Is It Time to Take Damian Lillard, Blazers Seriously as Title Contenders?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2018

Portland Trail Blazers guards CJ McCollum, left, and Damian Lillard react after McCollum hit a 3-point shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 9, 2018. The Blazers won 125-108. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
Steve Dykes/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers have been in this position before. Thursday's 113-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers extended their winning streak to 11 and solidified their position as the third seed in a crowded Western Conference.

It's not the first time they've rounded into shape late—in each of the past three seasons, they've been significantly better after the All-Star break than before it. They started the 2015-16 season 27-27 before going 17-11 in their post-All-Star Game schedule. Last season, bolstered by the February trade for center Jusuf Nurkic, they turned around a 23-33 start with an 18-8 finish.

They made the playoffs in each of those seasons, advancing to the second round in 2016 in the wake of several injuries to the Los Angeles Clippers and getting handily swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round last year.

Now, the hottest team in the NBA (alongside the Toronto Raptors, also winners of 11 straight) is hounded by a simple question entering the final month of the regular season: Is this time different? Can these Blazers, who have spent several years in the Western Conference's middle class, make a meaningful playoff run? Should the Warriors and Houston Rockets take them seriously?

There are reasons to believe Portland is for real. For one thing, its defense is much improved. After finishing 20th in defensive efficiency in 2015-16 and 21st last season, the Blazers are in the top eight this year, allowing just 104.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.

Damian Lillard has never been better than he has this season. Long forgotten among the NBA's elite point guards (as evidenced by his All-Star snub campaign), he's now getting fringe MVP buzz thanks to the Blazers' turnaround and winning streak as well as a series of clutch performances.

His backcourt running mate, CJ McCollum, has been just as impressive, shooting 42.0 percent from three-point range on 6.0 attempts per game and giving the Blazers another scoring threat who can heat up at any moment.

Add to that their uncommon continuity—they retained largely the same roster they had last season. Other Western Conference teams in their tier made major changes over the offseason—the Oklahoma City Thunder added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Minnesota Timberwolves Jimmy Butler—that made them more talented but also forced them to work new players into their rotations, resulting in some growing pains.

Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

The Blazers core of Lillard and McCollum surrounded by solid role players like Nurkic, Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu knows what it is, buys into Terry Stotts' system and trusts each other. The results in the past month have proved that.

"I don't know about momentum, but I think we're playing well," Stotts said Thursday after the win over Cleveland. "Each game is a challenge. But obviously, to string together the wins that we have been, we've been doing good things at both ends of the floor."

The streak is a fun story for fans, but it—stringing together wins, as Stotts phrased it—is more meaningful considering Portland's standing. It's hard to remember a closer playoff race in recent years than what the Western Conference has turned into post-All-Star break. The Rockets and Warriors are several cuts above everyone else and have a stranglehold on the top two seeds, but below them, eight teams (the Blazers, Thunder, Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Clippers) are separated by just five games.

A two-game losing skid for any of these teams could decide home-court advantage in the first round or represent the difference between playing in the postseason and counting lottery balls. In that context, Portland's one-and-a-half-game lead over fourth-place Oklahoma City feels much bigger than it looks. In this race, that counts as meaningful separation.

The Blazers are winning convincingly, too. During the 11-game streak, their average margin of victory is 11.9 points. Only one contest, a 106-104 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 24, was closer than five points. They're beating contenders (two wins against the Warriors plus the victory over the Cavs) and playoff peers (wins over the Jazz, Wolves, Thunder and Miami Heat) while taking care of bottom-feeders like the Suns, Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks.

And it's been a collective effort. On Thursday, Aminu and Turner made big shots down the stretch to stave off a Cleveland run. Harkless is shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range during the streak. Guard Shabazz Napier and guard-forward Pat Connaughton have contributed solid minutes off the bench. Rookie center Zach Collins, whose playing time was sparse earlier in the season, has forced his way into the rotation with big performances against the Thunder, Warriors and Heat.

That production from role players has taken pressure off Lillard and McCollum to carry the scoring load.

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

"I think we've gotten better with experience," Lillard said. "In the past, it might have been myself or CJ feeling like we had to do things instead of just making the next play and trusting the next guy. I think now that teams have seen us do that, sometimes we're coming open and getting looks. We've got guys giving us extra possessions, flying around, so I think down the stretch, it's much more of a collective effort rather than us having to have a big-time performance all the time."

Over the past month, the Blazers have shown they can hang with anybody on any given night, but there's no guarantee that will carry over to the postseason. They have no reason to fear any of the other teams they may face in the first round, not if they're playing this well. The Rockets and Warriors, however, have been too dominant to expect the Blazers to beat one of them in the second round, should they get there. But Golden State has dealt with injuries to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant in recent weeks, and Portland has at least shown it would be well-positioned to take advantage of an injury.

Before the playoffs, though, the Blazers have to keep winning to lock up home-court advantage. Their upcoming schedule remains tough, with two games apiece against the Rockets and Clippers plus matchups with the Boston Celtics, Thunder, Pelicans, Spurs, Nuggets and Jazz.

If nothing else, the winning streak has given Portland a bit of breathing room—every one of those games won't mean it could fall out of the postseason. Taking care of business will be crucial, but the Blazers have been doing that.

"We're doing a good job of protecting home court," McCollum said. "Overall, we're playing a lot better basketball than we were earlier in the year—sharing the ball, defensively staying locked in, getting stops when we need stops."

The Blazers appear to be peaking at the right time. The playoffs will show whether this run is more real than the last two.