The Utah Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets in overtime Tuesday night, while the Portland Trail Blazers won yet again, this time over the Brooklyn Nets.
As these three teams brace themselves for the final seven weeks of the regular season, here’s what you need to know about each team’s previous journeys and upcoming challenges:
The ascendant team at the lower end of the Western Conference playoff spectrum is the Portland Trail Blazers. Sitting at 15-24 one month before the All-Star break, Portland has been… well… Blazin’ since then, minus a hiccup at Philadelphia against the 76ers. Portland is 15-3, dating back to a Jan. 10 win over Oklahoma City. Houston comes to the Rose Garden Thursday night (yes, it’s not the official name of the building, but it’s always more pleasant to say, so there…), meaning that this Rockets-Blazers-Jazz trio will perform twice in three days this week. That game is a natural point of interest in this chase for the remaining West playoff seeds, but it gives rise to a bigger issue: What are the toughest tasks and biggest opportunities left on the board for Portland, Houston and Utah, especially in relationship to what these teams have already endured in just over two-thirds of the season?
Let’s take a look.
Portland is the focus of the West’s lower tier of playoff-positioned teams. The Blazers have certainly found solutions to their problems. Coach Terry Stotts has displayed considerable agility and thoughtfulness in deploying his personnel. General manager Neil Olshey has been the best at his position in the league this season, if only because the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs already had so much to work with.
Portland deserves every bit of praise it is currently receiving, but this is where the playoff push comes into focus: The Blazers have been mopping up at home over the past month. They’ve played just two road games since January 20. Yes, the Blazers have earned their way into a playoff slot, but now they’ll have to show they can thrive outside the Northwest. After the Houston game on Thursday, Portland plays 11 of its next 13 on the road, with road trips of six and four games interrupted in the middle of that stretch.
Let’s get a road profile of the Blazers, then. How are they in road trips of four games or more this season?
Portland went 0-4 and 2-2 on a pair of four-game trips in November and early December. The team went 0-5 on a trip just before Christmas.
Let’s turn to the Houston team which will face Portland Thursday. The Rockets are finishing up a five-game road trip (which began before the All-Star break). This trip is notable in that Houston visited Portland just before the break. The Rockets return to Oregon for a second time within the month of February.
The end of a long trip does not mean, however, that Houston is about to settle in at home. The Rockets don’t have a homestand of more than three games over the remainder of the season, and they still have a five-game road trip in early March, with four of those games in the Eastern time zone.
Houston’s record on road trips of four games or more this season, including this current one (with four of five games completed): 1-3. The Rockets avoided any particularly long road trips until now.
What about Utah? The Jazz recently completed their second four-game road trip of the season, going 2-2. They went 1-3 on a November trip, so they’re 3-5 on road swings of at least four games. Do the Jazz have any other long visits of North America on the slate? Yes, they do. A four-gamer starts at the very end of this month in Boston against the Celtics. On March 19, an all-Central time zone trip begins in Chicago.
Homestands — do they exist for any of these teams? Portland plays a four-game homestand on March 26. The Blazers finish with seven of their last nine at home. Houston and Utah don’t have uninterrupted homestands of a considerable length on the remainder of their respective schedules, but there are some pockets of time in which each club will be able to enjoy the comforts of familiar surroundings. Houston plays four out of five games at home, starting March 31. Utah plays five home games in a six-game stretch, beginning on March 28.
Finally, what about the composition of opponents for these three teams?
The average number of games above or below .500 is as follows:
Portland: 5.2 games over .500.
Houston: 1.28 over
Utah: 1.35 over (rounded)