the regular season on April 11th, the Blazers will be tested hard. This final stretch begins with away games against the Thunder, Pelicans, and Grizzlies. Outside of a game in Dallas on April 3rd, it doesn’t get better. 7 of Portland’s last 10 will be on the road. In their final 7 games they’ll face the Clippers, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets, and Jazz.
Few will forget how an optimistic Trail Blazers squad—intact, healthy, and fresh off a stirring appearance in the second round of the playoffs—slouched their way to a 24-35 record last season before rebounding to reach 41-41 and earn a spot in the playoffs. They dare not repeat that performance this year, even in miniature.
A vibrant start will be vital to any claim of relevance. Because of the back-loaded schedule, objects in the mirror will be closer than they appear all season long. With limited exceptions, everything after the first week of January is either a road game or a tough game...unlikely ground from which to attempt a season-saving rally, quicksand if the team is faltering. Portland must grab this schedule and get on top of it from the start or it’s likely to eat them alive.
The story of the season will be told early. Portland’s first five games will reveal plenty. Circle their record on November 19th. 12-4 at that juncture still wouldn’t leave them secure, but at least it’d be a platform upon which to build. They’d hope to survive the brutal Christmas season and add onto their lead as the new year turns, creating ample cushion—and vital momentum—for the tough late run. But if the Blazers are hovering at 8-8 on the 19th, watch out. At that point January’s relentless undertow would become a real threat, the chances of another late-season miracle comeback virtually nil.