The Portland Trail Blazers arrive at Target Center on Wednesday night as the NBA’s surprise success story so far this season, the kind of startling team Timberwolves fans hoped theirs might be.
At 22-4 following a last-second victory at Cleveland on Tuesday, the Blazers own the league’s best record, better than two-time defending champion Miami, rising Indiana or venerable San Antonio.
How have they done it?
They are built around a power forward-point guard combination completely opposite in style and game from the Wolves’ Kevin Love-Ricky Rubio.
Blazers management also has astutely surrounded their LaMarcus Aldridge-Damian Lillard tandem with shooters and role players through a combination of drafting, trades and free-agent signings that supplemented eight players leftover from last season’s 33-49 team that missed the playoffs.
What follows is a closer look inside at this Trail Blazers team, a team that has Aldridge among the front-runners for NBA MVP honors and that will have General Manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts in contention for postseason awards as well if Portland can keep this kind of pace up.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love share almost nothing in common, other than the fact that both have been named to the NBA All-Star Game twice each.
Love is the freakishly versatile inside-out player for the Wolves who puts up ridiculous statistics but hasn’t yet appeared in a playoff game. Portland’s Aldridge is more physically gifted, a low-post scorer who also possesses a nice mid-range game.
Their individual matchups often turn contentious, even though Love says there can be no real rivalry between the two power forwards until they create one in a playoff series or two. Wolves fans swear there are cosmic differences between the two players, but don’t be so sure about that, only mostly vast differences between the styles of game they play.
Aldridge’s 31-point, 25-rebound game last week against Houston was the NBA’s first performance to approach Love’s 31-31 game from November 2010, and Aldridge already has been named the West’s player of the week three times this season. You might say that’s just because the Blazers are winning, but is it only a coincidence?
Wolves coach Rick Adelman rode backup point guard J.J. Barea down the stretch of Monday’s loss at Boston, something he has done more than once this season when starter Ricky Rubio has struggled with his shot. Each time, it generates spirited sports talk-radio discussion around the dial the next morning.
Rubio is the pass-first point guard who makes teammates better and an anachronism in today’s NBA, but his 2-for-12 shooting night Monday is no aberration. Meanwhile, Blazers second-year star point Damian Lillard just might be the league’s next great scoring point guard, if not its next superstar.
Without question, Portland coach Terry Stotts had Lillard on the floor in the fourth quarter and overtime on the second of back-to-back games Sunday night in Detroit, even though he was in the midst of a lousy shooting night. Still, his turnaround, contested jump shot won the game 111-109 with 0.1 seconds left.
On Tuesday night, Lillard came back and did it again, hitting a three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left to beat the Cavaliers.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m 0-for-16, when the game is on the line, I’m raising up and shooting,” Lillard told reporters after the Pistons game. “I’m not shying away from no shots.”
Third time’s the charm
The Trail Blazers can’t explain it, but they have owned third quarters this season.
They’ve scored 41 points in one third quarter this season and limited Chicago to only 12 points in another. They have outscored Philadelphia 40-15, Utah 40-13, the Bulls 34-12, Oklahoma City 35-21 and the L.A. Lakers 41-24 coming out of half and have outscored the opponent in 18 of 65 third quarters so far this season.
And they have been outscored in the third quarter of all four losses so far this season.
Filling roles wisely
The Blazers last summer never seriously pursued Wolves center Nikola Pekovic with a huge restricted free-agent offer, as some Wolves fans feared and suspected they might after their team engaged Portland forward Nicolas Batum in a convoluted courtship the summer before.
The Blazers instead made some smaller yet meaningful moves, acquiring role player Robin Lopez in a trade to fill their center need, signing veteran free-agent scorer Mo Williams and taking a chance on former No. 5 overall pick Thomas Robinson for little more than absorbing him into their cap space.
The X Factor
The Blazers have built the NBA’s best record without top draft pick C.J. McCollum, the 10th player taken in last summer’s draft.
Many Wolves fans clamored for their team to select the combo guard and his outside shooting ninth overall, but the Wolves traded that pick away after Detroit selected guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope eighth for two later picks they used to select Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.
McCollum has not played yet this season because of a fractured left foot, the same injury that ended his senior season at Lehigh last January.
Six Blazers were born in the 1990s and eight on their 15-man roster are in their rookie or second NBA seasons. Included is second-year forward Robinson. The Portland roster’s average age is 24.8, even with 34-year-old Earl Watson on it.