With an improved defense and a much better bench than before, the Portland Trail Blazers are no longer nice, sympathetic up and comers who only want to make the playoffs. Their 108-87 win over the Dallas Mavericks, led by none other than LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard was more proof that they can finally be considered as title contenders in the changing Western conference.
Why changing? Because the Spurs are always an unknown quantity at this stage of the season, and have never repeated as title winners. The Oklahoma City Thunder, right now, might be the worst team in the conference, and the work left for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to pick up on might get too difficult and creating a lost season. The Golden State Warriors are scorching, and so are the Houston Rockets, but they don’t seem to be too special or significantly better than the Blazers at this point.
This is the second marquee win for the Blazers in the span of three nights. After bouncing the Cavaliers with a 19 point win, the Mavericks were even easier to overcome. The Blazers took advantage of that huge third-quarter problem the Mavs have, winning by 17 points in those 12 minutes, finishing off the game. This is turning into something that’s more than a coincidence, as the Mavs come out of the locker room with zero energy and urgency for a fifth consecutive game.
With plenty of garbage time minutes, the Blazers had a chance to get a big night from their bench, producing 52 points. This is for a team that’s used to getting 90% of their points from the starting lineup. C.J. McCollum, a player they have a lot of hopes depending on scored 13 points and Chris Kaman scored 12 points in 18 minutes against a team that pretty much tossed him away. Kaman has no love for Rick Carlisle, who never really got along with the center.
Aldridge was fine with 20 points and 7 rebounds and Damian Lillard scored 18. No explosion from anyone like in the win against the Cavaliers, but simply a good, solid and efficient game from everyone. Nicolas Batum struggled from the field again but his defense made up for his 2-of-8 from the field, as did his 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Wesley Matthews played great defense on Monta Ellis and others, contributing 12 points with no one really needing to play too much. Lillard had the most playing time with 32 minutes.
The Blazers managed to slow down the Mavs and limit Nowitzki to just two points in the second half. The same goes for Parsons, who had three consecutive games of more than 20 points, but facing Nicolas Batum dragged him down to only 11, as the Mavericks shot just 36.7% from the field, growing more desperate, lazy and slugging as the game continued to slip away from them. Last season the Blazers had problems, especially in the second half of the season, finishing games because of their defense. That problem isn’t 100% fixed, but it’s something to worry about less at the moment.
The best team in the West? Far from over is that debate. The Blazers have two losses, like the Mavs, unlike the Rockets and Warriors and Grizzlies, all three still undefeated. But this isn’t just about the now. We know what this team is capable of. They don’t have any players past their prime. It’s either guys at that point or getting there. The bench is better. The roles for players coming off the bench seem to be more suited and filled. The defense isn’t an Achilles heel anymore. They’re not only about how streaky their shooting is. Not the complete package, but getting there.