The Portland Trail Blazers, led by the dynamic leadership of Damian Lillard, have played well enough throughout the NBA regular season thus far such that they have given themselves a chance to compete in the postseason. They have impressed of late, with strong performances against teams like the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves. However, the notorious Western Conference has only toughened up, making the next few weeks of basketball unequivocally important for the Blazers. Their fate, right now, is truly hanging in balance.
Only 4.5 games separate the San Antonio Spurs in third from the Utah Jazz in tenth. All of these spots in between are interchangeable currently, and the seventh-seeded Blazers will need to find out a way to poke their nose ahead of as many teams as possible. There are still a number of things that need to fall into place for this to happen.
Portland Trail Blazers Fate Hanging In Balance
Damian Lillard’s Hot Run
Lillard, in a less-than-quiet fashion, has woven together the best individual season of his young career. At age 27 and now in the early stages of an impressive prime, the 3-time All-Star has been wreaking havoc lately. In his last 3 games, he’s scored 50, 39 and 44 points respectively. His decent field goal clips (44.7%, 37.0% from behind the arc) have only been compounded by a career, 92.4% clip from the free throw line.
Not only has his scoring blossomed to even greater heights, he’s been able to distribute the ball with increased accuracy this season. Although Lillard is still primarily a score-first guard, his ability to share the ball and make those around him better has raised many an eyebrow. By developing his offensive arsenal even further, Lillard has quickly risen in the ranks to one of the top players in the league and is certainly knocking on the top-10 board.
If Lillard is able to maintain or even improve his unearthly run of form of late, the Blazers can expect huge regular season success. As the team’s franchise player, it is up to Lillard to continue setting examples for his team and keep morale high.
Three of the Blazers’ next five games are up against fellow Western Conference playoff scrappers in the Jazz, Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder. All of these teams are 2.5 games or closer to the Blazers record. These results will have serious playoff implications when the postseason begins.
Solid Bench Performance
Of late, the Blazers bench has surprisingly impressed. The backup frontcourt duo of Ed Davis and Zach Collins is beginning to come into its own, and while they aren’t single-handedly winning games on their own, they’re no longer leaky defensively. On the offensive end, Davis’ seemingly undying thirst for rebounds for second chance plays has gifted the Blazers countless crucial points. Collins, on the other hand, offers range from beyond the arc and is able to space the floor effectively.
The most impressive bench player this season, however, has undoubtedly been Shabazz Napier. He’s averaged a healthy 9.3 points per game behind backcourt heavyweights Lillard and C.J. McCollum, with over 40% shooting behind the arc to go with moments in games where head coach Terry Stotts relies on Napier to catch fire and create issues for the opposition.
Napier won’t be winning any sixth man accolades this season, but the offensive spark he provides to plug the gaping holes of Lillard and McCollum is invaluable. Napier is having his best season in terms of points per game, rebounds, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage and free throw percentage. It’s no surprise that his minutes have more than doubled from last season.
To continue playing good basketball for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers need to rely on their bench to continue producing at a level above their capability.
They’re by no means the best second unit in the league or even close, but it is of paramount importance to have a set of players that can hold their own, especially while stars lie on the bench in games.
Avoid the 7th and 8th Playoff Spot
At this stage, the Blazers could theoretically finish anywhere between 3rd and 10th in the western conference. Within reason, though, it can be expected that Damian Lillard will simply not allow the team to miss the postseason, and carry them into it as he has done for the last 4 seasons.
On the other hand, while attaining homecourt advantage could still be on the cards, heavyweights like the Spurs, Thunder and Timberwolves may make use of lighter schedules and lesser opponents to limit the Blazers to the fifth spot or below. Realistically, the Blazers should expect a spot between fifth and eighth
Of these spots, finishing 7th or 8th would, in all likelihood, send them packing soon into the postseason. The Warriors and Houston Rockets are simply in another basketball echelon currently, and it is too difficult to envision a situation where the Blazers cause any of those teams too much worry. Lillard and his squad will have to work hard enough to secure, at the very least, a top-six spot to at least promise some excitement in the postseason.
With all that being said, the Blazers should not approach the rest of the season with anything other than a constant lust for success. Most would cap their potential to reaching the conference semi-finals, but stranger things have happened before. With an inspiring leader in Lillard, a solid second option in McCollum, an over-performing bench and the shrewdness of Stotts, anything can happen.
The Portland Trail Blazers season is hanging in the balance behind their leader, Damian Lillard. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)