Trail Blazers’ schedule will immediately test their mettle


During their first six games (taking place over the course of 11 days), the Portland Trail Blazers face, in order: the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Sacramento Kings, the Golden State Warriors, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Los Angeles Clippers. This is truthfully one of the toughest schedules the Blazers could have received, and it will serve as an excellent benchmark for the rest of the season.

If the Blazers can weather this early storm of elite teams, they will prove to both themselves and the rest of the league that they can hang with anyone. If the team falters early, succumbing to this tough stretch, it could rattle the young team’s confidence right from the start. While it will not be an easy task, emerging form this stretch in good shape will do wonders in terms of setting the tone for the rest of the season.

Many of these opposing teams have already experienced recent success. The Thunder were conference finalists last year, conference semifinalists two years ago, and three years ago made it to the Finals. The Clippers made it to the conference semifinals both last year and three years ago, and last year were only narrowly edged by the aforementioned Thunder in six tight games. The Mavericks were the only team to take last year’s champions, the Spurs, to seven games, and they were the NBA Champions in 2011.

If that isn’t enough, several of these first six Blazers opponents managed to improve their rosters this off-season. The Cavaliers formed their own super team, and now boast a trio of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving (2014 NBA All-Star Game & 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP). The Mavericks added free agent Chandler Parsons, as well as trading for center Tyson Chandler, a key component of their 2011 championship squad. The Warriors made what looks to be an upgrade at coach, from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr (although there may be some growing pains) and added valuable backup Shaun Livingston to their bench stock.

Mar 20, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime with a score of 90-89. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden?USA TODAY Sports

Even the teams that remained more or less static have reason to expect improvement. Kevin Durant (2014 MVP) may very well be just entering his prime. The Thunder should also have Russell Westbrook, one of the game’s most electrifying players, for the entire season now that he is healthy. The Clippers have put the Donald Sterling fiasco behind them, and Head Coach Doc Rivers will be running the team for his second season, reducing the transitional pains that can come from a new coach.

The Warriors, in addition to their own coaching change (results may vary), had both Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry participate in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. It was great experience for both, and Thompson in particular looked like he may be ready to make a jump. In addition, the Warriors as a whole are almost certain to improve upon last season’s injury situation, which saw their starters play only 44 games together.

This is all without even mentioning the upstart Kings, who are not to be written off. Future All-Star DeMarcus Cousins, who was also an integral part of Team USA’s success this summer, leads the charge. He was joined in Spain by fellow Kings teammate Rudy Gay, who will have had a full off-season with the Kings rather than coming in mid-season.

The Kings added Darren Collison to the mix, who will replace departed point guard Isaiah Thomas. While new to the team, Collison is a capable floor general who learned from the best last season while playing behind Chris Paul. Although this game against the Kings looks to be the “easiest” of the first six on paper, no game on the road in the NBA is ever truly easy – especially against a hungry, up and coming, young team.

Fortunately, the only other game on the road besides the Kings is the Clippers. This means that the other four remaining games (the Thunder, the Warriors, the Cavaliers, and the Mavericks) all take place within the cozy confines of the Moda Center. Portland has always played extremely well at home (31-10 last year) due to the raucous atmosphere and energetic fans, and this home court advantage may help carry the team early on.

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ESPN’s Summer Forecast predicts the Thunder to finish first in the West, the Clippers third, the Mavericks fifth, and the Warriors seventh. In the East, the Forecast predicts the Cavaliers to finish first. The Thunder, Clippers, and Cavaliers represent arguably three of the top five teams in the NBA, and, home court or not, will assuredly give the Blazers quite a test.

To be the best, you have to beat the best. It may be a bit of a trial by fire, but the opening to this season is the perfect opportunity for the Blazers to do this. If the team wants to advance farther than the second round of the playoffs like they did this past season, these are the types of teams that they must be able to beat on a consistent basis. With training camp approaching and the season just around the corner, let us hope the Blazers are up to the task.

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