LaMarcus Aldridge got the All-Star nod in January. February he will try to keep his team in the Playoff hunt. Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Here Comes February

Terry Stotts hemmed and hawed his way through an up and down January. Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

More of the season is behind us now than is ahead, and if you’re like me, you’re at least a little bit shocked (impressed even) with how everything has gone for the Blazers. Admit it, you probably thought that by February this team, with no bench, a ton of rookies, a handful of cast-off veterans, and a 95% brand-new coaching staff was going to be a win or two from the very bottom of the NBA.

It’s OK, I basically thought the same thing. I predicted between 30 and 35 wins, but I would have been all right if Portland made it through 2012-13 injury free regardless of their win total. I was ready for more roster cutting (maybe Wesley Matthews; possibly even LaMarcus Aldridge even though I didn’t expect it). I had settled myself in for a season of learning from a decent rookie crop, and a lot of post-game pressers about building for the future.

Instead, here we are, heading into the critical fourth full month of the season, and the 2012-13 Blazers have something to play for. And that something is not the top of the 2013 NBA Draft Board.

January was a rollercoaster (not literally of course), one that elicited as many hosannas of jubilation as groans of abject misery. Sixteen games in all, and only three decided by more than six. That many close games are not good for one’s blood pressure. But they do make for appointment basketball. Even if Portland stumbles down the stretch, there’s a better than decent chance that the desire for Blazer basketball will continue in full force.

February will separate the wheat from the chaff in both conferences. By the time this coming month is over, teams will be playing for Playoff positioning (probably). And so my preview for the next month looks like this.

Starting with:

What happened in January: I don’t like to celebrate too much when I’m right. However, I predicted the Blazers would finish the first month of 2013 with an 8-8 record. They finished January, wait for it, 8-8. Sure, I was wrong about a lot of my picks. I said they’d win in Toronto and they didn’t. I was wrong about my Heat pick. I wasn’t just wrong in picking losses, though. I had Portland beating Washington and Cleveland, games they lost. But then I rounded out my incorrect picks by predicting the Blazers would get swept in their two-game home-and-home with the Clippers. In all, I got the record for the month correct while incorrectly picking on seven games. Not bad, not bad at all.

As for the games, we all know the story. Portland gets blown out in Toronto on the 2nd of January (their only loss on the four-game roadie that started the month), they blow out the Pacers at home on the 23rd (probably the Blazers’ most complete game of 2012-13), and the Clippers blast them at Staples (revenge for a Portland comeback in the Rose Garden).

Other than those three games, every contest in January came down to either the very last possession or at most the last couple possessions. Last month, Portland beat the Heat by two, the Mavericks by two, the Clippers by one, the Grizzlies by two, and the Knicks by five. They also lost to the Wizards by three, the Thunder by four, the Warriors by six, and the Nuggets by four.

The Blazers started the month winning all the close games, then went on a six-game skid of losing all the close games, and then finished the month winning two games by a total of three points.

When this season final wraps up, there will be a handful of games every Portlander is going to lock in their long-term memory bank. At least three of those games happened in January: beating the Knicks at MSG, beating the Heat at home, and beating the Mavericks to close the month. The Knicks because of a dagger three by Damian Lillard and because it’s the Knicks in their house, the Heat because it’s the Heat, and the Mavs because of five points and four and a half seconds from LaMarcus Aldridge. Honorable mention memory-bank game will be Damian’s 37-point outburst in a loss to Golden State.

As for individual players, check out my first-half grades (rotation, bench). Those grades are pretty pertinent to the month of January. In a nutshell, Portland’s core four continues to lead the team, everybody else is up and down.

Number of Games in February: 12

Game Breakdown: 2/1 at Utah, 2/2 vs. Utah, 2/4 at Minnesota, 2/6 at Dallas, 2/8 at Houston, 2/10 at Orlando, 2/12 at Miami, 2/13 at New Orleans, 2/19 vs. Phoenix, 2/22 at LA Lakers, 2/24 vs. Boston, 2/27 vs. Denver

Games to Watch: February is a make or break month for Portland. A stretch of wins, and the Blazers will put themselves in a strong position to fight in March for the post season. A stretch of losses, and it’s probably pretty close to shut-it-down time. Unfortunately, February is also a weird month. It’s shorter (only 28 days this year), and it’s broken up by the All-Star Game.

