The Trail Blazers (28-31) have won two straight and now begin a three-game road trip that could pull them closer to the playoff picture or sink them deeper in the standings.
Here are three puzzles for the Blazers to solve this week.
Can Leonard make it four in a row?
Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies, 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Meyers Leonard had a simple, yet definite, response when asked if the last three games have been his best of the season.
“Absolutely!” Leonard said.
Before this current stretch, Leonard had reached double figures only three times all season. However, starting with the February 27th game against Denver, Leonard has scored 13, 12 and 15 points, respectively.
“I just have confidence right now,” Leonard said. “It’s always been there. Earlier in the season, I don’t think I was as comfortable on the court. (I) wasn’t as alert, didn’t have as good as a reaction. And I’m just kind of playing my game. I find open gaps, run the transition. Try to defend the paint as best I can and just play hard.”
Leonard’s increased production comes just in time as the Blazers meet one of the better frontcourts in the NBA.
The Memphis frontline may not dazzle — leading scorer Zach Randolph only averages 15.7 points a game — but he and Marc Gasol are a punishing and physical pair.
Over the last three games, Leonard has split time at the center position with starter J.J. Hickson, so barring foul trouble, he will see plenty matchups against the Memphis beef.
If Leonard does put together a fourth consecutive solid game, then it must be concentrated on finding scoring opportunities against an opponent that averages the league-lowest 89.5 points a game.
Can ‘machine’ be slowed?
Blazers at San Antonio Spurs, 5:30 Friday
This road trip starts with the unenviable of task of facing the Grizzlies, currently 9-1 over the last 10 games, then heading to San Antonio for the Spurs (8-2 in the last 10). Not even an injury to their All-Star point guard Tony Parker has slowed the Spurs.
“San Antonio, with or without Parker, they’re a machine,” coach Terry Stotts said, “and they’re great at home.”
Even as two of the hottest teams stand in the way of the Blazers inching closer back to the .500 mark, a glimmer of hope still exists. The league-best Spurs reign in San Antonio with a 24-3 home record but one of their two recent losses actually happened at the AT&T Center, a Feb. 27 overtime defeat to the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns out-spurred the Spurs — winning with the bench production that so often defines San Antonio. On that night, the Phoenix reserves scored 57 points compared to San Antonio’s 33. It may be a long shot but the Blazers — still with the lowest-scoring bench in the NBA, averaging 17.0 points a game — will need someone other than Leonard to give the Blazers depth on Friday night.
Does the loss still sting?
Blazers at Hornets, 4 p.m. Sunday
It would befit the Blazers to have long memories and recall just how embarrassed they were the last time they visited New Orleans.
Of course, last time, they were wrapping up a six-game journey on tired legs and vacant minds that were already fixated on the All-Star break. So, Portland tanked against the Hornets and lost 99-63 — the fifth lowest score in franchise history.
“New Orleans kicked our butt the last time,” Stotts said.
The parallels will seem forced but just like Feb. 13, the Blazers will end their road trip in New Orleans. Throw away the scouting report on the Hornets and forget the statistics — this one needs to be approached in a purely visceral manner.
If the Blazers just remember to pack their pride, they should have no problem getting prepared for this rematch.