The Portland Trail Blazers are so close to clinching a spot in this year’s playoff race. They had a chance to do it last night against a Phoenix Suns team that has proved to be a difficult matchup for the Blazers this season. The Suns like to go small with their lineups and proved they wanted it more than the Blazers as they seek the final playoff spot in the West, showcasing their physical style to end the season series with a 3-1 advantage over the Trail Blazers. The Blazers still maintain the fifth-seed in the West as all the other teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings have clinched a playoff birth, including the fourth-seed Houston Rockets who did so by defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder last night.
Portland’s next three games are against West teams already eliminated from the playoff race (New Orleans Hornets, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz). These are must-win games for the Blazers. There is no excuse for the team to be losing to teams well below .500 so close to the playoffs if they want some swagger heading into the postseason. What would be even better for the Trail Blazers is if they can take it to Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers in the final two games of the regular season.
The key for Portland to win these games will be ball movement. It might sound obvious but it’s especially important for the Trail Blazers. They have a great shooting team and they can put confidence in any shooter sitting on the perimeter. If the opponent starts to come up on Portland’s shooters then they can hit LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez in the post or find Aldridge for the outside jumper. Add a little bit of defense to that and the Blazers have a good chance. They are so good offensively that if they can just put up a lot of points and make defensive stops down the stretch they will have a good chance to win. A 4-1 record in their last five games is a good sign for the team after losing three straight. It has really come down to a healthy Aldridge in the lineup producing Aldridgesque numbers.
Another key will be bench scoring. Coach Terry Stotts can always rely on his starters to produce consistent numbers game after game, but what isn’t consistent is the play of bench players. You can almost look at Portland’s box score after the game and only look at the bench scoring to see if they won the game. Bench scoring killed the Blazers last year during the season and seems to be the issue in the loses they have compiled this year. It’s most important that Mo Williams gets going early because he is the leading scorer off the bench. Averaging 9.7 points per game won’t cut it though for Williams if the Blazers want to have success in the playoffs. Starters will need to continue to average double figures in points and bench players will need to contribute consistently to give the Blazers the advantage they need on their opponents.