The Blazers’ Path to 50

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest piece on the Portland Trail Blazers from torridjoe of Loaded Orygun.

It’s been a stomach-churning but compelling ride through the 09-10 Blazers season so far, not unlike eating a dodgy day-old birthday cake, but I’ve maintained a sense of optimism ever since Joel Przybilla went down. Homer say what? Optimism? Even the thought of serious title contention had to go out the window, and making the playoffs seemed a hopelessly, almost laughingly lost cause.

But at that point, the pressure was off and the remaining active team bonded by necessity and erased what was a successful but tense atmosphere to start the season. It had to be that chemistry and sense of abandon that carried them through the darkest days when it seemed the team was inches away from activating Blaze the mascot and Rebecca Harlow.

And so here they stand, with a chance to catch their breath before diving into the home stretch of the season in Denver Sunday night, the first of eighteen final regular season games that feature champions and chumps alike. The Blazers have achieved a remarkable 37-37 mark to this point, considering a hardship that included more games in fewer days than anyone in the league to this point.

That’s what makes this long weekend before the Nuggets game a natural reflection point–the schedule smooths out and the competition definitely eases overall, although several games against the elites remain. And as I said, I’ve taken the perspective of every win being gravy in this Slog of Attrition–but I confess to a little exceptional greed as the playoffs draw nigh and the team’s chances continue to look more favorable than not for joining the dance.

As a prediction, for the rest of the way I see Portland putting together a reasonable 11-7 mark and finishing at 48-34. Part of that is already a hedge for Marcus Camby’s ankle injury; if it’s just for Denver and maybe a couple more games I don’t think it’s anything the team can’t overcome–but much beyond that and it could depress their win total, especially against the big boys.

But I called the piece The Path to 50 for a reason, because I found it surprisingly easy to break down the remaining schedule and come up with a 50-32 season that represents the benchmark for NBA season success, which almost certainly guarantees the playoffs this year, and which very possibly would portend a 5-7 slot instead of #8.

There are two ways I’m going to look at it — from a numeric-logical perspective, and from a season flow view. They kind of work together, with the key-game stretches I’ll highlight representing the “warning” signs on the road to the Finals (cough) and with a big-picture look based on the raw matchups and odds for success.

The basics are that 18 games remain, and to get to 50 the Blazers need a 13-5 finish (.722). Ten of them are on the road. That’s a negative of course, but the Blazers are actually one of the most potent road teams in the Association.

Fifteen of them are Western Conference tilts against whom Portland is 23-14, behind only the L*kers and the Nuggets in the West. As a generality, those are favorable conditions. Twenty-three of 37 is .621, so they’d have to step it up in those games or sweep the East teams that they’ve actually had more trouble with (17-14) this year.

And stepping it up is not an unreasonable thought, when you consider the makeup of those West teams. Out of the fifteen contests, one third are against the second-and third-worst teams in the conference, Sacramento and Golden State. The Blazers are 2-1 so far, both coming after the injurious apocalyptica. Three of the five are on the road, which is tricky normally but perhaps not this year. And you’ve got to take care of your business in those cases. Teams on a playoff drive don’t drop more than the rarest games against such competition as the Kings and Warriors.

Side-barring with the East for a moment, there are three of them and all feature teams not much better than Sacto and the Warriors: Raptors, Wiz, Knicks. Bosh will probably be back for the Toronto game, but as long as Camby and Roy play the Blazers have the horses to win at the Garden. Washington and NYC should be gimmes, although both teams beat Portland in their place. The season is long over for them, and a West Coast swing is a drainer. The Raps will be on a back to back, and the Knicks in the 5th day of a killer 9 day swing.

So look–out of 18 games, fully eight of them could fairly be considered safe wins, as safely as any win can be predicted. That’s an enormous start. When you need 13 to get to 50, what can you expect from these eight? Seven? Six at worst? You’d hope so. Let’s say six. That leaves seven of 10 from the rest, a tall order given the competition…but doable. Let’s look.

There are pairs of games remaining against Denver, Dallas and Oklahoma City, that’s six. The Lakers and Phoenix are the other two playoff opponents, and then there are two against the string-playing Hornets and Clips. So six rematch games against teams ahead of them, the Southwest playoff pair, and the Catfish of the West pair.

