BLAZERS PRESS FOR SPOT IN PLAYOFFS
If the Trail Blazers can consistently play the way they did against Golden State in their final game before the All-Star break, they stand a decent chance to finish the regular season in third or fourth place in the NBA Western Conference and earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Portland was at its best through much of a 123-117 victory over the defending NBA champions, sending players to various vacation points with optimism as they rest their minds and bodies and prepare for what looms to be a wild final six weeks of the regular season.
The Warriors (44-14) fell a half-game behind Houston (44-13) atop the conference. Those teams are the cream of the crop. The biggest goal of any of the other West playoff teams is to avoid finishing seventh or eighth, which would mean a first-round matchup with the powerhouses.
After the Warriors and Rockets, 4 1/2 games separate the next eight teams, starting with San Antonio (35-24), Minnesota (36-25) and Oklahoma City (33-26). Portland and Denver (both 32-26) are tied for sixth, followed by New Orleans (31-26), the Los Angeles Clippers (30-26) and Utah (30-28).
So, the Blazers are only 2 1/2 games out of third place — and two games out of 10th. That means two teams in the thick of it now will be left out of the playoff picture.
"That's just crazy," veteran forward Ed Davis says. "Never seen so many teams that close this late (in the season). Every game is going to be big after the (All-Star) break."
Normally, San Antonio would be a given to make the postseason, and a favorite to finish among the top three in the conference. That's not the case this time, not without All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, who has played only nine games all season while dealing with a quadricep injury.
The Spurs are guarding news about Leonard's potential return likes state secrets at the Kremlin, which leads one to believe the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year might not be back at all this season.
On top of that, veteran forward Rudy Gay has missed the last 23 games with a heel injury. Though he is expected to return at some point, it's another question mark for a veteran team that is looking at the league's most difficult closing schedule. The Spurs have 18 of their final 23 games against teams better than .500.
Oklahoma City limped into the All-Star break having lost six of its last nine games. New Orleans must go the rest of the way without injured All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
The Blazers have won three of their last four and 10 of 15 since mid-January.
"Right now, our team is showing we're there mentally," All-Star point guard Damian Lillard says. "Not just me, but every guy. Everybody is coming with that energy. For us to be one of those kind of teams we want to be, we have to have that. Each season, there are a few teams that fall by the wayside. We have to make sure we're not one of them."
Portland's remaining schedule is difficult, especially through March, when the Blazers face Golden State, Houston, Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Oklahoma City (twice), the Clippers (twice), Detroit and New Orleans. Not a lot of gimmes there.
But guard CJ McCollum says he is pleased with Portland's position at the break. A year ago, the Blazers were 23-33 at that point.
"'Dame' and I set some goals for where we wanted to be at (before the season), and I think we hit them," McCollum says. "I'm looking forward to building on that post-All-Star break and make a push for the playoffs.
"It's a long season. There are going to be good wins and bad losses. We just have to try to be as consistent as possible. But considering how we've played this year, I think we're in a good spot."
Portland has been a strong closing team during the regular season in recent years. The Blazers went 18-11 after the break in 2013-14, 15-14 in 2014-15, 17-11 in 2015-16 and 18-8 last season.
"In the back of our minds, we know we're usually a better team in the second half of the season," Lillard says. "But we have to understand how close a race it is. We have to be sharp all the way to the finish."
Coach Terry Stotts rues some early-season losses to such teams as Memphis, Brooklyn and Sacramento. But he likes what he's seen from the Blazers lately at home, where they are 10-1 since after Christmas.
On the other hand, the sixth-year mentor understands that and $4.65 will get him a venti chai latte at Starbucks.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Stotts says. "It's not about where we are; it's about where we're headed."