How can the Trail Blazers be a dominant Playoff team?


Monday night, I got to do something during a Blazer game that I haven’t been able to do for most of the season – I got to take a shower in the middle of the fourth quarter and, with no guilt, went to sleep early.

I was thinking, this must be what Spurs fans feel like.

I’m not saying I enjoyed missing part of the game. What I mean is, it was nice to have a game in the bag by the time the fourth quarter came around. You know, for the team’s sake (especially given the current number of injuries).

Now, Phoenix (Portland’s Monday opponent) is not an elite team. Neither is Detroit, the last team Portland was able to blow out. But in both games, Portland exhibited habits that will enable them to be able to stomp teams out and have the luxury to shelf their starters for the final quarter.

That’s an incredible advantage in the NBA.

Last summer, a few weeks after the Houston Rockets were bounced from the 2014 Playoffs (courtesy of the Trail Blazers), General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet about the importance of being able to dominate teams:

He even had the gaul to name drop the Trail Blazers, to prove his point:

Of course, just because Daryl Morey says it doesn’t make it true. He does make a very compelling argument, though.

It’s near impossible to win the Western Conference if you scratch and claw through games. This isn’t March Madness. There are no Cinderella teams. You cannot survive through four straight seven-game series with scrappy play. Players simply don’t have the stamina to survive that sort of grind, making it absolutely crucial to be able to blow teams out.

What that means is: teams need to be able to build a large lead in the second quarter, and then use the third to close the door on the dying light of their opponent. As Trail Blazers fans, we need to see more Joel Freeland in the fourth quarter, and much less LaMarcus Aldridge.

Portland cannot survive the Western Conference with their current style of play. How often have we watched Portland go up by double-digits, only to squander the lead with sloppy turnovers and passive defense? They almost did it Monday, as the Suns cut an 18-pont lead into six as they went into halftime, a run that included head-scratching turnovers by the Trail Blazers and a few alley-oops from Phoenix that you’d normally see when they’re winding down in practice.

Feb 11, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) defends against Los Angeles Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson (6) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

And that is the exact point where Portland needs to improve. Once they’re up by double digits is the moment they need to go into killer mode.

Their body of work this season speaks to the contrary, though. Portland has demonstrated an ability to absolutely dominate fourth quarters, as right now they are tops in the league in fourth quarter scoring differential. They seem to like keeping things close, or even in a deficit, and be able to use staunch defense and hot shooting to stage big fourth-quarter surges.

They seem to be making life much harder than it needs to be.

Part of it falls on Terry Stotts. Watch how quickly Gregg Popovich, by comparison, stops play once the scales tip in the slightest against a Spurs lead. Popovich has his guys in the huddle as soon as the opposing team shows a glimmer of hope in closing the lead. They catch themselves falling asleep, or growing passive, and Popovich puts a stop to it immediately.

Portland’s style of offense can be its own detrimentThe Trail Blazers play a fluid, unselfish offense that emphasizes spacing and working the perimeter. With a lead, Portland will often make too many passes in trying to get everyone involved as opposed to capitalizing on open looks. As strange as it sounds, they move the ball when it isn’t necessary.

Back to the Spurs. They’ve mastered a balance of being able to pump or drain momentum, depending on what the defense gives them. Watch how Kawhi Leonard drills a spot-up jumper seconds after crossing half-court. Or how Tony Parker winds down the shot clock to its waning seconds before sinking a floater or getting fouled.

Do you know how bad that hurts opponents? It’s terrible. And it absolutely kills a team’s momentum.

The good news is, Portland has the pieces to do that kind of stuff. Damian Lillard is more than capable of getting to the rim, and is improving on his ability to get to the foul line when he needs to. Nicolas Batum and Arron Afflalo have beautiful pull up jumpers they can use in transition. And then there is Aldridge, who can do everything.

What the Trail Blazers need, more than anything, is to adopt that killer’s mentality. With their ability to hit threes en masse, they can already build second quarter leads quickly. So can plenty of NBA teams. What separates the good teams from the great teams is the ability to maintain focus, energy, and discipline. They know they want to put the game away in the third. They take care of the lead by taking care of the ball on offense, and don’t miss a beat on maintaining defensive tenacity.

Most importantly, they keep their foot on the gas pedal until there is nothing left on the other end. They relish spending those final eight minutes with ice packs on their knees and watching their second unit counterparts scrimmage the rest of the game.

That’s the ideal. Look at how much fun these guys have:

Living the dream.

Granted, the Trail Blazers are not at the Spurs’ level. The talent isn’t quite there, and by referencing the Spurs I certainly don’t mean to make undue comparison. But it’s the discipline the Spurs exhibit that the Trail Blazers can apply immediately, and use that to continue to build a championship culture. Or, at the very least, it can make life much, much easier.

The plus side is, watching Portland is never boring. Their games have to be some of the most exciting in the NBA these days. They give us fans the pleasure (anxiety) of always being in close games, and eke wins out of competitive and high-pressure fourth quarters.

But this isn’t about us fans. It’s about the Trail Blazers being able to do what the NBA’s elite are able to do – build on a double-digit lead and have the championship verve that can take the life out of a dying opponent. Yes, that ruthlessness is essential for the jungle that is the NBA.

Basically, I want to take plenty more fourth quarter showers. Make it happen Portland.

Next: Blazers suffer collapse, get wiped by Clippers