Blazers quietly stating case as elite team

PORTLAND, Ore. -- With one large towel wrapped around his waist and an ever larger group of reporters waiting a few feet away to speak with him late Thursday night, Damian Lillard stood motionless in front of the television monitors inside the Portland Trail Blazers' locker room.

He watched every scene and soaked in every word.

A national postgame television show was airing highlights of the Blazers' 99-83 victory against the Miami Heat. Considering the way Lillard was locked in on the screen, it was almost as if he hadn't actually just experienced every replay that flashed across the screen.

Soon, the highlights ended and the mix of praise and constructively critical comments began.

With Thursday's victory, the Blazers improved to 28-8 and matched Golden State for the most wins in the NBA this season. Portland's 17 wins at home are second to none, and the 16-2 mark against the Eastern Conference represents its best start against those teams in franchise history.

So exactly what had Lillard transfixed on the TV as if he were watching a breaking news development?

"At first, it was just the highlights seeing some of the plays we made," Lillard said. "But after that, I just wanted to listen for a minute. We don't get talked about too much around here on that [national] level."

Pontification from major studio analysts on national networks shouldn't matter so much to Portland. Not with the way the Blazers have been making some rather resounding statements of their own in recent weeks. While the Warriors have garnered more attention for their hot start and praise for their MVP candidate in Stephen Curry and coach of the year consideration for Steve Kerr, the Blazers have gone quietly about their work of carving out real estate near the top of the West standings.

They've done so as one of only three teams in the league that rank in the top 10 in offense and defense. That, alone, speaks to a level of balance, structure and depth several of the team's key players believe have made them more capable of building on last season's run to the second round of the playoffs.

Portland is just 36 games into the season, so there's still plenty to prove for a team that's far from a finished product. But there's plenty to like about the habits they're building. They've been one of the league's best 3-point shooting teams for a while, so it's not surprising that the Blazers have doubled their opponents' totals from distance, having knocked down 336 from beyond the arc compared to 183.

But it's the distance Portland has been able to overcome during games that stands out this season. The Blazers are now 11-6 in games when they've trailed at halftime, and Thursday also marked the 11th game this season they have won after falling behind by double figures at some point. The turnaround against the Heat featured an incredible 33-point swing that saw the Blazers rally from a 10-point deficit in the second quarter to eventually take a 23-point lead midway through the fourth.

Credit the Blazers for another resilient effort amid their statement-making start to the season. Lillard, who fought through a sore back in the second half, and LaMarcus Aldridge are legitimate All-Stars and form one of the best star duos in the league. And their supporting cast has worked remarkably so far to prove that there's enough depth on this team to contend for a spot in the conference finals. And a season-low seven turnovers was the latest example of how Portland has cut down on beating itself with silly mistakes and miscues. And the ability to win ugly can be viewed as a sign of much-needed maturity and grit.

Portland shot just 42.1 percent from the field and 29.6 from 3-point range -- and still won going away.


One dominant quarter was all that was required. The Blazers outscored the Heat 33-16 in the pivotal third quarter and got rugged efforts from role players Chris Kaman and Wesley Matthews, both of whom pushed through nagging injuries to help put away the reeling Heat.

"The second half was the way we needed to play," said Portland's Terry Stotts, the Western Conference coach of the month for December. "We just came out with a little more energy, a little more focus."

It didn't hurt the Blazers that they were facing a team that was already beaten before tipoff.

The Heat arrived in Portland late Wednesday night after a draining 14-hour day of travel. What was scheduled to be a six-hour flight that included a stop to refuel in Oklahoma wound up being delayed from the start in Miami, re-routed to Memphis after a mechanical problem and grounded on the tarmac in Tennessee for nearly four hours while another plane had to be flown in as a replacement.

"We knew it was going to be three hours before another plane came," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "The main thing -- the hard thing -- was the plane we were switching to didn't have any power outlets, didn't have any Wi-Fi. So you were just jockeying to charge all your stuff up and get your messages out."

The Heat refused to use the travel problems as an excuse for their performance. But it obviously had an impact, considering the way Miami melted down in the second half. Wade and Chris Bosh combined for only 14 points in the second half, when the Heat shot just 31.4 percent and were outscored 56-35.

The combination of the lopsided loss and the travel problems ruined a homecoming for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, a Portland native. It also rendered moot a pregame message from Bosh, who said the team needed to show more competitiveness and fight -- even in games against superior teams.

Instead, Miami suffered its 14th loss of the season by a double-figure margin.

"It doesn't mean we have to win every game," Bosh said Thursday. "But we need to kind of have the mentality to fight, no matter what the situation is. Our situation is not -- it kind of sucks right now. But if we just lay to the side, that's not good for morale -- that's not good for the whole outlook. We just can't get the brakes beat off us every night and then just kind of go back home and say, 'What happened?'"

While the Heat are searching for answers, the Blazers are providing them.

From here, it's about building on the solid start and capitalizing on their potential.

Aldridge has been a Blazer for a decade now, and he has seen this level of upside before in Portland. During his first few seasons, he was surrounded by the promise of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. But that core flamed out quickly as injuries piled up and never allowed that team to reach its potential.

Aldridge sees a different element in this current group of Blazers.

"This team is totally different, because there's a different feeling around," Aldridge said. "This team now, everybody is playing together. The ball is moving. The guys play off me, and I play off them. We're more united on the court as far as how we use each other. That team really didn't use each other."