The Blazers won their final game of last season on March 22. Down in Atlanta on a Friday night, the Blazers handed the playoff bound Hawks an 11-point loss. It was the fourth game of a five-game road trip that included a win the night before against another playoff team in the Chicago Bulls, and back-to-back losses against the Bucks in Milwaukee and the 76ers in Philadelphia.
That trip, the final extended roadie of last season, ended with a 20-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder that kick-started the longest losing streak in the history of the Blazers franchise, a streak of lost games didn’t end until the second game of the 2013-14 season.
That losing streak is on the minds of every Blazers fan as the team staggers into April.
March hasn’t been kind to the Blazers. Anyone who looked at the team’s schedule prior to the start of the season shouldn’t be surprised: Two five-game road trips, bookended by three-game home stands, meant the Blazers were going to be away from the Moda Center for most of the penultimate month of the NBA season.
After a stretch of subpar play in February, which included close losses to top-tier teams and more losses to bad teams than anybody should be comfortable with, it became clear the Blazers were heading into a season-defining stretch of games that probably wasn’t going to end well.
Losing four times in their first five road games in March, the Blazers—once of the hottest teams in the NBA— were heading for an epic collapse, bringing to mind bad memories of a season ago and reminding Blazers fans that the more things change (winning when it doesn’t matter) the more things stay the same (losing when it does matter).
That’s the popular narrative of the moment. There’s a chance the Blazers are in trouble. There’s a chance they’re currently playing for their playoff lives. There’s a chance that all the good done way back in November and December was all for naught.
And here’s where Blazer fans need to seriously pump the breaks. Like every good story, the tale of the Blazers in 2014 has two sides. Yes, on the one side is the obvious shortcomings of a team that, without its best player and one of its more important back-ups (remember Joel Freeland?), has been exposed by some bad teams and completely over-matched by some good ones. But really, it doesn’t matter.
What matters at this point in the season isn’t whether or not the Blazers win or lose. What matters is whether or not the ninth place team in the Western Conference wins or loses.
As of this writing, that team is the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns currently sit at 42 wins, two fewer than the Blazers. Dallas has 71 games in the books, meaning that the absolute most games the Mavs could win is 53. The Blazers, with 45 wins, have a magic number of eight. Meaning, any combination of wins by the Blazers and losses by the Suns that adds up to eight before April 6 and Portland has qualified for the NBA playoffs.
Eight might seem like a big number, but the Blazers don’t have to win eight games to get into the playoffs. Phoenix just can’t win out. And the Suns don’t have a cakewalk schedule. Before it’s all said and done, the Western Conference's most surprising upstart has to face the Clippers, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Grizzlies and the Mavericks.
The Mavericks and the Grizzlies are, along with the Suns, the teams that have occupied the seven and eight seeds in the Western Conference for most of the season. The Grizzlies don’t have the most difficult stretch run, but they have to face the Heat, the Warriors, the spoiler-ready Denver Nuggets twice and the Spurs on the road before finishing the season with the Suns and the Mavs.
All this schedule analysis is to illustrate a point. There are going to be games that have a tremendous impact on the Blazers chances at the postseason—games that are going to determine where the Blazers finish in the West—that they will have nothing whatsoever to do with.
And that’s a good thing. The Blazers might not be in total control of their own destiny, but they are in a position where Phoenix losing to Memphis, or Dallas losing to Golden State is just as important as Portland beating whatever opponent might be on the docket for the Blazers that night.
At this point in the season, it’s better to be inside the playoff picture fighting to stay there than be outside and fighting to get in. It’s so much better, in fact, that ESPN’s playoff odds have the Blazers chances of making the playoffs at a healthy 99.0% (even if Nate Silver-approved professional gambler Haralabos Voulgaris is willing to risk 10% of his rather formidable net worth against those odds).
If the Blazers lose all the rest of their games in 2014, a run of losses that would exactly match last season’s streak at 13 games, they would finish with 45 wins. Last season, the Rockets and the Lakers both made the playoffs with 45 wins. The last time the Blazers made the playoffs, the seven and eight seeds each had 46 wins.
A year ago, the Blazers lost 13 straight. It was a rough patch, and when the end came, everybody was glad that it was over. This season, the Blazers could lose 13 straight to end the season—anything is possible—and still make the playoffs.
That’s the difference between this season and last season. And that’s a pretty significant difference.