My head tells me that this is where they falter to 50, perhaps as much as two games leading to my 48-34 prediction. On the other hand, there are some pretty reasonable scenarios if the Blazers take care of business consistently enough. The two Denver games are the toughest of the rematch pair, both on the road and not very good matchups for Portland. If they’re not going to make 50, they’ll lose both of these. But if they can earn a split–not Sunday without Camby maybe, but perhaps April 1st with off days on either side–they’ll be running solid.

The Dallas games on the other hand, are both at home — and frankly, the Blazers took the Mavs apart both times in Dallas. But the Mavericks really are smacking people and look like they’re getting into playoff mode. Give them them a split here with some more confidence, although it will still be an accomplishment.

The opportunity, and thus perhaps the most important games left, are home and away against the dangerous Thunder. (Imagine saying that!) OKC are a mere 1.5 games ahead of Portland for the 6th spot, but they also have three games in hand and could tack on another 1.5.

Still, the teams are pretty evenly matched — they got smoked by the Blazers and Oden’s first double-double of the year, winning here without facing Roy. Marcus Camby is not a perfect analogue for Oden, but assuming Roy and Camby play there is a perfectly reasonable chance for Portland to take both games. Not only does this keep them on the path to fifty, it also gives them a big advantage in getting ahead of OKC in the playoff race.

Two splits and a sweep out of that six is a tough challenge, but it’s a workable path. Maybe you think a sweep is more likely in two homeys against the Mavs than being able to TCB against Durant and the Thunder. But no more than two losses really need to come out of those six if they hope to reach the golden 50.

The challenges don’t get any easier, as the last one calls for a 3-1 record at worst. Two of the games are on the road against the non-playoff West, in the form of the Clippers and the Hornets. Those both need to be wins in this scenario, but they’re doable and aren’t timed badly travel-wise.

The one remaining loss to account for would come between the L*kers in LA or the Suns in Phoenix. Portland won a great one in Arizona last month, and played a great game I saw at home for the win. Either the Blazers figure out the Forum, or this Suns game has to be a victory.

Tough recipe? You bet. Realistic? Remember, I’m an optimist. But add it up: six of eight versus the West dregs and East sucks at home. Four of six in rematch games. And two versus the West slackers plus one of Phoenix or LA on the road. 6 + 4 + 2 + 1 = 50 wins!

I said I would review it from a flow perspective–it looks good on paper, but can they realistically accomplish it given the logistics? As we said, the month of March is a comparatively relaxing tour of the league. There are 13 games in March, the least since 13 in 28-day February, 15 in January and December, and 16 games in November. Eighteen off-or-travel days is pretty lax by NBA standards, and should hopefully give them both time to nurse wounds and stay rested and ready for each game.

There are two key stretches I see, both by opponent and timing. The first starts at home vs Dallas on the 25th (TNT Thursday, good omen!), followed by a (late because of TNT) plane trip (bad omen!) to Looziana and the Hornets on the 27th, with the Thunder the next night. New Orleans is the easiest of the three and comes with a travel day, but could well be a trap game between a draining Mavs tussle and what has become a real rivalry game against OKC.

The shoulders of that 3-gamer are Phoenix and Knicks, Phoenix the roadie. Together it all makes for five really important games, but spaced well enough to give them a competitive shot at all of them.

The second mini-run also starts with Dallas, again at the Garden on April 9th. There’s a travel day and then a Sunday afternoon L*ker game on ABC. The following night, after a full day of circus and crash, the Thunder come meet them in the Rose Garden. The cusps of this trio are two peaches, Clippers on the road and Warriors at home to close the season.

If the Blazers can get through those 10 games without damage that cuts too deep, the other eight are again mostly easier games. I want to try and get the point across again, that you can’t ever really take any game for granted, but if you’re analyzing the odds of a stretch of games eventually you have to make a reasoned call on wins and losses.

And none of these little scenarios I’ve constructed honestly represent challenges beyond the current Blazers’ capability (assuming good health of the remaining players). Beat Dallas twice? Been there. Beat OKC? Sure. Take Phoenix on the road? Yep. Clean up on weaker teams? Of course. Win some unexpected games on the back-to-back? No doubt. Is rest an issue? Shouldn’t be.

So come tax day in the US, April 15th, if the basketball gods finally pull the pins out of the doll and give the Blazers a tiny break this year, you can nod knowingly amongst your lesser roundball brethren and say, “Well of COURSE they got to 50, they had a clear path to it when March started.” And then if you have this column discreetly written on your hand and throw in a you betcha or two, you’ll be golden.

Read more views on the Portland Trail Blazers from torridjoe at Loaded Orygun.