Blazers: Sense of urgency abounds

Road to the NBA playoffs gains intensity for Blazers and the rest of the league

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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There’s the preseason. There’s the postseason. And then there’s the pre-postseason.

That’s where the Blazers are now.

The playoffs are known for a sharp uptick in defense and intensity. Plays are never taken off. Games are never viewed as recovery periods.

But that’s not to say there isn’t similar emotion pervading much of the NBA now, too. With between 17 and 22 games remaining on the schedule, the tussle for seeding, home-court advantage, and in many cases, survival, is in full force.

And there’s nobody who isn’t aware.

“Teams know where they are now,” LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Teams are playing hard and playing better. Now teams are finding their rhythm.”

Wesley Matthews said that when he was in Utah last year, there was an understanding among the players that the final quarter of the season commands a greater sense of urgency. Blazers coach Nate McMillan added that, at this point, all the teams are at their best and that consistency is paramount.

Right now, Portland (35-27) holds the seventh seed in the Western Conference, four games behind fourth-place Oklahoma City, one game behind fifth-place Denver, two games in front of ninth-place Phoenix, and four games in front of 11th-place Houston. So how promising is the Blazers’ future? Are Rip City fans getting ahead of themselves in planning for the postseason?

Here’s a glance at what the next few weeks hold for the Blazers compared with the other teams in the Western Conference playoff cluster:

Portland (currently seventh in the West)

Record: 35-27.

Combined record of remaining opponents: 514-418 (.551 winning percentage)

Teams the Blazers will meet twice: Mavericks (45-17), Lakers (45-19), Thunder (38-22), Warriors (27-35)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .500 (10 of 20)

Outlook: This is tough. Meeting Dallas and the defending champions twice is enviable for nobody, and as the opponents’ winning percentage indicates, the Blazers get few breaks in between.

Oklahoma City (fourth)

Record: 38-22

Combined record of remaining opponents: 487-635 (.434)

Teams the Thunder will meet twice: Blazers (35-27), Suns (32-28), Clippers (23-40)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .500 (11 of 22)

Outlook: Easiest schedule among Western Conference cluster teams by far. If Portland plans on making up any ground on the Northwest Division leaders, it will likely have to win both games against them.

Denver (fifth)

Record: 37-27

Combined record of remaining opponents: 514-470 (.522)

Teams the Nuggets will meet twice: Thunder (38-22), Sacramento (15-45)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .556 (10 of 18)

Outlook: With games against the Spurs, Lakers and Heat still ahead, Denver can’t coast, but it does have a slightly less arduous path to postseason than Portland.

New Orleans (sixth)

Record: 37-28

Combined record of remaining opponents: 423-321 (.568)

Teams the Hornets will meet twice: Dallas (45-17), Utah (33-30)

Team the Hornets will meet three times: Phoenix (32-28)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .352 (6 of 17)

Outlook: Home court is all that’s aiding New Orleans down this stretch, as it faces a virtually cupcake-free schedule from here on in. The Kings are the only team the Hornets will play that has won fewer than 27 games.

Memphis (eighth)

Record: 35-29

Combined record of remaining opponents: 497-436 (.532)

Teams the Grizzlies will meet twice: Hornets (37-28), Knicks (32-29), Clippers (23-40)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .421 (8 of 19)

Outlook: The Grizzlies are quietly surging, having won 7 of their last 10. Their upcoming opponents are solid, but most of their games are in Memphis.

Phoenix (ninth)

Record: 32-28

Combined record of remaining opponents: 465-412 (.530)

Teams the Suns will meet twice: Mavericks (45-17), Spurs (51-12), Clippers (23-40), Hornets (37-28), Thunder (38-22)

Teams’ winning percentage of remaining games on the road: .500 (11 of 22)

Outlook: Portland obviously has to worry about Phoenix, but not because it has a soft schedule. The winning percentage of upcoming opponents is one thing, but anyone who has to play Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans and Oklahoma City twice apiece over the next month and a half can’t be overly optimistic.

Utah (10th)

Record: 33-30

Combined record of remaining opponents: 491-443 (.525)

Teams the Jazz will meet twice: Lakers (45-19), Hornets (37-28) Timberwolves (15-49)

Percentage of remaining games on the road: .579 (11 of 19)

Outlook: Utah is slumping and its remaining schedule doesn’t seem to benefit them. Then again, the Jazz did lose seven straight at home, so maybe ample time away from Salt Lake City will benefit the club.

Houston (11th)

Record: 32-32

Combined record of remaining opponents: .479-453 (.513)

Teams the Rockets will meet twice: Spurs (51-12), Kings (15-45)

Percentage of remaining games on the road: .389 (7 of 18)

Outlook: Houston has its work cut out if it wants to slide into the final playoff spot, but its schedule is relatively accommodating. With less than 40 percent of their games on the road and slightly softer opponents than most the rest of the conference cluster, the Rockets could be in the hunt through the final week of the season.

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Conclusion: The only team with a clear advantage from here on in is the Thunder, whose Northwest Division title looks to be theirs to lose. But in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, every team currently between fifth and 11th place will face opponents with a combined record above .500.

Right now is when the Blazers look at past games against the Heat and the Lakers and curse themselves for letting them slip away. Then again, it’s also when they pick up Brandon Roy’s next few dinner tabs for rescuing them in the closing seconds vs. Denver last month.

Obviously, this isn’t completely scientific. With a few games remaining, teams may actually prefer to play a team such as San Antonio over New Orleans, as the Spurs may have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs locked up, while the Hornets are still jockeying for seeding position. Even so, if Portland does secure a postseason bid, it most assuredly will have earned it.

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or e-mailmatt.calkins@columbian.com. Follow on Twitter:www.twitter.com/blazerbanter.