It isn’t hard to root for the Portland Trail Blazers, especially since they have the qualities and stars that make them a League Pass darling.
Common sights in a Blazers game include Damian Lillard shooting his team back from a huge deficit or CJ McCollum gliding his way around the defense for a nifty layup. Let’s not forget Carmelo Anthony, who once in a while can still come up with a vintage Melo game despite a change in his role. They also have one of the more colorful histories in the league, as they’ve been known as the Jailblazers and they have also been part of some of the legendary playoff battles in the Western Conference.
Currently, the Blazers are fifth in the Western Conference, but they are just 1.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers, two games behind the Denver Nuggets, and three games behind the Los Angeles Clippers. With 22 games left in their schedule, they still have a shot at moving to the third seed if things fall in their favor.
Making the playoffs is one thing (and is an achievement for any organization not named Lakers, Celtics, Warriors, Spurs, and Bulls); success in the postseason, however, is easier said than done. The Trail Blazers have made the playoffs every year since the 2013-2014 NBA season, and fans have been treated to signature games from both Lillard and McCollum against more favored opponents.
However, during that span of time, they’ve made the Western Conference Finals just once back in 2019, when they were swept by the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps it could be the injury bug (which has bitten them in 2018, twice in 2019, and in 2020) that has always hounded Portland in the postseason or the intricate defenses that stifle the predictable offense of the Blazers, but regardless, they can never get over the proverbial hump.
Generating offense has never been a problem for Portland as they currently average 115.2 points per game, which is top-5 in the NBA and, if they sustain this run, the highest the team has scored in the past 10 seasons. Having Lillard and McCollum certainly helps as both are capable of dropping 40 (at times 50) points on any given night.
Their stars in Lillard, McCollum, and to some extent Anthony also operate in isolation and it’s no surprise that their pace, which is 98.4, is currently 20th in the league. It does, however, have its cons, as Portland is last in the league in assists with 20.4 per game. This spells trouble, especially when the isolation offense bogs down, but it has fortunately not led to too many extra possessions for their opponents as they remain the best in the league with managing their turnovers to just 11.3 per game.
What has been the perennial concern with Portland has been their defense, which allows a league-worst 115.2 points per game (coincidentally, this is also their points per game for the season). It isn’t an uncommon sight to see players blow by Lillard or McCollum and the acquisitions of Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr., and Norman Powell show that the front office recognizes the need to compensate.
Portland isn’t alone in encountering these defensive issues, but part of why it takes on a greater magnitude for the Blazers can be due to how their team is set up. Lillard and McCollum are responsible for at least 68 percent of the Blazers’ scoring and it can certainly take a toll on the former, who is averaging 35.9 minutes per game, and the latter, who recently returned from a hairline fracture to the lateral cuneiform in his left foot that sidelined him for two months. It also doesn’t help that starting center Jusuf Nurkic recently recovered from a fractured wrist and their replacement in Enes Kaneter is known to be allergic to defense.
Portland will only go as far as their ability to adjust. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has been with the team since 2012 and while there have been improvements over the course of his tenure, he will need to come up with a plan against more intricate defenses that specifically pinpoint their weaknesses.
The Blazers have been all fun and games until the first round of the playoffs, where for them the going gets tough. Extending their playoff run will require them to step out of their comfort zone and rely on a more team-centric effort that will help preserve the health of their stars.