On the final day of 2013, the Blazers pulled off one of professional sports’ most beloved clichés by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Oklahoma City. An improbable victory over one of the most excellent teams in the NBA, albeit without one of their most excellent players in fashion-forward point guard Russell Westbrook, stopped the Blazers’ first losing streak of this season.
A few nights later, in their first action of 2014 and back in the friendly confines of the Moda Center, the Blazers hung 134 points on the hapless, and possibly playoff-bound, Charlotte Bobcats, and regained, for just a moment, their spot as the top team in the Western Conference.
It wasn’t just the 21 made three-pointers that put the Blazers back into the number one spot in the West. On the night that the Blazers were blasting the team owned by Michael Jordan, the Oklahoma City Thunder (sans Westbrook until after the All-Star Break) and the San Antonio Spurs were losing to the Eastern Conference doormats the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks.
Beating a bad team from the East while their chief rivals for the best in the West failed to do the same was enough to push the Blazers ahead two whole spots on the Western Conference playoff table.
Though the final jockeying for playoff position will come down to the heavyweights in the West knocking each other around in the early spring, when wins and losses count double, whipping a couple lowly Eastern Conference foes in January might be the difference between the Blazers getting to start the 2014 postseason in Portland or having to travel.
And, of course, that’s why the Blazers’ unexpected loss to the sub .500 Philadelphia 76ers can be seen as the first semi-serious stumble in what has otherwise been an error-free half-season.
Blazers.com beat writer Casey Holdahl made a salient point following only the fourth home loss of the season when he reminded Nicolas Batum that this Blazer team makes sure to beat teams they otherwise shouldn’t lose to. Batum’s response was candid, and to the point: “We should have won that game,” Batum said, mentioning that the Blazers should have been ready to play a confident Sixers team that was looking for redemption after getting shellacked by the Blazers in Philadelphia earlier in the season.
But instead of being ready, the Blazers spotted Philly two touchdowns in the first quarter, turned the ball over a few too many times in the fourth quarter, and missed just enough free throws that not even a mad scramble in the game’s final five seconds could save them.
Unfortunate as it may be, with the Blazers hanging tough in the top three in the West, this team somehow manages to continue to give a steady supply of ammunition to their doubters.
“We’ve been trying to emphasize that we’re not one of those teams that comes into games and it’s like they could win or they could lose,” Joel Freeland said following Saturday's loss. “We’re expected to win these kinds of games. These are type of games we really have to take advantage of.”
Luckily for the Blazers, the 76ers aren’t the only sub .500 team on the docket for the next few weeks. Not one of the Blazers’ next four opponents has a winning record. The Orlando Magic, another team racing to the bottom, hits Portland next Wednesday. The Magic have won five fewer games than the Bobcats, and if it weren’t for the seriously woeful Milwaukee Bucks, they’d be the worst team in the league.
The Blazers have arguably their most difficult road swing of the season in the middle of January, but those three games in Texas and one in Oklahoma City are bookended by home dates with the Cavaliers (struggling even though they’ve also parted-ways with the NBA’s biggest albatross, the aforementioned Andrew Bynum, and acquired All-Star small forward Luol Deng) and the Nuggets (a team on the verge of total mutiny, it would seem).
Winning games against every bad team will more than make up for losses to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. And its not just January that is bringing the sacrificial lambs to Portland.
Every month, from now until the end of the season, the Blazers’ schedule tilts so there are just enough bunnies to compensate for those rare times the Blazers roll into San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back.
The trick will be, of course, not losing to the Philadelphias of the league. Hopefully that won’t be a hard trick to pull off.
“We don’t dwell on anything,” Freeland said when he was asked how long it might take for the Blazers to recover from their first unanticipated loss of the season. “If we lose, we lose but we try to learn from that, take everything we can from that game and put it into the next one. Try to make sure we don’t make those same mistakes we were making tonight.”
Thirty-four games into the 2013-14 season, the Blazers’ margin for error is wider than most of the rest of the teams in the Western Conference. They’re a full four games up on the Los Angeles Clippers, who themselves would have home court advantage if the playoffs started right now.
The Blazers are just about seven games ahead of Dallas, the No. 8 team in the West, and would probably have to lose every game in February and most of their games in March to miss out on the postseason entirely.
But the postseason is no longer the goal.
Only the real Chicken Littles, or the most dedicated Blazer haters, are ready to predict a premature end after one lousy game (and one rather dubious out of bounds call reversal), but this team has reached the point where winning is expected, and losing to a bad team is borderline unforgivable.