On February 11, the Trail Blazers got blown out at home by the Jazz, their fourth loss in six games, kicking off some mild panic in Portland about the team’s ability to hold onto a playoff spot in a stacked Western Conference. Three days later, the Rose Garden hosted a Valentine’s Day date between the Blazers and Warriors, the teams’ last game before the all-star break. Kevin Durant did some Kevin Durant stuff, scoring 50 points, but after the Blazers blew a 20-point first-half lead, they held on to win by six on the back of Damian Lillard, who went for 44. It was a huge moment for the Blazers; Lillard said afterward it could give them some much-needed momentum going into the second half of the year. The first game out of the break, Portland destroyed those same Jazz in Salt Lake City, and it started to seem like he might be onto something.
Last night, the Blazers took a nail-biter against the Lakers in L.A., Portland’s seventh straight win. It’s worth watching the full-game highlights to see Lillard make the Lakers look silly, but he actually had a pretty quiet game until the fourth quarter, scoring a mere 20 as his team went down by 11. Then Lillard flipped a switch. He sunk four straight threes in under two minutes, went five of seven in the fourth, and scored 19 in the final 7:39 of the game. Essentially, he decided he’d prefer not to lose the game, so he didn’t lose the game. “He definitely thought the hoop was an ocean,” Shabazz Napier said. “It was like he was throwing a rock in the ocean.”
Lillard is averaging nearly 31 points per game since the break, and his backcourt buddy C.J. McCollum is adding another 21. The Blazers are now in sole possession of third place in the West, up a game on the Pelicans, Spurs, and Timberwolves. For the first time this season, a team might be starting to distinguish itself as the clear third-best team in the conference.
The Blazers would ordinarily be the biggest NBA story of the moment, but the West is wild right now. The top four teams have won 15, five, seven, and eight consecutive games, respectively. Even the Jazz are 8-2 in their last 10. There are eight teams with a plausible shot at the three-seed, and except for the Spurs it appears they are all prepared to put up a fight for it. After the Blazers face the sad Knicks tonight, they’ll get a couple days off before a rematch with the Warriors in Portland on Friday. Best-case scenario: Durant comes in pissed, Lillard comes in defensive, and yet again we have to update the list of best games of the year.