Hey Blazer fans, I hope you’re watching this season’s playoffs. I know I sometimes bow out when Portland is no longer playing on my TV or in person every other night of the week. Let me be the first, well probably not the first but still, to say that checking out from the basketball that is still being played in a pretty major mistake this season.
The Miami Heat are playing inspired basketball and game three of their series with the Bulls is going to be a street fight. The Thunder went from favorite to underdog in the space of a Russell Westbrook meniscus injury. The Knicks and the Pacers series is an instant throwback to the gritty playoff battles of the 1990s. And of course the Golden State Warriors are turning into a full-fledged force at the expense of the Spurs, who once again are showing their age against a younger faster team.
So what does this mean for the Blazers? A couple things. First, looking at the competition out of the west, it’s clear that if Portland wants to compete against the likes of the Grizzlies, Thunder, and now the Warriors, they are going to need to show serious improvement in 2013-14. But there’s something else I’ve noticed while watching the best remaining teams in the NBA beat each other up every night.
Of the eight teams still in the running for the NBA Championship, the 2012-13 Blazers beat every team but one at least one time. Furthermore, Portland split the season series with the Pacers and the Heat, took the season series (two games to one) over the Spurs, and swept both the Bulls and the Knicks.
The Blazers are still a few major pieces from reaching the second tier of the Western Conference. Adding those pieces, or at least putting the kind of package together that might compensate for some of Portland’s more obvious shortcomings, will be a tall order for Neil Olshey and his crew.
When the Blazers take the court for the first time in 2013-14, their job, as a collective, will be to play more consistent defense, get more contributions from the second unit, and develop a more nuanced inside/out offensive strategy. One thing they won’t need to do, though, is figure out a way to compete with the best teams in the league.
Forget for a minute that Portland lost both of their games against the Washington Wizards, lost the season series against the New Orleans Hornets Pelicans and the Phoenix Suns, and the split the season series with the Kings, Magic, Pistons, Raptors, and Cavaliers (all teams that finished with worse win/loss records than the Blazers), over the course of 82 games, Portland proved they could play up to the level of their competition.
This last season was frustrating at times, don’t get me wrong, often made more so by the simple fact that the Blazers could hang with the Heat but got blown out by the Raptors, but there are a number of teams around the league that fail to show up ever against top tier competitors.
The best NBA teams get healthy by whipping the cellar dwellers, the same holds true for the bad teams in the league. Sub .500 teams can compensate, somewhat, for rolling over against the Spurs of the world by beating up on each other. It’s not a place a team wants to be though, competing against the Bobcats while dropping two or more games every season to the teams that make the postseason, and more often than not, bad teams stay bad for a number of seasons.
Certainly the more cynical Blazer fans amongst us will focus on the many things Portland did wrong in the season that just ended to lose to the Sacramento Kings at home and get swept by the Milwaukee Bucks. However, when the Knicks and Pacers tip off game three of their series in Indiana, it’s important to remember that the Blazers’ best road win of the season came at Madison Square Garden, and that back on January 23rd the Pacers were dropped by 20 in Portland.
Remember too that the Blazers’ best overall win of the season was against the Heat and that the Bulls had no answer for the Blazers in Portland or in Chicago. It’s not just the East either (teams the Blazers play only twice instead of three or four times, increasing the likelihood of a season sweep or split).
The Blazers won in Memphis, something the Thunder will have to do if they want to have a shot at representing the West in the NBA Finals, and two of Damian Lillard’s best games in his historic Rookie of the Year run came against the San Antonio Spurs.
Consistency on defense, bench scoring, and not playing down to their competition will put Portland in the playoffs next season (and hopefully into at least the second round the season after that). This season was about growth and finding a core that could lead the team into the future. That every team competing for the NBA title (except for one) has at least one loss to the Blazers on their 2012-13 record is a good sign.