Winners of 13 games in a row, can the Portland Trail Blazers turn it into playoff success?

Portland Trail Blazers v Brooklyn Nets

On February 11th, the Portland Trail Blazers were 31-26. In the 37 days since, they haven’t lost.

Portland's blistering run of 13 straight wins has made evaluating streaky teams in the Western Conference a heftier task. The conference has witnessed many such winning streaks this season; the Houston Rockets topped out at 17, the New Orleans Pelicans managed 10, while the Utah Jazz have won 21 of their last 23 contests. Teams are registering wins and win streaks almost as frequently as they are changing playoff position. However, with only the Rockets and Golden State Warriors now ahead of them, it feels important to absorb what the Blazers’ current form signifies.

Still leading the way are Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as good as any backcourt in the NBA. But they are not alone. Their play falls within a much wider group of contributors that has Portland moving rhythmically and spontaneously on offence, fleet of foot and energetic enough on defence to sit eighth in league net rating. This team is pretty deep, and plays well on both ends.

The Blazers look assured as the third seed - 2000 was the last time the Blazers finished so high - but more importantly seem comfortable doing it.

“You can go back to the first round playoff series against the Clippers two years ago”, Travis Demers of Rip City Radio says. “The first two games of that series was CJ and Damian. Nobody else was doing anything.”

That team’s roster had seven of the current components, but Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis were young, and obvious in their absence were Jusuf Nurkic, Evan Turner, Shabazz Napier and 20-year-old big man Zach Collins.

“Because other players are now stepping up, it enables trust from the backcourt but, crucially, gives defences far more to think about”, Demers says.

The catalyst behind this win streak might be found in Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen in January - “overblown and insignificant” in the view of the Portland Tribune’s Kerry Eggers - or in the hard-working role players feeling inspired by their star backcourt.

Whichever it is, players have found their role within a unit. No individual searches for a career night, and the aforementioned Collins, who went to the national title game with Gonzaga last year, - is a perfect example.

“The moment is not too big for Zach”, Eggers says.

“That’s big for the playoffs. He’s skinny but tough, he can rebound and block shots. On the offensive end, he gets over poor stretches. Nice stroke, clutch performer.”

Helping that along are two stretchy arms which, along with Ed Davis in a lineup Stotts deploys regularly when Nurkic sits - Lillard, Turner, Pat Connaughton, Davis and Collins - suck opponents into a two-man vacuum, affecting shots or stopping them entirely. Watch how Collins zooms to the basket to protect it, employing nearly as much force when he rolls past defenders on offensive rebound efforts.

Portland Trail Blazers v Atlanta Hawks

As for his block brother Davis, Portland’s belief in him is real. “He’s probably the best backup center in the league”, Demers says. The former Tar Heel has an uncanny ability to get defenders in the air with his pump fake, can squeeze into tight windows and finish in contact. “He’s the definite sixth man because he’s so steady”, Eggers says. Lillard said before the trade deadline that the team had to keep hold of Davis, and it’s obvious why. Watching him hurl his body into the paint for an offensive rebound then calculate a funky putback brings a strange satisfaction.

With the playoffs right around the corner, Davis is incredibly important if and when Nurkic is forced off the floor in small lineup spots, foul trouble, or an inconsistency that has plagued him all year. “Sometimes Nurkic looks like he’s posing out there instead of just playing hard”, adds Eggers, and Stotts has been on the 23-year-old to be smart around the basket and “finish hard instead of flipping the ball up.”

The Bosnian can either look like an All-Star - 27 points and 16 rebounds against the Miami Heat a week ago - or a young kid who doesn’t want to mess up his hair. “When he doesn’t show up, you notice it”, Demers points out, but when engaged, “he’s the most important player behind Lillard and McCollum”. Nurkic is an instinctive two-handed passer and has semi-confidence taking deep field goals, traits he must explore even more in the postseason. Demers and others refer to this as ‘Bosnian beast mode’.

What may help the big man is simply not thinking too much.

“Spontaneity is at the core of Terry Stotts’ flow and motion offense”, NBC Northwest insider Jason Quick says. “He wants them to read each other and make instinctual plays.”

While that is fact, what is not obvious if you watch them is the Blazers are dead last in assist percentage (49.5) and third from bottom in passes made per game as a team (271.9). The latter, however, might speak to the quick and fluid way they now move the ball, shooting earlier in the shot clock. “They’re finally moving the ball and making that extra pass like the Warriors have done for so long”, says Demers.

The Blazers have tried quirky sets where the point guard will start plays off the ball, fake to come to the top and fetch it, then dive to the hoop for an easy basket. Shabazz Napier has gone from third-tier point guard last year to integral for increasingly frequent three-guard lineups, and as a result the team have great synergy on cuts. They “must keep up this pace to win after the 82 are played”, according to Eggers.

