What's Blazers' Ceiling with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in Top Form?

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What's Blazers' Ceiling with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard in Top Form?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's not often that Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge score 30 points apiece on the same night. In fact, Tuesday's 124-112 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center was the first time that the Portland Trail Blazers pair of All-Stars pulled that off.

Aldridge amassed 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting in addition to six assists and a game-high 15 rebounds. Lillard led all scorers with 34 points, 15 of which came by way of three-pointers, and chipped in eight dimes, three steals, two boards and two sad 7-footers.

A night like this from Aldridge and Lillard was bound to happen at some point. This year's lackluster Lakers were as likely victims as any. They came in ranked 28th in defensive efficiency while allowing the sixth-highest opponent field goal percentage at the rim and the eighth-most three-point attempts per game—both areas on which Portland's floor-spreading offense thrives.

It also helps that the Lakers gave up 120 or more points on six occasions in March (all losses, of course). Apparently, the turn of the calendar to April hasn't changed anything in L.A.

Portland, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying the shift in seasons, from winter to spring. The Trail Blazers have won their last four games. The first three of those were earned at the expense of teams currently in the playoff picture, and the first two came on the road.

"We had a rough stretch, but now we've kind of picked it back up, and we're going in the right direction at the perfect time," Lillard said after the game (via The Associated Press). "Now that we're close to the postseason, we want to have that rhythm going into the playoffsbecause that's what we play the regular season for."

It's not as though the Blazers' recent rhythmic uptick has been entirely the product of the offense that's buttered their bread all season long. Tuesday night was the first time since the spring equinox that Portland had scored more than 105 points in a game.

It was also the first time since March 22 that Portland had yielded more than 100 points.

Granted, the Blazers hadn't exactly been up against a Murderer's Row of offensive machines prior to arriving in L.A. They'd just taken down the Atlanta Hawks, the Chicago Bulls and the Memphis Grizzlies who rank 18th, 29th and 17th in offensive efficiency, respectively, per NBA.com.

Of course, the Lakers were no juggernauts themselves. They came in averaging a modest 101.8 points per 100 possessions—21st in the NBA. Their attack was boosted by the returns of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash. The former accounted for nine points, four rebounds, seven assists, a steal and two blocks in his first game back from a bout of vertigo. The latter tallied a double-double (10 points, 10 assists) in just 22 minutes before heading to the locker room in the fourth quarter with back pain.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Portland's defense has been susceptible to soft defensive performances against subpar squads all season, particularly when the Purple and Gold are involved. The Blazers gave up 108 and 107 points in their previous two meetings with the Lakers this season.

But the Lakers won't be partaking in this year's playoffs. The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, are all but guaranteed to be there. Their win, combined with the Dallas Mavericks' overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors, expanded the Blazers' lead on ninth place in the West to four-and-a-half games. Better yet, it moved Portland within a game-and-a-half of the Houston Rockets in the race for the last available slice of home-court advantage out West.

To that end, Portland's latest hot streak couldn't have come at a better time. According to Playoff Status, the Blazers have the easiest schedule of any team in the Western Conference from here on out.

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The Blazers still have some tough games to play, but all of them—against the Phoenix Suns, the Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers—will come at what's now known as the Moda Center. So will two of the other three (vs. the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings).

Their lone remaining road trip? To Salt Lake City, where they beat the Utah Jazz back in December.

The Rockets, on the other hand, have five away games to play, including a tough trip to Toronto on Wednesday that comes just a day after Houston, sans Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, succumbed to the Brooklyn Nets 105-96. The Rockets' playoff seeding will be ripe for the picking in Portland so long as Howard and Beverley are both out of action.

That could be huge for a Blazers squad that, frankly, would be hard-pressed to extend its surprising season beyond the first round of the postseason without the aide of the Rip City faithful at the Basketball Sanctuary Formerly Known as the Rose Garden. Portland's win in L.A. upped its road record to 22-18, which pales in comparison to the Blazers' 27-9 home mark. The Blazers' net rating splits between home (plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions) and road (plus-0.6 points per 100 possessions) tell a similar story.

More important than where the Blazers play, though, is who plays well for them. Simply put, they'll need Aldridge and Lillard to be at the top of their pick-and-rolling, midrange-shot-popping, pinpoint-passing games if they're going to secure their first playoff series victory since 2000. Their defense (19th in defensive efficiency) isn't quite good enough to get stops when it needs to, especially against the elite offenses that Portland is likely to see at every phase of the postseason.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It'd behoove the Blazers, then, to take some advice from Shania Twain: to dance with the one that brought them, which is to say, their offense. They're going to have to outshoot and outscore their opposition to have even a prayer of moving on.

Maybe that sounds too obvious; after all, the objective of basketball is to score more points than your opponent does.

Then again, it seemed obvious that LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard would put together concurrent 30-point performances, but they hadn't until the 73rd game of their second season as teammates.

If they can get used to doing that, especially when the games actually mean something, the Blazers may yet prove that they belong among the Western Conference's elite with a deep playoff push of their own.

 

Twitter: It's Also For Trail Blazers.

 

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