The NBA Score: Portland stars discuss Trail Blazers' winning streak and playoff prospects

James Benge
On form | Portland won 13 straight games before Tuesday's loss to Houston: Getty Images

The 13-game winning streak may be over but the Portland Trail Blazers aren’t done showing the NBA what they can do as they look to make their mark on the post-season.

A campaign that will end in their fifth straight trip to the playoffs had been going nowhere at the 55 game mark, the sort of staging post where teams can have a decent idea of where they are at.

Portland, it seemed, could at best hope to reach the first round of the playoffs, where they would probably be swept aside by a Western Conference powerhouse. A 109-103 overtime win over the Charlotte Hornets was no more convincing than the three defeats that had preceded it. The woeful Sacramento Kings were put to the sword but a loss at home to the Utah Jazz left the Blazers firmly mired in the scrap for a top eight finish.

Then something changed. Thirteen games brought 13 wins and a two game advantage in third in the Western Conference and security from the desperate scrap for playoff seeding – and avoiding the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors – for at least one round.

The supporting cast around superstar backcourt Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had joined the party. In particular a defence that had ranked among the bottom 10 last season is now in the top 10, allowing the fourth-lowest opponent field goal percentage and fifth-lowest opponent points allowed.

But even on offense the likes of Al Farouq-Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic, the latter the powerful screen-setter who barrels to the hoop that Portland thought they had when they brought him in from Denver just over a year ago, have become vital contributors, easing the load on a back court that continues to perform wonders – Lillard believes he is among the top five MVP contenders,

“I think we have become a much better team because of how we're leaning on each other and counting on each other,” Lillard says. “We're a better team that way.

“I think guys have more confidence because we're making the right plays. Guys are feeling, I guess, more involved offensively, so that's making them more engaged defensively. Anytime you get the kind of production that we're getting from everybody, not just a few guys, it will make you a better team. So they've been really consistent.

“We've gotten a lot from Ed [Davis], we've gotten a lot from Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu], Moe [Harkless], Pat [Connaughton], Zach [Collins], Evan [Turner], everybody who has come into the game has impacted the game in a positive way.

“Not just sometimes, it's been all the time. And I think that's what's allowed us to have that type of winning streak.”

McCollum adds: “The bench was huge, and they've been great all season. Extended leads for us, figuring out ways to contribute, whether that be from scoring, rebounding or defending.

“I mean, even Tuesday night against the Rockets guys stepped up and were aggressive and made plays and impacted the game.”

The visit of the Rockets might have brought Portland’s streak to a halt but there was no less cause for optimism in the 115-111 loss to James Harden, Chris Paul et al than there were in the wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder or even the Golden State Warriors.

It will be a rare night when Lillard and McCollum combine for just 28 points, making nine of a combined 32 shots and going ice cold from beyond the arc, ending the former’s franchise record of 52 games with a made three-pointer. Usually on those sorts of evenings the Blazers are looking at a blowout loss.

But with a few seconds on the clock Portland were within two points of the team with the league’s best record, largely thanks to the contributions of Aminu (22 points, seven-of-11 shooting, six-of-eight from three point range) and Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks).

Lillard takes pride in that performance: “Playing against Houston, you know, the best team in the league right now, and myself and CJ [McCollum], our top two guys on the offensive end are not having a great night, and we still find ourselves down two under a minute left with a chance to get a stop and maybe go to overtime or win the game.”

But the truth is that, for all the value of role players, no-one enjoys any sustained success in the NBA without stars. In Lillard the Blazers have exactly that.

The 27-year-old has been a face of a franchise, regular All-Star (not without controversy this season), two-time All-NBA player and surprisingly good rapper who somehow still contrives to fly under the radar.