The home stretch starts as soon as All-Star Weekend is over; at least that’s how it seems if you’re following the national media coverage of the NBA. It’s this time of the season that the Playoff seeding begins to shake out, the best teams start to hit their groove, and for the last three seasons, when the Trail Blazers begin to dominate the home court. In 2008-09 and again in 2010-11, Portland has made the Rose Garden one of the hardest places for road teams to win over the final ten games of the season.
The Blazers hit the first of their final ten home games Tuesday the 15th of March, in their thrilling win over the Dallas Mavericks, and as of right now they have yet to lose a home game since. With some serious road and home tests coming up, the first of which is scheduled for this coming Friday against the team with the league’s best record in the form of the San Antonio Spurs, taking care of the home floor becomes that much more important. The question is: will Portland be up to the task?
So far they have been, and I’ll take a look at that in a moment, but first lets take a step back. In 2009-10, Portland’s second consecutive 50-win season, the Blazers had themselves some impressive wins in their final team home match-ups. Portland finished their last ten home games of last season with a 7-3 record, posting a 28-point win against the Knicks, an 11-point win against the Raptors, a 12-point win against the Mavericks, and a 23-point win against the Pacers. Overall, the Blazer’s margin of victory over its final ten games of 2009-10 was a highly respectable 13 points.
Yes, that final ten-game stretch included losses to the Mavericks, the Warriors, and an overtime heartbreaker/meltdown against the Utah Jazz, but rolling into the Playoffs, Portland had established that they were hard to beat at home. Of course it was all rendered moot by the skills of Jason Richardson and his cohort of Suns, but still, the Blazers closed out strong on the home floor.
But nothing like the season before. In 2008-09 the Rose Garden was one of the hardest places for opponents to play in the NBA, and Portland held one of the best home records in the league. The Blazers saved some of their best home games for the final ten. Finishing 8-2 over that stretch, Portland beat the Lakers twice, once by 17, posted three 20-point wins in a row, and finished the season with a 30-point win over the Thunder and a 28-point win over the Nuggets. Including a loss to Dallas and an overtime loss to the 76ers, the Blazers averaged 109 points per game, scoring more than 100 eight times, and eclipsing 110 four times and 120 twice. In their eight wins in their final ten games, Portland’s margin of victory was 19.
Again, winning before the Playoffs didn’t exactly translate to the post season. In fact playing so well at home down the stretch made game one of the series with Houston that much more difficult to stomach due to the fact that the home crowd hadn’t seen the Blazers get blown out in their own building all year.
So what does it mean for this season? Apart from the likelihood that Portland will play at least one overtime game, and likely lose since that’s how it went down in both of the last two seasons, how will the Blazers close out this season’s run of regularly scheduled home match-ups?
First of all, Portland is off to a great start. After dropping games to Atlanta and Houston, the Blazers have won their last five home games, including the first four of their final ten. Two of those four have been extreme blowouts, ballooning the team’s margin of victory in its last four wins to 22, and winning one more game means Portland can do no worse than split its remaining home schedule.
If the team has their way, they hope to do better.
“We’re just really trying to lock in on these home games,” Brandon Roy said, following Tuesday’s blowout of the Washington Wizards. “Coming down the stretch we said we have ten games at home, and we wanted to try to make sure we win them all. We’re taking it one step at a time, one game at a time.”
The Blazers remaining home games won’t be easy, as I’ve mentioned before, with the only sub .500 team coming into the RG being the often deadly Golden State Warriors. Coupled with some tough home contests, Portland still has one of its more difficult road trips outstanding. Following Friday’s game, the Blazers have a three-games-in-four-nights swing through Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and New Orleans. Portland can ill afford to let too many of those games go, seeing as their lead over the Hornets for the seven spot is a single game, over the Grizzlies for the eighth spot is a game and a half, and over the Houston Rockets for an early vacation is only three and half games.
Hopefully the Blazers will get a boost from playing at home, in front of the local crowd. Although winning on the road late in the season is maybe more important than winning at home, especially for teams in the bottom four that have to win at least one road game to take a series, there are some added benefits to playing at home.
“I definitely feel like guys play better here, in front of our fans,” LaMarcus Aldridge said Tuesday night. “It’s just the difference between being on the road and being at home, being in your own house, versus being in a hotel. Everything works better when you’re at home.”
Wesley Matthews echoed LaMarcus.
“We’ve got to take care of home because we’re not in the Playoffs, we don’t have our ticket punched,” Matthews said.
Friday night, San Antonio will roll into the Rose Garden missing one of their best players. Tim Duncan is out indefinitely due to a sprained ankle. Portland has gotten lucky with opponents being held out of games recently, Dwight Howard with a technical suspension, Andre Iguodala with an injury, half of the Wizards’ roster due to injury, and hopefully will able to take advantage once again of a major player’s absence. If they don’t though, and do end up dropping this next game, or any of the next home games, the home losses will have to be made up with road wins.
Coach Nate McMillan summed up Portland’s situation nicely Tuesday night.
“Every game from here on out is very important,” McMillan said. “Not only home court.”