Four Things to Watch in Trail Blazers' Regular-Season Stretch Run
The Blazers have 24 games remaining in their post-All-Star schedule. Here's what to keep an eye on.
The Trail Blazers limped into the All-Star break two games under .500 with 24 games remaining. Anfernee Simons is out indefinitely with a sprained ankle, and Jusuf Nurkic and Justise Winslow are also still out with injuries. They have a tough, road-heavy schedule coming up through the end of February and into the beginning of March.
But—and stop me if you've heard this one before—despite currently sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference, the Blazers are just half a game out of the play-in, two games out of the top six, and three-and-a-half games out of home-court advantage in the first round. What has been a tight playoff race all season hasn't really gained any separation yet, and as they have all year, the Blazers will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to make up ground and make one final push.
There are a few factors that will determine whether the Blazers will make a run—or not.
The next 17 days will decide how the season goes
The Blazers begin their post-All-Star schedule tonight in Sacramento, followed by a home game against Houston, a road game at Golden State and a home game against New Orleans, the first time Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will actually face off against each other. Then, they go out on the last of three six-game road trips of the season, which will take them to Atlanta, Orlando, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
That's 10 games in 17 days, eight of which on the road, and only two against tanking teams (Houston and Detroit) that should be penciled in as wins. Of the rest, two are against Eastern Conference contenders (Boston and Philly), one is against a solid Western Conference playoff team a tier above them (Sacramento) and the rest are against teams of roughly the same talent level and place in the standings as Portland. They'll have to get through some of this schedule without Jusuf Nurkic, and likely all of it without Anfernee Simons.
It's a tough task for a team this injured and inconsistent, but if they can split the next 10 games to stay within range of .500 after one last marathon road trip, it's reasonable to hope for a push for the play-in, or maybe even higher. They've made runs like that after the All-Star break in years past, most notably their 18-8 post-All-Star finish in 2016-17 and a 13-game winning streak around this time of year in 2017-18. Lillard is certainly playing at the level where they can be reasonably thought to be in most of these games. Maybe they have another run in them. My sense is everyone's preference is still to be competitive the rest of the way and make the playoffs.
But if this 10-game stretch goes the other way, at that point it may be time to consider shutting guys down and maximizing their lottery position. Either way it goes, we'll find out in the next two-and-a-half weeks.