Blazers now 16-0 against teams not named after things found in space (Suns 2, Rockets 1)
— dewayne (@DewayneHankins) December 5, 2013
The may not be a bigger surprise in the league than to look up nearly a quarter of the way through the season and see the Blazers in first place in the Western conference.
After start highlighted by an 11 game win stream the general consensus seemed to be lack of competition was the root cause. When the Phoenix Suns broke the Blazers eleven game winning streak it looked like the team might come back to earth but instead they responded with a road win over the Lakers and back-to-back home wins over the team with the best record in the East (Indiana) and a top-three team in the West (Oklahoma City). Add in wins over the Spurs and the Bulls (with Derrick Rose) and the evidence is hard to deny.
So how are the Blazers doing it?
The core of returning starters who have all shown development from last season. LaMarcus Aldridge is living up to his all-star billing with a league leading 15 games scoring 20 or more points this season, Damian Lillard is showing defensive development to go with his prodigious offensive skillset, Wesley Matthews is shooting over .500 from three, and Nicolas Batum regularly flirts with triple doubles.
A batch of seemingly innocuous off-season moves took a team from outside the playoffs looking in to 16-3. Robin Lopez brought interior defense and is on a career-best rebounding pace. Mo Williams is the consistent offensive catalyst the Blazers lacked from the bench last season. Dorell Wright stretches the floor and brings more defense than expected. Even Thomas Robinson, who the Blazers got for a pack of junior mints from Houston, has developed into a consistent part of the nine-man rotation with the kind of athleticism he promised as a lottery pick in the 2012 draft.
You need look no further than this video of the top-10 plays from November the team released. Each of these plays shows off something that is improved from last season.
#10 – Playing entertaining basketball and controlling tempo against the San Antonio Spurs (the #2 team in the West who have already lost to Portland). Terry Stotts has this team playing loose no matter who they opponent is.
#9 – Leading with defense against the Bulls. Matthews re-found his shoulder chip this season when he was left off the all-star ballot. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry (unless you’re a Portland fan).
#8 – A play like this only happens when you have great shooters to space the floor. Not something seen in the Rose Garden Moda Center last year. Lillard won’t hesitate with openings like that.
#7 – Lopez defending the rim. If JJ Hickson is the center rotating over that play ends in a poster. #RealTalk.
#6 – Batum has always been on the verge with just not enough consistency and aggression. That sure looked like agression.
#5 – Lillard was not kidding when he said he would focus on improving his defense. And it turns into aggression from Batum!
#4 – That would be clutch shooting in overtime to win a game your supposed to win. Those are the kinds of early season losses that kept the Blazers out of the playoffs last season.
#3 – Defending the rim! Fun for everyone!
#2 – Those points were scored by a non-starter. This video has more bench scoring than most Portland games in the 2012-13 season.
#1 – Junior Mints. Seriously.
The Blazers are having so much fun even the team Twitter feed is in on the action with some playful mocking of the anemic Eastern conference.
The season is far from over and there are risks. Beyond the nine-man rotation there aren’t a lot of good options, and even the much-improved bench could go from being an asset to a liability very quickly. Teams that took the Blazers lightly early in the year will not be doing so from here on. And, of course any team can hit a rough patch or a chemistry problem.
For Portland fans used to hearing more about surgery than playoffs the next disaster is always right around the corner. But for now Rip City is back and Portland is rocking so settle in and enjoy the ride.