The final week of the 2013-14 NBA regular season is upon us. It’s been a rather successful 24 weeks of Trail Blazers basketball this season in Rip City, though the daunting task of getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season is still yet to be accomplished. That journey begins this weekend against the Rockets, most likely in Houston, though there’s still a chance, albeit a small one, the Trail Blazers overtake the fourth seed.
But before then, there’s still one last round of Power Rankings to peruse. The Trail Blazers started the regular season ranked in the middle of the pack, fought their way to the top of the rankings by virtue of their white-hot start and, despite bouts of inconsistent play in the second half of the season, have been ranked in the upper third of the NBA ever since.
And now, in Week 24,
the Power Rankers are having their last regular season say about a team that has won eight of their last nine games and are coming off a dramatic overtime victory versus the Warriors. All in all, it’s a good way for the Trail Blazers to enter the playoffs after it looked for a brief moment that they might end up on the outside looking in.
Onto the final rankings …
· Marc Stein of ESPN.com looks to be back on the bandwagon, as he puts the Trail Blazers at No. 7 this week, five spot better than last week …
Going 8-1 since getting LaMarcus Aldridge back is forcing Houston to work to clinch the No. 4 seed. I also suspect the Blazers — who haven’t won a playoff series, believe it or not, since 1999-2000 — want the Rockets in Round 1 as much as the Rockets want them. Given the alternatives.
I’ve gone back and forth so many times on which team is the best playoff matchup for the Trail Blazers that I don’t even know what I believe anymore. But that the Blazers and Rockets are locked into a first-round matchup, I suppose discussing if playing the Clippers, Thunder or Spurs would be any better is even more fruitless than it was before.
Stein has the Trail Blazers behind the Grizzlies at No. 6 and ahead of the Warriors at No. 8.
· David Aldridge of NBA.com and TNT has the Trail Blazers at No. 8 this week after taking last week off to focus on the upcoming draft …
Back on the defensive grind since Cousin LaMarcus returned from injury.
DA is onto something there. The Trail Blazers, a team ranked 18th in defensive efficiency this season, are ninth in defensive efficiency in the last nine games. That bodes well going into the postseason.
Aldridge has the Trail Blazers behind the Bulls at No. 7 and ahead of the Warriors at No. 9
· John Schuhmann of NBA.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 6 this week, which is three spots improved from their ranking last week …
Pace: 97.5 (10), OffRtg: 108.2 (6), DefRtg: 104.7 (18), NetRtg: +3.5 (9)
The Blazers scored at least 110 points in three of their four meetings with the Rockets, but won only one of them, because their defense isn’t very good. They are 8-1 since LaMarcus Aldridge’s return and got some high-scoring playoff prep with Sunday’s wild OT win over the Warriors. But that was just their second win (in 15 tries) over a top-nine Western Conference team since Jan. 18.
The Blazers were a James Harden three-pointer away from splitting the season series with the Rockets, so I’m not quite sure it’s as doom as gloom as Schuhmann lets on. And the Blazers might not be as good of a defensive team as the Rockets, but all indications are that they’re much healthier right now than Houston, which certainly factors into the matchup.
Schuhmann has the Blazers behind the Heat at No. 5 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 7.
· Matt Moore of CBSSports.com bumps Portland down a spot to No. 10 this week despite the Trail Blazers going 3-0 …
As long as they’re at home, and they don’t have to defend anyone, and everyone’s healthy … this team could be dangerous. Bringing new meaning to “qualified contender.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s got to be incredibly hard to keep tabs on what all 30 NBA teams are doing. Being knowledgeable about even one team when you follow them every day is difficult enough, so trying to do that with all 30 teams? Not possible.
Moore has the Trail Blazers ranked the Raptors at No. 9 and ahead of the Warriors at No. 11.
· Matt Dollinger at SI.com gives the Trail Blazers their biggest bump this week by ranking Portland at No. 5, seven spots better than last week …
What a difference a year makes. The Blazers ran out of steam and lost their final 12 games of 2012-13, but Portland isn’t running out of steam this year, winning eight of its last nine and enduring a 47-point performance from Stephen Curry on Sunday.
It was actually 13-straight losses, but who’s counting. Though to Dollinger’s point, Portland’s 20-game improvement from last season (33 wins to 53) is tied for the largest increase in wins between 82-game seasons in team history.
Dollinger has the Trail Blazers in a top of the Eastern Conference sandwich with the Heat at No. 4 and the Pacers at No. 6.
· Jason Patt at SBNation.com also bumps Portland up to No. 6 this week, one spot better than last week …
The Blazers have made a hard charge since LaMarcus Aldridge returned from injury, and the No. 4 seed remains in play.
Houston’s final regular season opponents are injured (Pelicans) and likely won’t have anything to play for (Spurs), so the chance they lose both games and give the Blazers a chance to jump into the fourth seed are slim. But hey, slim is better than nothing.
Patt has the Blazers behind the Rockets at No. 5 and ahead of the Warriors at No. 7. Makes sense.
