Following the team’s 95-85 loss to the abysmal Orlando Magic, the Blazers are just 3-8 in their last 11. The team began the season 24-5, but talks of a championship run have officially been replaced by fears of missing the playoffs.
With three weeks left in the year, Portland is just two-and-a-half games ahead of the ninth team out west — the Phoenix Suns. The Blazers spent the first half of the season fighting the San Antonio Spurs for the first spot in the conference, but unless they can make a few key changes down the stretch, it will be long forgotten if they’re bounced in the first round.
Rediscover the Three
The Trail Blazers began the year with something they hadn’t had in quite a long time: an identity.
Despite leaving an enormous amount to be desired on defense (more on that later), Portland was winning games with the most potent offensive attack in the Association. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews were both candidates as top-three shooters in the NBA, and the team was using guys such as Nicolas Batum, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright to help spread the floor.
As it turns out, the team that was once the best three-point shooting squad in the league has lost its touch, making it tough to win when you’ve misplaced your true identity.
With 10 games remaining, the Blazers must find their stroke. In their last three losses, they’ve shot just 26.9 percent, 28.2 percent and 33.3 percent from downtown, respectively.
The Blazers are still second in the NBA in points per game, but that has more to do with their incredible start than their lackluster finish.
This one is out of the Blazers’ hands, but they must be healthy when the playoffs come around if they’re going to stand a chance in a seven-game series.
The obvious omission from recent lineups is LaMarcus Aldridge. The three-time All-Star has led the team in points and rebounding all season, and his absence has allowed opposing defenses to cover the perimeter far more than we saw early in the year.
LaMarcus Aldridge said he wanted to play tonight against ORL, but had trouble running. He said POR’s struggles make him want to return ASAP.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) March 26, 2014
The other big name, albeit not on the national level, is Joel Freeland. The center was playing excellent defense, hitting mid-range jumpers and exceeding all expectations when he went down, and getting him back for the playoffs will help turn things around.
Despite being known for injuries in recent seasons, Portland was the last team this year to use a different starting lineup. It was a huge reason for the hot start, and ever since the injures have hit, the underachieving bench has been forced into action.
More Bench Production
Speaking of the bench, let’s revisit a recurring topic for a moment.
Portland’s bench is bad. There’s no nice way to put it, but the fact that it’s improved this season is more an indictment on how awful it was last year and not a testament to how good it is now.
Getting Joel Freeland and LaMarcus Aldridge back will do wonders for this category, as less will be expected of Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard. Thomas Robinson has shown flashes of improvement throughout the year, but when it comes down to it, neither has done enough to earn fans’ trust in the postseason.
It would be unfair of Rip City to ask Terry Stotts to play his starters all game, as that’s exactly what burned out the first five last season. But with the year coming to an end, it’s important to note that the entire roster must step up with the playoffs around the corner, and if the bench isn’t reliable, minutes will be given to those who can produce.
An Attention to Defense
The Trail Blazers are not a defensive ball club — this we all know. But while the team is 23rd in the NBA in points allowed, the recent attention to defense has been atrocious; especially on the road.
Portland’s outings against the Heat and Magic saw it hold its opponents to 93 and 95 points, respectively. Those are solid marks during the east-coast visit, but entering the game against Orlando, the team was giving up 105.7 points per night on the road — the worst mark in the NBA.
They say that defense wins championships, and in most cases, they (whoever they are) are right. Portland needs to buckle down when it matters most, both on the perimeter and down on the block.
Win the Winnable Games
It sounds obvious, but Portland must finish out the year beating the beatable opponents.
Now that the Florida trip is behind us, the Blazers have just one game ahead of them against an opponent with a better record. The team plays the Los Angeles Clippers in the final game of the year, and the rest are against squads who have been inferior to Portland most of the season.
The Blazers have proven they can play up to good competition, but they’ve also shown they can play down. There’s no easy night in the NBA, and losses to teams like the Magic will push them further down the rankings with just 10 games to play.