It wasn't even two weeks ago that the Trail Blazers' season seemed basically over. A second straight defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies on April 25 pushed Portland to 32-28, losing 10 of 13 games to risk falling below eighth in the Western Conference.
Needless to say, potentially tasked with winning multiple games in the play-in tournament isn't how a team with offseason championship aspirations – no matter how unrealistic – expected to close out April.
But the Blazers, somehow, flipped the switch when it seemed impossible. Instead of folding under the pressure of a gut-check six-game road trip, they went 5-1 away from home, every victory coming by double-digits – including a 36-point romp over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.
Damian Lillard, playing MVP basketball again after being slowed by nagging injuries for weeks, knows exactly why Portland has turned it around.
"Like I've been saying the last few games, it's not just the fact that we've been winning games, I think [it's] the way we've been winning," he said following Wednesday's game. "Just playing together, having a presence defensively. The feeling around our team is much better.
"I think we're just kind of having a breakthrough moment a little bit."
The Blazers, spearheaded by Lillard's brilliance, blistered defenses en route to a 126.8 offensive rating on their road trip – by far tops in the league over that timeframe. Their three guards have managed more simultaneous success offensively, and the bench is coming alive. Jusuf Nurkic is finishing better around the rim than he has since suffering that devastating broken leg in March 2019.
But to Lillard, and most everyone watching, it's Portland's defense that's proven the biggest difference – even providing feedback loops that juice the Blazers' offense.
"We've just been much better on that end of the floor, and I think it's just really took the pressure off our offense," Lillard said. "Allowed us to play in more space, get in transition more often, get more quality possessions on offense because we're not having us much pressure on it because our defense isn't struggling the way it was. And we just have to continue to build on it."
The Blazers, seventh in the West at 37-29, sit a half-game back of the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks in the standings. They have a golden opportunity on Friday to get a leg up on their longtime rivals, too, facing the Lakers without LeBron James and playing in front of fans at Moda Center for the first time this season.
Even if Portland comes up short in the biggest game of the year, though, there's still reason for hope. With Lillard scraping his peak and his teammates not far behind him, no one will want to see the Blazers come the postseason – either in the play-in tournament or first round of the playoffs.