Seven To Go
The road trip to Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and New Orleans was similar to the road trip earlier in the month. After that trip everyone agreed, considering the competition, a 2-2 mark was pretty acceptable, and that before the trip started we probably would have been okay with that. But, after dropping games in Charlotte and Atlanta, it felt more like a missed opportunity, following wins at Miami and Orlando to start the trip.
Following this most recent trip, there's no doubt the Trail Blazers are once again disappointed, even though a lot of teams could have found a way to live with a 1-2 record after visiting OKC, San Antonio, and New Orleans.
Wednesday night the trip ended with a 95-91 loss to the Hornets, in a game that had tremendous meaning for both teams. Even though it wasn't a devastating loss for Portland, it did increase the chance that they'll meet either the Lakers or Spurs in the first round. And, of course, the playoffs aren't even a sure thing yet. Houston losing at Philly helped minimize the damage done by the loss. If they had won, the collar would really be getting tight.
You don't need a game summary at this point, but it was very similar to the game at Oklahoma City on Sunday. The Blazers led most of the way, had opportunities to stretch the lead several times, but left the door open enough to allow the game to be decided by a few big possessions. Like the Thunder, the Hornets took full advantage, and hit big shot after big shot, and recorded big wins.
It's certainly true that it was a "swing game," because by winning the season series New Orleans essentially took a one-game lead over the Blazers. If Portland would have won, the series would have been split, and the Blazers have a better conference record than the Hornets at this point, that would have been the second tie breaker. That's why we were talking about it being a potential three-game swing. In short, it'll be very tough for Portland to finish in sixth place now in the west. It isn't impossible, but we're realistically looking at seventh or eigth.
Because the Trail Blazers don't have total control of their own destiny, in terms of who they will play in the playoffs (assuming all goes well and they get in), the damage done by these two losses left a significant mental dent as well. Bagging statement road wins in the final few games of a regular season can be very important to a team's confidence, especially seeing how they won't have homecourt advantage in the first round no matter who they play.
Everyone seems to be in agreement that Dallas would be a better potential first-round opponent than the Lakers or Spurs. I agree with that as well, and also believe that's likely out the window now.
We've been saying this a lot lately, but the Trail Blazers have, without a doubt, the most difficult remaining schedule of the teams we've been watching closely in this race. The good news about Portland's last seven games is that five of them will be at home. But, those home games are Oklahoma City, Dallas, Golden State, the Lakers, and Memphis. The two remaining road games are at Utah and Golden State.
Houston isn't dead yet. But, Wednesday's loss at Philadelphia was brutal for them. Left on the Rockets schedule are home games against San Antonio, Atlanta, Sacramento, the Clippers, and Dallas. They have road games remaining at New Orleans and Minnesota.
The Rockets are now basically feeling like they've got to run the table to have a chance. If they don't, Portland or Memphis will really have to fall flat in the final seven for them to have any hope. The Blazers lead Houston by four games right now, and because the Blazers won the season series, you can basically call it a five-game lead.
New Orleans badly wants the sixth spot, and because of the win over the Blazers, are feeling pretty good about their chances to grab it. The Hornets have beaten Dallas 11-straight times in New Orleans, and have confidence against the Mavs, obviously. They really struggle against the Lakers, and weren't close in any of the regular-season games against them.
The other factor in all of this is Memphis. The Grizzlies have been amazing down the stretch, even if their fans don't seem to notice. They've got the easiest remaining schedule of these teams we've been talking about (not scientific, just my opinion). They've got home games against Minnesota, the Clippers, Sacramento, and New Orleans, and are on the road for New Orleans, Portland, and the Clippers. That final game against Portland, on April 12th, could be for the 7th spot. The season series is tied 1-1, and that tie-breaker could come into play.
Things change every single night in this race, and that's why we always scoreboard watch like we do. The top isn't settled, and obviously, the bottom is far from settled. As I've been saying for a while, the number-one priority is clinching a spot, and the rest will sort itself out. Even though the Blazers have a little cushion right now over Houston, things can change quickly.
So, just playing the odds here, let's assume Dallas is out of the mix for Portland in the playoffs. We're down to San Antonio or the Lakers. The Blazers won the season series against the Spurs 3-1, and are down 0-3 to the Lakers in that series.
Spurs then, right? Or, wrong?
You tell me.