BOSTON — The Blazers beat the Celtics on Wednesday, and stop me if you have heard this before: Portland is good. Really good. The win was the Blazers 38th of the season, solidifying their place as the No. 4 seed in the West and moving them within a half game of Oklahoma City and the No. 3 seed. A Thunder loss on Thursday pulled them even.
Portland … good … No. 3 seed … wait, we have heard this before. Last season the Blazers won 49 games and stormed into the third seed in the conference. They were backboned by a prolific backcourt, a skilled but occasionally unreliable big man and a collection of largely anonymous role players. This season Portland is again being led by its backcourt, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, is getting production from its big man, Jusuf Nurkic, and has a rotation that goes 10 deep.
Last season’s Blazers were swept in the first round.
Will this year’s version be any different?
The end of last season hangs over this team like a cloud. The Blazers didn’t just lose to New Orleans—they got stomped. Rajon (Playoff) Rondo terrorized Portland’s prized backcourt, Nikola Mirotic rained three’s over the Blazers frontcourt and Anthony Davis proved to be too much for Nurkic to handle. In the aftermath, there was talk of an overhaul. Instead, Portland elected to bring the band back together.
The question is: will the same group achieve better results?
“I’m always a believer in our group,” Lillard said. “Last year we were playing really well, we were winning a lot of games, and we get to the postseason and have a huge letdown. I’m really excited because of how we responded to that experience. You would think that we would come back and have more of a situation like [what happened] in New Orleans, then coming back and backing up our performance from last year. I think it’s going to pay off for us in the long run.”
Said Evan Turner, “Experience. I believe in paying your dues, and we did.”
In fairness, this isn’t the exact same group as last season. There have been some additions, like in-season pickups Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter, two players with playoff experience. The Nurkic-Kanter combo gives the Blazers a pair of bulldozing interior presences. Against Boston, the pair combined for 24 points and 13 rebounds. “Forty-eight minutes of guys that can post now,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “When they came off the bench before, they certainly had good players in [Zach] Collins and [Meyers] Leonard, but they ended up stretching you more than Nurkic and Kanter. Those guys get the ball in the seams, get the ball in transition, get the ball on the block and go to work. That creates another level of issues because there are not too many places to help off of.”
There have been internal improvements, too. Nurkic has been better. He’s posted a career-best 28 double-doubles and is one of only three players averaging 15 points, 10 rebounds, three assists a steal and a block. The other two? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis. Maurice Harkless, who battled injuries at the end of last season, has come on. Jake Layman, a non-factor for the Blazers last season, has been one of the more surprising stories in this one.
“We’ve added pieces that complement what we do,” Lillard said. “As much as we are the same team, we’ve added stuff that made us a better team. Things have to be done by committee. Me and CJ, we have to do what we do. Nurk has to do what he does. But when we get that great group effort, when everyone comes in and does their jobs, that’s when we are at our best. That’s what’s happening right now.”
Added Turner, “We’re beating teams in the right kind of way. It’s hard to explain it, but we aren’t having the same type of errors we had in the past. Last year, we couldn’t close a game out. This year, we’re like 90-percentile [winning] going into the fourth. That, and the depth we have been using, finishing games, that’s it.”
The stakes are high in Portland. Another first round flameout, and this team could be dismantled. Head coach Terry Stotts could be shown the door. The Blazers looked like a contender in February—the win over Boston was Portland’s fifth straight, a stretch that has included wins over Golden State and Philadelphia—but they will need to play like one in April to keep this team together.
Does this team feel that sense of urgency?
“I think so,” Lillard said. “Not based on anything from the outside. There’s more urgency because we want to get back and have another shot at it. We went into it last year with high hopes. Seeing things go one way, and then it doesn’t go that way. We’re really looking forward to that opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
And the threat of an offseason overhaul if they don’t?
“Maybe, anything can happen,” Lillard said. “We can get into the first round and have a seven series, play really well and come up short. It’s the playoffs. I wouldn’t say if we don’t get out of the first round [it’s over]. If we did get out of the first round that would be really encouraging. If you get out of the first round, have a really good second-round series, maybe win a second-round series, it depends on how it goes. I don’t think it’s [about] the first round. We could get into the playoffs and be matched up with Houston and have a seven-game series and be in a shootout. It’s the Western Conference.”
Indeed. The power and depth of the West has victimized many top teams in recent years, Portland among them. But it likely won’t save this team, this season. The Blazers got a reprieve after last year’s first round flameout. They likely won’t get another.