· Kurt Helin at Pro Basketball Talk has Portland at No. 6, one spot better than last week …
Portland is 8-1 since LaMarcus Aldridge returned and the big win at home over Golden State Sunday (maybe the most entertaining game of the season) shows they will not go quietly in the first round. However, their defense is going to have to be improved and consistent to slow down the Rockets offense.
Helin has the Blazers behind the Rockets at No. 5 and ahead of the Bulls at No. 7.
It’s been a bit of an up and down year for both Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson in their first seasons as Trail Blazers since being acquired via separate trades during the 2015 offseason,
Henderson missed all of training camp, preseason and the first eight games of the regular season, a difficult hurdle for a new player to clear, even for one entering his seventh NBA season, after undergoing a minor hip surgery in the offseason. As for Harkless, he’s already appeared in more games this season with the Trail Blazers as he did during the entirety of his last season with the Orlando Magic, though he’s seen most of his statistics, from minutes to points to rebounds, diminish every month as the year has played out.
For much of the season, Harkless and Henderson have been in a competition for playing time, with head coach Terry Stotts playing both roughly equal minutes in the first half of games, with the second-half minutes going to whoever played the best in the first. That went on for the first half of the season until Stotts opted to cut his rotation from 10 players to nine, which resulted in Henderson’s minutes increasing considerably while Harkless was relegated to playing mop-up minutes or simply drawing DNPs.
But Saturday night in Houston, Stotts would need both Harkless and Henderson with starting power forward Noah Vonleh out with a sprained left ankle and Allen Crabbe, Portland’s top sixth man this season, sidelined with a bout of gastritis. They responded by combining for 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting while taking turns checking Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden as Portland defeated Houston 96-79 at the Toyota Center. It was arguably the first game in which both players exceeded the high hopes Trail Blazers fans had for the two athletic wings, a game in which they were menaces on the defensive end while managing to take advantage of the opportunities provided by playing alongside the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the offensive end.
“I (Harkless) he was very consistent with (Harden),” said Stotts. “He had good length, he was really in tune every possession. Harden is a great player, he’s going to get shots and you’re not going to completely stop him but I thought he worked really hard on him.”
Harden finished with 33 points, but needed 18 shots from both the field and free throw line while committing a career-high 10 turnovers, due in large part to the effort Henderson and Harkless put in.
“Gerald had a lot of bounce,” said Stotts. “He’s been on a roll, he’s feeling very comfortable out there. I thought defensively, he was good as well, he had his stint on Harden.”
As noted by his head coach, Henderson played easily his best basketball of the season since the middle of January, which has coincided with the Trail Blazers winning 10 of their last 13 games. Whether it’s due to being completely fit after missing the start of the season or knowing he’s going to second-half minutes — or a combination of both — Henderson has looked more like the player who started 292 games over six season with the Hornets.
“I feel good. I think that’s how I’m used to playing. I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor. I think that helped us win tonight.
“I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor,” said Henderson. “I think that helped us win tonight.”
While Henderson’s production has become somewhat expected over the last month of the season, seeing Harkless go from playing seven minutes combined in the five games prior to starting the last two games in place of Vonleh has been a surprise. Harkless himself said he was a bit taken aback by his promotion, though it was something he had prepared himself for, even when he was only playing fourth-quarter blowout minutes.
“I just stayed locked in the whole time,” said Harkless. “Even when I wasn’t playing at all, just stayed locked in, stayed ready, just kept working every day. I knew it would come back around.”
He only got 16 minutes in his first start of the season versus the Raptors, taking just one shot and scoring just two points in the loss. But on Saturday, Harkless almost doubled his playing time to 30 minutes and made a much larger impression in the process, going 2-of-3 from three in the first quarter and 6-of-13 from the field for the game while grabbing six rebounds and tallying two steals.
“I definitely think I just played better tonight,” said Harkless. “Last game, I hadn’t played in six games or something like that, it kind of caught me off guard when (Stotts) told me I was starting. So I think a little bit of it was rust but tonight I just went out there and just played. Making those first two shots, that was big for me as well.”
“For a guy to go games without even checking on sometimes or getting in for the last few minutes of blowouts, he could have easily been in his feelings and checked out on us, but he’s stayed locked in,” said Damian Lillard of Harkless. “At practice when they get out there and play three-on-three, he’s playing hard, he’s competitive, he’s positive. He’s been himself. I talked to him, I told him ‘You’ve just got to stick with it. You’re a huge part of what we’re gonna do. Just keep your mind right and be ready because you never know.’ We had a few guys do down and now he’s playing really well for us. I was happy with the way he played tonight.”
It’s hard to tell what will happen to Harkless’ and, to a lesser extent, Henderson’s minutes once the Trail Blazers are back to full strength. But for the first time this season, the full potential of both players was a welcomed sight.
HOUSTON — The old saying goes that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If Saturday’s result in Houston is any indication, the Trail Blazers’ collective memory is well intact.
