The Blazers have definitely overachieved, and they deserve credit for that. But they’re also the beneficiary of some devastating injuries to their conference opponents.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum sat down with ESPN’s Chris Haynes for a conversation that aired on SportsCenter early Tuesday morning. The dynamic duo of Trail Blazers guards were genuinely confused by Haynes’ disbelief that Portland could be the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
— The Undefeated (@TheUndefeated) March 13, 2018
Haynes: What you guys have been doing as of lately, I didn’t anticipate you guys being anywhere even close
McCollum: What did you anticipate, Chris? While we’re at it.
Lillard: That’s a great question.
Hayes: Third place? I anticipated seventh, eighth seed. No way did I ever expect you guys to be at this point right now.
Many of us share Hanyes’ sentiments.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been the most unlikely success story coming out of the Western Conference. They’re 10 games behind the Warriors and 12 games behind the Rockets, but the Trail Blazers have created some separation between themselves and the wild stampede that is the playoff scrap between seeds No. 4 (Oklahoma City) and 10 (yes, San Antonio).
We understand Lillard and McCollum are one of the best backcourts in the league. They combine for nearly 49 points and 10 assists per game. Only James Harden and Chris Paul average more points per game as a starting backcourt than Portland’s one-two punch. The only other two-man tandem who have accounted for a higher percentage of their team’s points are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks.
We understand last season’s Jusuf Nurkic acquisition gave the Trail Blazers a new dynamic with a scoring threat in the low post. We understand Terry Stotts is a disciple of Rick Carlisle, and we understand that Portland has enough depth on the wings (Mo Harkless, Al-farouq Aminu and Evan Turner) to throw different looks at opponents on both ends.
But No. 3 in the West? Few, if anyone, could have seen this coming.
If you ask Lillard or McCollum like Haynes did, however, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.
“What we have accomplished so far, they’re gonna look at it like it’s a fluke,” Lillard said. “It seems like they would rather address it later. Like, ‘alright, we’ll see about it. … But those other teams weren’t expected to be where they are. So they don’t have to mention us.”
“I think the proof is in the pudding,” McCollum added. “This is my fifth year in the league, and this is gonna be our fifth year making the playoffs. So that’s one. Two is to continue to build on how we’ve played the last five years. So getting more wins, getting out of the first round, getting out of the second round. I think once you consistently do those things, then your perception changes a lot.
“You can argue all the things in the world, but you can’t argue wins and losses.”
Those are good quotes and all, but we still have a question that has gone unanswered:
Are the Portland Trail Blazers a legitimate No. 3 seed?
The Trail Blazers are a talented team powered by the second-best offensive back court in the world and a surprisingly strong defense. There are no knocks against Portland.
It’s just a fact that most of their West competition have lost key personnel.
The Timberwolves recently lost Jimmy Butler to a torn meniscus and have gone 3-4 since his injury. The Thunder watched their defense regress from top of the class to middle of the pack after Andre Roberson ruptured his patellar tendon in late December. All of our hearts sunk to the floor when DeMarcus Cousins couldn’t put any weight on his left leg, though Anthony Davis is playing as if his life depends on it.
The Nuggets also missed Paul Millsap for 44 games when he injured his non-shooting wrist in mid-November. The Clippers have missed both Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari for most of the season, and Avery Bradley hasn’t played in their last nine games. Not to mention the Jazz missed Rudy Gobert for 25 games and have gone 19-4 since he returned, only to still be in a four-way tie for the 10th (or seventh) seed in the West.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers haven’t suffered any serious setbacks. Is that their fault? Absolutely not. But it would be incomplete not to contrast Portland’s success against their competition’s injury struggles.
We should still give Portland credit, of course
Lillard has been mindbogglingly good this season. He just won Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging nearly 35 points per game from March 5-11.
After years of ranking in the bottom third of the league defensively, Portland is a top-10 unit this year, allowing just 104.1 points per 100 possessions. McCollum is having his best season shooting from three-point range, and Shabazz Napier is starting to look like the player LeBron James goaded the Heat into trading for on draft day three years ago.
In fact, Stotts has brilliantly deployed a lineup with Lillard, McCollum and Napier on the floor together all season long. That three-guard experiment has outscored teams by an average of 23.9 points per 100 possessions in the 217 minutes they’ve shared the court this season. It’s been their best three-man lineup all season.
As a result, the Trail Blazers have been rolling. They’ve won 10 straight games and have scored 100 or more points in each game. During their streak, Portland’s beaten Golden State twice — once with Stephen Curry, once without. They beat Oklahoma City, still a tough opponent powered by three stars. They also beat Minnesota, Utah and, on Monday night, Miami; three teams in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Bottom line: they still have work to do
The Trail Blazers have 15 games left on the schedule, and while they’ve created a smidgen of separation, it’s not nearly enough for them to get comfortable. They’re only four games ahead of the Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz and Clippers, each tied and competing for the last two spots in the playoffs.
It’s a good thing they’ve beaten good teams, because a lot remain on the schedule. Eleven of Portland’s remaining 15 games are against teams competing for playoff spots, and eight of them are on the road. The Trail Blazers have to play Houston twice, Cleveland once, Boston once and San Antonio — likely with Kawhi Leonard back — in one of their last games of the season. They also play the Clippers twice and see the Jazz and Nuggets once apiece before all is said and done.
So while Lillard and McCollum may be enjoying their time as the No. 3 seed, Portland had better keep it tight to close the year out. Because their top competitors will only get healthier as the season comes to a close.
And as quickly as they reached the No. 3 seed in the West, they just as easily can find themselves 10th, wondering what happened as they watch from the outside.