Last weekend, the Portland Trail Blazers played the best game of their surprisingly good season.
Their April 13 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors and their crazy-hot shooting guard Stephen Curry showcased the team at its finest. The combination of crisp pick-and-rolls, clutch shots and notably good luck were textbook examples of why the Blazers are headed to their first playoff berth since 2011.
The Blazers were smoking early this season, for a time holding the NBA's best record and rekindling affections of disaffected fans ("On the Rebound," WW, Dec. 18, 2013).
They cooled off a bit in the spring. But the team, now 53-28 with one regular-season game left, is good enough to have slid into the playoffs, and will meet its longtime nemeses, the Houston Rockets.
In 2009, the Rockets destroyed the most promising Portland team in a decade by winning a playoff series in six games. The next season, franchise center Greg Oden went up for a rebound against Houston and kept going down, sinking to the court with a fractured knee.
Even this season, some of the Blazers' most frustrating losses have come against star guard James Harden and the Rockets.
Here's how the Blazers can break this miniature curse and extend their run into the playoffs.
D is for defense—and decider.
Watch for a high-scoring series: The Rockets and Blazers have the second- and third-best offenses, respectively, in the NBA (behind the Los Angeles Clippers). The team that decides to commit to defense will win this series.
The Blazers have a target number: 100. They've lost only four times this season when they've kept opponents under 100 points. They lost three of four games against the Rockets this season—and the Rockets averaged 120 points in those wins.
The key to watch: how well Portland contains Harden, who is averaging nearly 28 points a game in April.
Lillard must rise to the occasion.
Damian Lillard is a star, but he has no postseason experience. Lillard, when he was at Weber State, never even played in the NCAA Tournament.
All the clichés are true: The lights will be brighter, the intensity greater, and the expectations on Lillard will be nothing short of brilliant, creating real pressure.
Lillard—a point guard with a new $100 million shoe deal with Adidas—has been great when called upon to be great. If he buckles to the added pressure, it will be a short series for the Blazers.
Success will be riding on the bench.
Blazers general manager Neil Olshey is on the short list for NBA Executive of the Year, to a large degree because of his ability to build a bargain-basement team—including a bench far more reliable than last season's.
The Blazers will need their backup players to get even better.
Point guard Mo Williams is Portland's most consistent second-unit scorer. Williams has been a lightning rod for criticism at times this season for his cavalier ball handling and sometimes questionable decision making. But his 41 playoff appearances are by far the most of any Blazer, so he'll provide more than just baskets.
Avoid the mind games together.
The mental aspects of a best-of-seven series can be just as important as the physical. The Rockets' victories over Portland this season give them the edge—especially after Houston's come-from-behind overtime win in early March.
But it's about more than just forgetting past wins and losses. The Blazers have to avoid the distractions that have already started.
Lillard and Rockets guard Patrick Beverley exchanged barbs in the press last month, animosity that should carry over to the playoffs.
The Rockets aren't a bunch of savvy veterans like the San Antonio Spurs. But both center Dwight Howard and Harden have been to the NBA Finals. Those guys know how a game can be won or lost before a single shot goes up.
The real battle is Stotts vs. McHale.
Through 81 regular-season games, Blazers coach Terry Stotts has effectively managed his rotations, especially when power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was out of the lineup. He's gotten consistent improvement from guard Wesley Matthews and forward Nicolas Batum, and turned center Robin Lopez into one hell of a player.
Beyond maximizing the output of his starting five, Stotts is going to need some masterful moments of play-calling. From Houston coach Kevin McHale, the Blazers are going to see every play, every defense and every possible personnel combination the Rockets can muster.
McHale has the playoff experience Stotts lacks—he took the Rockets to the postseason last year (they lost in the first round), not to mention his Hall-of-Fame playing career with the Boston Celtics.
If Stotts can produce a couple of sneaky plays at opportune moments, or if an unexpected rotation change has a positive effect on a game, the Blazers have a very good chance of taking the series, extending one of the most intriguing seasons in franchise history, at least for a few more weeks.