With the calendar flipping to March, the Portland Trail Blazers surely have their eyes on April’s NBA Playoffs. Portland’s 38-23 record is good for No. 4 in the West, but the No. 5 Houston Rockets (36-25) and No. 6 Utah Jazz (34-26) are hanging around in the rear view mirror.
Their work isn’t done yet. Their performance in the last month(-ish) of the season will determine if they secure the coveted home-court advantage that’s currently theirs to lose.
There’s three reasons to believe in the Blazers holding on to home-court advantage and opening up a first-round playoff series in front of the Moda Center crowd:
1. Recent play post-Jan. 1
Portland was just 21-16 before the calendar flipped to 2019. But as the calendar flipped, so did a switch in the Blazers; they’ve gone 17-7 overall since Jan. 1. Why the successful run over the last 24 games? For one, Portland took care of business against lowly opponents, especially from those of the Eastern Conference variety.
The Blazers racked up wins against the Knicks, Bulls, Cavaliers (twice), Suns and Hawks in those last 24 games. In a greedy view of things, they would’ve looked even better if they didn’t lose to the 10-seed Heat and 11-seed Mavericks in that stretch.
But it wasn’t just kicking down their lesser opponents, as the Blazers beat playoff-bound teams in the Kings, Rockets (sans Chris Paul), Jazz (twice), Spurs, Warriors, Nets, 76ers (sans Joel Embiid) and Celtics. That’s no cupcake schedule, and it’s wins over teams from both the top and bottom that have Portland with home-court advantage in their sights down the stretch.
And with momentum rolling, two reinforcements have arrived just in time.
2. Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood bolster Portland’s depth
Two of Portland’s biggest weak spots coming into the season were depth at center and reliable wing options. Meyers Leonard filled in admirably as the backup big man, but Enes Kanter’s arrival has breathed new life into the bench unit as a clear-cut go-to option. He makes the rather mundane act of a dive to the basket for an offensive rebound something of a game within a game that’s worth watching when he’s on the court. And his control around the basket, whether to finish on an offensive rebound or score with an array of post moves, is a welcomed addition.
Rodney Hood, meanwhile, brings depth at the wing with playoff experience. Perhaps his arrival hasn’t translated to eye-popping numbers (6.5 points per game on 31.8 percent shooting from three), but he’s another option for head coach Terry Stotts to go to if the situation calls for it. And, perhaps, his biggest value to the team right now as he settles in is the mere threat of taking minutes away from Maurice Harkless and Jake Layman, who are (coincidentally?) both playing arguably their best basketball of the season at the moment.
As Hood and Kanter get used to their new team, they’ll provide an additional punch with the Blazers facing a not-so-daunting schedule down the stretch.
3. Portland’s remaining strength of schedule
Per Tankathon, the Blazers have the 11th-easiest schedule remaining in the league.
The Blazers can’t just cruise on beating the lowly teams to score home-court advantage; they’ll have to go through playoff hopefuls and contenders on their way to the postseason. But, frankly, the team should embrace the big-time matchups.
March and early April should be seen as the team’s playoff tune-up, bringing it against teams they could potentially square off against in mid or late April. It would be reassuring to see the team end the season by not just taking care of business against lottery teams, but by challenging the very teams they’re in contention with for one of the West’s top seeds.