SAN ANTONIO – It was over the weekend in Texas when Al-Farouq Aminu and Shabazz Napier were talking about the suddenly precarious turn the Trail Blazers season has taken.
“Me and Chief were talking, and it’s kind of funny … we were saying we are lucky we won 13 in a row the way we’ve been playing,’’ Napier said. “Granted we’ve had some injuries, but we haven’t been playing as well as we should have.’’
That month-long streak that vaulted the Blazers into third place in the Western Conference is starting to seem like a season ago. Since then, Maurice Harkless has had knee surgery. Ed Davis has been at home resting a sprained ankle. And the team is monitoring Damian Lillard’s swollen left ankle as closely as they are the NBA scoreboard.
But after Saturday’s 116-105 loss in San Antonio – the Blazers’ third straight and fourth in six games - if there is any panic among the Trail Blazers the players were doing a good job hiding it.
“We’re good,’’ CJ McCollum said. “If you would have told me we have 48 wins and two games left and chance to finish in third place, I would have told you I would take it.’’
Indeed, the Blazers (48-32) still control their own destiny. They will secure the third seed by either winning both of their remaining games – Monday at Denver and Wednesday at home versus Utah – or with one win and one loss by Utah, who plays at the Lakers, at home against Golden State and at Portland.
They secure home court advantage in the first round with one win, or one Utah loss. The lowest Portland can finish is fifth, with only Utah and San Antonio able to pass them.
But what was once a comfort has turned into concern after bad losses in the past two weeks, including one at Memphis and one at Dallas. The defense has slipped – no doubt a reflection of missing defensive stalwarts Harkless and Davis – and McCollum has slumped (16.4 points, 36.6 percent shooting last five games), and coach Terry Stotts has hinted that the sharpness has dulled.
It has created an anxious vibe around the team, not out of panic, but rather an eagerness to prove they are indeed the streaking Blazers and not a flash-in-the-pan that got hot.
It’s why McCollum said he is confident the Blazers can take care of business Monday in Denver against a Nuggets team that has won five in a row and six in a row at home as it fights for one of the final playoff spots.
“We know what it takes; we have been here before,’’ McCollum said. “We know the severity of these games and we also understand that we allowed ourselves to have a bit of cushion by winning and beating some teams we are supposed to beat and stealing some games on the road. But now it’s time to turn the page and refocus and finish strong.’’
That was the conclusion Aminu and Napier reached in their Texas conversation – that the remaining schedule is an opportunity for the Blazers.
“The good thing about it is we have two more games,’’ Napier said. “And we can use those games as a way to go into the playoffs with some moxie for us.’’