Portland Trail Blazers leave February with a chance to break ceiling

After a positive February, the Portland Trail Blazers could make a real push in March for home-court advantage in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.

The Portland Trail Blazers closed out February with an emphatic 116-99 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night. It is their fourth straight win, only the second time this season they’ve reached that mark. They end the month with a 35-26 record, nine games better than where they were through 61 games last season.

Portland now sits in fifth place in the Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans. New Orleans was idle Tuesday and plays the San Antonio Spurs tonight. Should the Pelicans win, they would end February tied with the Blazers. More importantly, they would also reclaim the fifth seed, as they lead the season series 2-1.

Whether they end the month fifth or sixth, the Blazers are in a better place than they were at the beginning of this month. After ending January on a 7-1 run, Portland dropped its first three games of February. Rip City stumbled through an East coast road gauntlet that featured the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons. The team fell to the seventh seed by the end of the trip.

Things have turned around since then though. Portland closed out the month by going 6-1 since the trip. The Blazers have an average point differential of +7.0 over that span. Their 6-4 record on the month is a sizable improvement after going 2-7 in February of 2017.

Two major factors contributed to this turnaround. The first one is All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. He took his game to another level in February. Lillard essentially started the surge he had last March a month early.

Dame got the ball rolling on Feb. 9 when he dropped 50 points on the Kings in Sacramento. He followed that up with 39 points in a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz and 44 in win over the Golden State Warriors. Two games later, Lillard scored 44 points and supplied the game-winner in a comeback victory over the Phoenix Suns.

Lillard ended February averaging 31.4 points per game, shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from 3-point range. According to Jason Quick of NBC Sports Northwest, that scoring average is a franchise record for the month of February.

The other factor is the team’s defensive effort. According to NBA.com, Portland is still the 10th-best defense in the NBA, allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions. Things ratcheted up even more recently, as the Blazers allowed only 100.9 points per 100 possessions post-road trip. That number is good for seventh-best in the league.

Points off turnovers is a key stat that highlights the increase in Portland’s defensive pressure. After converting 12 forced turnovers into 24 points on Tuesday, Portland has now scored 20 points or more off of turnovers in four consecutive games. This is the first time they’ve accomplished that feat since Feb. 8-14, 2012.

With a star guard playing at a high level and a hardened defense, Portland has the opportunity to make some noise down the stretch in the Western Conference playoff race. If it plays well enough, it could slip into a seed that would provide home-court advantage in the first round.

To elaborate, the Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs are third and fourth in the West, respectively. The Timberwolves were dealt an unfortunate blow when Jimmy Butler suffered a right meniscus injury in the team’s Feb. 23 loss to the Houston Rockets. It’s speculated that he could be out 4-6 weeks. That spells trouble for a team that already utilizes a small rotation.

Meanwhile, things have gone mostly well for the Spurs despite being without star forward Kawhi Leonard for much of the season. Reports indicate he could rejoin the team in late March. However, not having him makes it hard for the team to separate itself from the rest of the pack in the West.

In light of those recent events, Portland could swipe one of those playoff positions if and only if it maintains the type of intensity that helped close out February on such a strong note.

The Blazers’ schedule won’t be easy in March. They have nine games against current playoff teams, including the Warriors, Celtics, Timberwolves and Rockets, among others. On the bright side, 10 of their 15 games will be at home.

The Portland Trail Blazers were hit hard at the beginning of February, but were able to bounce back. Their star guard’s inspired play, coupled with the team’s re-dedication to defense, spurred their 6-1 stretch. The team went 13-3 last March. We’ll see what the month brings in 2018.

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