By Anne M. Peterson Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. — After starting off as one of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers wilted a bit after the All-Star break.
The low point came on March 25 when the Blazers fell 95-85 at Orlando. The loss capped a 4-9 stretch for Portland.
But since then, the Blazers have won nine of their final 10 games and wrapped up the regular season with a five-game winning streak.
It’s that rebound that gives coach Terry Stotts confidence for the playoffs.
“In this league, you’re going to have rough patches,” he said. “It’s how you get through them. I was proud of the way we’ve fought through rough times … I thought that it showed our mettle and you need that going into the playoffs.”
Portland, the fifth seed in the West, faces the Rockets in the opening round of the playoffs with Game 1 set for Sunday night in Houston. The Blazers haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011, when they fell in six games to the Mavericks in the first round.
Portland finished the regular season with 54 wins, the team’s most since the 2008-09 season, and bettered their record by 21 wins over last season for the biggest turnaround in franchise history.
“We said before the season there was something special about this team. To get 54 wins after having 33 last year and being written off from the jump — we played with an edge all year,” guard Wesley Matthews said.
The Blazers got off to a surprising 24-5 start this season, the best record in the NBA at the time. The addition of center Robin Lopez and the inspired play of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard helped fuel the ascent. Both Aldridge and Lillard were named All Stars.
The March swoon coincided in part with the absence of Aldridge, who missed seven games because of a lower back contusion. His return steadied the team for the push toward the playoffs.
Aldridge has averaged career highs this season in points (23.2) and rebounds (11.1), his success bolstered by the play of Lopez in the middle. He is the only Blazer besides Sidney Wicks (1971-72) to average more than 23 points and 11 rebounds in a season.
Lillard averages 20.7 points and 5.6 assists while Lopez, acquired last summer from New Orleans, averages 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. Lopez has grabbed 326 offensive rebounds this season, setting a franchise record, and he’s had a career-high 29 double-doubles.
The Blazers are still considered underdogs to the Rockets, who also won 54 games this season led by Dwight Howard and James Harden.
“We don’t feel that way,” Lopez protested. “The media has its own agenda. It portrays teams differently. In the locker room, I mean, we’ve beaten just about every team. We feel we can win.”
For comparison’s sake, Howard has averaged 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds this season, while Harden averages 25.4 points and 6.1 assists.
The Rockets claimed the season series against the Blazers 3-1. The most notable game came on March 9 in Houston, when Harden scored 41 points and the Rockets rallied for a 118-113 win in overtime over Portland.
But that loss came in the midst of Portland’s slump. The Blazers insist they’ve got renewed confidence from their late-season surge.
“We know what they’re going to do. We know what they’re about, they know what we’re about and it’s going to be a fight,” Matthews said. “It’s the playoffs. The level increases and it’s about the little things. It’s about taking care of the ball and not giving them easy points. That’s what we’ve got to do.”