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These Blazers display NBA title habits, too

At midseason, team shows parallels to '89-90 predecessors


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Second-year Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, pulling down a rebound against Indiana, is the best clutch player in the NBA this season, according to statistics.On opening night, had Nicolas Batum been offered a 28-9 record through the Trail Blazers’ first 37 games, “I’d have asked, ‘Where do I sign?’ “ the small forward says with a smile.

Now, though, “I think it should be better,” Batum says. “We’ve lost a few games we should have won. I’d say we should be about 31-6.”

There have been recent losses to New Orleans, Philadelphia and Sacramento to lament, perhaps, but little else. The Blazers have been one of the best stories of the first half of the NBA 2013-14 season.

As Portland nears the midway point in the regular season — that comes Monday at Houston on the third leg of their upcoming four-game road swing — it’s time to reflect and project.

Nobody could have foreseen the Blazers jelling so quickly in the second season under coach Terry Stotts. Improvement was expected from last year’s 33-49 campaign. Such a quantum leap was not.

There are parallels between the 2013-14 Blazers and those of their predecessors of 24 years earlier. (Full disclosure: That was my first season as beat writer for The Oregonian). To wit:

• The 1989-90 Blazers, in their first full season under coach Rick Adelman, were coming off a 39-43 season and the wrong side of a sweep by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.

Adelman, who had taken over midway through the ‘88-89 campaign from fired coach Mike Schuler, inherited a good, young nucleus led by Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Kevin Duckworth.

In the offseason, general manager Bucky Buckwalter added power forward Buck Williams (in a steal of a trade from New Jersey for Sam Bowie) along with veteran big man Wayne Cooper and rookies Cliff Robinson and Drazen Petrovic.

The result was a 59-23 record — a 20-game improvement, matching the league’s second-best record with Detroit behind the Lakers’ 63-19 mark.

The Blazers went on to sweep Dallas, then beat San Antonio and Phoenix in the playoffs, finally falling 4-1 to the Pistons in an NBA championship series that was closer than what the game count indicates.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Guard Wesley Matthews, a starter who performs key roles for the Trail Blazers, chases down a loose ball against Orlando. Matthews says Portland wins when it plays with a swagger and a defensive mentality.The current Blazers exited last season off a 33-49 record and a 13-game losing streak, but with a strong core of Batum, LaMarcus

Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and rookie of the year point guard Damian Lillard.

In the offseason, general manager Neil Olshey added center Robin Lopez (via a steal of a trade with New Orleans) to the starting five along with veteran guard Mo Williams and promising rookie guard C.J. McCollum for a needy bench.

If the Blazers were to go just 25-20 the rest of the regular season, they would finish 53-29 — a 20-game swing from the previous season.

• The 1989-90 Blazers featured a superstar in Drexler, a clutch point guard in Porter, a sweet-shooting center in Duckworth and outstanding role players in Kersey and Williams.

You could make the argument that Kersey, incidentally, was Portland’s best player in the playoffs that season in the best stretch of basketball of his career. The small forward averaged 20.3 points and 7.7 rebounds in the first round, 21.4 and 9.0 in the West semifinals, 21.5 and 8.8 in the West finals and 19.0 and 7.0 in the NBA finals.

Behind those five players was one of the best benches in the league, led by Robinson, Petrovic, Cooper and Danny Young.

Williams was the tough guy, the enforcer sent out to muscle rebounds and play defense and match up with the likes of Karl Malone, Terry Cummings, Tom Chambers and Dennis Rodman.

The current Blazers feature a superstar in Aldridge, a clutch point guard in Lillard, one of the game’s best triple threats in Batum and terrific role players in Matthews and Lopez. The bench isn’t deep, but Mo Williams has provided a boost from where it was a year ago.

Lopez is the tough guy who hits the offensive boards, defends bigs, makes hustle plays and takes the heat off of Aldridge, allowing him to pick-and-pop and the perimeter players to bomb away from 3-point range.

• Porter was an assassin in the clutch, and with Drexler the biggest reason why the Blazers were nails in the close games that season, going 29-14 in games decided by 10 points or fewer.

Advanced metrics show Lillard as the NBA’s premier clutch player this season. In the final five minutes of regulation or overtime and the team ahead or behind by five or fewer points, Lillard ranks No. 1.

