Resolute Portland is exceeding expectations as it races toward a playoff berth many doubted it would achieve
POSTED: Mar 1, 2016 1:01 PM ET
The average age on the Trail Blazers' roster this season is 24.9 years.
Potential, to put a spin move on historic Brit writer Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of a team expecting to lose. And when this 2015-16 NBA season began, expectations for the Portland Trail Blazers in particular were set at the limbo level of your average Tobagonian mouse.
Twenty-three victories, some critics predicted for Portland. OK, maybe a few more than a half dozen. But the Blazers, most concurred, would be lucky to win even half as many games as they had last season (51) and would best be served by putting out of their heads any notions of a playoff berth.
We've all got to be together. We've got to be a unit, and that's what we've turned into. We've become a unit and that's what's been working.
– Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard
After all, it wasn't just LaMarcus Aldridge who vamoosed as the biggest name in free agency last summer. Of the six Blazers players who saw the most court time for last season's 51-31 squad, five -- Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Steve Blake -- were gone when 2015-16 began. They took with them 50 percent of Portland's points (4,197 of 8,429 points), leaving point guard Damian Lillard with arguably the biggest and loneliest challenge in the league this season.
So when coach Terry Stotts began talking roster architecture and synchronization to those wondering about his team's inevitable plummet, it sounded like so much whistling past the graveyard.
Except get a load of the Trail Blazers now.
At 32-28, they are tied with Dallas for sixth place in the Western Conference, 3½ games behind fifth-place Memphis and 3½ games out of ninth. Heading into their game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass), they were 2-0 to start their current six-game trip and a grueling stretch of 12 road games in the next 15.
From the predicted morass of their difficult 15-24 start -- a pace that would have netted 31 victories -- the Blazers have gone 17-4 since. Their roll includes victories over Oklahoma City, Golden State, Utah (twice), Houston (twice), Chicago and Indiana. They've gone from being outscored on average by 2.0 points through their first 39 games to outscoring teams 108.6 to 101.3.
Damian Lillard's Best From 2015-16
Damian Lillard has had an amazing season, averaging 25.6 points, 7.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds so far this year!
Whatever sneaking up was done on unaware or dismissive opponents is done. Has been for a while.
"Aw, man, we're over that," forward/center Mason Plumlee said over the weekend in Chicago. "That was, like, preseason. We haven't thought about that. I would say, when we got our first couple wins, we knew we were better than 23 wins or whatever they projected us. We're moving on, we're looking at bigger things."
The potential about which Stotts has spoken since summer is legit. The Blazers, under GM Neil Olshey, have been refashioned with parts suited to Lillard and his backcourt mate C.J. McCollum, who are in their fourth and third NBA seasons respectively. After backup center Chris Kaman, who has played 13 seasons, reserve Gerald Henderson, 28, is Portland's most grizzled veteran.
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This group was assembled to grow together, and it has maxed out the double-meaning of that phrase: In growing up as NBA individuals, the Blazers have bonded as a team.
"They're all close in age, close [to the same point] in their careers," Stotts said. "They've all been in the league two, three, four, five years, and it's really a cohesive group. They communicate well together. They spend time off the court. They have good, positive interaction. We'll have practice and they'll stick around, get extra shots. That's kind of refreshing to me, to have a good young team that's anxious to get better and likes the whole idea of getting better."
Lillard and McCollum have generated most of the headlines because they've generated most of the heat. Their combined average of 46.2 points through 60 games ranked third among NBA duos, behind Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson (52.5) and Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook (52.2). Lillard has scored 30 points or more in seven of his last nine appearances, and the two rank among the league's top 3-point tandems as well.
But there are nights when the shots aren't dropping, and Portland -- despite its tender years -- has been finding ways to be successful then, too. Its bench and its defense have been invaluable over the past seven weeks.
At Chicago, for instance, all five of the Blazers' subs finished with positive plus-minus ratings and four of them -- Henderson, Ed Davis, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard -- stayed on the floor to thwart a Bulls comeback. Portland's bench has outscored its counterparts in 17 of the past 22 games and, since Dec. 3, the Blazers are 19-6 when that occurs.
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Davis in particular was a force defensively against the Bulls, with a pivotal block on Mike Dunleavy to snuff Chicago's rally. The nearby Blazers bench erupted and the Bulls never broke 95 points; Portland is 17-4 when holding teams below 100.
"The stuff that we notice from the bench is not just the big block or the big play," Lillard said. "It's where they're breaking our lead and it gets to five, and we're going back and forth and then Ed deflects a pass. And then we push it down and we miss, and it's a 3-on-2 and Mase [Plumlee] comes back for a chase-down block. Those plays like that add up."
Lillard and his All-Star snub will be in the spotlight again at Madison Square Garden. But the perceived overachiever from Weber State sounds most proud that, of the impact he has had on the Blazers, mostly it has been on teammates' confidence.
I would say, when we got our first couple wins, we knew we were better than 23 wins or whatever they projected us. We're moving on, we're looking at bigger things.
– Portland Trail Blazers forward/center Mason Plumlee
"Anything that I'm involved in, I'm just a huge believer ... that it can be successful or it can work out," Lillard said. "It's just one of those things to see that everybody else has that same kind of belief. It's the time we put in -- you've got guys coming in an hour before practice, getting in their work. Guys who don't even get minutes. Guys that have that same belief I've always had.
"It's not even being in sync with me, it's being in sync with each other. If G [Gerald Henderson] is not in sync with Mo [Harkless] but me and G is in sync, it's [still] hard. We've all got to be together. We've got to be a unit, and that's what we've turned into. We've become a unit and that's what's been working."
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