BLAZERS' GOAL: HOME COURT
With a month remaining in the regular season, the Trail Blazers head out for an important three-game road trip in position to secure what should be a medium-range goal — home court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
That means finishing among the top four teams in the Western Conference.
"Getting home court is what we should be focused on," Damian Lillard said as Portland prepared for Tuesday night's Staples Center date with the Los Angeles Clippers. "Third or fourth (in the West) — it doesn't really matter.
"Right now, it's looking like it's going to be us against Oklahoma City, Houston or Utah (in the first round), and you would love to have home court. That's what we should be shooting for."
After Saturday's 127-120 victory over Phoenix at Moda Center, the Blazers were 40-26 and tied with OKC for fourth in the West. Through Sunday, the Clippers, Utah and San Antonio were tied for sixth and 2 1/2 games behind Portland.
Portland faces the Clippers, New Orleans (without injured starters Jrue Holiday and E'Twaun Moore) and Utah in succession on the upcoming trip. After that, the Blazers play seven of their final 13 regular-season games at home.
"I'm fine with where we are, but we have a lot of work to do," coach Terry Stotts says. "There are going to be a lot of important games. Look at the swings in the standings this past week — every game has importance.
"I don't think we're ever going to have a chance to catch our breath, because it's so tight from 3 through 8 in the West."
A couple of statistics offer pause.
Nine of Portland's remaining 16 opponents have winning records. The Blazers are 19-5 against Eastern Conference opponents but only 21-21 against foes from the West.
But things are a little different in Portland than they were a month ago.
Acquisitions Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood offer depth and skill in areas the Blazers previously didn't have it.
Hood is a slasher, a streaky shooter and scorer who can defend opposing wings.
Kanter is an old-school center who can score on the block and crash the offensive boards. Teamed with Jusuf Nurkic, he gives the Blazers the best 1-2 post punch in the league.
Golden State is better than Portland with its starters but doesn't have the same depth. Only OKC approaches the kind of bench the Blazers boast among teams in the West.
"We have all the pieces to beat every team in the league," says Kanter, who has averaged 10.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in 18 1/2 minutes in his eight games with the Blazers. "We just need to go out there and play hard, play smart and have fun."
Kanter makes another observation after only three weeks with the club, and it rings true.
"We all want to make each other better," he says. "There's no drama. That's the most important thing."
Jake Layman, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard — especially Leonard — have been nudged out of playing time with the addition of Hood and Kanter and increased minutes for small forward Moe Harkless over the past three weeks.
Layman, Collins and Leonard aren't happy about it, but they're good soldiers, too classy to cause waves that might disrupt the team's chemistry.
At some point, Stotts will have to deal, too, with swing man Evan Turner, who has missed seven of the last eight games with a knee injury and, for one of those, "personal reasons." Stotts feels Turner needs to play, which means someone else will sit more minutes.
The Blazers need to finish 10-6 to reach the 50-win plateau for the first time since the 2014-15 campaign. That would give them a pretty good shot at a top-four finish, too.
"I love where we are," Lillard said. "I like our style of play. We're defending hard, playing for each other and with each other. It's been such a group effort on both ends of the floor.
"It feels like a complete team. It feels like this style of play is very sustainable for us. We can be successful like this. I like that about the way things are right now."
The Blazers entered the week second in the NBA in rebound percentage (.520) and free-throw percentage (.818), sixth in offensive rebounds per game (11.3), ninth in 3-point percentage (.358) and 10th in scoring (113.9).
Defense is at a premium in the playoffs, and Portland is in the middle range in most stats at that end except in opponents' 3-point percentage, where they are only 26th (.363).
The Blazers had best take a lead before the late going. They are 39-2 when leading after the third quarter (the NBA's third-best mark) and 1-24 when trailing after the third quarter (the league's worst mark).
But with a deep bench and its Big Three of Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic, the Blazers have as good a shot as anybody to meet the Warriors in the West finals.
"We're in a good spot," McCollum says. "The team has improved through the season. We've figured out ways to get wins and fared pretty well. It's about surviving, advancing and putting ourselves in position to win in the playoffs.
"You want to get home court (advantage), but you want to be playing good basketball as well. We're in the position to do both."
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