The Trail Blazers have made positive traction in the last week, scoring two wins out of their three games, upping their record to 13-10 giving them a tentative fifth seed in the Western Conference.
Their first hurdle was the 16-6 Philadelphia 76ers, a team that had truly found their identity as a stout defensive team relying on their height and physicality to win games. Both teams were without star point guards in Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons, although Lillard is likely more important to Portland’s game than Simmons to the 76ers. The two traded blows and were dead even in the first half, but the Blazers came out with a dominant 40-19 third quarter to give them an insurmountable lead that would wind up being 121-105. Joel Embiid ended up putting up 37 for Philly, but Portland was just more well-rounded. Gary Trent stepped in as the starting point guard and put up 24 points, while Carmelo Anthony also got the start with 22 points of his own. Rodney Hood, CJ Elleby, and Anfernee Simons all had double digit points while Enes Kanter supplemented his 17 points with an even more impressive 18 rebounds.
The 11-12 New York Knicks were the next opponent, presenting as a far more extreme version of the defense-first playstyle. Their points per game at 102 is dead last in the league, but their 104 points allowed per game is the best. After scoring 31 in the first quarter, Portland failed to score more than 25 in the next three en route to a 99-110 loss. Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson both had double digit rebounds for the Knicks, with three more having at least seven. With the exception of Rodney Hood, the entire Portland starting lineup played admirably but it wasn’t enough in the end. Trent did see yet another start, and he might look to be a staple for weeks to come, at least until CJ McCollum returns from his injury.
In their first home game since January 25, the Trail Blazers hosted the 9-15 Orlando Magic who were down Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz. They ended up playing like a bottom-tier team without three of their better players and were routed by the Trail Blazers 106-97. There really wasn’t a whole lot of anything special about the game. Lillard had 36 points, and Carmelo had 23 off the bench. Covington, Kanter and Derrick Jones all had 10 or more rebounds. Covington and Carmelo did combine for an impressive five blocks, but not all that much was needed to overcome the magic.
As it stands, being fifth in their conference seems like cause for celebration, but I’m tentative to give in to excitement. Their offense, while explosive, is massively inconsistent still. Every member of the team could shoot the ball 20 times any given night and make three of them. It’s not a good feeling to enter every game with that looming possibility that the shots don’t fall. That happens to every team, but it feels like a lot of the Blazers struggle to identify when they’re not shooting well and give up opportunities, instead opting to continue shooting until they go in. The defense looked substantially better this week, stopping the 76ers and dominating the Magic in a way you’d want your team to dominate a bottom-tier team. Giving up 110 in the only loss isn’t necessarily a bad takeaway from the week either.
Over the next week, the Blazers host a rematch with the 76ers and a bout with the 10-15 Cleveland Cavaliers before going to Dallas to face the 11-14 Mavericks and then the 10-13 Oklahoma City Thunder. Several favorable matchups are upcoming, so hopefully the Blazers can buckle down and continue to rise in the standings.