For quite some time, the Western Conference has felt like a two-team race. That is the nature of the beast when dealing with an all-time great team in the Golden State Warriors and a furious juggernaut in the Houston Rockets. By proxy, the rest of the playoff contenders in the West are lumped together and, for most of the squads, simply making the playoffs would be a positive outcome given the jockeying that has taken place throughout the season. As of mid-March, though, the Portland Trail Blazers have taken full control of the race for the No. 3 seed and they’ve done it in quiet, surprising fashion.
Portland is riding a 13-game winning streak that includes victories over the Warriors (twice), Thunder, Wolves and Cavaliers. That in itself is wildly impressive and Portland’s 15-1 record since Feb. 8 is exceeded only by the absurdly effective Rockets. A glance at advanced metrics would indicate that, as you may expect, Portland’s win-loss record probably isn’t sustainable based on its net rating (10th in the NBA at +2.2 points per 100 possessions) but the Blazers are simply making plays when it matters.
With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum at the helm, Terry Stotts’ team has been preposterously good in what the league describes as “clutch” situations. 37 games fall into that category for the Blazers and Portland sports a +10.0 net rating keyed by incredible defense, as the team is allowing just 97.5 points per 100 possessions down the stretch of close games.
From a roster standpoint, no one would point to this particular group as a dominant defensive collection, but the Blazers are doing enough on that end to stay in almost every game and the offense, though not lighting the world on fire in a global sense, takes it from there. There is real buzz about Lillard as an All-NBA performer this season and, even if that doesn’t take place, he should get peripheral MVP attention given the way that Portland has performed in the recent past.
The Blazers don’t have a massive cushion over everyone else in the West but, with 12 games remaining and a two-game lead on the Thunder, it would take significant cooling for anyone to fully catch Portland in the race for No. 3 overall. Granted, the “prize” at the end of the line could be a round two match-up (without homecourt advantage) against the Warriors but for this particular bunch, holding an advantage in round one with an eye toward advancement would be a significant overall victory.
How do the Blazers stack up this week against the rest of the NBA? Let’s find out in our Dime Power Rankings.