When the season began in October, fans of the Portland Trail Blazers were unsure what to expect and they couldn't have been blamed for being pessimistic about their team's chances.
Following the loss of four of its starting five players from the 2014-15 campaign which yielded 51 wins, the expectations in Portland were immediately lowered. Experts predicted they would vacate their playoff place and finish in the lower regions of the Western Conference standings.
Following Wednesday night's 120-115 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Moda Center, however, the Trail Blazers have defied the pre-season odds and clinched their third consecutive postseason berth.
A sellout crowd, who must've had its doubts whether this moment was possible, were in jubilant mood as their team secured a playoff spot for the 32nd time in franchise history.
“I’m very excited about clinching the playoffs,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts after the game. “It was a goal at the beginning of the season. It’s been a long year, we’ve still got a couple games to go that are important. We want to continue that. It’s good to have a couple days rest. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”
Stotts has done a tremendous job and has now led the team to playoff appearances in three of his four seasons in Portland. The 58-year-old deserves to be in the running for the Coach of the Year award.
Portland is now 43-27 and tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the fifth seed after a run of six wins from their last seven games.
Heading into a December 26 showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Trail Blazers were 11-20 and seemed to be proving the experts right, but a huge win over the Cavs on that night appeared to be the catalyst for where they are today.
“In January, we were able to string together some wins,” said Stotts. “We knew December was going to be tough and I liked the fact that we stayed resilient. Beating Cleveland right after Christmas was an important game for us as far as after that tough December, to get a signature win like that was important. Beating Oklahoma City here was a big game for us. When you’re able to look back over the season, you don’t know it at the time and what lies ahead, but there were certainly key points to the season.”
"Beating Oklahoma City here was a big game for us. When you’re able to look back over the season, you don’t know it at the time and what lies ahead, but there were certainly key points to the season.”
LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs), Wes Matthews (Mavericks), Robin Lopez, (Knicks) and Nicolas Batum (Hornets) all departed Portland last summer, but the one starter who remained has thrived in their absence.
In the face of adversity, point guard Damian Lillard has elevated his game and led his team impressively throughout the campaign. The point guard is having a career-best year averaging 25 points, 6.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.
“It’s a great feeling,” Lillard said of making the playoffs again. “We put in our time. It’s been a long season, we believed in ourselves. We’ve played through the tough times, we didn’t get too high off of the good times, and here we are. We finally got our spot and our work still isn’t done.”
The emergence of C.J. McCollum has also been huge for Rip City and he and Lillard have formed one of the best backcourts in the league. McCollum's rise could be rewarded as he is the favourite to receive the Most Improved Player award.
The Blazers have two games remaining and only need to confirm their seeding and opponents in the playoffs. Regardless of how far they go in the postseason, the franchise has certainly overachieved this year and it now shouldn't surprise anybody if they go on and cause one or two playoff upsets.