The Portland Trail Blazers are the hottest team in the NBA. Winners of 13 straight, the Blazers have been playing phenomenal basketball since early February, and are 22-5 since the middle of January. They’ve guaranteed themselves a .500 season. They’ve already exceeded their win total from last season. They’re holding on to the third seed in the Western Conference.
Did anyone see this coming?
I certainly didn’t. Even before the disappointment of the first half of the season, this was a team that wasn’t able to make any summer additions to their roster while the rest of the Western Conference got better. Minnesota added Jimmy Butler. Oklahoma City added Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Houston got Chris Paul. The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap. There was little reason to believe that the Blazers would be able to make serious inroads into the Western Conference’s upper echelon when the season started, and even less reason to believe one the season started and the team played maddeningly inconsistent basketball.
But here we are. The Blazers haven’t lost since before Valentine’s Day, and they’ve done their best work against some very good teams. Against all odds, they’ve beaten the Warriors twice, the Cavaliers, the Jazz, the Timberwolves. Heck, even the Lakers were 17-7 in their last 24 before Portland mowed them down. Regardless of how long the winning streak lasts, the Blazers have shown that they are for real. Here’s how:
This is the big one. Portland’s defense has been good most of the year, but absolutely stellar over their last 15 games. Since February 8th, the Blazers have the second best defensive rating in the NBA; behind only Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz. They’ve achieved this with active hands and some of the quickest defensive rotations I can remember a Blazer team having. Watching Portland take on the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night felt like watching the San Antonio Spurs play defense. Granted, the Pistons are falling off a cliff, but no matter where they swung the ball, the Blazers rotated, helped, and harassed the ball-handler. A defensive scheme requires full team buy-in, and it’s clear that Terry Stotts has his entire group locked in to their defensive scheme.
While Damian Lillard has had to simply do it himself at various points during this Blazers run, the bench has been clicking of late. Ed Davis, Zach Collins, Evan Turner, and Shabazz Napier have all taken turns in the spotlight over the last month. It’s one thing to have a member of your supporting cast step up, much like Napier did earlier in the season, but it’s another to have the majority of your reserves fall into their roles all at once.
Let’s look at the bench in the last 15 games. Ed Davis is grabbing 9.5 rebounds a night while shooting 68 percent. Evan Turner is shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line and turning the ball over fewer than once per game. Zach Collins is only averaging 5 points a night, but is sticking the 3-ball at a 35 percent clip and is averaging a plus-4 over that same time frame. Shabazz Napier has struggled a bit with his shot, but hit multiple clutch fourth quarter buckets. Lillard can’t do it all himself, and of late he hasn’t needed to.
The Little Things
It’s not just defense and bench production, though those are the major components. The Blazers are doing all of the little things necessary to win. Since February 8th, Portland has the second lowest (best) percentage of offensive rebounds allowed - 18.1 percent. They also have the sixth best turnover rate in the league during that same time frame at 12.6. By not allowing their opponents to get easy points, they’re not only able to put the screws to their opponents late, but they’re able to limit their quality opponents’ runs. Holding a Golden State or Oklahoma City run to 6-0 instead of 12-2 is crucial, and refusing to allow easy buckets is what’s allowed the team to answer with a run of their own, nearly every time.
I never imagined in November that Portland would be dialed in like this. I had them pegged as a 42-win team that would struggle to sneak into the eighth seed. Things still could go sideways, but I’ve seen enough. This group has the confidence and capability to be in the second tier right behind the Rockets and the Warriors. Considering the expectations, that’s more than enough for me to call this a satisfying season.