Blazers' streak due to great team ball
The No. 3 seed in the NBA Western Conference playoff picture is the Trail Blazers' to lose now.
Ten-game win streaks can do that for you.
Portland (41-26) heads into Thursday night's annual Moda Center matchup with LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers riding a 10-game tear and trailing only Houston and Golden State in the jockeying for West playoff seeding.
With seven teams behind them within four games in the standings, what are the chances the Blazers will be able to hang on to the No. 3 spot?
"There is a good possibility, as long as we handle it the right way," says Damian Lillard after scoring 32 points and doling out 10 assists in Monday's 115-99 home win over Miami. "We know how fast it can be gone if we don't keep being focused, playing team defense, moving the ball and leaning on each other.
"If we don't continue to do those things, we could very easily slip to seventh, eighth, ninth. But if we continue to be this team that we have been for a while now, we should have no problems."
Portland has 15 regular-season games remaining — seven at home, eight on the road — with 11 of the contests against playoff-probable opponents. The Blazers have knocked off five teams of that ilk over the 10-game skein that began more than a month ago, including the Heat — though they were without injured stars Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade.
"We're playing great basketball," says center Jusuf Nurkic, who had one of his most impactful games of the season against Miami with 27 points on 12-for-18 shooting to go with 16 rebounds and three blocked shots in 31 minutes. "We're in great position. We just have to do everything to keep that (No. 3) spot."
Nurkic has been inconsistent finishing around the basket this season. But with Whiteside out of commission for the Heat, Lillard and CJ McCollum focused on setting up the 7-foot Bosnian, and he took full advantage.
"Probably Nurk's best finishing night of the season," Portland coach Terry Stotts says. The Heat "gave a lot of attention to 'Dame' and CJ, and we did a nice job of finding him in the paint."
As team captain and the Blazers' best player, Lillard has taken it upon himself to be a prime motivator for Nurkic, who came to Portland via a midseason trade with Denver last year.
"Since the first day he got here, I've been the one to get on his case," Lillard says. "We interact so much. We watch (video) together on the plane. He knows I'm on his side. He knows it's coming from a good place — with love. I want to see him do well.
"I think it has helped him. It's like, 'Come on, you're better than that.' He has taken that challenge."
Lillard liked what he saw from Nurkic against the Heat.
"That's the Nurk that we need," Lillard says. "A beast, taking his time, scoring on the blocks, making plays, rebounding, blocking shots. His presence was felt on both ends of the court.
"In practice lately, when we do things live, he is trying to focus on being physical and finishing his shots. He is playing through the contact and going to the rim instead of shying away from it and, as soon as he thinks he's fouled, just flipping up a shot and leaving it to the referees to call it."
Lillard has been playing probably the best ball of his six-year career over the last month, beginning with a 50-point outburst against Sacramento on Feb. 9. Against Miami, Lillard was only 8 for 19 from the field, but he sank 7 of 14 attempts from 3-point range, including the biggest basket of the game — a 3 after Miami had scissored a 19-point deficit to three midway through the fourth quarter.
"Those are the type of plays great players make," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra says. "It's the timing of his greatness that is so unique. Every time they needed a big-time play or there was some momentum going our way, he made a play.
"I don't know if there are any players in this league right now playing at a higher level than Lillard. You know the names in the MVP conversation. The way he is playing, and the way they are winning, he should be in that conversation as well."
Over the last 12 games, the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week has averaged 33.7 points and eclipsed the 30-point mark eight times. He has scored at least 20 points in all 12 games.
The Blazers are playing some of their best defense in recent years, too. They rank seventh in the NBA in defensive rating (104.2), fourth in opponents' field-goal percentage (.446) and fifth in scoring defense (103.1) this season.
"We've been playing pretty well defensively," forward Evan Turner said, "in drawing the line when it's time to step up and taking it from there."
Next up is James' annual visit to Rip City, albeit with a team that is a bit downtrodden of late. Cleveland comes in 38-28 and in fourth place in the East, having lost two in a row and six of its last 10. The Cavaliers will be without Lake Oswego's Kevin Love, their second-best player; he is out another two to three weeks with a broken left hand.
Blazer forward Moe Harkless refuses to call the King's visit special.
"It's just another game. We look at every game the same way," Harkless says.
But Harkless' teammates are more honest about playing against James.
"It's real big," Turner says. "If you don't think so, you don't know spit. Any time LeBron comes out here, it's big. Any time he steps onto a court, his team has a chance. (The Cavaliers) may be due to turn a corner. We have to make sure it doesn't happen against us. We know what we're going up against."
"Before each game in our huddles, I've been telling guys, 'Every game is a huge game, regardless of who we're playing,' " Lillard says. "Our mentality and approach have to be the same.
"But when LeBron comes here, you know a lot of people are going to come out because he's LeBron. All that stuff is outside of what's happening on the court. We couldn't care less about that. But we know he's the best player in the world. He could come in here and beat you by himself. We have to be ready for that challenge, be ready to be playing the team ball that we've been playing."
The good thing for the Blazers is, they'll be playing at Moda Center, where they've won 16 of their last 17 outings. They've lost there once since Christmas. That's after starting 7-10 at home.
"Homecourt is huge," Turner says. "We weren't winning at home at one point. We really have to make the most of it, considering four of the last five games are on the road. It doesn't get any easier.
"There's a lot of season left. We're clicking at the right time. We just have to keep it together, sharpen our blades so in April we'll be ready for whatever."