PORTLAND — The record is now 19-19. A 50/50 year.
Fitting for the split-personality season the Trail Blazers have had so far. Fitting for the flip-of-a-coin direction the rest of the season can go.
A 86-74 win over the New Orleans Hornets on Monday temporarily got the Blazers out of the red, but the color Portland fans should be observing is yellow — as in, cheer with caution. This upcoming seven-game road trip, after all, could very well determine the team’s fate.
“No I don’t,” said Nicolas Batum when asked if he can remember a road trip being this critical. “This is going to be huge. It’s going to be a long one against huge teams.”
Perhaps the most popular post-game question was whether this trip would make or break the Blazers’ season. But while Monday’s result certainly did not “make” anything for the Blazers, it certainly had break potential.
Portland, after all, had entered the contest having lost all three of its games since the All-Star break, and found itself under the .500 mark for the first time all season. It also had lost six of its past eight at the Rose Garden, and had given up an average of nearly 110 points during its losing streak.
So it was by no means hyperbole when Blazers coach Nate McMillan declared, “We needed a win desperately.”
McMillan reinserted point guard Raymond Felton back into the starting lineup Monday at Jamal Crawford’s expense, citing defensive pressure as one of the reasons. And while it’s hard to say that it was a direct result of the switch, Portland did allow the fewest points it has all year in a win.
The Hornets’ 10-point third quarter best illustrated the clamp-down, as New Orleans (9-29) shot just 4 of 16 from the field during that 12-minute stretch.
That’s a reason for optimism. LaMarcus Aldridge’s 10 points, on the other hand, is not.
The All-Star power forward has averaged just 12 points in his last two games, getting dominated by the Timberwolves’ Kevin Love two nights earlier.
He finished the first half Monday with just two points on 1-of-5 shooting, and ended the night having failed to get to the free-throw line for the third straight game.
Not surprisingly, the shortcomings had reporters asking what’s wrong.
“I was feeling fine, they came out early and double-teamed me early,” said Aldridge, who, to his credit, grabbed 11 rebounds. “After I was double-teamed so long, I just lost my rhythm, but I found it later on in the game.”
Felton, meanwhile, had his rhythm from the opening tip. He finished the game with 11 points and 10 assists while committing just one turnover.
The 27-year-old said that he felt more like himself now that he’s back with the first unit, adding that he is happy to be Blazer and is tuning out all trade rumors.
“I tell my agent (not) to call me unless it’s something hard, unless it’s something that’s definite,” Felton said. “Other than that, I don’t want to hear nothing.”
As if playing five teams with winning records — two of which lead their respective conference standings (Chicago and Oklahoma City), the Blazers also have to deal with the March 15 trade deadline on this upcoming road trip.
McMillan said Monday that if any of his players have any questions, to come to him and/or acting general manager Chad Buchanan for information and they’ll “tell them what we know.”
The public front the players are putting on is that they aren’t worrying about a situation they can’t control, Gerald Wallace going so far to say that he pays his agent to deal with trade rumors so that he doesn’t have to.
Besides, Wallace has other things to worry about — such as packing for a trip that lasts 13 days. Asked if he could fit everything he needed into one suitcase, the forward basically responded “no way.”
“They say I pack like a woman,” Wallace said.
Batum led all scorers Monday with 10 points on 7-of-16 shooting. Wallace added 13, Wesley Matthews chipped in 11, and Marcus Camby collected 16 rebounds in 25 minutes. Marco Belinelli led the Hornets with 18 points.
The Blazers begin their potentially-defining road trip against Minnesota Wednesday.