The Portland Trail Blazers have not been at the forefront of the race for the No. 8 playoff seed in the Western Conference this season.
That might soon change. Heck, Wednesday night might have already altered the dynamic in the wild, wild West.
While the extremely bipolar Sacramento Kings — winners in Toronto, Indiana, and Oklahoma City — fell behind the New Orleans Pelicans by 25 points after three quarters, en route to another typically head-scratching home-court loss, the Portland Trail Blazers offered a suggestion that they might be ready to become the most dependable team in search of the eight spot in the West. The Blazers, coming off a win over Oklahoma City a few days earlier, could have gone “full Sacramento” and played a flat home game against an opponent with a losing record… but they didn’t.
A businesslike 99-85 win over the anemic Jazz — who aren’t just hitting sour notes, but simply aren’t playing many songs — has Portland just 1.5 games out of the eighth spot. No, it’s not as though the Blazers should be considered the favorite in the race for eight, but one could reasonably say that at the moment, their prospects have never looked brighter.
Beating the Jazz head-to-head will matter if Portland and Utah tie in the standings, but that’s just one bread crumb of a reason why the Blazers could sneak into the playoffs. Two much larger and more fundamental points emerge in support of Portland’s push to the postseason:
1) The Jazz can’t score in 2016.
This might startle you, but it remains true after Wednesday night in the arena formerly known as the Rose Garden: Utah hasn’t scored 100 points in a single game in 2016. The Jazz have scored 98 a few times, but have not yet posted a triple-digit game two weeks into the month of January. Derrick Favors was out of the lineup against Portland, but Rudy Gobert is back in action. That the Jazz have to win games in the 80s or lower in order to have a good chance to win clearly reduces their margin for error.
The No. 8 seed in the West will probably have a losing record, so we’re not talking about teams that are going to reach a lofty level of achievement this season. Within this context, though, Portland’s offensive weapons — Damian Lillard in particular — might be enough to blaze an Oregon Trail to a date with Golden State or San Antonio in round one.
2) The Kings can’t defend.
Wednesday night, Sacramento allowed New Orleans to get comfortable and stay comfortable behind the three-point arc. The Pelicans drained 16 of 33 triples in the process of burying the Kings. The insufficient attention to detail on defense is typical of George Karl’s team, which allows an average of 108.6 points per game. That’s easily the worst number in the league, more than two points worse than Phoenix (106.4). Four teams — the Lakers, Pelicans, Sixers, and Rockets — allow anywhere from 105 to 105.5 points per night, so Sacramento has distanced itself from several other bottom-of-the-barrel defensive teams.
The Houston Rockets, with their five-game winning streak, are solidifying a playoff position. The No. 7 seed is becoming a much less realistic goal for all the teams currently ninth or worse in the West. The 8 seed is the legitimately attainable prize, and after Wednesday, you can imagine that Portland might feel a bit like Goldilocks at the moment.
Sacramento’s defense is too hot — it gets burned too often!
Utah’s offense is too cold!
The Trail Blazers’ mixture is juuuuust right.
Or so they hope… all the way to a playoff spot.