The Portland Trail Blazers have a 27-9 record leading into the weekend with their next two match ups against a 13-win Boston Celtics team and 12-win Cleveland Cavaliers team. On paper you should be able to pencil both of those games in as wins. However over the past week, the Blazers and Rip City as a whole have had a bit of a wakeup call.
Saturday the Philadelphia 76ers came into Portland and shocked the Blazers in a 101-99 game that came down to the end. The ‘6ers led a lot of that game in double digits and the Blazers outside shot was not falling at all. Then Tuesday, Portland traveled to Sacramento to face the Kings who straight outscored the best offense in the league. Portland gave up a season high 123 to a Kings team led by Rudy Gay and Boogie Cousins.
This team, that up until this point, had taken care of business against inferior teams and surprisingly been very successful on the road, hit a couple road blocks. The thing that separates good teams from bad teams is the ability to respond to adversity.
Blazer center Robin Lopez said, “We knew this wasn’t all going to be wine and roses. I don’t think we want to get our first sign of adversity in the playoffs.”
In no way is it time to find the panic button after a couple losses, but the attitude coming from the team shows they know they are better and ready to respond.
Wednesday night the Magic were in town trying to hand the Blazers their first three-game losing of the season. Despite a hot start from Arron Afflalo the Blazers were able to tighten down the defense in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, and win the game 110-94. Nicolas Batum scored 14 to go along with 10 rebounds and 14 assists to record his fourth career triple-double. LaMarcus Aldridge was a steady hand for the entire game adding 36 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks.
The real awakening of the game came in the fourth quarter when coach Terry Stotts went with a predominately rotation player lineup with Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, Wesley Matthews, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland. In a lot of games, you would hope this line up would be able to sustain a lead while the starters got a rest. On Wednesday night, this group provided such a boost of energy into the game that really led to the win. Robinson was a grown man on the boards and had a very athletic block that led to a basket on the other end for the Blazers.
These type of contributions are what is so different about this team from last year’s team. This team can rely on bench players for energy, minutes and actual statistic contributions. It’s the energy from guys like Robinson, Matthews and Lopez that have been the difference between winning and losing games this year.
That must continue! The next two games should be wins against sub-par competition. Then the going starts to get tough for the Blazers. Portland goes on the road to play four games in five nights against San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City (who combine for 98 wins as of 1/9). We can learn a lot about this team in how they approach these four games. Blazer teams of the past would lay down and resign themselves to the fact they are underdogs in these tough road games.
Watching this team when they are playing with energy and hitting their shots is more entertaining than watching any other team in the league. Let’s hope their grit, determination and pride can pull themselves out of the funk they have been in and leads to more exciting victories heading into the All-Star break.