The Portland Trail Blazers made a statement in the first half of this season, posting one of the league's best records. The team is back, and in a big way, but the closing half of the season possesses some important aspects the Blazers must key in on to remain successful.
Defense, defense and more defense
The Blazers are a dominant team scoring the ball, arguably one of the best in the league. There is rarely any selfish play, with Portland ranking third in assists per game and first in assist-to-turnover ratio as a team.
The team also ranks first in team points per game and three-point field-goals made per game, but the Blazers suffer slightly on the other end.
Below is a comparison of Portland's offense and defense at this point of the season.
The differential isn't all that major, and it points to the tempo and style of play the Blazers imprint on a game-to-game basis. In that regard, Portland is in a really good place, as the team's philosophy becomes part of the game on both sides.
On the other hand, it becomes the Blazers' Achilles' heel when they're unable to score the ball. It's all fun and games dropping threes from all over the court, but Portland has struggled to win whenever the integral scorers are unable to come through.
The Blazers only have 13 losses on the season, so there's no immediate cause for concern compared to the 33 wins. But it's still a trend that needs a bit of a retooling, as Portland cannot merely rely on the offense to win games.
It's a method that's been proven to fail, per the phrase "defense wins championships." The Blazers have the right defensive personnel, as Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum provide a solid-to-intimidating defensive backcourt.
Again, it's a difficult situation, as Portland's style of play wins games. It also leads to losses, but the positives outweigh the negatives at this point. The up-and-down defense is still a negative, though.
Tough schedule ahead for the Blazers
Portland went on a tear to start the season, ending the 2013 calendar year with a 25-7 record. It wasn't by fortune of an easy schedule though, as the Blazers still defeated the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, beating both on multiple occasions.
As such, the schedule looking forward will be just as tough, if not more than the first half of the season.
The Portland Trail Blazers have matched last year's win total and it's only January 25th. Incredible.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) January 26, 2014
Of the 36 games remaining for Portland, 16 of them come against teams that have a chance to make the Western Conference playoffs. The Eastern Conference has been utterly dismal thus far, but combined with the West, the Blazers will play 24 games against opponents with a record above .500.
Portland has the benefit of the doubt in most of those games, given the talent and cohesiveness the team has. Yet no opponent should be underestimated, and the Blazers need to keep a mental toughness about them going forward.
They don't have a lock on a playoff spot just yet, and it's unlikely the team slips out of contention completely. It is, however, preferable that Portland maintains a high seed to ensure home-court advantage through the playoffs.
The Blazers are terrific at home (18-5) and on the road (15-8), hence it just comes down to their ability to come together and be prepared each and every night. Aldridge and Lillard are the unquestioned leaders of the team, and a ton of responsibility will be heaped on their shoulders in the second half of the season.
Is Portland asking too much of Aldridge?
Despite missing out on starting the All-Star Game, Aldridge is a lock for inclusion to the reserve squad. His 24.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game have led the Blazers, along with a stellar 23.3 PER.
Is LaMarcus Aldridge playing too many minutes for the Portland Trail Blazers?
Yet, in all of Aldridge's brilliance, he's playing 36.8 minutes per game. He currently ranks No. 11 in the league in minutes per game and desperately needs a backup to take some of the minutes.
Much like the Blazers' offense-defense dilemma, more of Aldridge can never be a bad thing, and it's hard to pinpoint if it's an actual issue. But going forward and into the postseason, Aldridge will need plenty of rest to ensure he's ready.
Even once the playoffs arrive, Portland must have a decent big man off the bench to relieve its star player.
Thomas Robinson, Aldridge's primary backup, has bounced to three teams in three seasons since being drafted fifth overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 2012 NBA draft. He's playing a career-low 11.1 minutes per game, but has shown to be effective in short bursts.
Robinson is currently averaging 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, shooting 47.8 percent from the field. He also sports a solid 15.2 PER, but has only played in garbage time in the Blazers' many blowout wins this season.
Those are very solid numbers for a reserve power forward, who could easily slide over to center with a 6'10", 237-pound frame. Granted, Robinson could improve offensively in expanding his game.
Per NBA.com, he's shooting just 25.5 percent on jump shots and 30.2 percent from mid-range. Robinson is also converting just 23.5 percent in the paint but 59.4 percent from the restricted area.
Indicatively, it would seem Robinson's lack of PT comes from an inability to contribute unless he's directly under the rim. Per The Columbian's Erik Gundersen, Aldridge commented on Robinson's recent focus to improve:
I’ve been talking to him because he’s a very confident player. I’ve been telling him, don’t go out and be so eager to score. Just move the ball around, fit in a little bit and then take your shot.
Robinson himself said he felt "a lot more comfortable" and that he's been "able to draw attention and make good passes" to his teammates. Per Gunderson's report, Robinson's benching stemmed from his lack shooting touch combined with his unwillingness to pass the ball.
Having said that, he can only develop and improve if he's given the ample chance to do so.
Portland is talented enough to overcome a few miscues by Robinson per game, especially if it means Aldridge can get some more rest.
All statistics per ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.