It appears as though the Portland Trail Blazers are treading their way towards their third straight appearance in the NBA Playoffs.
They're in the midst of a roller-coaster ride, winning games no one thought they could in Orlando and Miami but losing unsightly games in Charlotte and Atlanta that were very much in their grasp. The Blazers finished their East Coast road trip at 2-2.
Obviously, such inconsistency must be resolved if the Blazers are going to be serious title contenders this spring, but that goes for all teams, including those thought to have the best chance of taking home the title.
When the Blazers play their best basketball, these five questions are but an afterthought since, more likely than not, they’re executing the desired game plan.
But when the Blazers lose games these questions come up again and again, especially when they’re beaten by teams whose customary place in the standings they're seeking to seize.
TNT's Charles Barkley makes it perfectly clear he thinks the Portland Trail Blazers are predominately a jump-shooting team, and for this reason aren’t serious title contenders.
This time around, however, the Blazers have established a presence down low in LaMarcus Aldridge.
An important question for the league and its officials this spring will be whether Aldridge can get calls near the basket during the playoffs when play becomes much more physical and referees allow more contact.
In February, when Aldridge was NBA Player of the Month, he made his presence felt in the paint, catching alley-oops, putting back missed shots and powering his way to the basket.
Unless Nate McMillan has a trick up his sleeve and knows another way for the Blazers to consistently score down low, Aldridge has to get back to the style of play that was so effective in February.
For those who remember, throughout the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns series in the last two postseasons, the Rockets and Suns shot out of their minds. Houston shot almost 59 percent from the field in their series-clinching game.
And the Suns? Well, in their four wins they didn’t shoot lower than 46 percent and shot over 52 percent in two games.
The reason why it looked like the Rockets and Suns were hitting every shot they took from the field was because they practically were.
It's well understood that the Blazers were younger and less experienced then, and they have some different pieces in place now. Still, the team's core team is the same and these issues continue to come up from time to time, most recently in their last game against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks, not wanting to stand out, also shot almost 52 percent from the field.
Hopefully, with the addition of Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews, the Blazers should be capable of lowering shooting percentages by contesting shots, not allowing easy baskets and staying in front of opposing players.
Marcus Camby can also leave his mark on defense. Though he isn’t the presence he once was, he's still an intelligent veteran of the game.
The double team is coming. Pick up the phone, call Vegas and put your money on that.
Teams are not going to allow LaMarcus Aldridge to single-handedly beat them. So, what’s the counter-punch to this jab?
The Blazers must hit their jump shots; more specifically, their three-pointers. There goes Charles Barkley again. The difference this time from years past, though, is that jump shots used to be the Blazers' No. 1 scoring option.
This time, it’s their counter to the double team.
If Portland's perimeter players can get rolling from outside they will demand more attention, leaving Aldridge space in the middle to operate his attack.
However, jump shots are not the only means of opening up the offense. Should a Blazer feel the need to take it to the hole and kick it out every now and again, that could certainly lead to some relative confusion for the opponent’s defense.
It might even be enough confusion to keep the defense guessing from their heels instead of attacking and executing their game plan.
In all of the Blazers’ February wins except two, they hit more free throws than the opponent. Shocking, right?
And the two times they didn’t? One of the games was against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Both teams hit 13 free throws, but the Blazers scored seven more fast-break points and eight more points in the paint, committed six less turnovers and scored five more points off turnovers, a recipe for victory.
Essentially the same explanation can be applied to the Denver Nuggets game, with one noteworthy exception.
The Blazers shot almost 44 percent from the three-point line and hit four more three-pointers, while the Nuggets shot an icy 29 percent from distance.
The Blazers have proven they can win without getting to the free-throw line, but it’s an uphill battle for certain.
Scoring points while the clock is stopped and forcing an opponent into foul trouble can create significant advantages for the Blazers should they continue to utilize this facet of the game.
This statistic is brought to you courtesy of Portland’s own Brian Wheeler.
When taking a quick glance at the headline, it seems rather obvious that Portland simply has to score more points than the opposing team to secure a victory, but when looking more closely there is another revelation.
The Blazers possess a 29-13 record when they hold their opponents under 100 points. That’s remarkable, considering their overall record is 37-29.
If Coach Nate McMillan can persuade his team to keep the pressure on for the entire 48 minutes, they have an incredible chance of taking home a victory based on the defensive side of the ball.
On the offensive side of the stat sheet, the Blazers are 21-7 when they reach the 100-point plateau. Portland isn’t exactly a scoring juggernaut, but the stats indicate that on nights when they are hitting their shots and executing, they are a tough out.
The Spurs, Heat and Magic (twice) can attest to this Blazers quasi-axiom because when they lost the Blazers kept them under 100, and against Miami the Blazers also scored 100.