Portland Trail Blazers fans love to hedge their statements when evaluating team progress. How many times have you heard this statement over the years? “They’re playing well BUT...”
Lately, however, there’s no qualifier necessary. The team has come together and is simply playing good basketball. The Blazers are 15-5 in their last 20 games. After flipping back and forth for much of the season, the offense and defense are clicking at the same time. The Blazers have maintained a 107.2 offensive rating while having a 6th rated 103.4 defensive rating over their last 15 games.
The defense has ramped up even more of late. Since the All-Star break, the team has an NBA-best 98.1 defensive rating and a net rating of 9.9 during that span - behind only the Warriors, Raptors, and Rockets. Portland has beaten quality opponents and, just as crucially, found a way to win games when things weren’t clicking from the get-go. That’s the hallmark of a good team.
While it remains to be seen just how long the squad can keep it up on both ends, Blazer fans should be encouraged. Portland has ridden the stellar play of Damian Lillard for many of their wins, but just as often, the team has leaned on contributions from the supporting cast. In the process they’ve managed to beat the Warriors, Timberwolves, and Thunder while also snapping an 11-game winning streak of the Utah Jazz.
This is the best basketball that the Blazers have played since the LaMarcus Aldridge era. Of course, the team has gone on serious runs before this. They’ve even gone on runs that have yielded better streaks than their current 15-5 stretch. But there has always been that “but...” lingering over them.
Last year the Blazers went 18-6 down the stretch and the entire city was awash with Nurk Fever. But (there’s that word again), the team had a Charmin-soft schedule to close out the season. These weaker opponents hadn’t had much of a chance to game plan against their lineup with the addition of Jusuf Nurkic, and it showed in Portland’s strong finish.
In Portland’s first season without Aldridge, the team - expected to be among the worst in the NBA - turned heads with an 14-2 stretch from late January to early March. This included wins over the Rockets (twice), Warriors, and Grizzlies. The Blazers were among the biggest surprises in the league, and while they had some solid defensive performances sprinkled in that run (including a 32-point thrashing of Golden State), they weren’t able to count on getting key stops on a consistent basis. They were a young group, one that was new to playing with each other.
The last time Portland was clicking better on all levels than they are right now came at the start of the 2014-15 season. Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Wesley Matthews were playing in what would turn out to be their last season with the club. They started off the year like gangbusters. Portland had records of 12-3, 17-4, 26-7, and 30-8 at various points that season and they were positively dominant. The only weakness that year was their bench and, at least through the first half of the season, it didn’t affect them in the least.
Though that season famously fell apart when Wesley Matthews went down against the Dallas Mavericks, the Aldridge-Batum-Lillard Blazers were dominant, posting similar offensive/defensive ratings as the current group has had since the All-Star break, but maintaining them over the course of multiple months. The 2017-18 Blazers aren’t quite there yet, but with another few weeks of stellar play...who knows?
What do you think? When is the last time you can remember the Blazers were playing as well as they are right now? Can they keep it up as they continue to face playoff-caliber opponents through the rest of the season? Let us know in the comments!