The Trail Blazers, who are packing a three-game win streak into Detroit Wednesday for a game against the Pistons, sit in a tie with Denver for the fifth spot in the NBA’s Western Conference.
Portland is 10 games over .500, 14-9 at home and 14-9 on the road. All of that bodes well for the Blazers if the additions of Norman Powell and Jusuf Nurkic down the stretch of the season provide a lift. Certainly the Portland offense, already very good, should be even better.
But the West is a test, make no mistake.
The top six teams in the West, including Portland, have all won at least two games in a row and all but the injury-plagued Lakers have won at least seven of their last 10 games.
Things are heating up.
And it’s a strange year -- a unique season. It's a season with arenas either devoid of fans or with a limited amount of spectators. And then there are players sitting out due to COVID-19 or contact tracing.
Seriously, who would have projected Utah and Phoenix to be the top two teams in the conference?
But defense is the obvious reason those teams sit atop the West.
The Lakers still have the best defensive rating in the NBA. Philadelphia, the leaders in the East, are second while Utah and Phoenix are third and fourth.
Denver, tied with Portland for fifth, is No. 19 in defensive rating and the Trail Blazers are sitting at 29th, a neighborhood where they have been all season.
How has Portland risen so high without a dependable defense?
The Trail Blazers’ offensive rating is sixth in the league. But, beware, the Nuggets’ offense ranks third.
Portland has won a lot of close games, but those narrow decisions often move toward the .500 mark as the sample size enlarges, mainly because of the randomness of such situations. On the other hand, Damian Lillard is a proven closer responsible for a lot of those close wins.
The question, then, is what can we expect from the Trail Blazers as the season moves toward its conclusion?
The old cliché is, “Defense wins championships.” And you can go back through history and not find any poor defensive teams winning an NBA title.
But things are different in basketball these days. The rules favor offense and the three-point shooting percentages are going higher.
Is it possible that some team, some year, is going to flip the narrative? Could it be that a team will find an offense so good that defenses just can’t effectively slow it down for four games in a playoff series?
I just don’t know if it’s possible. Certainly, we have already seen outstanding offensive teams muster enough points to win single games against the best defensive teams.
I mean, Portland owns two wins over the 76ers this season.
And this season is a weird one. Nothing will surprise me.