The Portland Trail Blazers lost at home to Golden State on January 8 – by 20 points, no less – to fall to 15-24 on the season.
Well, since then, Portland has been better. A lot better. The Blazers (29-27) have won 14 of their last 17 games, including 10 of 11. Their most impressive win, of course, was their 32-point demolition of the Warriors last Friday, a game in which Damian Lillard went off for 51 points.
Why has this team suddenly been so good over the last six weeks or so?
“Well, I think it’s been a couple things,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “One, we were a little unfortunate in losing a lot of close games early in the season. Winning and losing close games has a big impact in this league. I think how we lost some of those games and how we’re winning them now is the difference. We’re defending better. I think we’re making better decisions down the stretch, and we’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
That confidence was on full display last Friday against Golden State. Portland led 42-31 after the first quarter, 104-79 after the third quarter and ultimately won 137-105. The Warriors shot just 39.1 percent from the floor and committed 20 turnovers.
“We had a lot of things go well that game,” Stotts said. “We played a very good pace. Our offense really was clicking for most of the game, and defensively, I thought it was one of our better games as far as maintaining a focus. Golden State is such a tough team to guard because they keep moving the ball, everyone’s a threat, they’re very unselfish and they’re going to score. But even after they scored, we didn’t lose our focus defensively. We forced some turnovers in the third quarter. I think they had 13 in the third quarter, which was a byproduct of some of their decisions, but also I thought our defense had something to do with it as well. We kept our composure.”
The Blazers, of course, have no chance of catching the Warriors (50-5) in the West, but they are firmly in the playoff mix. In fact, a first-round matchup with Golden State is certainly plausible, especially with seventh-seeded Portland just one game ahead of eighth-seeded Houston (28-28) entering play February 23.
Still, while a lot of elite teams have a weakness – some of the Spurs’ prime players are older, the Cavs’ don’t have a consistent outside shooter and the Thunder don’t have a third banana to help Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – the Warriors are as steady as they come. When they lose, it’s almost more about them playing poorly than their opponents playing well.
Does Golden State have a discernible weakness?
“I don’t know that they do, in all honesty,” Stotts said. “They’re very good at both ends of the court. They’re very versatile. They can play big guys, they can play small guys, they can play inside-out, they’re very unselfish – I don’t know that they have a weakness, as evidenced by their record.”
The Warriors started the season 24-0 and are currently 24-0 at home. They’re also averaging a league-leading 115 points per game – 5.4 points per game more than Oklahoma City (109.6), which ranks second in that department.
“For people to understand how difficult it is to win in this league every night and for them to do what they’ve been doing to maintain the mental sharpness and the will to go out and give that effort and play the way they do every night is not easy,” Stotts said. “I don’t know that they have a weakness. They’re defending world champs and they’ve playing even better this year. So really, from a purist standpoint, I love the way they play. I think it’s great for basketball. I think it’s great for young players, the skill level that they have. They have so many players that can dribble, pass and shoot, and they’re unselfish and they play team basketball. So to answer your question, no, they don’t have a lot of weaknesses.”