The shock factor is gone from the Portland Trail Blazers' sizzling start.
At some point, shattered expectations need to be shelved. Perceptions need to change.
Portland might be thriving in the David role for now, but this team belongs in the NBA's Goliath ranks. There are only so many giants one team can slay before becoming one itself.
Whether it's their league-best record (24-5) or their top-ranked offense (110.4 points per 100 possessions), something has drawn the basketball world to these Blazers. We might be surprised to be sitting here, but wonder will feel like a foreign emotion when we haven't budged by season's end.
Their Resume Is Packed With Quality Wins
Portland holds a 9-4 mark against teams with a winning percentage at or above .500. The Blazers are 5-1 against the Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers—five of the NBA's seven 20-win teams.
When the competition stiffens, the Blazers always find a way to bring out their best.
Portland can overwhelm with offense, and these quality opponents can attest to that fact. During those six games against their elite company, the Blazers are averaging 110 points per contest.
But for a team so reliant on the long ball—only the Rockets (26.4) and Phoenix Suns (25.6) average more three-point attempts than the Blazers (25.4)—off-nights are unavoidable. Even if Portland's league-leading 40.3 three-point percentage suggests otherwise.
On the rare nights that its shooters can't find the touch, Portland has been able to grind out victories in other ways:
Blazers now 15-4 when shooting under 45%. 8-37 last year when -45%. Finding ways to win.— Mike Barrett (@blazermb) December 27, 2013
When the Blazers battled to a 111-104 win over the Thunder on Dec. 4, Portland's snipers hit just 34.8 percent of their perimeter looks. That number fell to 29.6 in Portland's 111-104 defeat of the Rockets on Dec. 12.
On Thursday, Portland converted a good-not-great 36.1 percent of its three-point attempts. Slowing this attack takes more than just chasing gunners off the arc, even for the league's best of the best.
Terry Stotts has been touting this group's versatility since before the season started.
"I like to change lineups, I like to change matchups," Stotts said back in early October, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. "Whether it's a shooting lineup (or) a power lineup, we have a lot of different ways we can go this year."
Nearly three months later, the coach is still discovering new possibilities with his roster:
Stotts thinking outside the box with this lineup. 2 PGs in Lillard and Williams and two centers with Lopez and Leonard....— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) December 27, 2013
Great teams all have a niche, but the truly elites can win in different ways. The Blazers might not have the bodies to become a defensive power (Portland ranks 22nd in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions), but this team's ability to score from any angle will always give it a chance to win.
If the Blazers stay within striking distance, rarely do they miss their mark.
They Come Through in the Clutch
Securing a close victory often requires skill, mental strength and a certain bit of luck.
Portland got all three in its overtime win on Thursday.
The skill came first.
A LaMarcus Aldridge jumper gave the Blazers an 88-77 lead with just seven minutes and 38 seconds remaining in the fourth. But the Clippers hit back with a furious 14-3 run, completely erasing the deficit in less than three minutes.
After trading blows over the next four minutes, back-to-back jumpers by Chris Paul gave the Clippers a 101-98 lead with less than 10 seconds left in regulation. Then, one of the game's great offensive minds got to work.
Stotts drew up a gem during the Blazers timeout. He sent shooters to each short corner and brought Portland's two best scorers, Aldridge and Damian Lillard, close to the inbounds passer Nicolas Batum.
Batum found Aldridge, who quickly tossed the ball back to him. Batum got screens from both Aldridge and Lillard, giving him more than enough space to fire up the game-tying triple from the top of the key.
That's a beautiful play call from Terry Stotts. I'll happily take overtime here.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 27, 2013
It was thrilling, get-out-of-your-seat exciting.
It was also business as usual for the Blazers:
Blazers now 3-6 on 3-pointers to tie or take lead in final 30 seconds this season, per @NBAstats.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) December 27, 2013
The luck came next.
Paul, who scored L.A.'s last eight points of regulation, had the chance to be the hero. He freed himself near the right elbow but could not convert the jumper.
"I got right where I wanted to," Paul said, via NBA.com's Anne M. Peterson. "I didn't think I would end up as wide open as I was - I've got to make that shot."
Portland's mental strength? Well that was evident all night, but shined brightest as the Blazers went 8-of-8 at the foul line over the final 1:05 to secure that victory.
"[Our late-game] demeanor is that we're going to win the game—and we don't think we're out of it," Stotts said, via Joe Freeman. "Generally that finishing group is very confident about what we can do on both ends of the floor."
It's a confidence that stems from results. The Blazers have emerged victorious in nearly every close game they've played:
The Trail Blazers improve to 15-1 this season in games decided by 10 points or fewer.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 27, 2013
This team packs too strong an offensive punch to fall too far back on the scoreboard. With their cold-blooded late-game play, Portland's a team built for the long haul.
They're Better Than We Think...With More Room to Grow
For everything else that they do well, there's a reason that the Blazers are viewed as shooting specialists. This is an historically accurate band of gunners.
Most people know about the famed 50/40/90 club at this point, but how many were aware of the 45/40/80 version? My guess is none, since before this season it never existed.
If the Blazers keep hitting shots at their current clips, they'll be the first team in the three-point era (1979-80 and on) to shoot 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the line. How's that for accuracy?
But again, that's just one of the weapons in Portland's arsenal.
There's also MVP candidate (front-runner perhaps?) LaMarcus Aldridge. The 28-year-old has fueled Portland's rapid rise by posting career numbers in scoring (23.4), rebounds (11.0), assists (2.9) and steals (1.1).
Along with new frontcourt mate Robin Lopez, Aldridge has helped shift one of Portland's liabilities (rebounding) over to the asset column:
One thing we lose sight of with #Blazers leading league in points, 3-pt percentage: They're No. 3 in rebounding. They were 24th last season— Mike Tokito (@mtokito) December 27, 2013
Reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (21.3 points, 5.8 assists) has continued his superstar ascent. Nicolas Batum has thrived as a Swiss Army knife (14.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists), while Wesley Matthews (16.3 points) has helped ease the scoring burden on Portland's dynamic duo.
The reserve unit, a massive weakness last season, has already seen dramatic improvements. Mo Williams (9.3 points, 4.6 assists) is more than capable of spelling Lillard or moving him off the ball. Dorell Wright (38.2 three-point percentage) allows Stotts to keep flooding the floor with versatile shooters when his starters need a break.
Lottery pick C.J. McCollum—a versatile combo guard who's been recovering from a broken foot—continues moving closer to his NBA debut. He's a scorer who can hit from anywhere, or just another potent weapon for Stotts to employ.
The Blazers are every bit as good as their record indicates and could get even better. Strong performances aren't surprising; they're expected.
And that might not change for a very long time.