BLAZERS LIKE WHERE THEY ARE
The Trail Blazers are hitting the midway point in the regular season in good health, and in reasonably good shape in the mine field that is the NBA Western Conference playoff race.
Heading into Monday night's game against New York at Moda Center, Portland was 23-17 and tied with San Antonio for sixth place in the West. The Blazers were 4 1/2 games behind conference leader Denver (26-11) but also only five games ahead of No. 14 New Orleans (18-22).
"I like where we are," says Damian Lillard, Portland's All-Star point guard and captain. "I like where our mentality is, too."
Before facing the Knicks, the Blazers were 15-7 at home and 8-10 on the road. After they end their current five-game homestand Friday against Charlotte, they'll play 23 of their final 39 games away from the friendly confines of Moda Center. In 14 games from Jan. 30 through March 7 — nine of them on the road — only one opponent (Cleveland) is not in position to make a veritable run at the playoffs.
Portland has beaten each of the top five teams in the East, going 1-1 against Milwaukee and 4-0 against Toronto, Indiana, Philadelphia and Boston.
The Blazers, however, are only 5-11 against the other top eight teams in the West — 0-1 against Denver, San Antonio and Oklahoma City; 0-2 against Utah; 1-2 against Golden State, and 2-1 against both Houston and the L.A. Clippers.
"On the whole, we've done a lot of positive things," Blazers coach Terry Stotts says. "We've had some good wins; we've had some disappointing losses. We've been up and down at times.
"To be in the mix where we are right now in the West is probably a good thing, although it doesn't necessarily feel that way."
The Blazers are very good in free-throw shooting (.813, third in the NBA), rebounding percentage (.516, fifth) and offensive rebounds per game (11.4, third). In Saturday's 110-101 win over Houston, they won the fast-break points battle 14-7, in no small part due to their 47-40 advantage on the boards, with 17 coming off the offensive glass.
"We had (few) fast-break points because we couldn't get a rebound, and that just makes everything more complicated," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni says.
The Blazers are very poor in assists (21.5, 27th), steals (6.6, 28th), turnovers forced (14.7, 29th) and turnover differential (28th, minus-2.4.).
Portland is in the middle echelon in many other categories, including offensive rating (14th) and defensive rating (15th). How much that matters is open for debate. Brooklyn and Minnesota rank 12th and 13th, respectively, in offensive efficiency; the Blazers are tied with Golden State and ahead of Houston in defensive efficiency.
One thing that matters for sure is winning close games, something Blazers have been adept at so far. They are 9-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and have won in overtime three times since Dec. 23.
Part of that is having Lillard on your side. Part of it is the outstanding foul shooting, which counts big at the end of close games. Portland lost eight of 11 games from Nov. 21 to Dec. 12, but has won eight of 12 since then.
"We've had some tough losses and a rough stretch, but we've come out of it," Lillard says. "We're in a position that a lot of teams would like to be in.
"I like the direction we're going in, not just based on wins and losses, but the things we're starting to do as a group."
Lillard is leading the way with another All-Star-caliber season. He ranks ninth in the league in scoring (26.4 points per game) to go with 6.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds. And, he is shooting .448 from the field, .387 from 3-point range and .893 from the line.
Jusuf Nurkic is going through the best stretch of his five-year NBA career. Over six games leading into the New York contest, the 7-foot Bosnian was averaging 22.2 points and 15.2 rebounds while shooting .589 from the field.
"He's been a beast for a while now," Lillard says.
CJ McCollum continues to score at a high rate — he entered the week averaging 20.9 points per game — but his shooting has dipped in recent weeks, especially from the 3-point line. In his last 10 games (through Houston), Lillard's backcourt mate was .406 from the field and only .246 from beyond the arc.
On a given night, the Blazers have gotten important contributions from all of their other rotation players, including Evan Turner, the field general of the second unit. Reserve guard Seth Curry went into Monday leading the NBA in 3-point percentage (.484).
What would Stotts most like his team to improve on during the second half of the regular season?
"It depends on when you ask me," he says. "Sometimes our offense has to be better; sometimes our defense has to be better. Sometimes it's transition defense; sometimes it's our fouling.
"Consistency is the goal of every team. I would like for us to be able to sustain (a top) level. But I'm pleased with the way we compete, with the effort we give every night, with our will to try to win games. We're never out of games. As long as you have that and you put yourself in position to win, that's all you can ask for."
Stotts says he consults the NBA standings "every day."
"I look at both the East and West," he says. "I look at where (teams) are. (Coaches) who say they don't look at the standings are being (disingenuous). It's not like you're going to live and die by the standings, but for me, it's about keeping abreast of what's going on in the league."
D'Antoni says he keeps an eye on the standings, too. Has he ever seen so many teams in the West — 14 of 15 — still be in the playoff race at midseason?
"Maybe not all the way to 14, but the West has always been tough," he says. "I remember we were in first place in Phoenix (in 2008), and by the time we could get (Shaquille O'Neal) in, we were in fifth or sixth. It doesn't take much. Everybody is playing everybody. If you go on a little bit of a downward spiral ... at one point, (the Rockets) were in 14th; now we're in fourth. If we don't watch out, we'll be back in 10th or 11th."
Some teams in the West — Memphis, Sacramento, Dallas and New Orleans — appear as if they might not be up for a playoff run in the second half.
"Some teams are in the mix, but they've been dropping games," Lillard says. "They're fighting that battle of being consistent, and they're dropping off. As for us, we're trending in the right direction."
Turner says he believes the Blazers "have another run in us" this season. That could come in late January, with games against Sacramento, Cleveland, New Orleans, Phoenix and Atlanta in a seven-game stretch. Or perhaps in late March and early April, when over eight games the Blazers will face Detroit twice, Dallas, Brooklyn, Chicago, Atlanta, Minnesota and Memphis.
Portland is on pace for a near-50 win regular season. The Blazers should make the playoffs and, given good health, have a good chance to win a first-round series.
A lot can happen over the next three months, though. The only certainty is the West race is there is plenty of uncertainty.