The Portland Trail Blazers entered the 2013-14 NBA season with the modest goal of making the playoffs. The team shocked the Association with a 24-5 start, but with recent struggles, head coach Terry Stotts recognizes that it's time to buckle down if a serious run is on the horizon.
"Time is getting short," Stotts told The Oregonian's Jason Quick, following a late-season loss to the Orlando Magic. And he's right. The Blazers are in danger of losing everything they've worked for, and the question is: Has the Rip City revival been for nothing with "one-and-done"—or worse—as a preview of their postseason status?
There are two questions here that we must address. First and foremost: How did we get here?
Portland began the year as an underdog. The Blazers closed out 2013-14 with 13 straight losses, and while it had Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the team missed the playoffs for the second year in a row following yet another agonizing rebuild.
During the offseason, shrewd acquisitions such as Robin Lopez and Mo Williams were overlooked on the national stage, allowing the Blazers to exceed expectations early. Portland went on an 11-game winning streak in November while competing for the No. 1 seed in a tough Western Conference.
The Blazers began flirting with elite status, but all came tumbling down as the unit has played just .500 basketball (or worse) since a 24-5 start on Dec. 26.
Flash forward to the present, and here we get to the second question. Portland is 46-27 with nine games to go—sitting in fifth out West—and we ask aloud: Will the Trail Blazers' season wind up a bust?
To answer the question, we must consider what success means to this organization. Before the year began, simply making the playoffs would have sufficed. ESPN had Portland pegged as the 10th-best team in the Western Conference, and while B/R's preseason projections were more optimistic, nobody looked at the Blazers as anything more than a fringe squad returning to relevance.
As it turned out, the hot start changed expectations, and rightfully so. The Blazers had become true contenders, and while making the playoffs was once the goal, getting bounced in Round 1 was no longer an option.
Portland hasn't seen the second round of the playoffs since the 1999-00 season, and while the idea of a championship run sneaked into Rip City rather quickly, a win in a seven-game series is now the goal. Nothing less will be accepted, and not even a home-stretch slump can lower the newfound expectations of an incredibly hungry fanbase.
Portland's struggles have been documented on the defense end, but even more problematic is that the team hasn't even maintained its identity of a lights-out shooting roster. All that said, it's important to note that part of the team's downfall came before a 15-point win over the Atlanta Hawks on March 27, in which LaMarcus Aldridge returned to the floor.
According to The Oreognian's Sean Meagher, the team has shot significantly worse from the left side of the floor—Aldridge's hot spot—since the forward's back injury. In a separate report from The Oregonian's Mike Tokito, Aldridge stated, "I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just flows a little bit different when I’m out there."
Fear not, big fella. You're exactly right, and there's a fine line between arrogance and necessary confidence.
Unfortunately for Portland, there's also a fine line between confidence and ignorance. Wesley Matthews was quoted following an ugly loss to the Charlotte Bobcats (the team's seventh loss in 12 outings) as saying, "I don’t think it’s a larger issue," courtesy of The Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "They’re a playoff team and they’re all NBA players. We didn’t play well. They played great."
No knock on Matthews for saying the right things, but it's what came next that stands out.
If you kill us, you’re going to look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So you go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.
With the playoffs around the corner, Matthews' sentiments ring loud and clear, but the problem is, we haven't seen it on the court. At least, we hadn't seen it before the 100-85 road win over the Atlanta Hawks—Aldridge's comeback.
When thinking about the Blazers, think back to the 2012-13 Golden State Warriors. Would you consider their season a bust? They went 47-35, landed the sixth seed and were competitive in the second-round series against the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs.
Simply put: They became Cinderella, and even further, the darlings of the NBA that postseason.
If Portland can pull off a similar run, remaining competitive through two rounds and providing entertainment every step of the way, you have to consider its success to be just that: A successful campaign. Nobody thought Portland would be where it is today, and while expectations shifted early, you can't knock the team for overachieving at this point in the process.
That said, if the Blazers extend their streak of second-round absences to 14 years—or manage to fall out of the playoffs altogether—the 24-5 start will be long forgotten. This team can't afford any more heartbreak, and getting out of the first round will be the first step toward easing back into prominence.