With 48 games down, the season is well over halfway done for the Blazers. Riding a start that no one expected, the team currently sits at 34-14, good for third place in the Western Conference. Before the season, the goal for players, coaches, and fans alike appeared simply to make the playoffs.
Due to this aforementioned stellar start, though, it seems prudent to start re-framing the question – namely, can the Blazers do enough to secure home field advantage through at least the first round of the playoffs? The Blazers are an incredible team at home, and I truly believe that if they have home-court advantage, they can beat anyone in a seven game series.
After the utterly blistering start, the Blazers have faltered slightly, going only 5-5 in their last 10 games. While satisfaction with mediocrity is never encouraged, rather than being saddened by this recent slump, I could stare at that beautiful 34-14 record all day. No one expected the Blazers to be here, so the fact that this far into the season we can have the conversation about potential home court advantage is something to bask in.
To start at the top of the conference, I do not think the Blazers will catch the Oklahoma City Thunder in the regular season. Now a full four games ahead of the Blazers, the Thunder will soon get the ever explosive Russell Westbrook back, and Kevin Durant seems to have hit another level entirely. Additionally, the Thunder have only a paltry 14 remaining games (out of 32) against teams that are currently above .500, the lowest amount in the entire Western Conference. They are scary indeed.
After the Thunder, the seeding scrum becomes rather more interesting. The next four teams are the San Antonio Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Houston Rockets. Only three wins separate the Spurs (currently second) from the Rockets (currently fifth), but collectively this group of four has appeared to separate themselves from the rest of the conference. One of these teams will not earn home court advantage in the playoffs, a certain blow for their chances of advancing.
The Spurs are being decimated by injuries at the moment, so although they are favored to earn a top-4 berth, there is a chance they can slide. However; I think they are too well-coached and efficient not to.
The Clippers have had some injury woes as well, but they will soon have all-world point guard Chris Paul back. Even without him for several weeks, they have managed to sneak within one game of the Blazers. Once Paul returns it’s a very real possibility that the Clippers will overtake the Blazers.
For as much talent as the Rockets have, I am the least worried about them. While I love Head Coach Kevin McHale as a person, I have found his coaching to be severely lacking this season, to the point where it is severely hindering the team. In particular, his play-calling and spacing have seemed suspect. With this being said, there is simply too much talent for this team not to snag at least the fifth seed.
This could prove to be a problem for the Blazers, since if they finish with the fourth seed, they would then play Houston. I hate this matchup for the Blazers. The Rockets have given the Blazers fits this season, and quick centers with at least a modicum of offensive talent (Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins for example) have been our bane this year.
Things don’t get much better as we look lower, because the team currently in sixth place, and owner of a five game win streak (8-2 in their last 10), is the Phoenix Suns, who have absolutely had the Blazers’ number this year. If the playoffs started today, the Blazes would be facing them in the first round. While there is still a long time before things are settled for certain, the thought of having to face the Suns should be enough to make any Blazers fan nervous.
I think it is deeper than just a mental block when facing the Suns at this point. The Suns match up with the Blazers extremely well, and over three games this season have outscored the Blazers by a combined 26 points. These are facts that can’t be ignored. Finally, if Goran Dragic does not get into the All-Star Game by a commissioner selection, you can believe he will be coming at Damain Lillard with a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder, since Lillard was selected over him.
When it’s all said and done, the Western Conference playoffs, and just the race to make the playoffs, will be a bloodbath. In reality, there is no easy potential matchup for the Blazers, but I still consider the Suns and the Rockets to be the least favorable. Unfortunately, as of now, either of those scenarios look the most likely to happen.
Thus, earning home court advantage in the first round becomes all the more important. Even with an unideal matchup, the Blazers’ home crowd can offer a tremendous boost, maybe even enough to push them into the second round. If they can escape this current mini-slump, and right the ship, this is a distinct possible. It won’t be easy though.