The Portland Trail Blazers have leapt out to a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets by stealing home court in Texas and snatching Game 4 at home. Many viewed them as distinct underdogs, having notched a 1-3 record against Houston during the regular season, but they’re silencing the critics.
At least for now.
The question at this juncture is whether Portland is a genuine title contender, or merely a feel-good story poised to fizzle out. In other words, the Trail Blazers could be 2014’s version of last season’s Golden State Warriors. The San Antonio Spurs overmatched the Dubs in the Western Conference semifinals after Golden State upset the 57-win, No. 3 seed Denver Nuggets in Round 1.
Of course, there’s also a genuine possibility that Rip City is for real. It has an alpha dog scorer in LaMarcus Aldridge, a confident and dynamic floor general in Damian Lillard and a plethora of above-average role players filling specific niches—Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez have all contributed.
So are the Trail Blazers a Western Conference power to be feared, or merely a case of fool’s gold?
Squaring off against two All-Star talents in James Harden and Dwight Howard was going to be a test for Portland. And although it has All-Stars of its own to compensate in Aldridge and Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ success against Houston in the first round may merely be connected to a handful of coincidental occurrences.
For instance, running into an ice-cold Harden has undoubtedly been a key X-factor for Portland’s winning ways. The bearded 2-guard is still putting up 27.5 points per contest, but he’s doing so on a woeful 35 percent shooting from the field and 26.8 percent shooting from downtown. He’s getting a high percentage of his points at the charity stripe—which is to be expected with his relentless, rim-attacking style of play. However, he’s turning the ball over 3.8 times per game, while dishing out 5.5 assists on average—not exactly an ideal assist/turnover ratio.
His poor offensive output after two games prompted a reporter to ask the former Arizona State standout if he was concerned about his shooting percentage. Harden fired back, “It’s basketball. You’re going to miss shots. It’s basketball, that’s it,” per ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh.
While that shouldn’t belittle what perimeter defenders like Matthews and Batum have been able to do in this series, it’s clear that Harden isn’t playing up to his usual standards despite scoring in bulk.
Additionally, Portland got hot at precisely the right time. The Trail Blazers finished the regular season by winning nine of their final 10 games. They were playing with confidence, getting contributions from all over the roster and beating good teams. They dispatched the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers over that final stretch.
Can that type of success be sustained moving forward, or will Portland regress to the state it was in to start the month of March, when the team went 5-9 before the impressive finish?
That fails to mention the adjustments made by Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. After Aldridge torched Houston for two games with averages of 44.5 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 59.3 percent shooting from the field, McHale inserted Omer Asik into the starting lineup to spell the undersized Terrence Jones. The tweak helped contain LMA en route to a Rockets win in Game 3. The power forward finished 8-of-22 from the field for 23 points—significantly less than his gaudy numbers after the first two.
The other adjustment was inserting former D-Leaguer Troy Daniels into the rotation as an offensive spark plug off the bench. He hasn’t disappointed, even hitting clutch shots along the way.
But the question is, did McHale wait too long to make those changes? Was his initial game plan to start Jones the wrong move from the outset?
If those gaffes are what helped Portland win games and gain confidence, it could be in trouble moving forward. A team that uncovers the best strategy from the opening tip of Game 1 will have a fighting chance, especially since the Trail Blazers have surrendered more than 100 points during regulation in all four playoff games thus far.
There are some variables that hint toward Portland finding the right matchup at the right time. With that said, Aldridge and Co. could certainly make a run at the Larry O’Brien trophy.
By winning two overtime games in this series alone, the Trail Blazers have shown an impressive ability to execute in crunch time of close games. Aldridge can get his shot off any time he desires due to his height, length and love of the mid-range shot. Lillard can slash to the basket and finish at the rim seemingly at will. Even Batum has stepped up with big time shots.
If nothing else, Portland is showing that a team mentality is trumping the efforts of two superstars—Harden and Howard.
The Oregonian’s Jason Quick wrote the following of the late Dr. Jack Ramsay’s impact on the current squad:
Never since Ramsay left in 1986 have the Trail Blazers played more like a Jack Ramsay team than this year under Terry Stotts.
They move without the ball. They make the extra pass. They play together. And they do it all with such style and grace that sometimes it borders on art, etched right before our eyes.
If the Blazers continue to play that brand, that style, that was made popular by Ramsay in 1977, hasn’t Ramsay really won, cancer be damned? Hasn’t he scored the greatest victory of all: leaving a legacy that goes beyond a gold trophy?
Stotts’ admiration of Ramsay is on full display with his roster’s team-first attitude. “It’s a different era of basketball,” Stotts said, per Quick. “But I think we are a team, I think we rely on each other to create shots, we pass the ball … so as much as the game has changed in 40 years, I’d like to think that (there’s a connection).”
The connection he shares to the NBA legend lives on at Moda Center, as Quick writes:
Stotts, the second year coach in Portland, has long admired Ramsay to the point where he had an impressive mural constructed above his desk at the Moda Center.
Ramsay is in his famous sideline stance – kneeling on the court, studying the game – and one of his more poignant quotes is etched below:
'Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals.'
While some might argue that the Rockets have those "superior" individuals, the overall team effort from Portland has been their trump card.
Sometimes teams need that extra ounce of motivation to pull through. As long as the Trail Blazers continue to play as a unit, utilize their strengths and get big-time contributions from their two stars, there’s no reason they can’t make a deep playoff run.
Of course, that starts by closing out the Rockets and facing either the Mavericks or Spurs. If the 2014 postseason has taught NBA fans anything, it’s that we should expect a competitive atmosphere regardless of the perceived matchup.
Portland’s ability to play for one another, execute in the clutch and win close games will be an invaluable asset during its hunt for a title.