Don't look now, but the Portland Trail Blazers' late-season swoon may be over. They're picking up some momentum at just the right time.
Led by their big man LaMarcus Aldridge and an unselfish supporting cast, Terry Stotts' club tripped up the Memphis Grizzlies 105-98 Sunday. Veteran reserve Mo Williams chipped in 17 off the bench, and Rip City aggressively attacked the Griz all night.
Since late January, the Blazers haven't been able to buy a win against a Western Conference playoff contender, as they've struggled mightily on both ends of the floor.
Memphis was in the No. 8 slot over the weekend until Portland upended them.
With three straight victories, including a dominant road win over the Chicago Bulls, Portland is finally starting to regain its early-season form.
As they stumbled through much of February and March, the Blazers suffered the same deficiency that held them back in 2012-13: not enough production off the bench. This week provided a glimmer of hope in that department, as Rip City's reserves dropped 33 on Chicago and 30 on Memphis.
Thanks to Mo Williams' playmaking and Thomas Robinson's end-to-end energy, Portland's bench accomplished in three quarters what usually takes an entire game.
Meanwhile, the whole lineup supplied a balanced attack, as everyone was in the flow of the offense; seven different players recorded assists. With this kind of evenly distributed production, the Blazers were up a dozen on Memphis at halftime without getting a single bucket from Damian Lillard. By the end of the night, they scored a tidy 105 against a unit that surrenders an average of 94 points per game.
Lillard and Aldridge are the cornerstones of Portland's dangerousness in the West, but this team is at its absolute best when the role players are in their comfort zone.
Cue 10 boards from Robin Lopez, six assists from Nicolas Batum and all-around splendid evenings from Mo-Will and Wesley Matthews. The Blazers looked like the pre-All-Star break team that rocked the Moda Center and had every Western contender on high alert.
Although Portland's triumph over Z-Bo and company was unquestionably a team effort, it's no coincidence that its modest three-game win streak occurred when Aldridge returned.
A bad back kept him out of the equation for seven games in mid-March, and during his absence the club struggled to consistently execute and lost to the likes of Charlotte and Orlando. Upon his return, the Blazers have won a trio of contests by an average of 13 points.
On Sunday night, Aldridge had his way with the Grizzlies, besting Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Kosta Koufos for 28 points on 50 percent shooting. He was assertive on pick-and-pops and post-ups for the majority of the game, scoring 14 in each half and earning eight free-throw attempts.
Earlier in the week, Williams talked about Aldridge's impact on the team's psyche during a postgame interview after the win over Chicago:
You know, having that guy back gives us so much confidence as a basketball team. His presence alone, (over the) last couple games you saw it...they're still double-teaming him every time, that just shows you the presence that he has, and how much he means to us as a basketball team, and how much we missed him.
This miniature win streak and well-balanced win over the Grizzlies is hardly a signal that Portland is ready to make a championship run. This week was a small sample size, and defeating Memphis isn't exactly the same as slaying an elite NBA club.
However, this upturn in fortune is a sign that Stotts and Co. may have reaccessed their early-season mojo, and they could be peaking at the right time.
Their upcoming schedule (Lakers, Suns, Pelicans, Kings and Jazz) is more than manageable. There's a good chance they can quickly clinch a solid playoff seed and spend their last couple regular-season games resting and prepping for the playoff grind.
For much of the post-All Star portion of the season, the Blazers didn't exhibit any resemblance to a playoff team. Sunday's win over Memphis capped a strong week that served as a nice step in the right direction.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR
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