LaMarcus Aldridge snub or not, this was one of the more entertaining and enjoyable All-Star weekends in a while. But now, the real work begins to solidify playoff positioning, which will be especially interesting in the stacked Western Conference. The Blazers went into the All-Star break at eight games over .500 and in fifth place in the West, which would have been unthinkable as recently as two months ago. The team is on a six-game winning streak, currently the longest in the NBA. We’re still waiting on whatever Rich Cho may or may not do at the trading deadline, but regardless, the Blazers’ remaining schedule of games through April is no cake walk. The teams they have left can be roughly broken into three classes: the contenders, who are clearly superior to Portland and have a legitimate shot at making a deep playoff run (something that can’t be said about the Blazers right now); the equal-or-moderately-lesser teams (mid-level playoffs or high lottery teams that Portland should be able to beat on paper but shouldn’t take for granted); and the bottom-feeders (think Minnesota or Toronto, both of whom the Blazers are done playing for the year). Here’s how it breaks down.
- Los Angeles Lakers | 2/23 in Portland, 3/20 in Los Angeles, 4/8 in Portland
The two-time defending champs have suffered embarrassing losses in Charlotte and Cleveland in recent weeks, which has led some analysts to question whether they have a three-peat in them. However, this team knows how to play together, and will likely flip the switch now that the All-Star break is behind them. The Blazers have always played the Lakers well in Portland, where two of their remaining three games are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers came away from at least one of these contests with a win. Counting on anything more than that, however, is setting up for disappointment. It is the Lakers, after all.
- San Antonio Spurs | 3/25 in Portland, 3/28 in San Antonio
The Blazers beat the Spurs at home a few weeks ago, becoming one of only nine teams to do so this season. Another upset of San Antonio isn’t unthinkable, but the Spurs are the deepest and most balanced and consistent team in the league—it’s rare to catch them on an off-night. Portland’s (or anyone else’s, for that matter) best hope is for Gregg Popovich to rest aging stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili closer to the playoffs.
- Dallas Mavericks | 3/15 and 4/03 in Portland
Portland has played Dallas close the two times they’ve met this year, but haven’t been able to come away with a win. LaMarcus Aldridge, however, has had two tremendous games against his hometown team, and these both took place before he started putting up monster numbers regularly. As of this writing, Portland and Dallas are the two frontrunners to land New Jersey point guard (and former Maverick) Devin Harris before the trading deadline. If Dallas unloads Caron Butler’s expiring contract for Harris, it will only make their backcourt deeper and more formidable. However, if the Blazers flip the rock-solid Andre Miller for Harris, it will likely take a little time to establish the level of chemistry the team has with Miller. Dallas’ size may also be a major advantage, especially if Portland trades Marcus Camby and/or Joel Przybilla in the next 24 hours.
- Orlando Magic | 3/7 in Orlando
The Blazers beat the Magic pretty convincingly in December, but that game predated the blockbuster trades Orlando pulled off later that month. Orlando’s lack of size and generally terrible defense (outside of Dwight Howard, obviously) have led to questions as to whether they can stand up to East powerhouses such as Boston and Chicago. My gut tells me they probably can’t, but they certainly can still beat Portland at home.
- Miami Heat | 3/8 in Miami
Coming on the second half of an absolutely brutal road back-to-back with Orlando, the Heatles have been better than ever as of late. The Blazers came close to beating them in January, before LeBron James did what LeBron James does in overtime. The Heat are pretty thin outside of their big three, but when your big three are James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, that doesn’t especially matter. The Blazers will have to be absolutely firing on all cylinders to pull this one out.
The (Relative) Equals:
- Denver Nuggets | 2/25 in Portland
Not sure if you’ve heard, but the Nuggets’ roster will look a little different on Friday than the last three times these two teams played. All things considered, Denver couldn’t have gotten a much better haul for Carmelo Anthony than they did, but this game, the finale of the season series that Denver so far leads 2-1, will be the first time Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, and Wilson Chandler don Nuggets uniforms. Because of this, they will likely be working out some kinks, but Chandler has torched the Blazers this season. Still, depending on how much the Blazers shake up their roster before Thursday’s trade deadline, they should be able to take this one.
