For the Portland Trail Blazers, Saturday's 112-104 win over the Boston Celtics was, to be honest, rather routine. Yes, the Celtics put up a decent fight—holding a two-point lead at halftime and playing tough until the final seconds of the fourth quarter—but they have now lost eight games in a row, and the outcome rarely seemed in doubt.
If you are what your record says you are, then the 28-9 Blazers are an elite team in the NBA. And elite teams do not bother too much with the likes of Boston or the Blazers' next opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers (Wednesday, Jan. 15).
But the Blazers are less than one week away from a stretch of games that has the potential to either cement their status as true contenders or expose them as pretenders.
- Friday, Jan. 17: at San Antonio Spurs
- Saturday, Jan. 18: at Dallas Mavericks
- Monday, Jan. 20: at Houston Rockets
- Tuesday, Jan. 21: at Oklahoma City Thunder
That might be the most brutal four-game road trip any team will face this season—four games in five nights, and each one a challenge.
The Blazers have had success against those teams—2-0 versus the Thunder, 1-0 versus the Spurs, 1-1 versus the Rockets, 0-1 versus the Mavericks—but the problem with being an unproven team is that constant need for validation.
If the Blazers want to be taken seriously in the second half, if they want to contend for the Northwest Division crown and home-court advantage in the playoffs, they will need to hold their own against the best of the West.
So what did the Blazers learn about themselves against Boston that they can use against better competition next week?
Maintain Defensive Intensity
The Celtics are not a particularly good offensive team. According to Basketball-Reference, they came into Saturday ranked 20th in effective field-goal percentage and 24th in offensive efficiency.
But they looked like the Larry Bird Celtics in the first half against Portland, shooting 61.9 percent, with most of those looks coming from point-blank range. The only thing keeping Portland in the game at that point was its three-point shooting (6-of-13 at the half).
In the second half, the game turned as Boston's shots stopped going in. The Celtics shot just 34.0 percent after halftime.
Now, some of that was due to renewed intensity from the Portland defense, but the Celtics—an East Coast team playing the second night of a West Coast back-to-back—also looked like they simply ran out of gas.
After the game, Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and coach Terry Stotts seemed less than thrilled with the victory.
Per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
Playing down to the opponent. Taking off the first half. Not giving enough. All of these statements speak to a team going through the motions, particularly on defense.
Portland has never been a good defensive team this season. As of Saturday, it was ranked 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Oftentimes, the Blazers have relied on their powerhouse offense to pull them out of the doldrums, as they did in the first half against Boston. But there is no guarantee they will continue to be successful against better teams on the road if they don't raise their defensive intensity.
C.J. McCollum: The X-Factor
The story of Wednesday's 110-94 win over the Orlando Magic was the NBA debut of Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum. The shooting guard out of Lehigh was chosen with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft but broke his foot during practice on Oct. 5. He scored four points on 2-of-5 shooting in his debut.
After the Magic game, McCollum told Mike Tokito of The Oregonian that he felt no lingering effects from the injury:
I just go out and play. I don't think about it until the game's over. I think, oh, that's another game I got through, no stepping on any feet or anything like that. But once you recover from injury, you don't think about it. You just go play and react.
McCollum certainly played like a man without a worry in the world on Saturday against Boston, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. It was an impressive performance, to say the least.
For a team like the Blazers, McCollum was a symbol of just how far they've come this year—from the 10th-worst 2012-13 squad to a legitimate conference contender—as well as a potentially valuable player to the team moving forward.
The Blazers bench is in desperate need of a player like McCollum—Portland's reserves are an area of concern. According to HoopStats, the Blazers have the 25th-greatest difference in overall efficiency between starters and reserves.
Portland has impressive scoring balance among its five starters—each of whom scored at least 15 points against Boston. But the reserves scored a paltry 26 points, and 10 of those points were scored by a kid playing in just his second pro game. Whether McCollum is ready or not, Portland needs him. So if he is ready to shine, then more the better.
The Blazers clearly have the talent to compete against the best of the West. But that talent is mostly untested. Portland will need those untested players—players like McCollum—to grow up fast.
Portland has one more game—that Wednesday game against Cleveland—to fix the defense, pick up the intensity, and get McCollum a few more precious minutes of experience. The toughest test is yet to come.