College basketball’s claim to fame is March Madness, but the Portland Trail Blazers will try to survive and advance during their own crazy March. The Blazers, standing at 37-26, are third in the Western Conference after eclipsing the Minnesota Timberwolves (38-28).
Known as a late-blooming team the past two seasons, the Blazers have kept themselves in the playoff picture most of this season. Then they capitalized on an 11-5 January, rode Damian Lillard’s scorching 31.4 points per game in February — a team record, no less — and stayed healthy, all helping them vault up the standings.
Portland has the sixth-hardest overall schedule remaining, per Tankathon. The pressure is on as playoff seeding tightens in March. Let’s look at opposing teams and trends as the Blazers go through their end-of-season gauntlet.
Toughest Games of March
Facing the Rockets and Warriors in the same month isn’t ideal during a playoff chase, especially since those two are fighting for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs. Portland does have a budding rivalry with both — See: Lillard’s 0.9 shot on Houston; See: Lillard’s 51 points on Golden State — so they’re in for a fight.
Kyrie Irving and the Celtics are chasing home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs as they trail the No. 1 seed Raptors (44-17). Portland has a chance to get revenge after losing on an Al Horford buzzer-beater in early February.
The Cavs have LeBron James, and I need not tell you what he is capable of any given night.
Should Be Easy Games
The Lakers are a young team with not many expectations (from rational NBA watchers, anyways) so they’re a wild card every night. They did almost push the Blazers to overtime earlier this season before Lillard Time happened.
The Knicks lost Kristaps Porzingis and are still very much the Knicks. They’re also still very much paying Joakim Noah to not be with the team.
Marc Gasol recently likened the Grizzlies’ play to the G-League, so that sums up their season (more on them later).
Potentially Troublesome Games
After bringing in Dwyane Wade again, the Heat have some spark for their own playoff push. Sitting in the No. 8 seed currently, they have a shot at the No. 5 or 6 seed, which means no quit until the season ends.
The Clippers are the West’s No. 9 seed, on the heels of the Nuggets (35-28) for the last playoff spot. Without trading DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams and acquiring Tobias Harris they seem intent on making the playoffs, and they might want to as a pitch to a possible free-agent-to-be in Jordan.
A Testing Road Trip
After going through tough matchups against the Warriors, Heat, Cavs, Rockets and Celtics during March, the Blazers get a present of a road trip to finish off a possibly draining month.
Oklahoma City has fallen off a defensive cliff without forward Andre Roberson and slipped to No. 7 in the West while Portland surpassed them. With their own playoff expectations, and a star in Paul George to woo with free agency near, finishing that low in the standings with a first-round exit would be a disaster.
New Orleans, despite losing DeMarcus Cousins, has pulled itself together and stayed in the playoff picture. Adding Nikola Mirotic and getting a highly productive Jrue Holiday to pair with February Player of the Month Anthony Davis down the stretch is keeping them from rolling over.
While that Memphis game is a “Should Be Easy Game,” it’s also the second of a back-to-back. The Blazers did a similar road trip in early February, going from Toronto to Boston to Detroit. The Pistons pummeled Portland. Although there was We Got Blake Griffin euphoria hanging around, the 111-91 loss showed a tired team. The Grizzlies game may break bad in that same vein.
The Remaining March Schedule in General
The Blazers will play four teams under .500 in their remaining 13 games in March. They will play seven playoff teams, and two teams on the verge of the playoffs (Pistons and Clippers). Portland can only control what happens in their games, taking advantage of games against teams who’d love to take their home-court advantage.