In the last few seasons, the Portland Trail Blazers have been more of “close it out after the All-Star break” kind of team.
But things are changing.
Portland currently sits in the fourth spot in the West with a 31-20 overall record, 5.5 games back of the number one-seeded Golden State Warriors.
A big reason for their early overall success has been their 17-4 record against teams with below .500 records.
With an 81% win percentage against sub-.500 teams, they're taking care of business against teams they should.
Of course, as the coach of the team, Coach Terry Stotts doesn't want to be complacent.
“I would’ve liked to have played better first halves against a lot of those teams, but in the end, we found a way to win games,” Stotts said after Tuesday’s practice.
Coach Stotts did acknowledge that there is a certain trait that goes into not overlooking teams.
“You’d like to think some maturity has kicked in. We’ve got a relatively veteran team, even though it’s a young veteran team. We’ve got guys that have been in the league for -- four, five, six, seven years and I think having success last year and knowing what’s at stake this year, I think it lends itself to that,” Stotts said.
On the contrary though this season, Portland is 14-16 vs. teams that have a .500 and above record.
In comparison, the Warriors are 16-12 against teams that hold records at .500 or above. The Rockets have the most wins against teams with better than .500 records with 18.
Which really boils down to—
The West is tough and so evenly matched, Western Conference teams are all struggling to rack up wins against top teams.
But, even though coach Stotts is not 100% percent on board that his team is beating teams in the bottom half of the league solely because of the maturation of his team, his players believe it to be true.
Yes, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum chalk up their winning ways vs. sub .500 teams to their experience.
“I think that’s just maturity. In the past few years, I think those are games that we win two, lose one, win one, then lose two… Just giving those games away and I think now we just handling our business,” Lillard said.
McCollum echo'd Lillard's talk of team maturity. "Understanding that every game is important," he said. "Based on the Western Conference standings there’s no easy nights and everybody is capable of beating each other, so you’ve just gotta stick to the game plan, follow the coaches instructions and execute."
The Blazers backcourt is on the same page both on and off the court and that has a lot to do with not playing down to your opponent, as well.
“We’re not looking at it like it’s an easy game, it’s something we should win – we are preparing, at shootarounds, are mind is right before the game and then we get it done, you know, we move on. So, I think that shows are maturity, our growth as a group,” Lillard said.
And, we can’t forget, Portland is holding down the fort at Moda Center with a 21-7 home record at this point in the season.
“As the years have progressed we’ve figured out ways to win games and then understanding that, you know, after evaluating each season of what we could’ve done better and I think a lot of that is beating sub .500 teams, it’s very important being able to take care of business at home… I think we’ve done a pretty good job of both,” McCollum added.
Last season the Blazers finished the year going 49-33 overall, good for third in the West, but their numbers vs. good teams may be skewed a bit because of their strong finish to the season.
Portland was 28-5 against teams that were below .500 and 24-26 against teams with above .500 records.
But, lest we forget how the Trail Blazers started the season vs. how they finished.
At this point in the season last year the Blazers were 27-22 as opposed to 11 games over .500 this season.
Portland dropped some “gimmies” early in the season, most notably against the Nets, Kings, Clippers and the Hawks.
Two seasons ago, Portland went 17-26 against teams with better than .500 records.
“As the season progresses and as we progress within our careers, we learn from failures – losing to the Sixers, back when the Sixers weren’t very good. Those type of games – we can’t allow those to slip,” McCollum said.
Last season, just like in the past few years, the Blazers finished strong post All-Star break.
As most Blazer fans remember, Portland’s magical run at the end of last season began with a win over Golden State the day before the All-Star break began and ended with a win at LA against the Clippers on March 18th, racking up 13 straight victories in the process.
That streak tied a 2007 record for the second-longest in franchise history.
McCollum acknowledged that this season he feels that they won’t need to rely on such a winning streak to close out the year.
“Being able to kind of refocus and not having to depend on the 10, 12 game win streak, being able to be consistent will be helpful for us and if that 10, 12 game win streak comes then great, but if it doesn’t we’re still prepared because we’ve taken care of our business early on,” McCollum said.
There could now be some worry that Portland will be more complacent and won’t have the sense urgency after the All-Star break as in years past now that they took care of business earlier in the season.
That’s not how a mature team would approach the second half of the season.
So, you should expect this trend to continue.