Monday night the Portland Trail Blazers managed to do something this season that they failed to do last season. Win game number 42, the first game of the second half of the season. A season ago, the Blazers had achieved 25 wins before losing game number 42 in Washington D.C. to the Wizards. Twenty-five wins by the halfway point is a de-facto magic number, the precursor to another magic number. Hitting 50 wins last season was what it took to make the final eight in the Western Conference.
Portland took care of the final game of the first half of the regular season, managing to reach the official midpoint of the season a game above .500. Add that to the win on Monday against the Timberwolves, and the Blazers are a respectable 22-20 with fewer games left to play than have been played. It’s not halfway to 50, but then again, 50 wins might not be this season’s magic number for a playoff spot.
Forty-two games in the book is as good a time as any to take a look back at how the Blazers got to where they are now. And it’s also a fantastic time to look ahead to what the season has left to offer. Let’s begin with how we got to where we are.
Way back at the end of the summer, the Trail Blazers looked like one of the teams in the Western Conference with the best shot at breaking Kobe Bryant’s three-year Finals appearance streak. The Blazers made a nice offseason acquisition in Wesley Matthews, Brandon Roy and Andre Miller had one year together under their belts and were going to work hard at getting on the same page, LaMarcus Aldridge was once again poised for a breakout year, and Nicolas Batum was emerging as one of the best young wing players in the league.
Fast forward a few months, and it’s interesting that not much has been removed from that early equation but everything has changed. That’s what happens when the piece that gets removed is vital to say the least. Losing Brandon Roy for at least the majority of the season has been easily the biggest story of the season thus far. Roy was instrumental in bringing the franchise back to a competitive level, and without him on the court Portland seemed doomed to fail. But wait; let’s not be so hasty in passing judgment on these Blazers. It took some time to adjust to life without Brandon, and in some ways his absence is still very obvious, but it’s that adjustment to playing without the best player on the roster that leads to the second most important story of the first half of the season. This second most important story may even have the power to overshadow most, if not all, of the negative things that have plagued 2010-11.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been right on the edge of stardom for the majority of his career. Easily one of the most talented players at his position in the Western Conference, LA has seemed perfectly happy deferring to Brandon Roy as both the face of the franchise and the leader of the team. With Brandon sidelined, there’s been no doubt that LaMarcus is the centerpiece of the offense. As LA’s numbers increase, so too has his ability to represent the Blazers in a “franchise player” way. One of the most notable developments in this post-Brandon era takes place in the Blazer’s locker room following every home game. LA has always attracted a post game crowd. He gives great interviews, and often is very insightful about his play and the play of his teammates. But Brandon Roy has always had the biggest crowd in front of his locker. Wesley Matthews has had the honor a few times of being the one the cameras and reporters go to first, but his play hasn’t been consistent enough to warrant the constant attention. LaMarcus has strung together enough stellar games that the crowd at his locker is becoming a staple. LA seems to enjoy the attention and the spot light, and that’s a big positive.
Outside of the great play of LaMarcus, the other big impact story has been the development of Wesley Matthews. Thrust into a starting role before Roy was sidelined, Wesley has had his ups and downs, but often on nights when he shows up to play the Blazers win. Wesley has scored more than 20 points 15 times so far in 2010-11. Of those 15 games, Portland has won 10. When Wesley reaches or exceeds 30 points, a feat he has accomplished three times this season, Portland has not lost. As a second-year player, Wesley has increased his per game averages in field goals attempted, three-pointers attempted, free-throws attempted, assists, steals, and points. Some questioned whether Portland paid too much for Wesley when the season began, but when he stepped up after Brandon went down it became clear that Wesley was at the very least an effective insurance policy. With the way he has been playing, and his obvious influence on the overall punch of the offense, it’s safe to say that some of the success that Portland had in the first half of the season was directly the result of having added Wesley Matthews to the roster.
The Blazers currently stand in the eighth position in the Western Conference, two games behind their division rival the Denver Nuggets, and two and a half games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies. BasketballReference.com projects that Portland will finish in that same eighth spot, winners of 42 games. That’s basically a straight up projection from the wins Portland already has, but it’s hard to really argue.
So far this season the Blazers have struggled to string together wins in any meaningful way. Portland collected eight straight home wins in the first half, but also finished the first half of the season with a road record of 8-15. In order to improve on their playoff position, the Blazers are going to have to find a way to win on the road, and they are also going to need to find a way to build a sustainable winning streak. It doesn’t have to be 13 straight Ws, but a streak of five or more, not followed by a losing streak of equal or greater length is a must in the second half of the season.
Another thing that Portland will have to find a way to do is get some kind of consistent production from its second unit. Portland’s bench is incredibly thin, and because the starters have been so strong lately, it’s going to be their development that can get Portland a few extra wins going down the stretch. I’ll close this out by taking a look at Portland’s bench, the group that may be the difference between the being included in the playoffs or being left out.
Patty Mills took over the back-up point guard position, and went overnight from a glorified mascot to a legitimate contributor. Patty has had some big nights off the bench, but he has also produced some not so big nights. More big nights than bad nights will be key for Patty in the second half of the season. We can break it down to even smaller increments than that. Patty needs to make more smart plays than mistakes. Right now he’s at about even. For every smart play or big bucket he seems to turn the ball over or take a bad shot.
Rudy Fernandez is much like Patty, but he plays a lot more minutes. Rudy has a tendency to be streaky, and it’s unlikely that he’ll miraculously become consistent in the second half of the season. What Portland needs from Rudy is sustained streaks and short lulls. If Rudy can put three double-digit scoring nights in a row, and then keep his down nights to a game or at the most two, the Blazers should be in good shape.
Dante Cunningham is kind of the x-factor on the bench, and in a lot of ways I think of him as an x-factor for the team as a whole. Like Wesley Matthews, DC is a second-year player who is really just becoming comfortable playing with the NBA game. Last season, as a second-round pick, it was ok for Dante to fall flat or disappear for long stretches, he wasn’t really that important on a nightly basis. He doesn’t have that luxury this season. Dante is the most inconsistent player on the Blazer bench. DC currently scores 4.5 points per game, and plays almost 19 minutes a night. He needs to get the scoring up to around six points per game, and get the minutes closer to 20 in order to spell LaMarcus for real during the course of a game. If DC can get the scoring up, he can stay out on the court. His defense and hustle are great, now he needs to work on being a scorer and a consistent shooter.
Joel Przybilla will be fun to watch as the season progresses, and has the potential of being the feel-good story of 2010-11. His range and movement are still limited, and with that his effectiveness isn’t what it can be. What’s great about Joel is that it’s obvious how much he enjoys being out on the court. That consistent effort and leadership will provide a strong backbone for the second unit, something that they have lacked at times.
What Does it all Mean?
For the second year in a row, Portland has sustained some serious injuries in the first half of the season. This season the team seems to be more adept at dealing with adversity than it was a year ago, and that will likely pay off going down the stretch. Injuries also mean big minutes for the healthy guys. Once again, it’s going to be key to make sure somebody else doesn’t go down.
This is definitely a playoff team, at least compared to the bottom half of the Western Conference. Along with staying healthy, getting consistency out of Wesley Matthews, and the entire bench, will help Portland finish the second half of the season with more wins than they had in the first half of the season.
LaMarcus Aldridge summed up the feelings of the team pretty well, in regards to going forward and improving, following the win Monday night. “Keep working on defense, keep playing together, and keep playing hard like we’re doing. I think we’re good enough to find our rhythm, get hot and hopefully win some games.”