The Trail Blazers are right in the middle of this Western Conference playoff race, but not in the way they had hoped. They've now got four games left this season, and all will be against team's battling to get into the postseason, or fighting for playoff positioning.
In some ways it's lousy timing, given the Trail Blazers are using these final games to discover what they have, and what they want going into the future.
Portland is throwing units on the floor that have had very little experience together, and are trying to get a look at individual ability at the same time. I suppose the best way to do that is toss them into difficult circumstances and see who floats and who does not. Playing teams desperate for victories, in this heated playoff race, will likely lead to some lopsided final scores, but may give the Blazers some answer they need moving forward.
For instance, Monday night in Phoenix the Trail Blazers sat Raymond Felton last night so they could get a good look at Jonny Flynn and Nolan Smith. Measuring them against a former MVP like Steve Nash was probably asking a little too much, but seeing how they responded to the situation was also a good test.
Flynn and Smith both got an up-close look at one of the best point guards to ever play in this league, in a game he badly wanted to win. No one leads, and effects a game, from that position, like Nash. He's simply the best at making those around him better, and probably still has two or three good years left in him. Of course, he's a free agent this summer and Portland could give him a chase.
Flynn ended up with just four points, but did a decent job running the offense. He had six assists and just two turnovers in his 24 minutes. Smith, who is looking like more of a combo guard, ended with 14 points, five assists, and three rebounds.
Then, there's Luke Babbitt. He got the start in place of Nicolas Batum, and ended up playing most of the game at the small-forward spot. Most of his minutes this season have come as a stretch four. Luke played a career-high 39 minutes, and posted a career-high 18 points and five rebounds. Clearly, he's going to be a good NBA three-point shooter, but is trying to show that he can be more than just a one-dimensional player. Babbitt hit four of his nine three-point attempts, but also grabbed five rebounds. That's a decent amount, but at 6-9, should concentrate on being better in that category. It was another step in the right direction for Luke, at the very least.
Wesley Matthews backed up his 31-point game at Sacramento, with 19 points against the Suns. We know what Wesley is by now, so there was really no mystery here. He always plays hard, plays through injury and tired legs, and is likely a part of this team's future moving forward.
J.J. Hickson poses an interesting opportunity for the Trail Blazers. They'll qualify him on June 30th, and then will be in a position to match any offer he gets. It's a good free-agent market, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of offers he gets. Obviously, because of his role with this team right now, his stock is on the rise. For the right price, he could be a very nice backup power forward in the future for the Blazers, and he's been very vocal about wanting to stay a Trail Blazer.
Hasheem Thabeet is another interesting case. He's a former number-two pick in the draft, but has yet to get consistent minutes in the NBA. He is the biggest man in the league, at 7-3, 265, but doesn't move particularly well. This was evident in the game against the Suns. He's shown flashes of active play, but still needs a lot of work. His size alone will keep him in this league, but finding the right situation, will likely still be a challenge for him.
With their win over the Blazers, the Suns got themselves back into the eighth spot in the west. Going into the game we knew it'd be a difficult spot for this particular group of Trail Blazers. They fought most of the night, but were overwhelmed by the inspired Suns in the second half.
As far as the opponent goes, in terms of facing a team that's desperate for a win, nothing will change in these next few games. Utah put together an amazing three-overtime win over Dallas on Monday, and the Jazz need to win again on Wednesday at the Rose Garden. Then, it's a brutal three-game trip to end the season, at Memphis, San Antonio, and Utah.
The Blazers are in a position to effect the race, but that's probably a secondary goal at this point. It's a teaching opportunity, and a chance for them to evaluate and decide what pieces they want going forward.