LOS ANGELES -- There's no need to X-ray the Portland Trail Blazers' 14-3 record to see the inner workings, because the Trail Blazers are perfectly willing to explain it all for you. This is a team that's more caught up in fixing its flaws than seeking accolades for early-season accomplishments. They realize they're doing plenty right, and are cognizant that in the long run it won't be enough. They know who they are, even if you don't.
"We're not a 'cool' team," Wesley Matthews said. "Some teams are cool teams. We're not a cool team; we don't have cool players. We have dogs. We have to play like that."
Roughly translated, that means they have to think of themselves as Occupy Wall Street protesters, even though their record puts them in the loftiest percentiles of the NBA. While their record is tied with the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat for the second best in the league, their point differential of plus-5.1 is only fifth best, a reflection of their inability to bury teams after they've scooped out the dirt.
"We've got to find a way to stay consistent," Blazers point guard Damian Lillard said. "When things are going well, we tend to ease up and play a little bit loose instead of tightening up and putting teams away."
Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Lakers was a prime example. The Trail Blazers jumped out to a 19-2 lead through the midpoint of the first quarter, but found themselves tied five minutes into the second quarter. Then they used a 41-point third quarter to go ahead by 20 points, only to let a funky Lakers lineup of Jodie Meeks, Shawne Williams, Robert Sacre, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson race back to within a point before the Trail Blazers finally prevailed, 114-108.
Although the Trail Blazers move the ball well, they are only an average shooting team (45 percent).
But just as they can find the weaknesses in their strong start, they also can salvage strong indicators amid that messy fourth quarter. They took great pride in their late defensive stops, especially when Lillard fought through a screen to stick with Meeks, then blocked Meeks' jump shot.
Even though Lillard was the runaway rookie of the year award winner last season, he didn't win many accolades for his defense. He's working on that end of the court, and used video study on his iPad to learn the Lakers' plays well enough that he recognized Meeks was going to try to slam him into a "gate" on that late play. Lillard beat it, then timed his jump perfectly to get Meeks' shot.
"That was the big play for us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
"I think we're a good team, but we have room to grow. We're still a little inconsistent, but I think that's part of our process. But I like the fact that we find ways to win games."
They've done it 14 times in 17 tries. The knock on them is that they aren't winning many against the league's best teams. Only four of the 14 have come against teams that currently hold winning records. They beat the Spurs at home when both teams were playing on the second half of a back-to-back, they beat the Golden State Warriors the day after they lost Andre Iguodala to a hamstring injury. Sunday, of course, they got the Lakers in Los Angeles without Kobe Bryant -- although the leftover Lakers had managed to win six of their first nine home games.
"Winning on the road says a lot in the NBA," said Earl Watson, the veteran with 12 years of pro experience the Trail Blazers added over the summer. "You can have a solid record, but still lose on the road. We've been finding ways to win on the road."
Their eight road victories (in 10 games) are the most in the league. It's also remarkable that a team so dependent on outside shooting (28 percent of their points are from 3-pointers, the fourth-most in the NBA) can be so consistent. One reason Watson cites is the variety of scorers on the roster, especially Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Lillard scored or assisted on 36 percent of the Blazers' field goals last season; that has dropped to 31 percent this season.
"It makes us hard to guard," Watson said.
Sunday night Aldridge was cooking (to use a term preferred by the TV character on Matthews' T-shirt: Walter White) with 18 points in the first half. In the third quarter, Matthews and Lillard got going for a combined 20 points.
The Trail Blazers won, even if it wasn't their ideal formula. The main thing is they're winning. They get a chance to get the pelt of the top team on the safari, the Indiana Pacers, at home Monday night. (The Pacers got a schedule break by playing the Clippers in Los Angeles Sunday afternoon, allowing them to get to Portland before the Trail Blazers). The Pacers game will give us more judgment criteria.
The Trail Blazers have already drawn their own conclusions.
"I think we're a good team," Lillard said. "We can get a lot better in a lot of areas but, um .... we're a good team."