Portland is still a darling no doubt, treading water in a hyper-competitive Western Conference awash with powerhouses, exceeding even the most ideal expectations. But the surprising flair and genius are gone, replaced instead with crashing waves of reality the Blazers cannot surf and could now be forced to traverse without LaMarcus Aldridge.
Early in the third quarter of Wednesday's loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Aldridge put in a shot over Tim Duncan, colliding with Aron Baynes in the process. He hit the floor back first—hard—and had to be escorted off the court. He would not return.
Initial X-rays didn't reveal any extensive damage, according to Blazers.com's Casey Holdahl, but, per CSNNW, Aldridge didn't look good after the game:
LaMarcus Aldridge is not walking. Was just spotted being wheeled around in wheelchair by Chris Stackpole. Suffered back contusion in 3Q— Comcast SportsNet NW (@CSNNW) March 13, 2014
MRI confirms a low back contusion for #Blazers F LaMarcus Aldridge. He's expected to miss next two games and will be reevaluated next week.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) March 13, 2014
Not him. Not now.
With only 17 games left to play, the Blazers cannot afford to lose Aldridge. They can barely withstand their most recent fall from grace.
The team's demise, it's most recent slide, has been a steady one, gradually amounting to what it is now. The Blazers are no longer contending for a top-two spot in the Western Conference or the NBA's best record—they're struggling to survive, a task that's becoming harder to complete with each passing foible.
Demise in the Making
There is no confidence to be found in Portland's recent performance. The last six games have been mostly disastrous.
Currently navigating a four-game losing streak, the Blazers have dropped five of six and are just 2-5 overall in the month of March. Their jaunt into oblivion has left them clinging to fifth place in the Western Conference, merely 1.5 games ahead of the surging Golden State Warriors.
This isn't the same team that began 2013-14 an unbelievable 31-9. The defense remains iffy, prone to permeable sets, but the offense, of late, is broken beyond recognition.
|When||Record||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank|
|First 40 Games||31-9||110.6||1||104.8||17|
|Last 25 Games||11-14||104.6||13||104.7||14|
|Last 6 Games||1-5||102.5||23||104.5||13|
Where the Blazers were once able to overpower their opponents with calculated efficiency, they are now jagged and incidental, having failed to eclipse 100 points in three of their last four games—all losses. And with the defense still mediocre at best, the Blazers cannot fail to break 100.
In games they fail to hit 100 points, the Blazers are 6-10 and winless in their last four tries. Their defense, however much improved, isn't going to win them basketball games.
Being forced to play without Aldridge isn't going to win them basketball games.
Alridge has missed only five games this season. During that time, the Blazers are a convincing 4-1. But that's a small sample size and potential anomaly. Ask them to play five, 10 or 15 games without their leading scorer and rebounder, and they won't come out the other side winning 80 percent of the time.
Just look at the team splits. They tell you everything:
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.|
Maybe the Blazers steal a game here or there without Aldridge. Maybe they nab upcoming games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks, but what about playoff teams? What about the Warriors? And Miami Heat? And—can't believe I'm writing this—Charlotte Bobcats?
But if there was ever a time for Aldridge to be absent again, it's now, as Portland prepares to play seven of the next nine against Eastern Conference teams. Back issues are fickle, though, especially with regard to big men. If Aldridge is out, he could be out for a while.
And if he's not, the Blazers can only hope he has a speedy recovery or isn't forced to play in a diminished capacity at all. Even a limited Aldridge is crippling for this team.
Coach Terry Stotts seldom uses his reserves, in part because Portland doesn't have many. Its bench ranks dead last in scoring for the second consecutive year, and relying on Thomas Robinson in the event Aldridge misses time or is held to a minutes cap doesn't bode well for the team dynamic.
Plus, there are other injuries to account for as well:
MRI confirms Portland G Mo Williams has a right hip strain. Williams is expected to be sidelined for two weeks and then be reevaluated.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) March 13, 2014
That's what makes Aldridge so important as well. He and Robinson are the only listed power forwards on Portland's roster. His absence would demand Meyers Leonard play some 4 alongside Robin Lopez, which is indubitably the league's worst insurance policy.
To wit: The Blazers need Aldridge.
When he scores 22 or fewer points—below his season average—the Blazers are 16-11. Know where winning 59.3 percent of games gets you in the Western Conference? Seventh place.
When he brings down 10 or fewer rebounds, the Blazers are 16-12. Know where winning 57.1 percent of games gets you in the West? Outside the playoff picture.
Aldridge is Portland's ultimate bellwether. Without him, the team doesn't stand a chance of securing a top-five playoff spot.
The Blazers barely have a chance with him the way they're playing.
Position Is Everything; Momentum Is More
Easy matchups don't exist in the Western Conference.
It won't matter what team the Blazers face in the playoffs. Their opponent will be a tough out no matter what.
But the more they slide, the more they dip in the standings, the more difficult their already shaky playoff endeavor becomes.
Right now, the Blazers are tracking toward a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, whom they are 1-3 against this season. Houston could easily become the Los Angeles Clippers, a team the Blazers are 1-1 against. Barring a complete meltdown through these final 17 games, Portland should be able to avoid both the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, each of whom it's 2-2 against this season.
Here's the thing: It, again, doesn't matter.
Portland has put itself in a near unmanageable scenario.
More likely than not, it's going to face one of the West's top four teams, which is problematic given they're a combined 6-8 against the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets this season. But it's even more of an issue now.
The Blazers haven't defeated any of those four teams since Jan. 17. They're a combined 0-7 against those four squads since then.
Losing home-court advantage is also detrimental. The team is 24-8 at home and 18-15 on the road. Every game counts in the postseason. For the Blazers, each one played away from Moda Center is a strenuous obstacle.
Worse still, the Blazers haven't taken down one of the other current postseason contingents since Jan. 18, when they beat the Dallas Mavericks. Since then, they're a combined 0-11 when facing Western Conference playoff teams.
In their current state, Aldridge or no Aldridge, there's not a single playoff matchup that favors them. And urgency is at an all-time high.
According to CSNNW's Chris Haynes, the team held a players-only meeting following its loss to San Antonio.
How far will Portland go in the playoffs?
"I just felt like it was something that needed to be said," Damian Lillard explained when asked why he initiated the powwow, via Haynes. "At some point, it’s up to the players."
Lots of things needed to be said. Questions needed to be asked.
Urgency needed to set in.
The Blazers are playing that bad. Their offense is that disjointed, their postseason ambitions that infirm.
Their once shimmering star is fading, dying.