The Sweet 16
If the true stretch run in the NBA season starts after the all-star break, then I'm not sure what to call the final 16 games. This is especially the case this season as it relates to the Portland Trail Blazers. This is crunch time, and we're about to learn a lot about where this team is headed, not only concerning this year's playoffs, but perhaps into the distant future.
The last three games are a great example of how quickly things can turn at this time of year. Even though we know to expect it, the sudden peaks and valleys still take us by surprise. There are drastic highs, followed by lows, and wild swings of emotion.
And, there are missed opportunities.
That term adequately describes the road trip we just finished. If someone had offered us a 2-2 record on the trip, before we left, we would have likely jumped all over it. Heading out on the trip we knew it would take three upsets to return home with a winning record. The only truly winnable game appeared to be the one in Charlotte. As it turns out, that's where everything turned.
I do believe that seasons, or at least stretches of seasons, can be cut down into several moments. Sometimes you totally control these moments, and other times you can fall victim to bad timing, untimely injuries, or just plain bad luck. I usually end up chopping seasons up into sections. Nate McMillan always talks about having a goal of putting together winning records in individual months. You can divide things further, into winning homestands, or having winning road trips.
Ultimately, you have to mix the good with the bad, try not to get too high or too low, and roll with everything else.
Before we totally turn the page and put the past road trip behind us, it's important to look at a couple of things that happened on the trip.
The Orlando win was very solid, even if it was a victory over a team missing it's star player. Portland has had to deal with that too much to have to qualify any win over anyone else who is in that situation. The Miami win was probably the signature win of the season, and I"m sure you'd agree. Even if the rest of the country focused on Miami's shortcomings, rather than Portland's stellar play, it will go down as one of the great memories of the regular season.
Then came a six-minute stretch in the game at Charlotte. We knew there was the possibility of a let down in that contest. After all, Portland had just beaten that team badly at home. Where a huge opportunity was lost was between the 11-minute mark, and 5-minute mark of the third quarter in that game. The Bobcats didn't manage a single point during that stretch and the Trail Blazers refused to take a win that was being served up on a silver platter. They lacked the killer instinct that we saw in Miami, and ended up falling victim to a hot player, and left their fate up to bad bounces, officials calls, and bad luck, when they could have seized the game themselves.
Maybe it sounds too simplistic, but what happened in Atlanta was a direct result of what happened during that stretch in Charlotte. I firmly believe that had Portland won in Charlotte, they would have won in Atlanta. What we're left with is a good road trip, that could have been fantastic. Unfortunately, given what is happening in the Western Conference right now, you're going to need some fantastic to survive.
It doesn't do much good to live in the past, and that leads us to the current task at hand. There are 16 games to go.
Starting Tuesday night, it's a huge three-game home stand, that starts against one of the hottest teams in the NBA- the Dallas Mavericks. Then, it's Cleveland and Philadelphia. A loss to Dallas right now is nothing to be ashamed of, so that puts the pressure on the other two games.
You simply can't slip again at home in a game you're suppose to win. Especially in these two games. Why? Because next Sunday night we'll be in L.A. to take on the Lakers. That's how it is right now. Every single game is linked directly to the next game. Kind of like how Charlotte was linked to Atlanta.
Looking past that, it's home games against Washington and San Antonio. Then, a three-game road trip to Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and New Orleans. Yeesh.
The good news is there are 10 home games left, and only 6 on the road. The bad news is, despite that, the Trail Blazers have one of the most difficult remaining schedules of the teams in this jogjam in the west.
Realistically, the best Portland can hope to finish in the west is 5th. The scary backside of that is that, right now, this team is only 3 games clear of not being in the playoffs at all. Had they won in Charlotte and Atlanta? Well, it doesn't make any sense to go there, so I won't (okay- they'd be tied with Denver in 5th).
It's Trail Blazers Courtside tonight, on trailblazers.com, Comcast Sportsnet, and the Trail Blazers Radio Network. We'll be joined by Nate McMillan, Nic Batum, Greg Oden, and others. Join us from 6pm to 8.