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Trail Blazers Limping into Postseason

A sigh of relief was heard all around the city of Portland when the Trail Blazers announced that Arron Afflalo would only miss one-to-two weeks of action following a shoulder strain that forced him to leave last Thursday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors.

This injury occurred in the fourth quarter of the 116-105 loss for Rip City. It happened when Afflalo called for the ball because he had a cross-match with Stephen Curry guarding him. Once the double-team came from Draymond Green, Afflalo passed the ball back out to the perimeter and you could clearly see him in agony.

This was a big blow to the Blazers. In that final offensive possession for Afflalo, a nice drive and finish at the rim by Nicolas Batum brought the Blazers to within three points. On the ensuing possession, Curry pulled up for a deuce and gave his Warriors a 100-95 lead. At the 4:35 mark of the period, Portland called a timeout to get Afflalo out of the game. From that point on, the NBA’s best team went on a 16-5 run to end the game to end a two-game losing streak.

Now, the optimism once emanating from Portland has diminished significantly as injuries have continued to pile up for this group. Their hopes of postseason success are now hanging on thin strings with much to be desired when the playoffs tip off this upcoming weekend.

Trevor Booker, in just his fourth start of the season, scored a career-high 36 points for the Jazz on the road against the Blazers over the weekend, propelling them to an unforeseen 111-105 victory. Utah was sans the services of Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke and Derrick Favors and still managed to go into the Moda Center to hand Portland its third loss in the last four games.

This rough stretch for the Blazers has solidified them as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. This ultimately means that barring any upsets that affect the matchups going forward, the Blazers’ rigorous route to glory will come without any home-court advantage. (Memphis and Houston both have better records, but Portland will be awarded the higher seed by virtue of being a division winner.)

With Wesley Matthews already shelved for the rest of the season with a ruptured Achilles, the Blazers have no margin for error. Depth will be important for Portland going forward, so the “next man up” philosophy will have to be reified if this team has any shot at success in the postseason.

The Blazers are 10-8 since the injury to Matthews and have so far lost their first game without Afflalo. These were two integral pieces to the puzzle, but unfortunately they’ll have to go the rest of the season without one, and the other will be back some time during the first round.

According to SportVU tracking on NBA.com, the Blazers are fourth in the NBA in catch-and-shoot points per game. A major contribution came from the shooting ability of Matthews, who’s tied for sixth in the league in this category. They’ve also reaped the benefit of Afflalo’s 4.3 catch-and-shoot points per game.

LaMarcus Aldridge, who was initially supposed to miss significant time due to a thumb injury, has quietly had an excellent season, averaging a team-high 23.5 points on 46.8 percent shooting to go along with 10.3 rebounds per game. The Blazers’ offense thrives on his success from mid-range and his ability to give the opposition nightmares in pick-and-pop situations. Among active players, he’s second in the league in field goal attempts per game, so it would behoove him to continue his dominance if the Blazers want any chance at contending.

With depth currently being an issue, C.J. McCollum has emerged as an unsung hero by averaging 14 points on 53 percent shooting in the last 10 games. The confidence he’s currently playing with could spell positive things for Portland if he can keep it up in the playoffs.

Damian Lillard is the motor of the Blazers, and this was made conspicuous in last year’s first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. On the brink of the series being pushed to a sudden death Game 7 matchup, Lillard came off a screen and hit a game-winning three-pointer as time expired to win Game 6 and end the series. The Blazers almost squandered a 3-1 series lead, but their electric point guard put an end to all the trepidation with one heroic shot.

But Lillard will need to seek improvement to some degree in order to lead his team in the right direction. Lillard’s 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game have at times been overshadowed by his shaky defense. In fact, on three separate occasions in April, Lillard has allowed an opposing player to almost single-handedly will their team to a victory.

Against the Blazers, Chris Paul scored 41 points and dished out 17 assists in a 126-122 Clippers victory back on April 1. In Brooklyn, Deron Williams had 24 points to go along with 10 assists in a much-needed Nets win. In the loss to the Warriors on Thursday, Curry exploded for 45 points and 10 assists.

As the motor of the team, the pressure is on, and Lillard thrived under it last year in the playoffs against the Rockets. Now, the task will be to turn his defensive deficiencies around in time for Portland to make a run. As we all know, every game is a new opportunity to correct previous shortcomings, and Monday night will be a huge test with the Blazers set to play the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Russell Westbrook has become a walking triple-double, and with his latest technical foul rescinded, he’ll be looking to do more of the same against Portland. Expect Westbrook to come out aggressive knowing that losses at this point are incorrigible. We’ll see if Lillard is up for the assignment, because his team will need him, especially with Aldridge sitting out the game:

Aldridge’s injury isn’t expected to be serious, but it’s just another nagging issue to deal with as Portland heads into the postseason.

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