Right now is a good chance to check the standings, if only so we can all remind ourselves how far out of this playoff race Portland is so then we don’t get over-excited right now. Getting too jacked up about back-to-back road wins against playoff teams might then lead to major disappointment when it becomes clear that the Blazers probably aren’t going to be able to make up the two and half games needed to steal the eight seed and make the playoffs.
That major disappointment, when it comes, might overshadow the good work this team has done to get to 33 wins and put themselves within spitting distance of being the best team in the West to miss the post season.
On that note too, getting too many wins right now means Portland loses their pick (I don’t need to get too deep into that one). So it’s really a lose lose right now for the Blazers. Winning is nice, but probably too little too late, and losing is still no fun even if it makes it more likely that Portland won’t lose their first pick in this year’s draft.
But I think all that is a discussion for another day, the day when the Blazers are either on the door step of mathematical elimination or have worked their way just a little further up the playoff ladder. Right now, as you pick up the pieces of your busted bracket, we can take a quick look at what happened last night in Atlanta.
The Blazers beat the Hawks because they got balanced contributions from all five of their starters, and because they played defense in the fourth quarter.
Portland’s narrative has changed some over the last month and chance. The addition of Eric Maynor has contributed to the Blazers’ depth, and no longer is Portland the team that can’t get any scoring from their bench. Friday was a throwback game for the Blazers under this new narrative. Meyers Leonard and Eric Maynor played well (and both played more than 20 minutes), but they were basically the only bench Portland played.
The Blazers spent much of the beginning of this season relying only on the play of their starting five. Friday, Portland’s starters all finished in the positive with +/-. Four of the Blazers’ five starters scored at least 15 points, and Nicolas Batum, the only starter not to score in double digits, contributed seven rebounds, seven assists, and four steals. Meyers Leonard finished with a solid +9 in 29 minutes, but most of his positive in the plus/minus category came from his spending a significant percentage of his time on the floor with the starters.
Balanced scoring and steady contributions from the starters put Portland in Friday’s game, and it was late defense that sealed it. The Blazers’ defense has been up and down this season, and though this team has made a lot of comebacks in 2012-13, most of their late game play is driven by their offense. That’s part of the reason Portland doesn’t play well with a lead, they’re not that great on defense.
Just as Friday was a return to form for the Blazers of earlier this season who had to basically rely on their starters alone for wins, it was a shift too in Portland’s ability to hold a lead through defense. The Blazers led 90-89 with 4:46 left to play in Friday’s game, and it looked like the Hawks were going to find a way to get Portland to cough this one up.
Atlanta didn’t score for more than three minutes at the close of the fourth quarter. That three minute scoring drought from the Hawks allowed the Blazers to build a nine-point lead, and basically put the game away.
Portland didn’t exactly tie Atlanta down to close Friday’s game. The Hawks still got plenty of shots, they just didn’t go down. But the Blazers were able to finish defensive possessions with rebounds. Giving up second chance points late in a game is a good way to let a lead go. The opposite is also true, securing defensive rebounds, limiting second and third looks at the rim, is a pretty great way to keep from turning over a win.
As it stands right now, the Blazers are 2-2 on this five-game trip. Portland closes this roadie out on Sunday in Oklahoma City. Beating Chicago and Atlanta back-to-back was unexpected and actually rather impressive. It’s unlikely it will change too much in the overall story of this season.
Beating the Thunder in Oklahoma could be the kind of momentous win the Blazers could carry into April when almost all the games are at the Rose Garden.
It’s contradictory, of course, to say that one win or two wins is basically meaningless and then to turn around and say beating the Thunder in Oklahoma City could be a game changer. I’m going to say it anyway though. Portland is two and half games behind the Lakers for eighth in the West. The Lakers have a favorable schedule to close March, but a tough run of games in April. Utah and Dallas, the teams between Portland and LA, haven’t been super consistent as of late. Anything can happen.
I’ve counseled again and again against buying into the playoff push hype. I’ve said from the beginning that this season isn’t about wins and losses, or at least not about totals in either the win or loss column. Portland has 13 games left, if the Blazers win in Oklahoma City, those next 12 games could be very very interesting.