Meaningful basketball in March. Swirl that around in your mind for a moment, let is saturate because that’s a phrase very few would’ve imagined for the Trail Blazers and the beginning of the season—and not as a knock on the squad, but simply based on age, experience and composition.
Now here we sit with twelve games left on the docket, eight of them in the raucous Rose Garden, and only two and a half games out of the final spot in the playoffs. Add to that Portland’s recent upswing in play demonstrated with two wins in Chicago
and three and a half quarters of fight in OKC
, and the recent tribulations of the Lakers and the Jazz, other teams in the final push, and you’re looking at a playoff door still cracked open.
The opening is narrow, there’s no doubt about it—the Trail Blazers will not only need to string together some wins against above .500 teams, but they’ll need squads ahead of them to rack up some losses—but the guys are in high spirits knowing the have a chance.
“It’s great to be playing meaningful basketball,” Wesley Matthews said. “And it’s like it’s almost set up for us to take it. Everybody keeps dropping in front of us, they still have to come through us, and the end of the day we have 12 left, eight at home, all against the best competition which is when we play our best, so we might as well take it and stop playin’ around.
“We had two set-back losses against Milwaukee and Philly,” he continued. “And we came back and played probably our best defensive game against one of the best teams in the league in their place and then go to Atlanta, a team we struggle with at home, we struggle on the road and we struggle with back-to-backs and we play them tough, they get an 11-point lead on us and we still fight back and almost run away with it, so yeah, we feel good about it.”
As an emotional leader for the group, seeing Matthews as jovial as he was following practice on Tuesday speaks volumes for the mindset of the team heading into the stretch run.
Nicolas Batum added to the belief in the possibility of a post-season for the darkhorse Trail Blazers. “It’s exciting because teams are already playing playoff basketball right now like the Lakers, Utah, Houston and all those teams have been good, Dallas too,” he said. “The last 12 games will be very exciting because we can’t say at this time we won’t be in the 8th spot, so it’s good. We really feel it, we can do something, we got that far so we believe.”
Head Coach Terry Stotts knows the road ahead is straight uphill, but the credit he gives his players for continuing to do battle night in and night out is well deserved.
“We’re in the hunt and we got a lot of work cut out for us,” Stotts said. “But the Chicago and Atlanta games gave us some life, gave us some confidence in how we played and how we won and for three and a half quarters at Oklahoma City we played well. So it’s not gonna be easy, but you have to have a certain amount of confidence if it’s gonna happen.
“You like it when your games matter and our team’s approach to it, we haven’t quit. It’s been about a month now where people think we should shut it down and throw in the towel and all that and our guys refuse to quit and from a coaches standpoint that’s what you want. We came into this season wanting to compete and that’s what we continue to do.”
And finally, for the young point guard and frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, and the other rookies on the team the experience alone of playing games with ramifications this late in the season provides lessons on it’s own, including the adoption of a more focused mindset.
“We’re in a position that a lot of people didn’t expect us to be,” Damian Lillard said. “I figured we would be able to come out and compete and win some games, but right now we’re still in position to do what we want to do.
“I think it lets us know that there’s still a chance for us. There’s a lot of teams kinda in a bunch right now and things could go wrong for some teams and things could go well for us and a lot could change, but right now we just keeping our heads up. We’re aware of everything that’s goin’ on, but we just gotta take care of ourselves first.”
The next 12 games will write the end of the season story or the prologue to the post-season and it’s up to the Trail Blazers to put pen to paper.