Can Blazers claw their way back into contention?

Thursday April 3rd, 2014

The Trail Blazers are only 18-18 since a 31-9 start, but they've won four consecutive games.
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Earl Watson has played for 14 coaches in 14 years, from Hubie Brown in Memphis to George Karl in Denver, P.J. Carlesimo in Seattle to Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City, Jim O'Brien in Indiana to Jerry Sloan in Utah, and that's not even half the list. For some reason, despite all the power plays and pink slips he has witnessed throughout an itinerant NBA career, Watson has decided he wants to be a coach. This season he is a backup point guard in Portland, but he is also something of an intern on the Trail Blazers' bench, sitting with assistants and relaying instructions to Damian Lillard. He often quotes John Wooden, whom he befriended at UCLA, in sideline conversation.

On March 12, Portland lost at San Antonio, and a team that started 31-9 was confronted by the very real possibility of missing the playoffs. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, having recovered from an injured groin, dinged his back. Complementary players left their natural roles to fill the scoring void. The defense continued to lapse. Everything the Blazers accomplished in the first two-and-a-half months, when they masqueraded as Western Conference contenders, was coming undone. After the game, Watson rose in the visiting locker room at the AT&T Center, and suddenly the intern was on the job.

"That was the moment of intervention," Watson said. "It wasn't planned. It was just all the emotion, all the frustration, coming out."

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He does not remember his exact message, but he recounts the gist: "We had so much success early and success is tricky. You have success and you start to feel good about yourself. We never lost our hunger, but we lost some of our humility. We started great and we never pushed ourselves to be greater. Sometimes you can inspire yourself and sometimes you have to be checked. We got checked. We have to take accountability for ourselves. If you have a problem with that, then don't be on a winning team. Go lose games and be cool heading home in April to watch everybody else in the playoffs. That's what I told the guys, with a lot of cuss words."

He was not the only one who spoke -- Lillard and Mo Williams, the primary members of Portland's point guard triumvirate, also took the floor -- and he did not see immediate results. But now that the Blazers have won four games in a row, thumping the Bulls in Chicago and the Grizzlies at home, they are beginning to wonder if their second-half stumbles have steeled them for the playoffs.

"It was needed," Aldridge said. "I think things came too easily for us. Everyone had to understand the value of winning games and taking nothing for granted. We got back to our old selves."

More significant than any bit of locker-room oratory was Aldridge's return. Portland piled up those 31 wins by spacing the floor around its star forward, letting him command double teams and kick to open three-point shooters. The Blazers cooled as opponents ran their snipers off the perimeter, and then sunk into a deep freeze when Aldridge hobbled away, forcing spot-up experts to go one-on-one.

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Ball movement, important to every squad, is crucial for Portland. On Tuesday, the Blazers led the Lakers by only a basket at halftime, and Aldridge reminded them to commit to the extra pass. "With this team," he said, "if you move the ball we go from having a really good shot to a really great shot." They finished with 124 points, including 31 from Aldridge, who added 15 rebounds.

The Blazers are not as potent as they seemed in January, nor are they as pathetic as they seemed in March. This is a club that did not even make the playoffs last season, added only Robin Lopez to their starting lineup and suddenly emerged as an insta-power. They won close games. They avoided major injuries. Most of their regulars set out on career years.

"If you're Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, getting off to that start is what you expect, and you're used to being in that position," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "But we got off to that start."

They defied NBA logic and, predictably, disappointment ensued. They lost some close games. They suffered some injuries. Field goal percentages and scoring averages dipped. But the net result, a 49-27 record on April 3, is still better than they envisioned in training camp. They are only one game behind Houston for fourth place in the West, so home-court advantage in the first round remains attainable, since the Rockets are currently without Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley. Given the depth of the conference, and the Blazers' recent history, they are a team others want to face in the opening round. But their reliance on the three-pointer makes them unpredictable. If they swing the ball and hit open shots, they will be as lethal as they were at Christmas. If they don't, they'll be done by May Day.

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At this time three years ago, Stotts was an assistant in Dallas, and the Mavericks were trudging through the end of the regular season. They were the team others wanted to face. Then they got hot from three-point range for two months and won the championship. There is no comparing these Blazers to those playoff-tested Mavs, but they are similarly unpredictable. "At the beginning of the season we played better when we had an edge and something to prove," Stotts said. They proved everything in a hurry. Now they have to do it again. "I don't think we're the same as we were in January," Watson said. "I think we're better." He cites the energy they are expending on defense and the care they are taking with the ball. He might as well also point to Aldridge's fingernails.

Since Portland started this modest streak, which feels like an extended surge in light of their two-month malaise, Aldridge has declined to cut his nails. They have grown long enough that he broke one against the Grizzlies, another against the Lakers. But he won't get a manicure until the Blazers lose. As he left the locker room at Staples Center on Tuesday, he glanced down at his talons and laughed, a convenient symbol for a team trying to claw its way back.

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