By now, it’s getting hard to deny that something special is happening to the 2017-2018 Trail Blazers.
The Blazers are the hottest team in the NBA, having won nine in a row heading into tonight’s game against Miami. But there is a more subtle trend that has become a part of this season:
For once in their tortured franchise history, the Blazers have been favorably affected by injuries.
From teams around the Blazers in the standings, to players being sidelined when facing Portland, the Blazers this season have gone from cursed to charmed.
A franchise that has watched injuries end careers – from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy – and had late-season injuries ruin seasons (Bonzi Wells, Wesley Matthews), the Trail Blazers this season are seemingly catching a break at every turn.
In the hotly contested Western Conference, every team around the third-place Blazers has weathered a significant injury.
Fourth-place New Orleans lost All-Star DeMarcus Cousins for the season.
Fifth-place Minnesota is without All-Star Jimmy Butler for two-months of the season’s stretch run.
Sixth-place Oklahoma City lost Andre Roberson, it’s defensive anchor, for the season.
Seventh-place San Antonio has played nearly all season without All-Star Kawhi Leonard.
And the trio of remaining contenders – Denver (Paul Millsap), the Clippers (Patrick Beverley) and Utah (Rudy Gobert) – have played long stretches with key players out.
But it’s not just the teams around Portland that have been impacted.
In an uncanny trend, the Blazers this season have often benefitted from playing teams without either a star player or key players.
It started in the season opener, when Phoenix point guard Eric Bledsoe was held out while the team tried to facilitate a trade and has continued through tonight, when Miami will be without starting center Hassan Whiteside and guard Dwyane Wade.
In between, the Blazers have missed Stephen Curry twice. John Wall twice. Jimmy Butler twice. Whiteside twice. James Harden. Kyrie Irving. Blake Griffin. Draymond Green. Kristaps Porzingis. Carmelo Anthony. Myles Turner twice.
And that list doesn’t include this season’s chronically injured, like Leonard (twice), Mike Conley (twice), Tony Parker (twice).
If you think the Blazers are going to apologize for having to play teams that are short-handed, think again. History has been too cruel.
“For us,’’ Damian Lillard reminded, “luck hasn’t always been on our side.’’
On March 5, 2015 the Blazers beat Dallas to improve to 41-19, where they sat in third place in the West. But it was a night their season changed.
Matthews, their starting shooting guard and the heart-and-soul of the locker room, ruptured his Achilles tendon during the game and was lost for the season.
Without Matthews down the stretch, the Blazers’ defense disintegrated, and some of the team’s grit disappeared. The Blazers limped to a 10-12 record, finished fifth and were dispatched by Memphis in five games.
It marked the end of one of the most popular and encouraging Blazers cores in years. LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio. Matthews signed with Dallas. Robin Lopez signed with New York and Nicolas Batum was traded to Charlotte.
Players on that team were left to wonder what would have happened had Matthews’ Achilles stayed in tact? Not only that season, but the future?
It wasn’t the first time an injury derailed the Blazers late in the season.
In April of 2001, the Blazers were trying to stave off an epic late-season collapse when Bonzi Wells went up for a dunk at Golden State.
Moments later, Wells was pounding the court in agony, his left knee blown out. He had torn his ACL and would be lost for the final six games and the playoffs.
After beginning March in first place in the Western Conference, the team started to unravel amid the tantrums of Rasheed Wallace and internal strife amid late-season additions Rod Strickland and Detlef Schrempf.
Coach Mike Dunleavy made a controversial move during the spiral: he moved Wells to the starting lineup in place of Steve Smith, who was coming off an appearance on the Olympic team.
The move was starting to reap benefits as the team headed into April. Wells, who would finish second in the NBA in field goal percentage, was demanding double-teams on the post. And Smith began to flourish as the No. 1 option off the bench.
Coming off the Western Conference finals appearance the season before, the Blazers never got to see how the new lineup would fare in the postseason, and they were swept by the Lakers.
Of course, the injury curse has long been a part of Portland’s history.
After leading the Blazers to the 1977 title, Walton broke his foot in Game 60 at Philadelphia. The Blazers were 50-10 at the time, which included a 30-1 record at home, including 26 straight.
Portland finished 8-14 and lost to Seattle in the conference semifinals.
Then there was Bowie … and Oden … and Roy … all promising careers cut short by injury. Even last season, the Blazers’ late-season flurry to the playoffs was tainted by Jusuf Nurkic’s broken leg, which kept him out of all but one playoff game.
But this season, outside of Al-Farouq Aminu missing 13 games with an ankle sprain, and Lillard missing seven games with hamstring and calf injuries, the Blazers have been healthy.
Around here, people figure it’s about time the breaks went Portland’s way.
“People ask me why I’m always so optimistic, why do I always believe?’’ Lillard said. “I know that a lot of things go into an NBA season, and injuries are part of it. Bad stretches are part of it. Some guys don’t have the season you expect them to have … you just never know what is going to happen.’’
So, luck? Sure. Every team needs it.
“If that’s considered outside luck, then so be it,’’ Lillard said. “It’s part of it … Right now, things are going well for us. But we are doing the right things to give ourselves a chance to win these games and take advantage of the fact that other people might be going through things we are not.’’