Almost exactly a week ago, the outlook in Blazerland was rosy. The Blazers were winners of four of their last six—not world-beating numbers by any stretch, but a marked improvement over the seven straight they dropped in February.
Coming off unexpected back-to-back road wins against the playoff-bound Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, the Blazers rolled into Oklahoma City with a chance to put the cherry on their last extended road trip of the season, knowing they had a bunch of home games in April with which to pick-off the teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.
Cut to Sunday. Blowout losses to the Brooklyn Nets and the Golden State Warriors bookended a painful late collapse at home against the Utah Jazz, another team needing a bunch of late wins to make the playoffs. Now, it's all but over for the Blazers.
"Our playoff odds are slim and none right now," Blazer head coach Terry Stotts said Friday after his team spent three excruciating minutes giving away a game they very much needed to have even a puncher's chance at the playoffs. "That doesn't take away from the goals of the beginning for the season, which were to compete and get better."
And that's the kind of gray area the Blazers find themselves in with three weeks left to play in the season. With fewer than 10 games remain to be played, the Blazers' season is mostly over without it being actually officially over.
"It's important that we keep playing the right way and for the right reasons," Stotts said Friday.
The Blazers are left to play out the string in April, more or less. Unfortunately, the final month of the season is no picnic. Of the nine games still on the Blazers' schedule, four are against teams with playoff berths locked up, two are against young teams on the verge of making the postseason for the first time, and three are against teams fighting it out for the eighth and final spot on the Western Conference playoff ladder.
And that's why on Friday, a clearly unhappy Terry Stotts preached there was still something meaningful to be gained from what has been a very productive season that will ultimately end up being a disappointment.
His charges are buying into the message.
"We're a young team, a pretty cohesive unit. At times throughout the season we could play with the best of them, and at times we can really kind of get stomped," rookie center Meyers Leonard said Friday. "We've just got to keep our heads up, keep grinding, and understand that we're in it for each other."
It's guys like Leonard who will benefit the most from the otherwise meaningless games down the stretch. Leonard has moved into the starting lineup, with LaMarcus Aldridge temporarily sidelined due to a sprained ankle sustained in the Blazers' home loss to the Nets. Some have suggested that Leonard, who is something of a project at this point in his NBA career, could have greatly benefited from being a day-one starter. Now he has a chance to prove he's worth the 11th pick in last season's draft the Blazers used to pluck him from the University of Illinois.
The Blazers have yet to win with Leonard in the starting lineup, but three of his best scoring nights have come since March 27. For example, the Golden State Warriors blew out the Blazers in Oakland on Saturday, but in that game Leonard recorded season-highs in both points (22) and rebounds (10), and knocked down his first NBA three-pointer. If Leonard's development comes at the risk of his team losing games, it's not altogether bad that those games have nothing riding on them.
The Blazers aren't exactly taking the moral victory route, though. Until it becomes a mathematical impossibility, which will happen likely in the next few days, this team will talk about making a push for the playoffs.
"We still got something to play for, it's not like we're done. Anything can happen so we're still going to approach the games the same," Damian Lillard said Friday. "I think we can still make the playoffs. There's still a chance. It will be a stretch, it will be tough, but it's still possible."
To make the postseason, the Blazers have to hope that one of the top teams in the West, of which they play four in April, take a night off to rest. They can also hope to get hot and put together a couple really big wins against top-flight opponents both at home and on the road.
"We don't just come here [with the attitude of] you can't make the playoffs you don't play," Lillard said. "It's 82 games regardless. We're going to try to win every game that we're on the floor."