The Blazing Future is Here
By Peter Melling /// Staff Writer
I was plain wrong. In a previous article, I said that the Blazers would be lucky if they found their way into the playoffs with the seventh or eighth seed (in my season preview, I had them picking up the seventh seed). Entering the final month of the season, this prediction could not be further from the truth. The Blazers have worked their way to a (as of March 10) 42-21 record, giving them fifth place in the conference. So, how did they do it, and how does the last month of the season look for them?
One of the key factors in their success has been the mix of young and old talent. The 1-2 punch of perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and last year’s Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who average 23.7 and 20.8 points per game respectively, have propelled the rest of the team around themselves. The young core of players contribute thoroughly, with center Robin Lopez providing 1.7 blocks and 8.7 rebounds per game and Wesley Matthews adding 16.5 points per game and a .445 field goal percentage. They consistently keep the team in games (the team averages 103.1 points per game in losses). Of course, handling these players is no small feat, as first-year head coach Terry Stotts has learned. In his short time with the team, he has been able to mold these players into a cohesive unit (unlike his predecessors, Nate McMillan and Kaleb Canales) and push the team into contention.
However, the cracks have started to show in this team. The team is currently in a two-game losing streak, and has lost 7 of 10 over a stretch in January and February (with a five-game winning streak breaking up these portions). This can mostly be traced to groin injuries for LaMarcus Aldridge and several late-game meltdowns, which can be blamed on their 24th ranked defense. If they are to be successful in the playoffs, they need to improve on a defensive front. Once Aldridge has recovered enough, the team should pick up their offensive pace to compensate for some of their defense’s problem. The final month of the season looks to be tough, with road trips to the playoff-bound San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and home matchups against the contending Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers left on the schedule. However, this stretch also has road games against plenty of sub-.500 teams, like the Charlotte Bobcats, Orlando Magic, and Utah Jazz, and home contests against the Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Sacramento Kings. While there are many marquee matchups, the Blazers should be fine if Aldridge recovers and the defense improves even the smallest bit. At the beginning of the season, I never thought I’d say this, but the Blazers look like a solid playoff contender.