Blazers tearing it up

Last season the Portland Trail Blazers had 33 wins. This season they reached that number on Feb. 1, with 35 games left to play. This reversal of fortune has led to a revival of Rip City. Terry Stott’s coaching has brought a round-ball renaissance with Portland’s team in contention for a playoff run.

The Northwest division has been one of the more potent groupings since the NBA switched to three divisions per conference before the 2011–12 season. Some divisions, like the Northwest, are geographically spread out (Portland to Oklahoma City is a four-plus hour flight). With perennial competitor Oklahoma City Thunder leading the way, this division has brought three teams to the always competitive Western Conference playoffs each year since the realignment.

This year that may change. The Blazers and Thunder look solidly playoff-bound, but the third place Minnesota Timberwolves sit 10th overall in the West, behind Memphis and Phoenix for the final postseason spot.

Despite Northwest competition not being what it has been in past years, these games are always fiercely contested. The Blazers can hang their hat on their two wins over the Thunder this year. In late February they hoped to have more division luck when they faced the Jazz, Timberwolves and Nuggets in a five day span.

In the first two matchups the Blazers’ offense was inconsistent without go-to guy LaMarcus Aldridge. Damian Lillard has done an admirable job of leading his team, averaging over 30 points with 50 percent shooting since Aldridge went down. Against the Denver Nuggets, the new lineups started to play Stott’s “flow” offense cohesively; they had 17 assists on their 28 made field goals. Despite the early challenges, the Blazers pulled out victories in all three games. They are now sitting at 11–3 in the Northwest, one of the best division records in the league. It also marked the first time the 1996–97 season that Portland won two games in the Mile High City.

For the Blazers, in recent games sometimes fielding a viable rotation has been a challenge.

With injuries to multiple players, new faces have emerged from the depths of the bench. Dorrel Wright started in place of Aldrige, saving Thomas Robinson’s size for the second unit. While more naturally a small forward at 6 feet 9 inches and 200 lbs., Wright has filled in like the veteran he is, displaying defensive acumen against larger opponents. Will Barton, recently dubbed “The Thrill,” has wowed Blazer fans with his athleticism and dunks, including a jaw-dropping 360 against the Jazz on Feb. 21.

Thomas Robinson had a breakout game against the Timberwolves, scoring 14 points, grabbing 18 boards and two blocks. One of those blocks was a “welcome to the NBA” moment. Robinson chased down Corey Brewer and emphatically swatted the ball to save a layup. This block led to a sweet alley-oop dunk by The Thrill at the other end. Unfortunately, Robinson suffered a strained patella against Denver and is now day-to-day, depleting an already stricken Blazers frontline. Mo Williams had continued to be the consistent presence off the bench.

In the absence of LA, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and now Robinson, the weight of post-play has rested on the broad shoulders of Robin Lopez. Side Show Rob has been the most productive Blazers center since Arvydas Sabonis, and possibly the best defensively since Bill Walton. His kind of play is what the Rose Garden (known to some as the Moda Center) faithful love to watch. He notched career-highs in blocks and rebounds in the prior division matchups: 18 boards against Utah and seven blocks against Denver. Lopez has been the difference between wins and losses in the last two weeks. At times he gets in foul trouble, which is problematic with no one to step in for him. When Lopez is not on the floor the opposing team always finds lanes to the basket and gets high percentage shots. The Blazers center is not exclusively a defensive asset. He is the reason why the team is second in the NBA in offensive rebounds and leads the league in second chance points. While three-point accuracy can’t be relied upon every night, the hustle and rebounds will always be a part of Robin Lopez’s game.

After last week’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers have 40 wins. This is tied for the fourth fastest pace in franchise history. With a month and half of regular season basketball left to play, followed by the return of Rip City to the playoffs, this is certainly a Blazers season to remember. Hopefully Aldridge got the rest and recuperation he needed, because this team needs him for what’s ahead.