Learning Curve: The progress of Damian Lillard and the rest of the upstart Blazers has been a welcome development in Portland this season. Photo © Bruce Ely/The Oregonian
There’s a new mayor in Rip City.
Nearly halfway through the 2012–13 season, the Portland Trail Blazers suddenly find themselves in an unexpected role—as playoff contenders. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the consistent, all-star level player that Blazers fans have come to take for granted, and Portland boasts a number of roleplayers who have stayed in their lane and answered when called upon. The roster has gelled much more quickly than predicted, providing an unexpected counterargument to the status quo in the Northwest Division standings.
Thursday’s dramatic 92-90 defeat of defending champions the Miami Heat was just the latest example of a team looking to prove that they can do more than overachieve as the franchise continues to rebuild. Rather than simply making the best out of a bad situation, the Blazers have set about systematically dismantling the public’s preconceptions about what this young team is capable of accomplishing in their first year together. And it all starts with Damian Lillard.
Through the first two-and-a-half months of the new NBA campaign, Lillard has been the league’s best rookie, and second place is a mile away. The pride of the Big Sky Conference leads all first-year players in points, assists and minutes played. He hit seven three-pointers and scored 37 points in Friday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors, and in the win over Miami, Lillard scored only 10 points on 11 shots but sent eight assists into the hot hands of Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Night after night, Lillard is proving to be the dynamic yet unselfish star that the Blazers have been looking for since the departure of Brandon Roy, giving them a chance to win on any given night regardless of the opponent.
The upstart Blazers will try to make some headway in the Northwest Division as they travel to face Denver tonight. Portland has a tough task ahead of them against a high-octane Nuggets offense led by point guard Ty Lawson. Defense will be crucial for the Blazers—Batum should match up well with Denver forward Danilo Gallinari, as should Matthews with Andre Iguodala, though Aldridge and J.J. Hickson could struggle down low against the athleticism of Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee. With the all-star break approaching fast, the Blazers need to assert themselves in the division and gear up for a playoff push in the spring.
It won’t be easy. As expected, all of the Blazers’ rivals in the Northwest are in the playoff mix. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been dominant in nearly every facet of the game this year, and Kevin Durant is playing at an MVP level. Portland’s lead over Utah and Minnesota is a tenuous one, with plenty of games still to play in the grinding NBA schedule, and Denver’s young nucleus will only get more dangerous as the season wears on. Portland has a tough road ahead of them, but thanks to Lillard and whole new attitude in the Rose City, the Blazers are already well on their way.