One season after missing the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers have blossomed into a powerhouse
In late November, LaMarcus Aldridge and a few of his friends took their seats at a downtown Portland steakhouse. Before Aldridge got a chance to look at the menu, the Trail Blazers power forward was surrounded by a small group of fans who greeted him with a round of applause. "They were smiling and clapping. They told me I was playing great this season and that they were pleasantly surprised about how good we were playing," Aldridge recalls.
These days, there's a lot to cheer about in Portland. Propelled by an 11-game winning streak in November that set the tone, the Blazers are having a stunning turnaround season after missing the playoffs with a 33–49 record in 2012–13. Led by Aldridge, point guard Damian Lillard, and head coach Terry Stotts, the team has been thriving with a motion offense that is scoring a league-high 109.3 points per game — an 11.8-point increase from last season, when it ranked 15th.
The Blazers' emergence as one of the best squads in the powerful Western Conference is a feat that even they weren't expecting. "We knew we were going to be good, but this good?" says Lillard. "With the winning streak and everyone clicking as well as we have, it was a little surprising at first. [Now] we want to be considered one of the best teams. We want to win it all."
Pair of Aces
How hot have the Blazers been? For one, they topped 30 wins before this year's All-Star break. Yet, despite victories against Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Indiana, Portland has remained under the radar.
That style suits the 6′ 11″ Aldridge, a quiet guy who lets his game do the talking. Aldridge has been a terrific post player for a few years, but this season he has reached superstar level by improving his midrange shooting. Last season he shot 40 percent from 16 to 24 feet from the basket. This season he is making 45 percent from that range. The result: Through January 23, he had 27 double doubles over the first 43 games and was averaging a career-high 24.7 points and 11.6 rebounds (both rank fifth in the NBA). He had a seven-game stretch in January in which he averaged 30 points and 17 rebounds.
That dominance has reserve forward Thomas Robinson shouting, "Lunch meat!" whenever Aldridge gets the ball. "He eats up whoever is defending him, so it's only appropriate I yell, 'Lunch meat,' " Robinson says with a laugh. "He's an incredible scorer."
The success is also giving Aldridge more confidence to speak up when needed. "He's vocal in the locker room and in timeouts," says Stotts. "That's been his biggest improvement in addition to having a career year."
Still, the Blazers' most vocal leader is their floor general, Lillard, the 23-year-old point guard who was the 2012–13 NBA Rookie of the Year. "There have been games where in the first few minutes I won't call a play," says Stotts. "Damian has taken on a huge leadership role and really knows how to get guys involved. He's confident in knowing what works."
Lillard is Portland's second-leading scorer (21.0 points) and its top playmaker (5.7 assists). He has been a go-to guy in pressure situations too, knocking down game-winning shots against the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers in December. Lillard also poured in 41 points (including 26 in the fourth quarter) against the Sacramento Kings in January.
A lot of Portland's success can be credited to Stotts, an offensive mastermind who helped the Dallas Mavericks to an NBA title in 2010–11 as an assistant and became Portland's head man in 2012. Stotts installed a motion offense that forces defenders to chase the Trail Blazers' players all over the court. The ball often ends up in the hands of Aldridge in the post or a wide-open guard on the perimeter. Through January 23, Portland was second in the NBA in three-point shooting, making 39.2 percent from behind the arc. (Lillard was second in the league in three-pointers made, with 131.)
"The offense is built off motion and extra passes, which makes [us] hard to guard," Aldridge says. "It confuses defenses. There are so many [scoring] options for us."
Besides its two stars, guard Wesley Matthews, forward Nicolas Batum, and sixth man Mo Williams have come up big. Matthews is a terrific three-point shooter (42.3 percent from long range), Batum is a well-rounded player (two triple doubles in the first half of the season), and Williams's quickness off the bench keeps the up-tempo pace when Lillard needs a break. The Blazers also made a key off-season acquisition by signing 7-foot center Robin Lopez, a strong post defender who is averaging a career-high 8.2 rebounds per game. "We needed a big guy who would do that dirty work," says Aldridge. "Robin blocks shots and clogs the paint. He puts pressure on the defense by crashing the boards. He gets the job done every night."
Young At Heart
The Blazers have jelled on the court, but they've also formed strong bonds off it. After practices, it's common to see players — and even coaches — hanging out together at Portland's training facility. They crack jokes, rap together ("Mo and I freestyle together a lot," Lillard says), and have trick-shot contests. "[Assistant] coach Jay Triano is a great trick-shot shooter," says Batum. "We try to challenge him. Sometimes we try to shoot over the lights, off the wall. Crazy tricks."
During a recent competition, players erupted in glee after Matthews made an off-the-wall bounce shot from more than 30 feet away from the hoop. "Did you see that?!" exclaimed Aldridge. "That was a wild shot!"
The Blazers are thriving on youthful energy. The team has six players who were born in the 1990s and its average age is 25.5. The Trail Blazers continue to learn on the fly — they have beaten top teams but also lost two straight games to sub-.500 squads, the Sacramento Kings and the Philadelphia 76ers, in January. Their defense has been a work in progress. Portland is last in the NBA in steals and allows opponents to score 103.5 points per game. "We've shown a lot of promise. We've shown we can hang with and beat anybody, but we've also shown we can lose to anybody," says Matthews. "We haven't done anything, yet."
Of course, the true test will come this spring in the postseason. The Blazers will have their hands full getting past veteran, playoff-tested teams such as the Spurs and the Thunder. But Aldridge knows his team has already come a long way, and he has complete confidence in his guys. "I believe this team can do anything," he says.
If Portland makes a deep postseason run, you can be sure that the round of applause from Blazers fans will be heard far and wide.
Photos: GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, SAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (HUDDLE)