Since the turn of the Century, the Western Conference has pretty much dominated its Eastern counterparts, winning the majority of inter-conference games in 16 of the past 17 seasons, winning as much as 70% of the head-to-head matchups some years. Led by the powerhouse Golden State Warriors, there was no reason to expect anything differently this season, particularly with a trio of Eastern Conference All-Stars heading west, with nary an All-Star heading in the other direction.
All that to say: the West is loaded. Once again.
With as many as 11 teams that realistically have a shot at the playoffs, it’s going to be a dogfight for not just playoff positioning, but, even to secure a spot in the bracket. There are almost certainly going to be teams missing the playoffs out West who would be likely to advance to second round in the East.
The Blazers are one of those teams who, after making the playoffs the previous four seasons, certainly expect to be there again this year. But, that’s going to be a lot tougher than it was even last year, when they snuck in under the gun with a 41-41 record.
Whether or not they are able to keep playing after game 82 is almost certainly going to come down to how they fair against the other fellow playoff contending teams. That means pretty much everybody besides the conference punching bags in Phoenix, Dallas, and Sacramento. Just about everyone else is a threat to beat any team on any given night, with even the baby Lakers being competitive, even if a decided longshot to actually crash the playoff party.
It’s games against the remaining dozen teams (as well as the handful of top Eastern Conference teams) which will determine who makes the cut and who falls short. And with so much parity in that meaty middle of the West, many of these games are going to come down to essentially coin flips on any given night.
You can see this already playing out for the Blazers just 12 games into this season.
As currently situated, the Blazers sit at a pedestrian 6-6, but that’s good enough for 8th place in the rough and tumble West.
That’s all well and good, except for when you break it down based on the tier of opponent. The Blazers have, for the most part, held serve and beat up on some of the bottom feeders early on ( Friday night’s debacle against the moribund Brooklyn Nets notwithstanding). Portland has easily dispatching also-rans in the Phoenix Suns (twice) and Indiana Pacers and done so convincingly. The problem has been when the competition steps up a notch, with the Blazers going a disappointing 3-5 against the more competitive teams on their schedule.
Yet, when you dig a little deeper, you see exactly the kind of parity we’re dealing with here. Only the win against New Orleans and the loss to Toronto were decided prior to the final minute. And, while there is something to be said for teams that can execute in the clutch, those types of games between evenly matched teams basically amount to a coin flip on any given night.
So far, the Blazers have found themselves on both sides of LA buzzer beaters, with Damian Lillard extinguishing the Lakers only a few days after Blake Griffin silenced the Moda Center crowd with a red light special of his own.
Then there was the Blazers struggling to execute down the stretch against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, but making all the right plays against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Once again, two sides of the same coin.
The difference in record basically comes down to Dame missing a game winning chance against Utah and CJ coming up similarly short Tuesday night against Memphis.
That’s half of the games so far which could easily have changed outcomes with one extra shot, bounce or call. Situations where you call a play, let it rip and hope for the best.
And while even a grade-schooler understands it’s pretty difficult to expect to win a high percentage of coin flips over the long haul, that’s likely what it’s going to take for the Blazers (and a lot of other teams out West) to make the playoffs this season.
So, time to pick a strategy Blazers fans: “Heads your dead” or “tails never fails”?