Originally Published: March 30, 2014

1. Trail Blazers Getting Back On Winning Track

By Danny Nowell | TrueHoop Network

PORTLAND, Ore. -- It is often said that playoff success is about peaking at the right time. Veteran teams are said to flip the switch at the start of spring, while upstarts who materialize in March are finally jelling when the games matter more. So long as you've avoided abject disaster through the first four months of the season, conventional wisdom holds, what matters is that you go into the postseason playing your best ball. Everyone starts 0-0 in the playoffs and all that.

Sunday night, the Portland Trail Blazers hosted the Memphis Grizzlies in a contest between two teams trying to lay claim to whatever timely energy sustains the teams of destiny. The Grizzlies, improbably, find themselves in the pack of Western teams vying for one of the last three playoff seeds after recovering from Marc Gasol's midseason ACL sprain.

Memphis came into Sunday 11-4 in the month of March behind its patented grappling defense, and looked to be on a trajectory that the Blazers -- who struggled through a month that saw their playoff seed fall seemingly by the day -- might have envied. What's more, the teams' previous two meetings had been convincing Memphis victories, so from a certain angle this game looked like a matchup between two teams heading in two different directions as the playoffs bear down.

Cameron Browne/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn the West chase, Zach Randolph and the Griz were outdone by Mo Williams and the Blazers.

But at the end of the night, it was the Blazers talking momentum and the Grizzlies leaving the Northwest on the outside of the playoff hunt. In a reversal of their previous matchups, Portland controlled this game from the outset and looked very much like its earlier-season self, pouring in perimeter jumpers and getting balanced contributions offensively while relying on sound -- if less than smothering -- defense to come away with the win.

It was the Blazers' third consecutive victory, after they salvaged a nearly catastrophic five-game road trip with victories in Atlanta and Chicago. That trip began with three straight losses and bottomed out in Orlando, where Portland, missing LaMarcus Aldridge to a back contusion, mailed in a dispiriting performance against the Magic.

"After the Orlando game," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, "I think there was more resolve." With the team in danger of tumbling down the conference standings, Stotts said, the Blazers realized the urgency of the situation. "We got four teams that are right on our tail," said Stotts. "That's why after the Orlando game was the time to realize where we are in the standings, where everybody else is, and the importance of every game."

Getting Aldridge back certainly didn't hurt, either. Portland's fulcrum missed seven total games with his back injury, just a few weeks after a strained groin held him out following the All-Star break. As their franchise player healed, the Blazers found themselves unable to hold their ground. They dropped heartbreakers, were blown out by the Bobcats and needed overtime to scrape past the Bucks. His return in Atlanta sparked their current streak, and he carried the team past Memphis with 28 points against the stout Grizzlies front line.

Meanwhile, the Grizzlies lost an opportunity to gain ground on a night when Phoenix and Golden State each lost. Memphis remains tied in the loss column with the Suns and Mavericks, but it's heading to Denver for the second night of a back-to-back in thin air. Though they mounted something of a comeback in the game's final minutes, the Grizzlies were mostly listless in Portland, allowing the Blazers to shoot over 50 percent from the floor. They'll need to play more to character if they want to emerge from the three-team race for the conference's final two playoff spots.

After a March that saw them hit the road for two five-game swings, the Blazers can look forward to a relatively easy closing schedule as many of their competitors nurse ailments of their own. The Warriors, who still visit the Moda Center one more time this season, remain the most likely candidates to catch Portland for the fifth seed, but they're missing Andrew Bogut and, for a shorter time, David Lee.

The Rockets, who the Blazers will meet in the first round if they can stay on course, just lost starting point guard Patrick Beverley to a torn meniscus. It's been a long few months since the Blazers were the darlings of the league, and they've opened themselves up to a host of questions, but all of a sudden they have a tenuous hold on health and something like momentum as the rest of the conference's middle class takes on water. If they can steel their resolve just seven games longer, the Trail Blazers may emerge, after months of looking like they peaked too early, as a team heading into the postseason at full strength.

Danny Nowell writes about the Trail Blazers for TrueHoop. Follow him @DMNowell

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