After losing to in overtime in the last game in Houston despite owning a 15-point fourth-quarter cushion, the Trail Blazers did a much better job protecting their lead in the second meeting, with the result being Portland besting the Rockets 96-79 Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 18,308 at the Toyota Center.
“That was a really good win, obviously,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I like the way we came out. Defensively we were solid all night, for the most part… They’re a dangerous team. They can get the threes going and I liked we kept our composure when they made their run.”
Portland is now 25-27 overall and 10-16 on the road this season after playing their last seven games in the cozy confines of the Moda Center. The Trail Blazers have now won 10 of their last 13 games and are currently mere percentage points behind the Utah Jazz for eighth in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers looked to be the better team Saturday night from the opening tip. Portland shot 52 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the first quarter while scoring eight points on six Rockets turnovers to take a 29-23 lead into the second quarter. They’d start the quarter a 13-2 run to take their first double digit lead of the night and would go up by 21 by way of holding the Rockets to just four made field goals in the second quarter while turning six more turnovers into seven more points. Add with the Portland bench outscoring Houston’s 18-0 in the first half and it was easy to see how the road team took a 55-36 lead into the intermission.
“We played really well defensively, I thought,” said Damian Lillard. “We set the tone from the start of the game with active hands, getting our hands on the balls. We just weren’t fun to play against to start the game. That’s what we wanted to go coming out tonight and we did a great job.”
Portland would take their largest lead of the night at the 5:01 mark of the third quarter, though Houston managed to get that down to 21 before the start of the fourth. The Rockets would continue to slim the Trail Blazers’ lead, getting it down to 11 points in late in the fourth quarter. One can imagine there had to be a little nervousness on Portland’s bench after seeing two-thirds of a 32-point third quarter lead evaporate, especially with the specter of the last game in Houston still looming. But after a 10-0 Rockets run cut the lead to 91-76 with two minutes to play, Portland scored the final five points of the game to secure the 17-point lead.
“I don’t know if nervous is the right word, but certainly the way (Houston) won the last time here, I think that was probably in the back of everybody’s mind,” said Stotts. “They’re capable of doing that… I liked the way we kept our composure and pulled out the win.”
Six Trail Blazers finished in double figures led by Damian Lillard, who went 7-of-20 from the field and 3-of-9 from three to finish with 21 points and 10 assists for yet another double-double in 36 minutes.
CJ McCollum went 6-of-13 from the field to finish with 16 points, while Gerald Henderson went 5-of-8 from the field to 16 points as well. Al-Farouq Aminu filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. Maurice Harkless, who started his second-straight game in place of Noah Vonleh (sprained left ankle) and saw extended minutes due to Allen Crabbe missing the game with gastritis, went 6-of-13 from the field for 14 points, six rebounds and two steals in 30 minutes.
Portland’s bench would outscore Houston’s 24-12 thanks in part to the Rockets not getting any points from a reserve until early in the fourth quarter. James Harden finished with a game-high 33 points with Dwight Howard adding 17, but no other Rocket scored more than eight points in the loss.
“James (Harden) is a good player,” said Henderson, who spent a good chunk of his minutes defending the hirsute shooting guard. “He knows how to score, he knows how to draw fouls so sometimes it’s very difficult to guard him. He got his 30 but we felt like we did a good job containing some of the other guys.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers head to Memphis to finish a quick two-game trip versus the Grizzlies at FexEd Forum on Monday. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 pm.
It’s well known that Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has many interests. While practicing and playing basketball is how he spends the vast majority of his time, the 6-3 guard out of Weber State is an aspiring rapper, a pitchman for the likes of adidas, JBL and Spalding and an ambassador for Special Olympics. And now, he can add “cartoon character” to his list of roles, as he, along with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Indiana’s Paul George voiced characters for an upcoming episode of “We Bare Bears” on Cartoon Network…
Some additional information from the folks at Cartoon Network…
… A special episode of the Cartoon Network Original Series We Bare Bears, featuring Paul George, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, premiering Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. (ET/PT). The episode, “Charlie Ball,” features characters voiced by the players. The “All-Star” episodes of Teen Titans Go! and We Bare Bears will replay on Cartoon Network throughout NBA All-Star weekend.
Cartoon Network continues its NBA All-Star 2016 celebration with special segments integrated into some of its leading television shows beginning on Thursday, Feb. 11. Through its popular CN Sayin’ app, Cartoon Network will provide kids with an opportunity to send questions via video submissions to their favorite NBA players. Select questions and responses will then be featured within Cartoon Network’s on-air integrations throughout NBA All-Star.
Sports-themed episodes of Cartoon Network series will be available on VOD and TVE. Highlights from the All-Star special episodes of We Bare Bears and Teen Titans Go! will be on Cartoon Network’s YouTube Channel, the Cartoon Network app, CartoonNetwork.com, as well as VOD.
Not being named to the 2016 All-Star Game was certainly disappointing, but being immortalized in an All-Star themed cartoon seems like a decent consolation prize.