With the NBA Playoffs swiftly approaching, the Portland Trail Blazers currently sit at 39-24, good for fourth in the Western Conference behind the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s a familiar position, last year earning the three seed in the playoffs.
Last year’s first round exit at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, however, soured public opinion of the Blazers. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote about how the they need to prove themselves in the playoffs, otherwise Portland might be in for an overhaul in the offseason:
The stakes are high in Portland. Another first round flameout, and this team could be dismantled. Head coach Terry Stotts could be shown the door. The Blazers looked like a contender in February—the win over Boston was Portland’s fifth straight, a stretch that has included wins over Golden State and Philadelphia—but they will need to play like one in April to keep this team together.
Mannix acknowledged that this team isn’t quite like last year’s squad. There have been improvements internally, with players like Jusuf Nurkic, Moe Harkless and Jake Layman playing better. The additions of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter also give the Blazers new looks they can throw at teams. Damian Lillard talked about how all the pieces have come together up to this point:
“We’ve added pieces that complement what we do,” Lillard said. “As much as we are the same team, we’ve added stuff that made us a better team. Things have to be done by committee. Me and CJ, we have to do what we do. Nurk has to do what he does. But when we get that great group effort, when everyone comes in and does their jobs, that’s when we are at our best. That’s what’s happening right now.”
The team is happy with how they’re playing right now and believe their experience can carry them a long way. Still, the first round sweep last season lingers, and Mannix writes that if the continuity doesn’t translate into results then it likely won’t matter for Portland.
Indeed. The power and depth of the West has victimized many top teams in recent years, Portland among them. But it likely won’t save this team, this season. The Blazers got a reprieve after last year’s first round flameout. They likely won’t get another.