Column: Playoffs are still within reach for Blazers
Wrap up all the injuries. Record, document and file away words such as resilient, inspired and unbelievable.
Everything that has made the Trail Blazers’ season thus far such a feel-good, Hollywood-esque story no longer matters.
All that counts: 27 games and a playoff berth.
Portland has 27 contests remaining to keep three seasons’ worth of Rip City momentum moving forward.
Twenty-seven games to salvage and lift up a 2009-10 campaign that, no matter how resilient or inspiring, will instantly become a lost season if the Blazers don’t make the playoffs.
From 2006-09, Portland improved its win total by at least nine games three successive seasons. With the
Blazers currently sitting on 31 wins and 24 losses, simple math shows that’s not going to happen this year.
But record-setting victory totals are meaningless for this season’s black and red. That’s what happens when centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla are lost for the year due to devastating knee injuries; forwards Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Jeff Pendergraph all miss significant time; and All-Star guard Brandon Roy is haunted by a high-strung hamstring.
Right now, all that matters is the playoffs. And there’s no reason this season’s Blazers should not make it.
Holding tightly to the eighth seed in the Western Conference, Portland has a two-game lead over Houston and New Orleans, and a three-game margin over Memphis. All three have struggled as of late. As a result, the Blazers are guiding the pack at the tail end of the hunt, despite going 4-6 in their last 10 games.
Asked Tuesday how he thought Portland would have to finish to earn a Western Conference playoff berth, coach Nate McMillan estimated “48-50” wins. That means the Blazers must go at least 17-10 to meet McMillan’s goal.
But McMillan acknowledged that the number was secondary to what he really wanted to see out of his team: A race to the finish that matches — or even betters — the one Portland pulled off last season, in terms of emotion, fight and will.
Last year, the Blazers won 10 of their last 11 games and went 22-8 after the All-Star break. Everything gelled.
And as Roy carried Portland, Aldridge, Outlaw and Steve Blake buoyed the Blazers into the promised land.
In some ways, things have changed significantly this year. A roster that was originally touted as one of the deepest and most talented in the league has been ripped apart — Portland recorded its 250th missed game due to injury following Wednesday’s 108-101 road victory over Phoenix.
Moreover, the Blazers have spent the last 25 games living life without a center, a situation that is unlikely to be reversed unless the team acquires a big man before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
But in the most important way, nothing has changed: As soon as Roy returns, he will be asked to carry the Blazers. And a healthy Roy makes Portland a very different — and very dangerous — team.
Meanwhile, Outlaw is expected to be activated in late February, providing a much-needed addition that should be the equivalent of a late-season pickup.
Factor in Portland’s pursuit of Chicago forward Tyrus Thomas — which a league source confirmed to The Columbian on Thursday — or the acquisition of anyone else tall and muscular able to provide a helping hand, and a playoff seed somewhere between 5-8 should be within the Blazers’ grasp.
If Portland captures one, the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver, Utah or Dallas are likely standing in the way. Which probably means a first-round exit and another training camp filled with promise and high expectations.
But so it goes.
For Portland, just making the playoffs this season would be enough. A major, memorable victory in the face of adversity.
The first round is not the Western Conference finals. It’s definitely not seven games against Cleveland or Boston for the NBA championship.
But if the Blazers simply reach the first round, it will undoubtedly feel like a minor championship for players, coaches, executives and fans who have watched and lived through a year that has alternated between the surreal and the absurd.
And with 27 games to go, the first round is still within reach.
Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter