Last week TNT analyst Charles Barkley did what he does best. Ol’ Chuck said the Portland Trail Blazers were going to make the NBA Finals as representatives of the Western Conference this season, and that seemed like a stretch to just about everyone. Picking a squad that was swept in the playoffs just a year ago felt like a take-ism more than anything.
But there is reason yet to be bullish on the Trail Blazers.
Portland has increased its winning percentage nearly four points since the Feb. 7 trade deadline, going 9-5 heading into Friday night’s game against the Pelicans. That ties them with the Los Angeles Clippers for the second-best record since the deadline out of any playoff team in the Western Conference, just behind the Houston Rockets.
There's already been some significant evidence that general manager Neil Olshey’s decision to add Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter to this roster has returned dividends. Both players have integrated quicker than expected, and each know their role both within the locker room and in the rotation.
It’s also helped that Maurice Harkless has been on a bit of a tear lately. The Blazers starting forward has continuously battled with his left knee, but starting in late January Harkless came on strong in the way we've expected from him over his tenure in Portland. “Playoff Moe” appears to be a very real thing, and he's rounding into form just in time for the Blazers to try and secure home court advantage in these upcoming playoffs.
But outside of raw performance, it feels like there's been a bit of a shift since the All-Star break in the attitude of this team. In typical fashion, the early part of this season for Portland included big 3-point outbursts building to gigantic leads, quickly followed by a sense of dread that they could blow it all by the mid 4th quarter. This has been going on for four years now, and it didn't seem like it was poised to stop. Instead, it’s now the Blazers who are going crazy in the fourth to rack up wins.
Much was made about the insane seven-game roadtrip the Blazers embarked on starting with the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 21, particularly as Portland was five games under .500 on the road before that matchup. The Blazers returned home with a 5-2 record, and but for a game-winner here, an empty tank at the end of the Memphis game there, and a sidestepping of a refereeing fiasco against OKC, Portland could be in the midst of a 12-game win streak.
A late-season run would be par for the course for the Blazers, but the difference this time is that Portland doesn't seem to be catching teams as they flame out of the playoff picture or as they rest crucial players at the end of road trips. Now it's the Blazers taking it to big name opponents — Golden State, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles — right when those teams need wins the most.
With just 14 games to go left in the regular season, Portland is trying to grab the final spot garnering them home court advantage in the first round. That leads us back to Barkley's comment, and a pondering of where this team could go in the postseason.
Despite all their added depth, Portland still has the same Achilles heel on paper. No doubt teams will try to slow the Blazers down and trap its two star guards come playoff time. And while added depth should help the Blazers solidify their rotation and scoring if they get in a hole, three players will be the key to Portland’s chances at the second round.
The first is Jusuf Nurkic, who has become an offensive instigator with the ball at the high post, allowing the Blazers to operate in a similar fashion to the way they did it with Mason Plumlee some years ago. Nurkic has become a better passer from that area of the floor, and it allows both CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard to act as off-ball shooters early in the shot clock.
Nurkic has also become a much better roll player, both as a screen setter and as a drawer of fouls. He has moved up significantly in that regard with respect to his position, and it shows in his on-court performance. Where before Nurkic might try to clumsily get a foul several feet from the basket, he now picks his chances and has developed a long, striding scoop move that allows him to put the ball in a better position to score points.
Then there’s Rodney Hood, who has seen a lot of time with the starting unit with Evan Turner out. Hood, Kanter, and Jake Layman were platooned into the starting unit with McCollum and Lillard during Turner's absence in late February. I expect to see Terry Stotts experiment with Hood as the first substitution to keep shooting on the floor and pressure off of his guards.
But the man who can most tip the scales for the Blazers will once again be Harkless. Stotts’ offense puts Harkless — or whoever is playing that position — at a certain advantage on the floor, both in the regular flow as a shooter and as an outlet valve in a trapping situation. Al-Farouq Aminu is having an average 3-point shooting year, but his variance separate from his average is so high as to be unreliable. Team know that, and they’ve used it to their advantage before.
Harkless gathers steam as the season runs along, and his plus/minus impact on the team has trended upward monthly at the end of each season he has been in Portland. The only problem this time around is that he isn't shooting the ball all that well. The small forward is shooting just 22.5 percent from 3-point range combined over the last two months, and there’s a real concern that his efficiency could take a dip if he’s not able to knock down jumpers at a normal clip here soon.
Portland fans are right to be naturally wary of this team. The Blazers have let them down in the playoffs before, and the holes on this roster have been glaring for some time. Olshey has done his best to plug those gaps with some depth, and everything appears to be trending upward for a playoff push. The West is incredibly difficult this season, and Portland will not have an easy time even if they grab that home court spot.
The Blazers are the same team as they ever were. That is, until they can prove that they are something new entirely. The roster has changed, and Portland is confidently surging. We might not have to wait all that long to decide this team has turned the page.