The Portland Trail Blazers are turning detractors into believers. They hold a 3-2 series lead over the Houston Rockets and have an opportunity to advance past the first round and perhaps even make it to the Western Conference Finals.
Few expected Portland to be in this position. Many believed that their success was merely a product of unsustainable hot shooting, and that sentiment was reinforced over the second half of the regular season when their three-point shooting went south.
And yet, head coach Terry Stotts is on the verge of taking Rip City to the second round for the first time since the 2000 playoffs.
What’s more, the Blazers could potentially advance to the Western Conference Finals with a few fortuitous bounces. If Portland advances to the second round, they will take on the winner of the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks series.
The Blazers split four meetings with the Spurs and lost two of their three contests against the Mavericks. An argument could be made that fatigue played a huge part in the defeats.
Portland lost to Dallas in early December on the second night of a back-to-back set and suffered the same fate against San Antonio in late March. In early March, the Blazers suffered a five-point setback at Dallas after playing their fourth game in six nights. Considering that Portland’s starters were the second-most utilized quintet in the league according to NBA.com, it stands to reason that the schedule played a part in the outcomes.
Teams do not play on consecutive nights in the postseason. That makes it easier for Stotts to ride his starters, which is exactly what he’s done in the playoffs.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a step back and outline the reasons prompting us to consider the Blazers as a viable Western Conference finalist.
LaMarcus Aldridge has simply been the best player of the playoffs. Aldridge has always been a great player, but he has used the opening round of the playoffs to make the case that no one is better at the power forward position.
Aldridge is using the mid-range area of the floor as his personal torture chamber. He has been drilling jumpers both on the catch and off the dribble from this spot of the floor regardless of defensive pressure.
In addition, Aldridge has been bullying defenders in the low-post area and creating a multitude of high-percentage looks. His dominance against Houston was highlighted by a pair of 40-plus point games to open up the series.
The Point Forward’s Matt Dollinger provided some perspective on Aldridge’s play prior to Game 5 versus the Rockets: “Aldridge has been so dominant that he’s the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1988 to total at least 140 points and 45 rebounds in his team’s four playoff games.”
Aldridge’s 29.8 points on 50 percent shooting during the series has put Houston in a terrible predicament.
The Rockets have been forced to play big and guard Aldridge with Omer Asik. It’s compromised some of Houston’s offense because of the lack of spacing involved in playing Asik. That’s hardly the lone issue Aldridge has created.
Dwight Howard, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, has had problems defending Aldridge as well. Howard’s had some sporadic success when he’s been able to keep him away from the basket and force fadeaway shots, but even then, it still feels as though Aldridge is getting a good off a good shot.
Also, both Howard and Asik have been plagued by foul trouble in their respective attempts to try and slow down Aldridge. Thus, other players such as Terrence Jones are occasionally being pressed into service, and Aldridge is manhandling them.
What’s more, his brilliance has not been limited to offense.
Terry Stotts is playing Aldridge at center where he is thriving at both ends. He is putting on the clamps on Howard and legitimately looks like a great defensive anchor.
Howard is thoroughly dominating Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland on the low block. Indeed, Howard’s post-up moves have been on full display, and he’s even made free throws in key situations late in games. The end result is a career-high 26 points per game during the playoffs.
And yet, he has not been able to shake Aldridge. Howard is actually getting to his pet moves likes his left-handed hook shot and an upfake that transitions to a spin move and dunk. However, he hasn’t been able to consistently convert over Aldridge’s outstretched arms.
Aldridge stands 6’11’’ with Inspector Gadget arms and decent leaping ability, and that’s made it difficult for Howard to make shots. To be clear, he hasn’t completely stopped Howard, but Aldridge has certainly made it difficult for Howard to score.
Aldridge’s defensive prowess has not been limited to individual matchups. He’s been great at protecting the rim when rotating to play help defense, and more impressively, Aldridge has switched out on perimeter players and more than held his own.
Aldridge has morphed into everything Portland fans hoped to see once upon a time from former Blazer Rasheed Wallace. Indeed, Wallace possessed the same kind of talent, but he wasn’t always willing to be a dominant, game-changing force.
Aldridge is channeling all of his skills, and it has prompted smart people such as ESPN.com’s David Thorpe (subscription required) to nominate him for playoff MVP honors after his first two games of the series.
Potentially having the best player in just about every series does not guarantee that Portland will advance, but it certainly tilts the math in its favor.
Buckets and More Buckets
Weather experts seem to agree that the forecast for Portland will be rain for the remainder of the playoffs. The Trail Blazers have been raining timely threes against the Rockets, and it’s opened up the court for Portland's offense.
Aldridge warrants the bulk of the attention, and his teammates have profited from his offensive dominance. Grantland’s Zach Lowe had the juicy details after Game 2 of the series versus Houston:
The Blazers get open 3s when teams send an extra defender at Aldridge’s pick-and-pops and post-ups. Dorell Wright had a thunderous dunk in Game 2 precisely because three different defenders were in some way involved in guarding Aldridge.
