Sitting at 7-5 is hardly an enviable position.
Even worse, after an extended five game road trip that ended with a home game on the backend of a back-to-back, Portland is now back on the road for another back-to-back. This time both games are on the road, first against Sacramento and then against Phoenix.
In their last road game, Portland turned in a disappointing performance against Golden State and gave up a win they probably should have had, thus effectively canceling out their somewhat surprising win in Orlando a few nights prior.
It also pointed up to the difference between Portland and the teams they are looking up at.
The Celtics and Lakers habitually close out the games they are supposed to close out and put them in the W column. Their win totals grow regularly and when they lose it is a bit surprising. You seldom see the top teams of the league lose to the Memphis or Clipper type franchises.
Portland has the talent to be that type of team. What they do not have is the killer instinct. They often go into games and, as Brandon Roy has admitted in interviews, let teams get off to good starts and into great rhythms.
Portland needs to learn how to impose their will on opposing teams. They need more nights like they had against Chicago, where they spend the first five minutes establishing they are the better team and the next 43 minutes drilling that into the heads of their opponents. They need teams to know going in they will have to scrap and battle for every point and will need to go above and beyond to slow the Blazer offensive attack.
With that in mind, a quick look at the two games ahead is illuminating. Looking at them in reverse, the second game is currently the 2000-pound gorilla. Phoenix is a team the Brandon Roy-era Blazers have never defeated. Not in Phoenix. Not in Portland.
Furthermore, in the last couple of games Shaquille O'Neal has wrecked Joel Przybilla, scoring and rebounding seemingly at will. Steve Nash also does a number on Steve Blake, while Raja Bell often does an above-average job on Roy.
Synergize those things with the back-to-back, the fact it will be their seventh road game in their last eight outings, and suddenly you have a game that looks very, very imposing.
On the other hand, Phoenix and most of the Western Conference are looking vulnerable this year. San Antonio and Dallas are below .500. Phoenix has lost three home games in six tries. Houston is struggling with injuries and integrating Ron Artest into the offense. Utah is waiting for their star point guard to return. Denver made what some took as a panic trade.
As of the moment, at 7-5, Portland is in sixth place in the Western Conference. They are only three games away from first place. If they can get on a big run, they could actually be a legitimate, serious threat to make a move towards the third seed or perhaps even the second seed.
But to do that, they will have to win some games such as the Suns game. Phoenix is struggling to adjust to their new mind set and playing style, they have had some mild chirping at coach Terry Porter in the media, and are not yet the dominating team they will probably be by the end of the year.
More importantly, games against teams like the Kings are games Portland has to win. They need to go into Sacramento and establish their dominance early. The Kings are struggling with injuries and trying to get their young core used to playing together. They have been boosted by some surprisingly good games by John Salmons and other guys have stepped up, keeping them respectable at 5-8.
But they can't stay with Portland. Top to bottom, Portland is a better team. They need to make sure the Kings know that. They need to come out early, put together a nice offensive stretch and show the same defensive intensity they did against Chicago.
Portland is on the cusp of becoming a top-tier team. They are showing that by doing well with a difficult schedule. They are playing the games put in front of them and winning the games they should, with Golden State being an exception.
Beating the Kings is the next step. The Blazers need to win a conference game against a below average team. Furthermore, they need to do it in convincing fashion. Then they can take the momentum of their last two performances into Phoenix and maybe win that game.
At this point it is all about attitude. The Blazers need to develop the same attitude the Lakers, Celtics, Cavaliers, and Pistons have; every game belongs to them and is theirs to lose. They have to believe going in that they are the better team. They need to know that on nights they play their game they will like the scoreboard results.
It all starts with winning the games you should win. The Kings game is one they should win. Going three games over .500 would be huge.
After Phoenix they have a nice break in the schedule with three home games against Sacramento, Miami, and New Orleans. Winning against the Kings would be a nice confidence boost going into the Suns game and give Portland their best chance to win what is surprisingly a winnable game.
Assuming the Suns win at home, that still leaves Portland four of their next five games that should be wins. If they can be sitting at 11-6 when they take off on the subsequent five game road trip, they will be well set up for the rest of the season. They will know they can win at home and on the road. They will have beaten the good teams and the bad teams. They will know they can establish their will and show teams it will be an uphill battle all night.
Conversely, if they lose to the Kings it will make the Phoenix game exponentially more difficult to win. Having a two game-losing streak might sap some player confidence. Their next game with a quality team is against the Hornets on get-away day. Suddenly that becomes a trap game.
Should Portland stumble against the Hornets, that five game trip gets even tougher. Knowing you will face Detroit, Boston and Toronto on the road can turn games like the New York and Washington games into desperation moments. Suddenly instead of a nice record, Portland might be looking at being around .500.
That is what is at stake against the Kings. Does a win against them guarantee a sweep of the home stand and good road trip? Of course not, any more than a loss guarantees future troubles. It does, however, speak to the identity the team develops as far as showing they are a force to be reckoned with.
The NBA players know which teams are good and which ones aren't. The confidence level of teams going in to games with Boston is generally not high whether the games are home or away. Portland needs to start developing that same reputation; the team you know will probably beat you. It starts with a win in Sacramento.
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