There was a sense of optimism floating out of the Trail Blazers locker room on Wednesday night. Not the defiant and perhaps misplaced optimism of a team on a losing skid saying the right things while playing the wrong way.
This wasn’t hope by default. It was a genuine confidence emanating from a team that maybe -- maybe -- has found its footing, and could be heading in the right direction after drawn out of early season stumbles.
Carmelo Anthony made his home debut in Wednesday’s 136-119 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. All five Blazers starters scored in double figures for just the second time this season, and also the second game in a row. The Blazers blitzed a lesser team from the opening tip and won going away, a rare occurrence in the team’s 7-12 start to the season.
The optimism in the locker room wasn't necessarily new, but for the first time perhaps all season it didn't feel forced.
“I think we’re just realizing winning is not easy,” Damian Lillard said. “Early in the season we came and I think we just kinda expected things to happen. We didn’t have the swagger, and the attitude, and the mentality of a winning team for 48 minutes at least. I think the last few games we’ve had that. We haven’t played the top teams in the league, but it’s the style we’ve been able to play. It’s sustainable and it’s something that can work against every team. I think that’s a great start.”
Portland has won two straight against Chicago (6-13) and Oklahoma City (6-11), both of which are headed for the lottery. But even against weaker competition the Blazers look sharper and Anthony has undeniably been a catalyst. He had 25 points and eight rebounds in the win at Chicago and had 19 points against Oklahoma City.
His presence clearly makes things easier for the rest of the Blazers roster. Hassan Whiteside has more space to maneuver with four shooters in the starting lineup and Lillard and CJ McCollum have another option to shoulder some of the scoring load. The Melo effect has helped the back half of the rotation, too. Kent Bazemore has been recast as a bench spark plug instead of needed secondary scorer, Anfernee Simons has a much more reasonable role as the third option on a second unit with McCollum and Anthony, while Nassir Little’s role as high energy wrecking ball has been reduced from 25 minute-a-night cameo down to ten or 12. Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, who have both struggled mightily, have been pushed out of the rotation altogether.
Anthony has changed the tenor of the locker room and the feel of the team on the court, and now the Blazers have an opportunity in front of them to scramble back into the playoff picture after their brutal start to the season. Eleven of their next 15 games are at home, including seven home games against teams that are currently under .500 and two meetings with the 8-8 Suns. That stretch starts with Friday's home game against Chicago, which Portland just throttled 117-94 on Monday.
December is a prove-it month for the Blazers. If they are still several games in the red in January, the good vibes that followed Wednesday victory will be long gone. The Blazers have a chance to rescue their season over the next 15 games, and they are finally starting to look like a team that might be able to actually do that.
“Knowing that we’re coming home and that we’re playing better,” Damian Lillard said. “I think it’s on everybody’s mind like okay, it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of get ourselves back into it and take care of our home floor. Even though we haven’t been great at home, at some point it has to turn because our work has continued, we’ve been positive, we continue to believe in ourselves. So, I think we’re starting to turn that corner.”