This dilemma is still very real for the Rockets, and it’s creating nothing but problems for Houston coach Kevin McHale.
The Blazers are converting 36.2 percent from three-point range, and it’s discouraged Houston from throwing hard double-teams at Aldridge. Houston is trying to send some help against him without compromising its three-point defense, but this has proven to be an impossible task.
Aldridge’s proficiency both from mid-range and the low-post area has forced the Rockets’ hand defensively, and the result is a Portland offense that towers over the rest of the league.
Granted, he scored only eight points in Game 5 on 12 shots, but Aldridge still got his looks. Thus, despite a subpar outing, he should be back to his regular scoring ways, which is bad news for the Rockets.
The Blazers offense is operating at an elite level, and it’s difficult to envision any opponent actually putting the clamps on it. Teams will more than likely have to match Portland’s scoring output in order to defeat them, or the opposition will need a superb defense to take away some of the Blazers’ options.
Indeed, Portland is scoring at an efficient rate against the Rockets, but Houston’s perimeter defenders aren’t exactly what anyone would call stoppers. James Harden’s regular-season defensive lapses have reared their ugly heads in the postseason, and Portland has taken advantage.
When matched up against a tough defensive-minded team, it’s possible that Portland’s offense might slip just a little. But here’s the fun news for Blazer fans: There aren’t many units that could actually cause problems for Aldridge and Co.
The Spurs had the fourth-best defense this season, but the Mavericks have carved them up in the playoffs by gravitating the offense around Dirk Nowitzki’s impeccable pick-and-pop talents. the Blazers’ scheme is quite similar, which suggests that Portland could pick them apart as well.
The Golden State Warriors were great on defense during the 82-game schedule, but they’ve fallen apart in the playoffs without Andrew Bogut, who is out indefinitely due to a fractured rib. He is Golden State’s best interior defender, and there is simply no way to replicate what he gives the team in terms of toughness, rebounding and blocked shots.
The Los Angeles Clippers were seventh in defensive efficiency rankings, but they’ve been subpar in the postseason. Their defense is good enough on most nights to keep them in games, where their offense can take over and lead them to victory. Still, the defense won’t ever carry them.
I’d be curious to see if Chris Paul’s bulldog defense can flummox Portland’s ball-handlers into turnovers.
These teams met three times in the regular season. It’s worth noting the final contest between them was the last game of the season, and both clubs rested their core players.
When we subtract that third game, the head-to-head stats reveal that Portland coughed up the ball 16.5 times on average against the Clippers but still scored a staggering 116.5 points per game according to NBA.com.
That gives the impression that the Blazers will get whatever shot they want against the Clippers. That leaves us with one actual defensive juggernaut: the Memphis Grizzlies.
Marc Gasol missed the early portion of the season with a knee injury, but rejoined his teammates in mid-January. The Grizzlies defense became suffocating and ranked second from the time Gasol returned to the end of the season, per NBA.com.
The Grizzlies do a great job of crowding players, swiping at the ball and playing in sync with each other defensively. Their intensity and physicality throws teams out of their comfort zones.
In the event both teams were to advance past the first round, they could only meet in the Western Conference Finals based on their bracket. Hence, Portland might make it to conference finals relatively unscathed.
The Blazers have a flaw that ultimately might end up leading to their undoing: a below-average defense.
Portland does a poor job of defending the basket area and the three-point line, which allows teams to score at a high clip. During the season, the Blazers allowed the second most shots at the rim, per NBA.com.
This deficiency is manifesting itself in the postseason. The Blazers are allowing players to beat them off the bounce and in the pick-and-roll for scores at the rim. What’s more, post-up players like Howard are bullying Portland defenders and getting close enough to the rim for dunks.
As a result, no team is yielding more shots directly around the basket than Portland during the playoffs. Routinely giving up easy baskets is hardly a recipe for championship basketball, and that might be an issue against potent offensive teams.
The Blazers have the third-worst defense of any postseason team.
Aldridge has been stellar at protecting the basket, but that job should rest on Robin Lopez’s shoulders. Stotts needs Aldridge’s offense to ensure his unit’s success, which means the coaching staff must protect its best player on the other end of the floor to make sure he doesn’t get into foul trouble.
This partly explains Portland’s shortcomings on the interior.
Also, the Blazers, statistically, are doing a good job of “defending” treys, but those numbers might just be fools gold. Portland is allowing only a 31.1 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc, but the Rockets have gotten an abundance of open looks.
It’s one thing to give up easy baskets in the paint, but allowing open looks from downtown in conjunction is a death wish.
The Blazers have enough firepower to potentially make it to the Western Conference Finals, but they’re not balanced enough to make it all the way to the NBA Finals.
The offense has certainly carried the team, but at some point the defensive deficiencies will end up hurting them. Nonetheless, Portland has to be taken seriously.
The Blazers are a talented bunch with a shot at making some noise in the playoffs before bowing out in either the second round or the conference finals.
All stats accurate as of May 1, 2014.