PORTLAND - The nature of this lockout season, I suspect, will exaggerate both highs and lows for teams throughout the league. There are a variety of factors at play. The compressed nature of the schedule means a bad stretch of play might result in three or four losses instead of two or three. The standings are also more compact than usual, at the top of the Eastern Conference and from 2-10 in the West, which are separated by just two and a half games.
The biggest factor of all might be an unanticipated quirk of the way fatigue has changed games this season. Suddenly, home-court advantage means more than ever before. Typically, home teams win by an average of somewhere between 3.0 and 3.5 points per game. Early this year, that mark is all the way up to 4.3. Home teams are winning slightly more often (61.8 percent, as compared to 60.4 percent in 2010-11) and they're winning blowouts a lot more frequently.
Intuitively, we know this to be the case, but it can still be difficult to mentally adjust for home-court advantage when looking at results. So this year, a team can be perceived very differently depending on whether it is in the midst of a homestand or a long road trip. Such is the case with the Portland Trail Blazers, who followed a 7-2 start to the season by winning just two of their next seven games, going 2-4 on a six-game stint away from the friendly confines of the Rose Garden.
While Portland has in fact played worse on the road this season, the difference is not so extreme once performance is adjusted for location. The Blazers fared better than the average opponent in four of the six games on their trip, including an overtime loss in Houston and a three-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Their season-long schedule-adjusted point differential dropped by just 1.2 points, from +4.7 to +3.5, over the course of the trip--about the same as Portland dropped by losing to the Orlando Magic at home before setting out on the road.
Yet the narrative about the Blazers changed dramatically over the course of two weeks. When Portland stood 7-2, the discussion was primarily whether this team could surpass its predecessors and advance deep into the playoffs. Fast forward to last weekend and suddenly a playoff spot was no guarantee, what with the Blazers ninth in the West as of Sunday.
Back at home, Portland has righted the ship with a pair of double-digit victories over the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies entering Wednesday's finale of the team's first back-to-back-to-back set of the season, to be played at Golden State.
Tuesday's effort did break one Blazers trend, as the team showed it could win without point production from Gerald Wallace, who finished with seven points. It was just the second time all season that Portland has won a game where Wallace did not score double digits. It's less than a coincidence that the Blazers suffered their worst loss of the year Saturday at Detroit when Wallace, who is neck-and-neck with LaMarcus Aldridge for the team's best net plus-minus, sat due to a sprained middle finger.
Even without scoring, Wallace still managed to put his stamp on the game with his energy, most notably during a game-turning run just after halftime. While Memphis looked weary a night after rallying from an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter at Golden State, Portland came out of the locker room ready to extend a four-point lead. The Blazers responded with a 17-2 run before rookie Josh Selby scored the Grizzlies' first basket of the quarter at the 2:47 mark.
In particular, Memphis' starters had nothing left after four of them played at least 36 minutes against the Warriors. They combined to shoot 15-of-51 (29.4 percent) from the field. Such poor shooting spells doom against Portland, what with Nate McMillan's focus on pushing the tempo. The Grizzlies' misses turned into easy opportunities at the other end, helping the Blazers overcome heavy legs of their own (they shot 5-of-22 from downtown).
At this point, Portland knows it can count on Aldridge for 20 points a night. He's reached the mark 13 times in 18 games, including a seven-game streak that coincided with the Blazers' 2-5 stretch. As Aldridge has become a reliable rock, his performance has become less important to Portland's effort from night to night than finding a second scorer to pair with him. On Tuesday, the Blazers did it by committee, getting 15 points from Jamal Crawford off the bench, 13 from Wesley Matthews and 10 apiece from Nicolas Batum and Raymond Felton.
It's nearly impossible to beat Portland when the team shoots well because the Blazers rarely lose the battle of the glass or give up more free throws than they shoot, and have one of the better turnover differentials in the league. So ultimately, Portland's success has largely come down to shooting, often from the perimeter. While the team's big front line of Aldridge, Wallace and Marcus Camby gives the Blazers an edge in the paint, it forces guards Felton and Matthews to be three-point threats. Matthews is shooting 41.4 percent from beyond the arc in wins, and 25.8 percent in losses. Even in wins, Felton hasn't been especially accurate from downtown (22.6 percent), but he's shooting a dismal 15.4 percent in losses.
Right now, the assessment of Portland should be little different than it was when the team was 7-2, or 9-7. The Blazers haven't distinguished themselves from the pack of contenders in the Western Conference. The only team clearly better than Portland is Oklahoma City, which was the preseason favorite in the West and leads the conference currently. It's equally difficult to find teams in the West's top 10 that the Blazers are clearly better than. Though their +3.9 schedule-adjusted differential ranks third in the conference, trailing the Denver Nuggets (+5.9) and the Thunder (+5.4), five other teams rate as +2.0 or better, putting them well within striking distance.
Expect plenty more ups and downs before the West truly shakes out.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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