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Portland Trail Blazers Playoff Heat Check: March Edition

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

 

When Damian Lillard was left off the 2016 NBA All-Star roster, it looked as if the Association’s coaches had missed a golden opportunity to recognize one of the game’s best point guards. Not only were his numbers seemingly worthy of a selection, but his impact on the Portland Trail Blazers’ success made him one of the most valuable players across the league.

Since the All-Star Game took place, Lillard has made the snub look even more ridiculous by not just playing like an All-Star, but a full-fledged superstar. He’s posted averages of 32.8 points, 4.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds per contest since the Feb. 14 exhibition, all while shooting 48 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from deep. 

At this point in the season, not only has Lillard exceeded expectations, but the Blazers have as well. Despite starting the year as a squad pegged by Vegas oddsmakers to win 26.5 games, they’re now in the thick of a playoff race with a record of 33-31.

 

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Despite dropping the final three contests of their recent six-game road trip, the Blazers find themselves in good position when it comes to postseason aspirations. Much of that has to do with the teams they’re competing against for the final few spots. 

The No. 8 Houston Rockets, for all the talent they have, can’t get it together. James Harden has been a man possessed of late scoring 40, 36 and 39 in his past three games, respectively, but the team, like Portland, is just 3-3 in its last six. 

The No. 9 Utah Jazz have also struggled of late. They’re coming off a 12-point win over the New Orleans Pelicans, but before that they dropped five straight during a stretch where they lost eight of 10. 

Even the sixth-seeded Dallas Mavericks are far from a lock to retain that positioning. Dirk Nowitzki has proven age is just a number, but the rest of the roster has been underwhelming despite the team overachieving based on most preseason outlooks. 

While it’s undisputable that external factors have helped Portland’s cause, you also can’t discredit what Lillard and Co. have accomplished. C.J. McCollum still looks like the NBA’s most improved player. Meyers Leonard is slowly escaping his funk. Mason Plumlee has been better than you’d expect from a guy the Brooklyn Nets were desperate to ditch, and there’s been virtually nobody on the roster who’s been a true liability. 

With 18 games remaining in the regular season, Basketball-Reference.com predicts that the Trail Blazers will land the sixth seed in the playoffs. That projection, which is determined by simulating every team’s games for the rest of the year 7,500 times, is unreal considering where expectations were before the 2015-16 campaign began.

If Basketball-Reference’s simulation comes to fruition, the team will face off in a best-of-seven series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Portland is 1-1 so far this year versus Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the OKC squad, and there are two more matchups to be had on March 14 and April 6.

*Basketball-Reference.com’s playoff projection is accurate entering games played on Monday, March 7.

 

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