The Portland Trail Blazers aren't supposed to be here.
They weren't supposed to get off to a quick start and spend a significant amount of time atop the Western Conference standings, not after the preseason predictions. ESPN's summer forecast had Rip City finishing at No. 10 with a 38-44 record. I had the team falling in at No. 11, but doing so with a 40-42 record, during my set of predictions right before the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
After their hot start, they weren't supposed to keep looking like an elite squad, not with an inexperienced point guard leading the charge and certainly not with a shallow bench full of mediocre players.
After they remained in the thick of the playoff conversation, they weren't supposed to beat the Houston Rockets in a dramatic six-game series, one that featured plenty of big shots from both teams.
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't supposed to be here.
But they are.
And as they await their second-round foe, it's time to start believing in them.
Shrinking Rotation Hasn't Mattered
Depth is tricky during the NBA playoffs.
On one hand, deep teams are stable because they can withstand foul trouble, account for minor injuries and outwork another team due to sheer energy levels. But at the same time, it's more advantageous to play your best players in do-or-die situations, which is why rotations often shrink when the games matter most.
Teams like the San Antonio Spurs thrive simply because they have so many useful pieces, and their system can make virtually anyone look good. But so too do squads like the Blazers, as they're already accustomed to playing with such a shallow bench.
So long as they stay healthy and out of foul trouble, of course.
A major injury would be crippling for them—look at what happened when LaMarcus Aldridge stepped out of the lineup down the stretch—but the foul trouble tends to even out over the course of a series, and it shouldn't be viewed as that problematic in a macro sense.
It may seem counterintuitive, but shallow teams can often exceed expectations because they're used to playing without much help off the bench. And because depth helps significantly during the rigorous regular season, a deep team that shrinks its rotation in the postseason can often find itself overseeded and underperforming.
Portland is not deep.
During the first-round series against the Rockets, 11 players stepped onto the court. Of those, only seven—the starters, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright—played more than 10 minutes per game, and Thomas Robinson fell just short of the cutoff.
For all intents and purposes, we'll call the Blazers an eight-deep squad. And it sure worked against Houston.
Three starters (Damian Lillard, Aldridge and Nicolas Batum) played well over 40 minutes per game—boosted, no doubt, by the ridiculous prevalence of overtime contests—and Wesley Matthews checked in at 39.8.
Normally that would be viewed as problematic, but heavy minutes have worked in Portland's favor thus far, particularly because Aldridge is the dinosaur of the bunch, checking in at 28 years old.
On top of that, the bench is only going to improve. It's hard to believe both Wright and Williams will continue shooting under 40 percent from the field and combining to generate more turnovers than assists. Even if one of them bounces back during the second-round festivities, the onus on the starters will decline.
And even if neither player does step up, the starters have consistently proven themselves more than capable of dealing with these exorbitantly large roles. That's the hidden benefit of playing over 1,370 minutes together during the regular season.
No one has been able to stop the Blazers offense on a consistent basis.
During the regular season, the team produced an offensive rating of 111.5, which left them trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers. Yes, they scored more effectively than teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Miami Heat, according to Basketball-Reference.
Then, they torched Houston to the tune of 114.4 points per 100 possessions during the first-round series. Granted, the Rockets were actually even more impressive in that category, unluckily falling in too many overtime contests, but it's extremely significant that the Rip City scoring machine got even better during the playoffs.
That's despite the Blazers actually slowing down their pace, as most teams are wont to do in the postseason.
How have they done this? How have they created such an offensive machine?
On a larger scale, Portland has a team that doesn't shoot consistently but makes up for that shortcoming by minimizing turnovers as well as any squad in the league, grabbing an insane number of offensive rebounds and spending a decent amount of time at the charity stripe.
But on a more individual level, this team doesn't have any ineffective pieces on the offensive end of the court.
Lillard (more on him later) is one heck of a scoring point guard, boasting a pull-up jumper that has to be considered one of the deadliest weapons in the Association. Matthews and Batum can both knock down the three-ball with consistency, and the latter is a versatile contributor capable of threatening triple-doubles when the situation demands it.
Then there's Aldridge, who has been en fuego during the playoffs.
Aldridge averaged 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds (3.3 of which came on the offensive end) and 2.0 assists per game against Houston, and he looked absolutely unstoppable at times. When his mid-range jumper is falling, there are only a few players in the league who can actually manage to hold him down.
Remember, those numbers include the Game 5 fiasco, when the big man dropped only eight points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field. They're just made up for by the combined 89 points he posted in the two opening games, leading Elias Sports Bureau to release the following information, via ESPN:
Only four other players in NBA history have scored at least 89 points in their first two games of a playoff season: Michael Jordan (112 points in the 1986 playoffs and 105 in the 1988 playoffs), Jerry West (101 in the 1965 playoffs), Elgin Baylor (89 in the 1961 playoffs), and Tracy McGrady (89 in the 2003 playoffs).
Basically, teams have to worry about stopping Aldridge at all times, and it's difficult to throw double-teams at him when there are so many other players who can take advantage of those situations. To top it off, Robin Lopez requires a body on him at all times, particularly because he's so adept at pulling down offensive boards.
These Blazers play smart offensive basketball, and their personnel makes them a nearly unstoppable unit.
But even Aldridge has to take a backseat to one of his teammates.
There's No Such Thing as Too Much Fawning over Damian Lillard
"It's definitely the biggest shot of my life—so far."
That's what Lillard had to say after hitting the series-clinching dagger against the Rockets in Game 6, per B/R's Kevin Ding. You can't watch the attempt that The Oregonian's Jason Quick regales as the greatest shot in franchise history too many times, so here's the video for your viewing pleasure:
The quick burst of speed once Batum was ready to inbound the ball. The furious clapping as he demanded the rock. The rise. The fire. The swish. The celebration.
As Adrian Wojnarowski wrote for Yahoo Sports, "All the way up arched the ball—lifting into the air toward that 1977 NBA championship banner, all the way up into the sky where the great Jack Ramsay had gone to be at peace this week—and all the way into the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years."
People are still roaring here, literally dancing ... the most incredible scene I've seen here in 14 years covering the Blazers.— Jason Quick (@jwquick) May 3, 2014
Everything about that play—which rendered Chandler Parsons' putback irrelevant, even if it was to take the lead with 0.9 seconds remaining—was immaculate. It allowed Lillard to officially submit his name in the category of superstars, a club he's been clawing at ever since easily winning Rookie of the Year in 2012-13.
Lillard finished the first playoff series of his career averaging 25.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game while turning the ball over only 2.3 times each contest. He shot 46.8 percent from the field, 48.9 percent beyond the arc and 87.5 percent at the charity stripe.
25 PPG, 5 APG, 5 RPG in 1st 5 career playoff games, last 35 Years: Michael Jordan ('85-86), LeBron James ('06) and Damian Lillard ('14)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 2, 2014
According to Basketball-Reference, his player efficiency rating against Houston was a scorching 24.0.
Again, this was his first playoff series. As Ding wrote, "We just saw 23-year-old Damian Lillard drive a freakin' stake through the first NBA playoff series he ever played."
Can the Portland Trail Blazers win the 2014 title?
And he actually has a bit of experience under his belt now, which is going to make the product of the Big Sky Conference all the more difficult to stop as he continues gaining momentum.
If his next matchup is the Dallas Mavericks, he's going to flat-out torch a porous backcourt. Things will be harder if he's forced to square off against the San Antonio Spurs, but we've all learned not to doubt this precocious talent during the big moments.
The moments just keep getting bigger for these Blazers. It's time to believe in them.