With four losses in six games from the end of the old year through the first week of the new one, it was easy and popular to say that reality might finally be taking a bite out of the Trail Blazers. Losing to the lowly likes of New Orleans, Philadelphia and Sacramento will do that.
There were questions about Portland’s 3-point happy offensive attack, ability to engage in elite level defense, to have the kind of tough inner stuff that marks the true contenders.
It was one thing to snap out of the funk with a couple of home wins over the Celtics and Cavaliers. It is quite another to deliver against the upper crust.
The Blazers’ road trip to San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City is nothing but hard, crusty competition, four games in five nights against nothing but Western Conference playoff teams.
So it was satisfying and maybe revealing that the Blazers took the opener against the No. 1 seeded Spurs. They followed that Saturday night with an easy 127-111 win over the Mavericks, behind 30 points from LaMarcus Aldridge.
“To beat the best team in the West on their floor, that sticks out,” said coach Terry Stotts. “Like I said, we showed a lot of resolve at both ends of the floor…I thought we showed our mettle.”
It was more than the usual bundle of points from Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews and more than another night in triple-double neighborhood by Nicolas Batum. It was a game than could have gotten away from the Blazers after coach Gregg Popovich’s ejection that lit a fire under Manu Ginobili that lit a Spurs charge to a 78-77 lead.
If there was a time when the Blazers’ resolve and mental toughness was going to be pushed to the limit, this was it. The fact that letting it slip away could have set a bad tone for the start of the grueling road trip only made the situation more urgent.
It was a time for poise over panic, and the Blazers delivered.
Their recent slippage notwithstanding, the truth is Portland has been coming up big against the elite teams all season. The win over the Spurs gives them a 6-1 record against the top five teams in the Western Conference.
Going into tonight’s back-to-back game at Dallas (8:30 ET, League Pass), the Blazers are just one-half game behind the Spurs for the top spot in the conference and it’s even possible that with a strong finish to the trip, Stotts could be in the running to coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game.
“We have a pretty good record right now,” Matthews said. “We’re beating teams that are upper echelon, home and road. We just got to keep our heads down and stay humble and know that we can compete with anybody. We’re not getting too full of ourselves. We’re sticking with the process.”
The trip continues at Dallas, Houston and OKC with a chance for the Blazers to provide their answer to any questions.