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The Trail Blazers 2018-19 Season in Retrospect: Early Success

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We look at the 53-win season that brought the Blazers to the brink of the playoffs.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2018-19 regular season included 53 wins, a third seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs bracket, a devastating injury, a couple roster moves, and a whole lot of action. Before Portland takes on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, we’re look back on the season that got them here.

The first installment hearkens back to October, 2018. Consistency and talent were the watchwords as hopes ran high for a new year.

In the Beginning

The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2018-2019 season as champions – NBA Summer League champions, that is. They defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 91-73 to avenge their runner-up finish in a rematch of the 2017 Summer League Championship.

Portland’s regular season squad saw their Summer League companions final win and decided to mimic it. Led by the unexpected lights out shooting from Nik Stauskas in his debut game, the Blazers toppled the Lakers in dramatic fashion to kick off the 2018-2019 season. Visions of a deep playoff run flashed through fans’ minds after beating a fresh LA team predicted to be the Golden State Warriors toughest competition.

That high only lasted until the third game, when Portland lost to the Washington Wizards in overtime. Markieff Morris torched Jusuf Nurkic on the perimeter repeatedly, especially in overtime, to help edge out a one-point victory. That loss worsened in hindsight as the Wizards turned into a dumpster fire only a few games later.

The Blazers jumped out to a 10-point halftime lead in the following game versus the Orlando Magic. Despite Orlando’s best efforts, the deficit remained thanks to Damian Lillard’s 34 points in the second half alone (a franchise record). He credited his otherworldly performance to a Magic fan sitting courtside, who heckled Lillard throughout the first half but rightfully stayed silent in the second.

Another 40-point performance from Lillard couldn’t will Portland to a win against the Miami Heat two nights later. It marked two losses to Eastern Conference opponents in the first five games of the season, but the Blazers flipped the script and finished with a remarkable record of 24-6 against the East.

A measly 3-2 record swiftly became a 10-3 record as the team won seven of its next eight. The only loss came against the Lakers despite LeBron James recording a plus/minus of -22; Portland’s bench struggled mightily, a theme in the season’s early going.

Highlights from that streak include the team’s Halloween costumes (Nurkic and Moe Harkless won the unspoken competition), CJ McCollum breaking Donte DiVincenzo’s ankles in a defining win over the Milwaukee Bucks, and Al-Farouq Aminu sinking a dagger three to push the Blazers past the Boston Celtics. (Aminu hitting clutch shots became perhaps the weirdest storyline of the season.)

During this streak, Harkless sat out with lingering issues from his arthroscopic knee surgery in the summer. No one knew the severity and potential longevity of his knee ailment as the team labelled him as a game-time decision most nights.

Moe’s absence finally caught up to the Blazers as they dropped two straight – to the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves – as the starters couldn’t hit a shot. 0-2 to begin a six-game road trip, Portland benefitted from games versus the Wizards and New York Knicks; both ended in less-than-comfortable wins, but wins nonetheless.

The victory over Washington moved the team to 11-5, a record good enough for first in the West by a matter of percentage points. The standings shuffled on a night-to-night basis, so Portland stood atop the conference for only a few days.

Next: The ups and downs of the holidays.