- Atlanta Hawks 2/27 in Portland, 3/12 in Atlanta
This is another team that might be making moves this week. They looked pretty lethargic last night against the Lakers, but they’ve played Portland well in the past. Both teams as they are now are second-round playoff teams in the absolute best-case scenario. These two games will come down to who wants it more.
- Houston Rockets | 3/1 in Portland
Another team on the bubble of competing for the last Western Conference playoff seed. Portland has beaten Houston twice already, and can sweep the season series with a third win here.
- Charlotte Bobcats | 3/5 in Portland, 3/11 in Charlotte
The Bobcats have not played the Blazers well over the years, but they will be fighting tooth-and-nail to sneak into the playoffs (they’re currently a game back of Indiana for the eighth seed in the east). These two games are ones the Blazers should win if they show up, but they could be embarrassed if they slack off or take the ‘Cats for granted.
- Philadelphia 76ers | 3/19 in Portland
The Sixers are currently in seventh place in the top-heavy east, and took advantage of a Blazers fourth-quarter collapse when Portland was at its absolute lowest in late November. That can’t happen again.
- Oklahoma City Thunder | 3/27 in Oklahoma City, 4/1 in Portland
If the Blazers had been able to hold fourth-quarter leads at the beginning of the season, they would currently have a 2-0 season series lead over the Northwest Division leaders. How these two remaining games play out could be a predictor for the first of the playoffs, where these teams could very well be matching up with one another. Of course, plenty has changed about both Portland and Oklahoma City (Brandon Roy’s injury, Aldridge’s recent tear, Kevin Durant’s return to MVP form after a slow start to the season). Either way, the Blazers at least have a chance in both of these.
- New Orleans Hornets | 3/30 in New Orleans
The Hornets made one of the most notable non-Carmelo deals of this year’s deadline so far, shipping guard Marcus Thornton to Sacramento for forward Carl Landry. New Orleans will likely be neck-and-neck with Portland for one of the middle playoff seeds, so tying the season series (which the Blazers need to win to do) could be crucial, depending on how the rest of the race plays out.
- Golden State Warriors | 4/5 in Portland, 4/13 in Oakland
Somehow, the Warriors are only four games below .500 despite trotting out a roster comprised largely of D-Leaguers outside of Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, and David Lee. Curry and Ellis are one of the most explosive scoring backcourts in the league, but nobody on this team plays much defense, so if Portland can prevent Curry and/or Ellis from going off, these two late-season games should be highly winnable.
- Utah Jazz | 4/7 in Portland
The Blazers beat the Jazz twice and should have beaten them a third time (fourth-quarter collapses will do that), and this game will mark the first time since 1988 that these division rivals will meet with someone not named Jerry Sloan on the sidelines. Utah looked solid at the beginning of the season, but between Sloan’s abrupt departure, Al Jefferson’s continued defensive struggles, and the beginning of what looks to be another Carmelo Anthony situation with point guard Deron Williams, they’ve lost much of that luster.
- Memphis Grizzlies | 4/12 in Portland
Earlier in the season, it looked like Memphis was one of the teams that would challenge Portland for one of the last playoff seeds in the West, and the teams split the first two games of the season series. Now, with Rudy Gay sidelined for at least three more weeks, the Grizzlies should be nowhere near the threat they were, especially if they trade Zach Randolph or O.J. Mayo before the deadline.
- Cleveland Cavaliers | 3/17 in Portland
The Blazers narrowly escaped national humiliation earlier this month, when the Clippers were on a historic losing streak. They have since ended that streak, but there’s still no excuse for Portland to drop this one at home.
- Washington Wizards | 3/22 in Portland
Have these teams played yet this year? Maybe they did at the end of November, but I’ve tried to block that stretch of season out of my memory. The Blazers are a much better team now than they were then, and the Wizards have won exactly one road game this year, against the Cavs, which totally doesn’t even count.
- Sacramento Kings | 3/2 in Sacramento
The Blazers pulled one out against the Kings in overtime and then got blown out by them at home a week later. With Tyreke Evans out three weeks, and Portland needing all the easy wins it can get to compete for a higher playoff seed, this one is a must-win.