Is Portland a legitimate trailblazer among this year’s NBA title contenders?

December 21, 2013

Maybe it’s because the Portland Trail Blazers won just 33 games last season, resulting in offseason rumors that star forward LaMarcus Aldridge wanted out of Rip City. Or perhaps it’s that Portland lacks a superstar, a household name to help it emerge from the headlines devoted to Kobe Bryant’s latest injury or anything related to the Miami Heat.

Whatever it is that’s stopping some from labeling Portland as a championship contender, Trail Blazers second-year guard Damian Lillard believes those doubts should be extinguished with his team currently tied for with Oklahoma City for the NBA’s best record at 22-5.

“I don’t see how it could be a fluke,” Lillard told reporters following a Dec. 14 victory against Philadelphia in which Portland drained a franchise-record 21 three-pointers. “We’ve played [27 games] now. I think that’s pretty much what we do — we hit threes and we shoot them well.”

So well that during the month of December, Portland defeated elite opponents in Indiana and Oklahoma City, twice broke its franchise mark for three-pointers in a game with 17 against Utah and 23 versus Philadelphia, and saw Lillard elevate his credibility with consecutive game-winning shots against Detroit and Cleveland.

Still, Portland has its share of skeptics.

“They’re 29th in points in the paint in the NBA and I worry about their bench, but I don’t know if you can keep winning …” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said last week. “This ain’t a new criticism about the Blazers; I say the same thing about all jump-shooting teams.”

Even legendary former coach Phil Jackson weighed in on Twitter, writing that “[Three-point] shots via [screen-and-roll] action has brought about a new trend. Can’t blame coaches for following trend, but there is a needed balance.”

Lacking a true dominant center and with Aldridge racking up most of his career-high 23.3 points per game on mid-range jumpers, the majority of Portland’s NBA-high 108.3 points per game average has come from beyond the arc. Entering Saturday’s contest against New Orleans, the Trail Blazers had drained 276 of their 672 three-point attempts for a league-best 41.1 percent. Ranked in the top 10 for three-pointers attempted and made are Lillard (83-for-194), Wesley Matthews (69-for-156) and Nicolas Batum (61-for-151). What’s more, nearly 70 percent of the team’s shots have been taken from outside eight feet.

On the other hand, Portland is ranked 25th in points allowed per game (101.9) and 23rd in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s Hollinger team statistics. The Trail Blazers are the only team with a winning record ranked in the bottom 10 of the defensive standings.

With numbers like these, Portland has drawn some comparisons to the Phoenix Suns teams from a decade ago. Paced by Coach Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” philosophy and without a true center, the run-and-gun Suns piled up points behind the one-two punch of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and efficient three-point shooting that led the NBA for five seasons (2004-2008, 09-10). Phoenix won the Pacific Division title and advanced to the Western Conference finals in three of those seasons but failed to make it to the NBA Finals.

What could make Portland different is its rebounding. With Aldridge and Robin Lopez manning the frontcourt, the Trail Blazers pull down 42 rebounds per game, fourth-best in the NBA and a key component in the success of their half-court offensive attack.

The Trail Blazers also have avoided the injuries that have affected a slew of teams this season, such as Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami and Brooklyn, among others. Portland is the only team among the top eight in either conference standings to start the same lineup through 27 games. This chemistry should prove vital for its final December stretch, which includes matchups with Miami, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, and potentially, a deep playoff run.

 

BY THE NUMBERS
13-0
Home record of Oklahoma City following Thursday’s victory against Chicago, tying the franchise’s best home mark to start the season since 1976-77.

29
Points scored by Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Johnson in the third quarter of Monday’s win against Philadelphia. Johnson finished with a season-high 37 points, including 10 three-pointers, to lead the Nets to their fourth straight win.

QUOTABLES
“All I can do is do the work. And do everything I can to be back at the highest level.” -Kobe Bryant to ESPN after news broke Thursday that the Los Angeles Lakers guard would be sidelined six weeks with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee. Bryant had missed the season’s first 19 games after tearing the Achilles tendon in the same leg last April.

“Get your a– up out of here”- Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins to Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah following Thursday’s contest, according to The Oklahoman. Noah reportedly visited the Thunder locker room with OKC swingman Thabo Sefolosha following the game, drawing the ire of Perkins. After Noah peacefully exited, the two later exchanged words in the hallway.

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Michael Lee | December 21, 2013