This question would have been pretty ridiculous back on New Year’s Eve after Portland had beaten Western Conference powerhouse Oklahoma City Thunder 98-94, and sat at an impressive 25-7 through the first 32 games of the NBA season. LaMarcus Aldridge was being touted as an MVP candidate and some folks were even including Damian Lillard in that argument saying that he might “steal some votes” from LMA.
Man, do those days seem like ages ago. Since Jan. 1 the Blazers are a pedestrian 18-17. I’ll admit it, I was on the bandwagon, I was taking what the early season Blazers had to offer and claiming them to be legitimate title contenders. Call it hope, call it naive — either way you are correct in your assessment. So, what’s been the issue here?
LaMarcus Aldridge has had a couple of injuries that have caused him to miss seven games through Tuesday; however, that’s not the problem because the Blazers have gone 5-2 without Aldridge in the lineup. Aldridge is having a career season and he is surely missed in those games, but Portland has been able to band together and pull out wins in his absence. Regardless of the problems they have faced, the Blazers have a tough road in their last 15 games. A team that earlier was a “lock” for many to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs now has to scratch and claw to hold onto any spot in this year’s NBA postseason.
Portland is currently 43-24 and fifth in the Western Conference, so you might think that they are in a supremely comfortable position and yet you would be incorrect. Portland is only 4.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Phoenix Suns with 15 games left to play (16 for the Suns). While 4.5 games is a LOT to gain over 16 games, crazier things have been accomplished in the sports world. Portland is heading the wrong direction (they are the only team in the top eight out West to have a losing record over their last 10 games — 4-6) and if they cannot correct quickly they could be the odd ones out; which would be a terrible disappointment after their amazing start to this season.
As mentioned above Portland has 15 games left; seven games are against teams .500 or better and will be tough games to win. Some of those include: the Heat, Bulls, Grizzlies, Warriors, Clippers and Suns. The game against the Suns could be huge in determining the outcome for both teams in their playoff chase. So, that means eight games are against sub .500 teams and include games that should be easier to win versus the Bucks, Magic, Kings and Jazz.
Conversely, the Phoenix Suns have 16 games remaining, but face an even more difficult road than their counterparts. Nine of the 16 games remaining will be against teams .500 or better for the Suns, leaving only seven easily winnable games for them. The reality is that the Suns face the tougher task regardless of opponent, because they are trying to play catch-up in this race.
Why no mention of the Mavericks, Warriors or Grizzlies falling out of the race? Those three teams are hitting their stride and I just can’t see them falling off enough for Phoenix to overtake them. However, if the Blazers continue to slide and Phoenix turns it up then it’s feasible that Phoenix sneaks in at the eighth spot and the Blazers are left on the outside lookin’ in.
I think the Blazers will go at least 8-7 in these last 15 games however, making it nearly impossible for Phoenix to catch and pass them. The Suns are 4.5 back, so if the Blazers can win at least eight games, they would force the Suns to go 13-3 in their last 16 games to make up that ground and I just don’t see that happening with nine games versus above .500 teams.
Again, crazier things have happened but not this year, not to this Blazers’ team. Ultimately I think the Blazers end up somewhere 5-8 out West and facing a tough, tough first round matchup … on the road.