As we round the final bend and head down the homestretch, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in a dog fight near the bottom four spots of the Western Conference.
With one of the toughest season-ending schedules in the conference, the Trail Blazers could seriously use a momentum builder in the form of a 41-point thumping of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I think for us, we need [a win like this]," Head Coach Nate McMillan said after the Rose Garden blowout. "We really haven't had a lot of games like this where from start to finish stayed focused."
Indeed, the Trail Blazers improved dramatically in a matter of two nights. Although they came up victorious two days before against the Dallas Mavericks, Portland allowed its opponent to shoot nearly 60 percent from the field.
Against the Cavaliers, it was a different story, as the Trail Blazers held Cleveland to 35.6 percent shooting - 27.3 percent through three quarters - while outscoring the opposition 62-30 in the paint and 28-13 on points off turnovers.
This kind of improvement and performance is something Portland will need to fuel off of heading into the final stretch, considering the competition it faces as the season winds to a close.
With 14 games remaining, the Trail Blazers are projected to face the Mavericks in the postseason, but things could quickly change in a few games.
Of Portland's 14 games left on the schedule, 11 feature matchups against clubs that hold records
above .500, the second-most in the Western Conference. Of those 11, seven come against the top four seeds - San Antonio Spurs (2), Los Angeles Lakers (2), Mavericks (1) and Oklahoma City Thunder (2) - who Portland has a 4-8 record against.
At this point in the season, those dates are circled - on opponents' calendars.
The Trail Blazers have momentum. They're jelling as a team. Even with the two losses to Atlanta and Charlotte, Brandon Roy said Portland is settling into a rhythm and are continuing to improve during a stretch of the year when teams begin to break down.
"As far as our rhythm, I think it's good," he said. "I think Gerald (Wallace) is starting to find his way out there, and he's even going to continue to get better and better. I mean we can't expect his best right now because he's trying to get acclamated to the team and just a new environment... For me and Camby, being out so long, I think we're also going to get better and better. I think the team is going to continue to just, hopefully, improve."
Wallace agreed, saying that he's found a firm hold on his role.
"I think I'm starting to get more comfortable with what I'm expected to do and where I'm expected to be at on the court," he said. "Guys are looking for me, I'm trying to get out on the court more. It's starting to come together like we want."
In his second game as a starter with the Trail Blazers, Wallace, along with LaMarcus Aldridge, led a Portland attack that converted 18 Cleveland miscues into 28 points. He tallied 17 points of his own while helping the Trail Blazer defense hold the Cavaliers to a poor shooting night.
If that focus that was displayed against Cleveland remains the same, Wallace said Portland will be tough to beat.
"Defensively we were in tune with everything we were supposed to do, and offensively our execution was great, so I think our main thing is we've got to keep our focus," he said. "We've got to understand what we're doing and know that this is a tight race. We've got to come out and be this perfect every night."
Defense is the key. Seven games prior to the Cavalier matchup, during which Portland went 5-2, the Trail Blazers forced 17.1 turnovers per game, resulting in 22.3 points. They did all this while limiting opponents to 10 points off less than 11 giveaways per contest.
And it's not like Portland doesn't understand the situation it's in. In fact, McMillan sat the team down and broke out the Western Conference standings during practice, allowing his players to gain a grasp on what games remain, where others sit and how they need to finish the season.
"Everything's in our hands to finish up strong," McMillan said. "We've talked about it (in the past). At this time of the season, you just make sure everybody knows where we are and what we need to do."
Finishing strong is what the Trail Blazers have done in recent years. In the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, both of which saw Portland notch at least 50 wins, the Trail Blazers went 11-3 and 10-4 in the last 14 games, respectively. In the month of March in those years, they've combined for a 22-7 record. So far this season, Portland is 6-3 and counting.
Now with a full roster, with Roy and Marcus Camby back in the rotation and Wallace finding a comfort zone within the team, the Trail Blazers will be a tough opponent. McMillan, however, doesn't want to get ahead of himself.
"We just take it one game at a time," he said. "We've been fortunate enough to win two. Everything's a teaching opportunity. It's good to teach off a win. You can certainly teach off a loss, but... Take it one game at a time."