Blazers on right track going into stretch run

Team learned from bad losses on recent road trip

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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TUALATIN, Ore. — A week can make a world of difference in the NBA season.

Only a week ago, many wondered if the Portland Trail Blazers — who were the once-darlings of the NBA season — could actually miss the playoffs.

Now they are winners of three straight games while playing excellent defense after getting blown out by the Charlotte Bobcats and beaten by double-digits against the Orlando Magic.

The Blazers have touched on the importance of the loss in Orlando because it was the first time they had looked back at what they’ve done and served as a reminder not to waste what they’ve done over 82 games.

They lost close games, dealt with injury, a tough schedule and their worst three-point shooting month of the season. They insist that during the losing and the winning that things have stayed the same.

“It’s easy to waver but the way we stuck to it the last three games has kind of solidified our idea of what we need to do,” said coach Terry Stotts, who said he likes the team’s resolve.

“Just like any sport there’s that race to the finish line,” Stotts said. “That’s the kind of mode we’re in right now. You’d like to say that you want to play with urgency and it’s difficult to do that over 82 games as much as we try. But when you see that light at the end it’s a sprint.”

One of the products of that urgency has been more focus and attention to detail, particularly on the defensive end. The results are the second best defense in terms of points per 100 possessions over the last three games.

“I think the biggest thing (the wins) all had in common is how well we defended,” Damian Lillard said. “I think we’ve done a great job on defense and our rotations and taking care of the things we talk about in film and the scouting report before each game.”

Lillard has also been more assertive on defense. He’s been a little bit more disruptive in forcing steals, stunting over to a shooter before darting back to swipe a ball more often than usual.

He’s had six steals over the last five games and any turnovers the turnover-averse Blazers defense can get is a positive.

“I just feel like these last 10 games I want to assert myself more defensively,” he said. “Try to be a little more disruptive and just give it all I got these last 10 games so we can finish it off the right way.”

While Lillard hasn’t been here before, the team’s veterans have reinforced the need to be focused on every detail and provide in-game experience to the coaches reports.

“It’s huge. We can execute that and then you have vets like Dorell, Wes, Mo, LA, guys like that,” he said. “They know Mike Miller’s going to come off and he’s going to shoot. If he curls then he’s looking to make a play. They know guys tendencies because they’ve been around so long that they know their game.”

Added Stotts: “I think we’ve just been more in tune to what needs to be done. I think we have a little bit more resolve to not have let ups.”