The Portland defense seems to have made a really impressive leap since last year. The Blazers ended last season with a bottom-half defense, but right now you guys have the fourth-best defense in the league and are one of just four teams holding opposing teams below 100. In fact, the last time these teams met was the worst Mavericks scoring game this season. There haven't been a lot of personnel changes, so where did this improvement come from?
Having very few personnel changes is actually probably a big part of the answer. This starting five has been together since last year, and four out of the five starters played together for the 2012-13 season, as well. Because Portland's bench had been so terrible the last few years, these guys played even more minutes together.
That kind of continuity has allowed the players to gain a familiarity with one another -- knowing where someone's going to be, knowing when to help, etc. There's a trust there with all the starters. On top of that, both Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are good perimeter defenders, LaMarcus Aldridge is solid and Robin Lopez uses his length and verticality to hold down the paint.
I think the shellacking at the hands of the Spurs in the second round of last year's playoffs helped a lot, as well. The Blazers were able to see how a championship-caliber team runs its defense and were made well aware that there were still plenty of improvements to make. Give coach Terry Stotts and his staff credit, too, for getting their players to fully buy into a system.
Are you worried at all about Lamarcus Aldridge playing through his injury? It looks like he's been able to play quite well despite it, but do fans worry that he may be sacrificing his long-term health? Or do they see his willingness to play through it as a positive sign that the soon-to-be free agent is committed to Portland?
Personally, I'm not too worried about Aldridge playing through the injury. I don't think he's at much risk of making the torn ligament in his thumb any worse, it's just whether or not he can play through and handle the pain on a game-to-game basis. He's seemed to play with the injury confidently and with minimal effect, so until I see reason to believe otherwise, I think Aldridge will be fine throughout the season.
Putting off surgery makes the recovery time twice as long, potentially. But it'd be over the summer and he could still do whatever conditioning he needed to do in the offseason with limited on-court activity, I'd guess. At 30 years old, a summer off from basketball isn't as devastating to Aldridge as it'd be to someone younger.
I don't see it as any kind of long-term sign of commitment to the team, but rather realizing that this season could be special for the Blazers. And, while he still would've been back in late-March had he gotten the corrective surgery in the first place, Portland could've taken a tumble down the standings in his absence. Aldridge got a taste of the second round last year and is ready for more success. The guy cares about winning, and he knows how important he is to his team. Though it's not necessarily any kind of gesture toward re-signing with the Blazers, I take Aldridge's decision to play through the injury as an admirable team-first move.
Despite a bit of a rough patch over the last 10 games, Portland would have home court advantage if the playoffs started today. How important do you think that will be, given the strength of the West and the fact that earning a top seed may still get you matched up with a team like OKC or San Antonio? Do you think this team has a higher ceiling than last year's?
There's no doubt this year's iteration of the Blazers has a higher ceiling than last year's. The continuity I mentioned earlier is certainly a big part of that, but Portland GM Neil Olshey also did what he could in free agency last summer and brought in Steve Blake and Chris Kaman to sandbag the bench rotation, which was a glaring weakness for the team last season. You brought up the improved defense earlier, and if you look at the top of the standings, it's pretty clear that to win in the NBA you need to bring it on both sides of the ball.
Every team is going to be a tough out in the West this year -- even a first round matchup with the Pelicans or Suns would be a dogfight for the Blazers. The Spurs worry me a bit but, man, Tony Parker has finally started to show his age a bit this year, and his presence on the court in last year's playoffs really messed with Portland's defense. Kawhi Leonard is great, Tim Duncan is unbelievable, Gregg Popovich is one of the all-time great coaches and the supporting cast is unrivaled, at least in terms of cohesiveness. Still, I don't think that matchup would worry me much (or any) more than a date with the Warriors, Rockets, Mavs or Grizzlies in the first round would.
The Thunder are interesting, but there are a couple variables here. Given full health, the Blazers would have trouble containing their stars. That said, Scott Brooks doesn't employ the most complicated offense in the league, and in a seven-game series -- again, given full health -- Portland probably has the talent to come up with a gameplan to slow down OKC and execute it.
This year's playoffs are gonna be bonkers, though, no matter which matchups we get. Can't wait.
I was hoping I'd get to ask you how you think the Blazers match up with the Mavericks now that they have Rajon Rondo, but we're unfortunately not going to get to see that any time soon, so instead I'll just ask if you have any predictions for how Saturday's game will go.
The last time these two teams met, I was writing about how the Mavs were on pace to have a historically good offense this year. And then there was the Rondo trade and, now, the Rondo injury. Dallas is still putting up a lot of points and playing pretty good defense. Though Chandler is still great on the glass, the Mavs aren't a great rebounding team and I think second-chance points could be big for Portland tonight, especially with Robin Lopez back in the lineup. I'm always worried about Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, because one or both could hang 30+ on the Blazers.
No one else on Dallas' roster probably strikes fear into the hearts of Blazers fans. I guess Chandler Parsons can get hot -- and he's shooting really well right now from outside -- but he's not anyone to gameplan around. I expect Lillard and Wesley Matthews to really do some damage to the Mavs' backcourt, and Dallas' bench rotation isn't what it was last year, either. Plus, Aldridge is playing in his hometown in front of friends and family, and he always gets up for his games in Dallas. I like the Blazers' chances, but dang, the Mavs are lighting it up from outside right now. Should be plenty of offensive fireworks tonight!
Thanks, Chris! For more Blazers coverage visit Blazer's Edge.