Portland’s hot start at the beginning of the year shifted expectations drastically. Despite being considered a fringe-playoff team entering the season, a 24-5 start had people thinking about home-court advantage, and even a top-three seed.
Following a stretch that saw the Blazers fall back to earth, those expectations have diminished, but not as much as you’d expect. The team is still right there behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs atop the conference, and it’s competing with the likes of the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 3 spot.
With 24 games remaining, the Blazers have an opportunity to establish themselves as contenders. Unfortunately, with a tough schedule the rest of the way, they also have a chance to drop in the rankings.
The playoffs are within site, and the team is ready to compete; but at this point, a few key games stick out as must-wina as the regular season comes to a close.
March 9 @ Houston Rockets
The Trail Blazers have a brutal six-game stretch in Week 2 of March, and right in the middle of that stretch is a road game against the always-dangerous Houston Rockets.
When thinking about this series, most fans remember the nationally televised showcase between Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Howard went for 32 points and 17 rebounds, while LaMarcus Aldridge put up 31 points and 25 rebounds in a 111-104 win.
Unfortunately for Portland, the other two matchups thus far didn’t go as well, but a win would tie the season series at two a piece.
March 24 @ Miami Heaet
Throughout the 2013-14 season, the Trail Blazers have taken down every elite team in the NBA — except for one.
On March 24, Portland has a chance to change that with a trip to South Beach. The Miami Heat escaped with a win following an improbable Chris Bosh buzzer-beater back on Dec. 28, and the Blazers will look to exact their revenge, proving they’re a championship-caliber team in the process.
The other noteworthy narrative surrounding this contest involves the Heat’s big man in the middle: Greg Oden. The 7-footer has never played against the Trail Blazers, and even though it won’t be in the arena where he spent so many years (primarily on the bench), he’ll still be out for blood to prove his worth against the team that waived him back in 2012.
The game between the Blazers and Heat in Miami on March 24 will now be broadcast on NBA TV
— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) February 7, 2014
March 11 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Just 48 hours after the Blazers take on the Rockets, they get the chance to show what they can do against a Memphis Grizzlies team that blew them out back on Jan. 28.
Early in the year, Memphis looked as if it would miss the playoffs after being a contender the past few seasons. Marc Gasol was out, and not even the team’s stout defense could compensate for a brutally anemic offense.
Now, with Gasol back in the lineup and the team’s chemistry back on display, there’s a chance the Grizzlies could sneak into the postseason, knocking out the Phoenix Suns along the way. Portland has struggled with the Suns all year, but after watching what Memphis did to it back in January, the team is hoping that the Grizz stay on the outside looking in when the playoffs finally roll around.
April 11 @ Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz make this list, but not for the same reason as the other squads already mentioned.
When the Blazers take on Utah at the end of the year, it will be the last time they face a team not in the playoff race (assuming the Golden State Warriors haven’t slipped out). Portland can’t go lightly on an inferior opponent, especially if it is fighting for positioning.
The Jazz have improved as of late, but that doesn’t change that they’re still one of the worst teams out West. This is a clear example of a winnable game, which is exactly where Portland can’t blunder with the postseason in site.
April 16 vs. Los Angeles Clippers
This is the big one.
On April 16, Portland will conclude its regular season against the Los Angeles Clippers — a team that is ready to snatch the No. 3 seed away from the Trail Blazers. It will be a classic battle of Rip City vs. Lob City, and needless to say, playoff implications will be on the line.
If Portland can win this one at home, it will do two things. First and foremost, it will give the Trail Blazers a ton of confidence entering the postseason, but it could also be a deciding factor in playoff positioning.
The Blazers are ready to get back to their winning ways of the past, and if all goes according to plan, they’ll be second-round participants for the first time since the 1999-00 season.