The Portland Trail Blazers surge has been unexpected; they were not supposed to be near .500. After losing multiple key players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum from their 2014-15 squad, they were tagged as rebuilding. The important question people were asking before the season and even in December was if Portland could draft another star to play alongside Damian Lillard.
Analyzing the Portland Trail Blazers Surge
Now everybody is asking who Portland may play in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Winners of 13 of their past 15 games, they have surged into the postseason picture. Their 13-2 record in their past 15 is second only to Golden State. February was a kind month to Portland who grabbed victories over Golden State, Memphis, Houston, Chicago and Indiana. How has Portland done this? Are they a legitimate contender?
If not for Steph Curry’s historical NBA season, Damian Lillard would likely be an MVP front-runner. There is a metaphor about carrying a team on one’s back and this is a perfect application to what Lillard has been doing. Lillard has quietly been averaging 25.4 points, 7.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. He increased his scoring to 29.8 points per game in the month of February and has been red-hot, drawing the media’s attention. Why has Lillard been so motivated? Many believe he was snubbed from the All-Star team, him being one of those believers, and thus his play has picked up to show why it was a mistake. Lillard’s most impressive game in Portland’s recent streak came on February 19th at home versus Golden State. Lillard tallied 51 points, 7 assists and 6 steals in a blowout victory over the defending champs. He was 18-28 from the field, including 9-12 from beyond the arc, and Portland played its best game of the year. He outdueled Curry in front of a hungry Portland crowd and gave doubters reasons to believe that Portland is real.
While Lillard has been sensational, he has had a surprisingly good supportive cast emerge around him. Most Improved Player of the Year front-runner C.J. McCollum is averaging 20.8 points and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 40% from beyond the arc. His improvement has given Portland one of the best backcourts in the NBA that should last for many years. Drafted as a pure scorer out of Lehigh, McCollum is rounding into a very good shooting guard who has still has plenty of room for improvement.
Portland has also witnessed improvement from other pieces. Allen Crabbe has become a vital piece off the bench, scoring 10.7 points per game. Al-Farouq Aminu has been solid in his starting role as well, adding 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Portland has surrounded Lillard with a good cast and this team has competed all year. However, the wins are starting to tally up, and that is why people are finally giving them respect.
In the month of February, two key players really stepped up. The first was Gerald Henderson, who averaged 12.7 points per game and added another key scoring element off the bench. The other was the emergence of Ed Davis inside. The young big man averaged 5.4 points and 8.4 rebounds (led the team) in the month of February, and Portland hopes he will continue his play.
Portland is currently 32-28, sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference. However, the schedule ahead is not easy and we will see whether Portland is actually a playoff team. March will be Portland’s most difficult month of the year. The team has plenty of road tests including Boston, Toronto, Golden State, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas and Los Angeles (Clippers). All they are missing is a trip to Cleveland. The team also faces Washington, Orlando, Dallas and Boston at home. They will likely come back to Earth soon and may not even be in a playoff spot when April rolls around. However, if Lillard and crew keep playing they way they have been, do not be surprised if they surprise the league and end up playing basketball in late April. Portland faces New York on the road tonight and must take advantage of this game with their brutal schedule looming.