Portland was expected to be in the lottery again this season, putting themselves in position to add another piece that would make them a playoff and championship contender.
Turns out, they already had everything they needed.
Last season's Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard (20.9 ppg, 5.6 apg) stepped up his game to match that of All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 ppg, 11.2 rpg), giving the Blazers a strong one-two combo. Other starters Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez are all capable players on both ends of the floor, and it's this team's amazing chemistry that has helped them exceed expectations.
While they're potent on the offensive end of the floor (106.6 ppg as a team, 3rd in the NBA), their defense has kept them from being one of the Western Conference's elite. They're in the bottom third of the league in points allowed (102.6 per game) and don't force a lot of turnovers.
Does this overachieving squad have enough to make a surprising run in the Western Conference?
We know Portland is an elite offensive team and will be able to score points in the postseason, but the determining factor in their postseason success will be their ability to defend teams, which starts with guarding the opponent's best player. And that person for Portland is Nicolas Batum.
He has the size, length, and quickness that make him a nightmare for opposing players, but also gives him a better chance at guarding some of the superstars in the West like Kevin Durant and James Harden. Batum's ability to hamper those stars' offense—and in turn Portland's opponent's offense—will likely be the key to how far the Blazers go in the playoffs.
Portland won the first two of three meetings between the two teams this season, and the two big factors in those games were Batum's ability to defend and limit Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge's effectiveness.
Batum is one of the few players in the league who can match KD's size and quickness, and he's able to handle Durant better than almost anyone because of that. Couple that with Aldridge's ability to hit all kinds of mid-range jumpers, which pulls shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka away from the basket, and the Thunder have major problems.
We can talk about individual matchups between Houston and Portland all day long, but it comes down to this—both teams are good offensively and bad defensively, but Houston just has more talent all the way across the board at both ends of the floor. And for the Blazers, it's hard to have success against a team that plays the same way as you and is simply better at it.
Houston goes cold from beyond the arc for their entire first-round series and Portland capitalizes and wins in six games. They then give San Antonio fits in the second round because of their up-tempo style, and pull off that dramatic upset, again in six games. However, they'll probably face either Oklahoma City or Los Angeles in the conference finals, both of whom are better and will knock the Blazers out.
Portland continues to have struggles against the Rockets, and Houston wins the series easily.
Portland's had a great season and has been one the league's more heart-warming stories of the year, but I don't think they'll have enough to get past a Houston team that is dangerous from all five positions on the floor. Lillard has taken that next step into an All-Star, but they still need someone else to be able to consistently contribute at a high level if they want to improve on this season's success.
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