Regardless of how important you think the ASG is, it can effectively kill a young team that gets ready for the break too early and/or doesn’t come back from the break fast enough.

Portland goes into the All-Star Break from the road, finishing a six-game road trip to be exact. The Blazers face two under .500 teams on each end of the break. New Orleans is first. Beating the Hornets in their building before getting five days off will be important. Not losing to the Suns in the Rose Garden on their first game back will be just as important.

In fact, that six-game road trip is made up of important games to watch. Orlando isn’t a strong team, but beating sub .500 Eastern Conference teams is a good way to keep Portland close to the Playoffs. The Heat in Miami is a no-brainer. Houston, Dallas, and Minnesota are all in the Blazers’ neighborhood record-wise in the West. Those games count double in the standings.

Arguably, though, the most important games for Portland come right at the front of the month. The Blazers’ second home-and-home back-to-back happens a week after their first in Utah. This one is flipped, with Portland on the road to start. The Jazz are 25-21 and sitting in 7th place in the West. A two-game sweep (which seems unlikely) by the Blazers will square their records. Those are two huge games.

Game of the Month: November, December, and January all had pretty clear games of the month. The Brandon Roy Return (that didn’t happen) in November, the battle of the Potential Rookie of the Year Winners in December, and the Heat in Portland last month.

February is a bit different. There are a lot of important games, the ones between the Blazers and any one of the teams within three or four games of Portland, and there are going to be a bunch of fun games to watch. But there isn’t one that really stands out as better than the rest.

So that’s why I’m going to pick February 24th at home against the Boston Celtics as the game of the month. The Celtics whipped the Blazers in Boston at the end of November, but since then they’ve lost arguably their most important player in Rajon Rondo. Beating the Celtics won’t have the post-season impact of beating the Rockets, the Nuggets, or the Jazz, but the emotional significance cannot be understated.

Portland usually gets one good shot at Boston a season. They didn’t show up in November, so that means their good shot at the Celtics will have to come in February.

The Blazers got worked in Boston in November. The Celtics will be without their point guard when they roll into the Rose Garden for February’s game of the mont. Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Prediction: 7-5. I thought my prediction last month was going to wreck my overall percentage because I went too big on the win side. Being one win short on December and right on for January might make me a little cocky, but I’m sticking with it.

Here’s how I see it going down:

A split in the Utah home-and-home (probably at home), and then a win in Minny to start that six-game lead-in to the All-Star Break. A split between Houston and Dallas (a win against the Rockets would be huge because that gives the Blazers the season series), a win at Orlando, a blowout loss in Miami, and then a decent win in New Orleans because LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard won’t be already on vacation.

Coming back from the break, Portland beats Phoenix, probably loses in LA, and then finishes out the month with a split against the Celtics and the Nuggets.

That’s my bold prediction. I know it’s on the high end, so to be rational, if the Blazers want to stay in the race into March, they absolutely have to win once against the Jazz and against the Rockets. They also do not want to lose to Hornets, the Suns, and the Lakers (they can probably lose to one of those teams but not all three). The four most important games of the month are the two against Utah, at Houston, and at home against the Nuggets. If Portland can win all four of those games, they’ll be in great shape.

What it All Means: Seven wins will get Portland to 30 on the season with a month and change left. That would be amazing. I said if the Blazers were at or around .500 at the halfway point of the season, we could start talking about the Playoffs. They were 20-21 after 41 games. They’re 23-22 now. If, and it’s a big if, Portland can get to 30 wins by the end of February, they’ll have a real chance of getting to the 8th seed in the Western Conference.

We can talk about the long-term implications of making the Playoffs if and when it we get there.

There’s a flipside to this month too, though. If February’s road trip ends up like November’s, and if the Blazers hit another six-game skid, you can basically say good-bye to the post-season. That’s not all bad. Portland loses their first round pick if they are outside the top 12. Missing the Playoffs and losing the pick is a pretty poor management move.

If the Blazers start losing, expect GM Neil Olshey to move J.J. Hickson (the trade deadline is in February), and expect this team to start moving in the direction of getting minutes for under-used second stringers.

@mikeacker | @ripcityproject | [email protected]

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