In those situations, the second-year point man has scored 55 points in 49 minutes on 15-for-30 shooting, including 8 for 16 from 3-point range. He is also 17 for 19 from the line. In the last 30 seconds of games with a margin plus or minus three points, Lillard is 4 for 5, including 2 for 3 from 3-point range.

In the last three minutes of those situations, Lillard is 9 for 14.

Portland is an NBA-best 17-5 in games decided by 10 points or fewer and 3-0 in overtime.

The current quintet also is 13-7 in games in which it trailed at halftime.

• The 1989-90 Blazers were one of the league’s top offensive teams, but were widely considered questionable at the defensive end.

They ranked fourth in scoring at 114.7 points in a season in which the league averaged 107.0 per game, but they weren’t a good-shooting bunch. They tied for ninth in 3-point percentage (.336, compared to the league-average .331) but only tied for 18th in field- goal percentage (.473, league-average .476) and 26th in free-throw percentage (.743, league-average .764).

Those Blazers ranked 19th in opponents’ scoring (107.9) and 15th in opponents’ 3-point percentage (.331). But in the most important category — opponents’ field-goal percentage — they were tied for fourth at .464. And they were second in turnovers forced at 18.2 per contest.

And led by Williams, the ‘89-90 Blazers topped the league in rebounding percentage at .539, which would prove to be a hallmark of that era, when they ranked among the top five in that category for years.

This year’s Blazers are an offensive juggernaut and a much better shooting team than Adelman’s first full-season team. Going into Wednesday night’s game with Cleveland, the current Blazers were leading the league in scoring (109.1 in a season in which the average team score is 99.9) and free-throw percentage (.821). They were second in 3-point percentage (.396) and ninth in field-goal percentage (.455).

They also are an excellent team on the boards, ranking third in offensive rebounds (13.2) and fourth in rebound percentage (.520).

The defensive numbers are not so pretty. Portland is tied for 10th in opponents’ 3-point percentage (.350), but 19th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.456), 26th in opponents’ scoring (102.1) and last in turnovers forced (11.9).

Defense, most of the principles agree, is where the Blazers much show progress if they are to be a contender in the playoffs.

“If we want to get better moving forward,” Lopez offers, “that’s the area (in which) we need to be looking.”

Lillard says it’s not a matter of being capable.

“We play good defense,” he says. “The problem is, we don’t do it consistently. We’ll have a bad first quarter, and the second half of the second quarter we’ll turn it up. We’ll have a great third quarter, a bad start to the fourth and then finish the game strong.

“It looks like we’re a bad defensive team, but we play in spurts. Our offense allows us to hold on to games, but (defense) is the biggest area we can improve in.”

Says Stotts: “We don’t seem to play with the same urgency at the beginning of a game. We do pick it up and get the stops when we need them. That’s a positive.”

“We’re in the top five (in terms of record),” Batum says. “Indiana has the best defensive team, and San Antonio, Miami, and Oklahoma City are pretty good, too. All of those teams are top 10 in defense except us. We all know that especially in the playoffs offense doesn’t win games.”

Stotts won’t concede that point.

“Most championship teams have been very good at both ends of the court,” he says. “There are a few exceptions, but they are usually in the top 10 in both offense and defense. Defense wins championships, but you have to have good offense, too.”

Stotts knows more than a little about the subject. He was Rick Carlisle’s chief assistant on the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks team that won it all.

“We were ranked 11th in defense that season, but we got on a roll on offense,” Stotts says. “We were the best offensive team in the playoffs.”

The 2003-04 Detroit Pistons — who won a title behind Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace — were an aberration.

“That group was not in the top 10 offensively,” Stotts says. “Just about every other championship team was. But it’s true — for us to continue to have the success we’re looking for, we need to improve defensively. You need to be very good at both.”

Stotts can’t just wave a magic wand and turn his team into a defensive force. It would have to come incrementally and with, as Lillard suggests, more consistency from the start of a game to the finish.

At least one player believes there “is a correlation between defense and our winning.”

“When we play defense — when we lock up, come in with a swagger and a defensive mentality — we win games,” Matthews says.

It will be something to watch as the second half of the Blazers’ regular season ensues.

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