If you follow the NBA, and have not been living under a rock for the last month and a half, you may notice that Portland, not San Antonio and not Oklahoma City, rules the roost in the Western Conference. With last night's heart stopping, last-second overtime win, the Blazers are 21-4, their best start since 1989.
Last night's win over the Pistons was a microcosm of the Blazers success to this point. LaMarcus Aldridge played out of his mind, scoring 27 points, snagging 12 rebounds, and swatted away three shots, continuing his play as the best player in the Western Conference for the first quarter of the season. Damian Lillard scored 23, including the game-winning buzzer-beater, and had seven assists. Nicolas Batum was three of seven from behind the three-point arc. Every starter was in double figures scoring. Mo Williams had eight points off the bench. However, the Blazers did get the win against an overmatched Detroit team, whose 11-14 record is inflated by a putrid Eastern Conference.
The factors, one at a time:
1) LaMarcus Aldridge. Whether he is being bolstered by a better supporting cast, is playing doubly hard in a contract year, or just loves Portland that much, Aldridge has raised his game to a higher level than ever before. He's eighth in the league in scoring, fifth in rebounds, sixth in double-doubles. He has scored in double figures in every game this season. Every aspect of his game has been turned up to eleven.
2) The rest of the starters. Damian Lillard, while still not the passing point guard Portland would want, is still scoring at a high-rate compared to his Rookie of the Year season. His field goal percentage does tend to either spike with games like 32 point game on nine of eighteen shooting against Dallas, or bottom out like the eight points on one of ten shooting against Houston the following game. Batum has improved his three-point shooting, as has Wesley Matthews. Robin Lopez is doing a surprising level of work at center, grabbing double digit rebounds in six of Portland's nine games in December.
3) The bench. Last season, Portland set a new standard for futility off the bench, finishing dead last in bench scoring by a terrifying margin. The additions of Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Mo Williams have changed that, and with that change has come winning. Williams is averaging nine points per game, good enough for fourth place amongst all point guards off the bench.
4) The schedule. Unfortunately, a great deal of the Blazers success this season has come against inferior competition. They have played ten games against the aforementioned terrible Eastern Conference, with only one of them against East leaders Indiana or Miami, a 106-102 win at home against the Pacers. They have also only played two games against the top four teams in the Western Conference, wins against San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Before the All-Star break they will face the Thunder twice, the Los Angeles Clippers twice, and San Antonio and Miami once. This slate of games will be the real barometer for the Blazers season.
Obviously, you cannot take anything away from what the Blazers have done to this point. The team is playing extremely effective and efficient basketball, and is on top of the league for it. That said, fans should wait a bit before buying tickets for the NBA Finals.