A Trail Blazers season that has lacked consistency and definition finally delivered one bit of clarity on Wednesday: The 123-114 funfest victory over Minnesota was the best win of the season.
“I feel the same way,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It was confident, played at a good pace, and we were doing the right stuff.’’
The Blazers (26-22) have won 4 of 5, and the question now, of course, is whether this is their latest bait-and-switch on the fan base.
After all, it’s been a tough season of trying to figure out the Trail Blazers.
One minute, the Blazers think they are turning the corner as they won four of five on a November trip, only to return home and lose four in a row in convincing fashion.
Later, after an emphatic win at Oklahoma City in January, giving the Blazers a three-game winning streak, there was again talk of turning a corner, only to absorb three straight losses.
But there seemed to be something different about Wednesday’s game. Not only did the rout (the Blazers led by 19 with less than three minutes left) come against a talented, albeit shorthanded, Minnesota team, it came via some beautiful basketball.
More than any other time this season, the Blazers were connected, intuitive, unselfish and dynamic. Pat Connaughton was cutting and dunking. CJ McCollum was stop-and-go crafty. And if Ed Davis wasn’t making heady passes to shooters on the perimeter, he was high-fiving fans who got out of their seat in appreciation for his blue-collar work inside.
And the defense was unwavering, despite mismatches all over the floor. But Al-Farouq Aminu held his own against the taller Karl Anthony-Towns, and even though nobody could stay in front of Andrew Wiggins, there was always a wave of help defense to provide resistance.
Never was the total package more on display than during the 43-point third quarter, which helped give the Blazers a 13-point lead heading into the fourth. The Blazers were so in tune with each other during the quarter it seemed as if ball handlers were anticipating cuts before they were made. And if an extra pass was there to be made, it was. And on top of it all, there was a style, elegance and precision to the display – from Connaughton dunking lob passes, to teammates finding Aminu open on the perimeter and McCollum and Lillard putting the Wolves’ defense on skates.
“It was a showcase,’’ Lillard said. “A great display of Blazers Basketball.’’
Blazers Basketball. Now that’s a phrase we haven’t heard much of, if at all, this season.
It’s a term coach Terry Stotts came up with years ago to describe the free-flowing, unselfish and intuitive style of his motion offense. The team has a brass bell mounted on the wall in its practice facility, and when a Blazers Basketball play was made – “You know it when you see it,’’ Stotts would say – Stotts would issue a directive to ring the bell.
Can’t say I’ve heard the bell much this season from inside the media room, which is separated from the practice courts by a steel door, and that has translated to game nights.
But Wednesday felt something like an awakening.
The Blazers have been playing better lately – save for those dreadful last three minutes at Denver – and have been finding different ways to win. Against Indiana, they made less than 40 percent of their shots yet still won convincingly.
But if this team is going to be dangerous come playoff time, it has to play something close to what we saw on Wednesday – tough, confident, together and with more than a hint of a hell-bent-for-leather attitude that comes with playing free.
Lillard, to his credit, has been forecasting this awakening for the past 10 to 14 days. He could sense the team was becoming sharper, more focused and more together. Guys are holding screens better, and longer. Guys are remembering plays better. And when an opponent has a play scouted and sniffed out, the Blazers have become better at improvising.
“Instinct and feel,’’ Lillard said.
It’s an interesting dynamic to keep an eye on as the Blazers near the All-Star Break. Stotts has pretty much settled on his rotation – out are former rotation players Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh – and players say there is a developing comfort level with each other, which is allowing for more improvising and playing with instincts.
“It’s us gaining continuity and being able to make those types of reads,’’ Connaughton said. “We’ve gotten better at playing basketball with the guys who are on the floor. We’ve done a great job of knowing each other’s strengths and knowing what guys can consistently do, and play off those strengths.’’
It sets the stage for what under Stotts has become a Portland tradition as reliable as the April cherry blossoms: a late-season surge by the Blazers.
If indeed the Blazers have figured things out – and keep in mind, we have been here before this season – Connaughton said he thinks the timing bodes well.
“I think it just says we are a dangerous team,’’ Connaughton said. “We’re a team that still hasn’t reached our ceiling yet. Halfway through the season, teams have shown what they can do, and the best that they can do it. For us, I think we have a lot of stuff we can grow on. The sky is the limit.’’
Lillard, who has remained steadfastly optimistic about this team throughout the season, said the Blazers right now are showing “growth.’’
“Over time, you go through things,’’ Lillard said. “I always say it about our team: We have bad times, and we have good times. But regardless of what is going on, we stay together. We talk. We watch film. And I think because of that, we are able to grow as the season goes on. And it’s why over the last few years, at the end of the season is when we just start rolling – because we stay together through the trials and tribulations of a season.’’