The NBA season was just four days old when the Portland Trail Blazers escaped from Dallas with a narrow 121-119 victory. At the time the result appeared to be an expected, if not solid, road result over an up-and-coming young team. While the early-season win looked to be nothing special at the time, it now appears to be one of the Blazers’ more solid performances of the season, especially considering the circumstances that followed.
The first meeting between the two sides came in the early stages of what was expected to be another promising season as the team looked to build off of a third-place finish and Western Conference Finals berth a season ago. Back in October, Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere were both healthy whereas Zach Collins just went down with a reported shoulder injury with an unknown timetable of recovery.
Since that game, both team’s fortunes have seemed to diverge. The Mavericks began to find their groove and surged throughout the early portion of the season behind the star pairing of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Meanwhile, an underwhelming start to the season has the Blazers sitting in 11th-place in the West, ten games behind the 5th-place Mavericks.
For the Blazers, Thursday night’s game has the potential to be a building-block win which could help set up another stretch run. At first glance it may just appear to be an isolated home game in January, but without a doubt this is a game that matters, and there are a few key reasons as to why.
Assessing the West
On Thursday night, the Blazers will be taking on another talented above-.500 competitor in a game that could help them size up exactly where they stand out West. These are the types of opponents that the Blazers have to prove they can beat if they aspire to make it back to the playoffs for a seventh-consecutive season.
The game will also be a measuring stick for the Blazers, allowing Damian Lillard and, if healthy, C.J McCollum to test themselves against the talented tandem of Porzingis and Doncic. In October the two Europeans combined for 61 points, 21 rebounds, and 14 assists. Last Friday Doncic hung 35 points, seven assists, and eight rebounds on the Blazers in a 120-112 win. Doncic has also had his moments in Portland, including hitting a one-handed buzzer-beating three to send a game to overtime his rookie season.
Despite a rough start to the season, the playoffs are still over three months away which allows Portland plenty of time to string a few wins together and make a run. After beating the Rockets and hanging tough with the Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder last week, this could qualify as yet another momentum-building win.
Beating above-.500 teams
One thing the Blazers have struggled with this season has been finding a way to beat winning teams. Wins against the Bulls, Wizards, and Hornets are respectable, but those are games the Blazers are expected to win. Thursday’s game against the Mavericks— much like recent ones against Toronto and Houston— involve the Blazers playing the underdog role.
And just because the game will be played in the cozy confines of the Moda Center doesn’t make grinding out a win any easier for the Blazers. Dallas currently has fourteen wins away from home which is ranked third behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
A win against the Mavericks would be Portland’s sixth win against a team with a winning record (previous victories over the Mavericks, Rockets, Thunder, and Raptors being the others). While just six of those quality wins are underwhelming, stacking those types of results in the latter-half of the season could be huge, especially when it comes to building momentum.
Finishing the first half of the season strong
Believe it or not, the Trail Blazers’ season has passed the mid-way point and we’re just over three weeks from All-Star Weekend. At this juncture of the season, it is important to begin building momentum for the final months, especially as the playoff picture begins to cement itself. This is around the time that Lillard habitually finds an extra gear, and the Blazers will need that surge once again to make another late run.
It is also important to remember that the Blazers will be aided by the return of Nurkic, Labissiere, and potentially Collins as the team enters its stretch run. A win will guarantee at least a series-split against the Mavericks this season which could be vital come April. With the schedule difficulty ramping up, a late-January win against Dallas could help build that momentum, especially with the All-Star break closing in fast.
Without a doubt, Thursday’s game against the Mavericks will be a difficult one. If they can slow down Doncic and Porzingis enough, much like they did against Russell Westbrook and James Harden in Houston, they can walk away with the win. And if they can, it will be yet another result to build off of heading into the latter-half of the season.
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