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Synergy Over Seeding For The Trail Blazers Down the Home Stretch

Saturday, February 28, 2015

 

Coming off of one the 2014-15 Portland Trail Blazers signature wins of the season, a (mostly) wire-to-wire 111-95 thumping of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, it’s easy to get excited and immediately pull up the current NBA standings to see where the they now stack up. Sure, the results are predictable, one more tally mark in the win column, but, more importantly, it’s yet another step towards securing that all-important top 4 seed in the playoffs.

Year after year, teams fight tooth and nail to the bitter end for playoff positioning. Going all out through the final days of the season for even the slimmest of chances to improve their seed. Even if home court isn’t on the line, the lure of moving up the ladder mixed with the fear of getting knocked down a rung, have players and fans alike sweating out each and every win over the season’s final weeks. But, it’s doubly true when it’s the battle for that coveted 4th seed, and the home court advantage that comes with it. 

With the Western Conference as stacked with contenders as at any point in league history, conventional wisdom would be that with razor-thin margins separating each team, seeding and home court advantage will go a long way towards determining who advances each round. Every little advantage counts, right?

Maybe not.

That’s because this year’s Western Conference is SO loaded that it even manages to buck conventional wisdom. And, while no team would ever turn down home court advantage, it’s possible that it’s never been less important than in this year’s Western playoffs. 

Wait… what? How could that be?

The reason is simple: each and every team in the West’s top 8 can win big games on the road, because each and every one of them is a legitimate championship contender. You think that’s just good ol’ fashioned hyperbole? Take a look at those standings again. 

The defending champion San Antonio Spurs and the perennial 60-win Oklahoma City Thunder, the two preseason favorites to come out of the West, currently occupy the 7th and 8th seeds, respectively. Would anybody be even remotely shocked if either of them pulled it together down the stretch and won the whole thing? Not in the slightest.

In this year’s Western Conference, there really is no discernable difference between being the 1 seed or the 8 seed. I mean, who would you rather play, Oklahoma City or Golden State? There’s no right answer. And, it’s like that the whole way down the standings. Memphis or San Antonio? The Blazers, Clippers, Mavericks or Rockets? No matter what your seed, you’re going to have to beat 3 of them. There are no easy paths.

This is precisely why playoff seeding, and even the home court advantage that comes with it, is likely to mean less than ever this year out West. Instead it’s much more likely that the champion isn’t going to be decided during the first 70 games, it’ll be the last 12 (or so). Rather, the winner of this year’s wild and crazy Western Conference is going to be the team who is the healthiest and playing the best when the playoffs roll around. Plain and simple. Seedings be damned.

This is why Wednesday night’s big win against the Spurs is a much bigger deal than the previous two losses to Utah and Memphis. It wasn’t just that they beat the defending champs, it was that they beat them with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard both having off nights. In short, they beat the Spurs with that same beautiful team basketball that made the Blazers the surprise of the NBA last season.

Getting Nicolas Batum healthy and back to the Swiss Army Knife that he was for the team last year is going to be huge down the stretch. Ditto for Joel Freeland, who has been such a great role player off the bench when he’s been healthy the past two years, and who will hopefully make his way back into the lineup sooner than later.

The biggest challenge, though, is going to be for Coach Terry Stotts. He has the difficult, but enviable, problem of working a brand new shiny toy, in the form of the newly acquired Arron Afflalo, into the bench rotation. 

Seeing that Afflalo averaged over 18 points per game last season in Orlando while garnering legitimate All-Star consideration, he’s almost certainly taking all of CJ McCollum’s minutes. Of course, a player as talented as Afflalo deserves (and will get) more than the 12.4 minutes a night being vacated by the second-year guard. 

That means shaving a few minutes off of Steve Blake, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum. Rotations will need to be reworked. Players will need to get used to playing with slightly different units, and at slightly different times of the game. Seems simple enough, but, that’s a much bigger adjustment than most fans probably realize.

NBA players, like most athletes, are creatures of habit, and it’s going to be imperative for Stotts and Co. to get the Blazers not just comfortable with their new rotations, but running like a well-oiled machine. There’s certain to be some bumps in the road along the way, like the disheartening loss to the lowly Jazz last week. However, if they can get things humming along at the kind of 9-1 pace they used to finish last season, they are going to have as good as shot as anyone heading into the postseason.

This year, every playoff matchup is likely to be a carbon copy of the knock-down drag-out fight that saw the Blazers and Rockets engage in one of the most hard-fought, white-knuckle series in recent memory. A series where 3 of the 6 games were taken by the road team, and it took an all-time great shot from Damian Lillard to keep it from being 4 (or, maybe even 5) road wins in the 7-game series.

And, while the Blazers ended last season just about as scorching hot as they started it, even that wasn’t enough, as they ran into an even more polished Spurs team who was similarly clicking on all cylinders at the right time. That Spurs team was able to ride that momentum all the way to the NBA Finals, where they mowed down LeBron James and the Miami Heat to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

If the Blazers (or anyone out West, for that matter) are going to make any noise at all in the playoffs this season, let alone win the Western Conference crown, they’re going to need to finish the season similarly strong. Do that, and they are more than capable of competing for and bringing home that championship ring. No matter what that meaningless little number on the brackets says.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.

 

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