The Portland Trail Blazers were expected to be one of the lowly teams in the powerful Western Conference this season after losing eighty percent of their starting lineup. Safe to say no one saw the Trail Blazers in playoff position heading into the All-Star break. Well, no one except the young Trail Blazers themselves.
“We just embraced the challenge,” said Portland guard Damian Lillard, who has helped lead the team to wins in eight of their last nine, “You’ve got to give credit to all the work we put in.”
Lillard scored 31 for the Trail Blazers (27-27), who moved into a tie for 7th place in the Western Conference. In the process, the young star passed former Blazers star Brandon Roy on the franchises’ all time scoring list, moving into 15th place. Roy, a three time All-Star for Portland, was forced to retire at the age of 29 due to degenerative knees but is still held in extremely high regard in Portland, especially from Lillard, a fellow Rookie of the Year winner.
“That’s an honor,” Lillard said. “Just to be moving up on that list period, but I mean, if Brandon Roy got to play as long as he should have played and people would have liked to see him play I probably would never pass him.”
Despite a nice showing from James Harden and Dwight Howard who combined for 62 points, the Houston Rockets (27-28) find themselves on the opposite side of the spectrum of the Blazers. High expectations forced an early season exit for coach Kevin McHale who was replaced by interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff as the Rockets have lost three straight, and tumble into the All-Star break appearing lost on both sides of the ball.
“We’re broken. It’s that simple,” said Bickerstaff, “Right now we are a broken team. It’s easy to see. It’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”
Heading into the trade deadline the Trail Blazers are certain to be buyers looking to solidify their roster for a playoff push in the tough Western Confernce. Being 13 million under the required salary for the season, the Blazers front office will definitely be hitting the phones hard looking to add key pieces as the Blazers look to continue their unforeseen success into next season.