The Portland Trail Blazers have been on a roller coaster throughout the 2013-14 NBA season. They won 24 of their first 29 contests—including an 11-game winning streak in November—but since then, the squad has gone just 25-22 with the playoffs around the corner.
Luckily for Portland, the team is hitting another high point at the right time. As of April 2, it's won four straight and owns the fifth seed in a tough Western Conference—as well as the seventh-best record in the Association.
At this juncture, the Blazers are all but in when it comes to the postseason, but the question has become: Can they be the contenders we thought they were early in the year?
Step one for Portland is staying healthy. This is a franchise that has been beaten, battered and bruised in recent seasons, but health has been a point of pride in 2013-14.
So far this year, Portland has played just two starting lineups. That's an incredible number considering this organization's history, but we saw how vulnerable the roster is when one player goes down—especially when that player is LaMarcus Aldridge.
Assuming everyone stays healthy (a big assumption considering Portland's history), the Blazers can return to contention. Earning home-court advantage will be difficult with the Houston Rockets (49-24) in fourth place, but the Blazers are playing with confidence at the right time, as evidenced by their 124-112 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on April 1.
For those who don't appreciate a win over a bad team, consider this: When the year began, Portland was playing up to its competition while dominating inferior opponents. Back in January, taking down the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers didn't mean much, but the Blazers were doing exactly what true contenders do—they were defeating inferior opponents, and doing it convincingly.
Part of the reason Portland dropped off the map is that it started playing down to its competition. Losing to the Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs in a late-season road trip is one thing, but awful showings against the Magic and Charlotte Bobcats two weeks later are what stand out.
With the year winding down, Portland has begun returning to early-season form. It's taken down teams of all calibers, with the Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies included, but in order to avoid that kind of slip again, the team must do two things: Stay consistent on offense and play with confidence.
Most critics point to the Blazers' defense as the biggest problem, but tell that to the early-season squad that defeated every elite unit in the league (with the exception of the Miami Heat). B/R's own Dan Favale pointed out back in January how important defense is for Portland; however, the team from the Pacific Northwest has used its offensive versatility to complement stinginess (albeit not dominance) on the other end of the floor.
In the eyes of some league-wide, the Rip City revival was short-lived. A home-friendly schedule helped the Blazers early—the same Blazers who lost 13 straight to close out 2012-13—so once the schedule turned against them, detractors knew where to get the fuel for their fire.
Success came quickly for Portland this year, but it's important to note that it's been a more gradual process than advertised. The core of Aldridge, Batum and Wesley Matthews has been established since the 2010-11 season, and at this point, you've got a superstar point guard in Lillard—and an undervalued Robin Lopez—thriving alongside three veterans.
If we've learned anything this year across the NBA, it's that no team is immune to lulls. The San Antonio Spurs seem to be the exception, but the Heat, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder have all struggled at different times; some of which have struggled at the same time as Portland.
With the playoffs nearing, we can only listen to the words of someone in the locker room. That someone is Wesley Matthews, who became a vocal leader early in his career.
"If you kill us, you’re going to look dumb come next game," Matthews told a reporter in March, according to The Oregonian's Joe Freeman. "Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be."
The Blazers and their fans can't please everyone, but that's where confidence comes into play. Rip City is ready to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and if all goes according to plan, it'll see the second round for the first time since the 1999-00 season.