Portland Getting It Done on Court, at Window
by T.O Whenham - 01/04/2008
If you had somehow been able to predict that the Portland Trail Blazers would get as hot as they have before the season started you would be a very rich person today. Not just because they have gone a ridiculous 14-2 ATS in their last 16 games, but also because people would have thought you were an idiot and would have lined up to bet you that you were wrong. The Blazers are the youngest team in the league, and they suffered what should have been a crippling blow before the season even started when Greg Oden was knocked out for the year, yet somehow they are sitting in a playoff spot, and they seem to be virtually unbeatable.
There are few things in sports handicapping harder to deal with than a team that performs significantly better or worse than expectations. When a team overachieves as dramatically as Portland has recently, it is typical to believe that it is too good to be true, and to start looking for the good times to end so you can profit as they fall back to earth. That would be very costly in this case.
What makes this streak (15 wins in 16 games, including 13 in a row) so truly unbelievable is the ATS success. The books can't set a line high enough to get the team beat. Or perhaps they don't want to because the public isn't buying into the success - the Blazers have been the underdog in nine of the 16 games. When a team is that strong ATS it means that their performance isn't a fluke. But how is Portland doing it, and can it possibly continue? Whether they can or not, this is a team that needs to be paid attention to. Here's a look:
Schedule - Not to take anything away from the team, but the schedule has had a lot to do with their success. Of the 13 games of the undefeated streak, 10 were played at home. Beyond that, there have been several creampuff opponents with records well below .500 recently - Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Seattle, Minnesota (twice), Philadelphia, and Chicago. They've beat some good teams, too, but even if they hadn't they still would have had a good record over the stretch just by beating up on the lousy teams. It gets much tougher from here. They play above .500 teams Utah (who they recently lost to) and Golden State, and then they go on the road for seven in a row. The team is just 8-7 ATS on the road and only 3-6 ATS before this run of invincibility. It stands to reason that the team will fall back to earth at least a little bit before January ends.
Scoring - The biggest difference between the newly dominant Blazers and those that started the year is their ability to score. They have scored almost seven points per game more over their streak than they have over the whole season. Leading the charge has been a two-headed sophomore monster. Guard Brandon Roy is averaging 19.5 points per game on the season, and more than 21 per game over this stretch. He has scored at least 16 points in all 16 games, and at least 24 points in nine of them. Center LaMarcus Aldridge has been slightly less impressive, but only because he missed five games of the streak due to injury. He's averaging 17.5 points per game. Unlike Roy, who has been consistently solid, Aldridge has been less steady but more spectacular at times - he's had two points in a game, but 36 in another. As impressive as the numbers are, the most impressive offensive period was the five game stretch Aldridge was out. They were underdogs in each game, as any team would be when missing their second leading scorer, yet they won each game by at least eight. A key to their success has been offensive balance. The Suns, the highest scoring team in the league, has six scorers averaging double figures per game. The Trail Blazers have only the sixth best offensive output in the league, but they also had six players averaging 10 or more by the end of their 13 game unbeaten run.
Defense - The Trail Blazers have a top 10 defense. What's impressive is that they have maintained their defensive discipline throughout their recent success. When a team is winning, and especially when their offensive output and confidence increases significantly, they will often get lazier in their own end. That hasn't happened, and that's a good reason to believe that what we are seeing with Portland is at least somewhat sustainable. They aren't going to play like the Celtics all year as they are now, but they are young and well balanced, and they are obviously listening to their coaching staff, so they don't seem likely to return to the November Blazers levels, either.