Blazers talk clinching playoff berth
This is a day to celebrate if you're a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Really, 50 wins? A playoff berth in the bag with more than a week to go in the season and a good possibility of a No. 5 seed? If you tell me you saw that coming you're either really smart or you're lying to me. Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Trail Blazers' over/under at 38 wins this season and those guys don't build enormous casinos by being wrong. I made various predictions here and there prior to the season but felt I was being charitable by saying this team would win 42 games in the loaded Western Conference.
Man, was I off base. I just didn't see this coming. And so let me tell you about just a few things that caught me by surprise:
- Robin Lopez. I had no idea he was this good. I should have known, though, because he started to show very positive signs last season, signs that Neil Olshey -- who had a sensational summer -- surely noted. Lopez fit this team -- and this town -- perfectly.
- The continued improvement of Damian Lillard. Yes, I knew he was good but I did not expect his growth curve to continue to trend upward so rapidly. He has continued to expand his game (even from the start of the season) at a very impressive rate and not only became an all-star, but turned into the sort of face-of-the-franchise player this organization has been looking for.
- The leap forward by LaMarcus Aldridge. The big thing here has been the rebounding. This is a man who showed no signs he was going to become a consistent double-digit rebound guy game after game. Along with that has come leadership and a willingness to accept responsibility for big shots at big moments.
- The constant year-to-year improvement of Wesley Matthews. OK, well, this one is not such a surprise. Matthews burns to be an outstanding player and is wiling to back it up with the hard off-season work that it takes. His continued improvement as a ball-handler and shooter speaks to that hard work.
- Nic Batum's willingness to accept whatever task his team needs from him on a given night. He can pass, rebound, shoot and defend -- and is developing the insight to know which of those skills his team needs the most on a game-by-game basis. He is a very smart player.
- Terry Stotts' great combination of providing structure while at the same time allowing his players to be creative. This is one of the most underrated traits of modern coaches, in a basketball era when so many players have grown up without any real experience playing within a structured system at either end of the floor. Stotts has sold his players on a style of play that allows them freedom, but with a built-in expectation of unselfishness. It's been so impressive to watch this develop.
- Neil Olshey's quiet orchestration of the personnel side of the organization. Now I'm not going to say the man is quiet on a one-on-one basis because a five-minute conversation with him can turn into an hour-long, wide-ranging discussion of everything from player development to local restaurants. But what's been cool is his desire to remain in the background for virtually the entire season, allowing coaches and players to have the spotlight to themselves. He has kept an extremely low profile.
All in all, let me say it's been a very unusual season, full of the sorts of ups and downs a young team often faces -- but with overall optimism you can associate with a developing squad. I hope the players enjoyed it, because with success -- as I'm sure they are aware - comes expectations. And that will start very, very soon.