At this stage, their opponent in the first round could be any one of New Orleans, Utah, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If Eggers was a scout on one of those teams, how would he stop the Blazers?

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets

“I’d do what only one team has done so far this season”, he responds immediately. “As soon as Damian puts the ball on the floor you double team him, even if he’s 25 feet out. Force the other guys to beat you because Lillard is on another level, along with McCollum.”

While that may or may not work, the two leaders are competing at an All-NBA level and give Portland a genuine chance in a playoff series because of their ability to score. McCollum is the outlet for what fastbreak basketball they do run - Portland are currently 19th in pace - a shake-and-bake player who murders bigs as they run back on cross-switches. Lillard’s crossover from right to left and the dribble he generates from that combination rarely fails to get him where he needs to. His play is nuanced, full of pace changes. And it is deadly.

Only LeBron James, Oscar Robertson and Lillard have recorded at least 1,500 points and 400 assists in each of their first six seasons. “Right now, I think at that position only James Harden is better”, Demers says. 

The greatest player in the world agrees.

“Damian Lillard is a superstar in our league” is how LeBron James phrased it before his Cavs team became another victim of the Blazers’ tear last week. James, who is now 0-4 at the Moda Center since returning to Cleveland in 2014 while losing by a combined 72 points, added: “Give me Lillard and I’ll show you how appreciated he’d be.”

No matter that this statement could have been construed as ‘tampering’, it’s a sure-fire way of rubber stamping Lillard’s MVP-like play this season. He has dropped at least 30 points in eight of his last 16 games. His shooting range is at Steph Curry distance and when he and McCollum ‘play down hill’ - getting a leg of steam on their defenders - the offence has everybody situated at their optimum spots. Stotts has a perfect pick-and-roll formula involving ball handler and Nurkic or Davis to get his backcourt onto opposing bigs and, as a result, quickly past them into scoring position. And when in scoring position, Lillard scores.

After beating the Cavaliers, a rejuvenated Evan Turner said ‘the ball has been on a whip’. What he describes has subsequently opened up the floor for Harkless and Aminu, two essential parts of any success to come, a pair who have forgotten what hesitation even is. The former is hitting 39% from deep and although he doesn’t take that many threes - 108 so far on the season - defenders are actually biting on his fake, giving him entry to the area he’s most dangerous. Aminu is shooting a career high 39% on an also career high 4.7 attempts, and as a team Portland are making 38% of their threes, good for third in the league.

“Stotts has always emphasised the three”, Eggers says.

That formula has made for giddy times in Portland. Brooke Olzendam, the team's sideline reporter, was explaining during a broadcast recently how Lillard had told her the team were ‘enjoying what a win streak feels like and enjoying what they’re doing.’ She ended the report by saying ‘I think we all are.’

Portland Trail Blazers v Indiana Pacers

In some ways the feeling is similar to last year, when Portland won 17 of their last 23. But as Demers says, “this run, unlike that one, has a lot of substance to it.”

That includes an increased effort on defence, and a formula which tries to keep the player defending the ball on the ball, whatever the pick-and-roll situation. Stotts’s overall philosophy is to defend the three and the basket, allowing an unlimited number of long twos. “That shot seems open a lot and teams often make the mistake of taking too many threes”, Eggers says.

Lillard and McCollum are no longer sieves on this end, and Stotts was chuffed when Stan Van Gundy accused Portland of being overly-aggressive in their victory over the Clippers last Sunday. “That’s the first time in my tenure that one of my teams has been accused of being physical, holding, grabbing. So yeah … I was pleased with those comments.”

That physicality has to see out 12 more games before things get serious.

“They’ve got to win a first round series”, Demers says. “If Golden State and Houston are healthy, they will beat Portland”, Eggers adds, “but they should win the first round against anyone else.”

Despite their success, the future is slightly murky given the team's financial situation. Meyers Leonard’s $10 million for next year (and $11 million after that) is just sitting there, while all three of Napier, Davis and Nurkic are free agents at the end of the year. Turner, Harkless and Leonard do not come off the books in 2020, which would shed $40 million at a time when Lillard and McCollum are still under contract, yet which does not help the problem of the inevitable financial pinch next season.

But in the present, one asset is as tantamount as the next. Once the playoffs begin, rotations are crunched, space is trickier to manipulate and nerves can lead teams into hero ball. Portland have two candidates for that, but during this streak it’s a whole lot of everybody, showcased in the recent victory over the L.A. Clippers, a game in which every starter had at least 16 points.

“Can they keep this pace up?”, Eggers asks. “There’s an ebb and flow to every NBA season. Have they peaked too early?”

Portland go on, and we will find out.

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