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Carson: Against all odds, Portland rebuilds

| Friday, April 8, 2016

In the NBA this year, all the chatter’s been about two teams: Golden State and San Antonio.

And clearly, it’s been deserved. We’ve been fixated on the Warriors’ pursuit of chasing down the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 best-ever record. And when we aren’t talking about the defending champions, it’s about the San Antonio Spurs, who are two home wins away from becoming the first team ever to finish a season unbeaten on its home court.

That the Spurs could go 41-0 at home and still not be the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed is ridiculous — but the accomplishments of Golden State and San Antonio overshadow the best accomplishment this season west of the Mississippi.

Just look to Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers for that answer.

In July, the outlook seemed bleak for Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the game’s best big men, bolted for San Antonio and with him, three other pieces from the Blazers’ starting five followed him out the door. What once looked like a promising, strong core that could find success in the playoffs — who could forget Lillard’s ice-cold 3-pointer in Game 6 of the opening round to top Houston in 2014? — had suddenly disappeared.

Well, except that Lillard guy.

Somehow slighted for an All-Star Game spot once more — seriously, when are we going to learn to get this kid in the game? — Lillard has led the Blazers right back to where they were a season ago: the playoffs.

With Portland’s win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, the best story of the year became official. I had the luxury of being in Portland, Oregon, during the start of NBA free agency, and to say the future was bleak for the Blazers would be an understatement. With four-fifths of the starting lineup gone, it was all about wondering how Portland could rebuild moving forward.

But general manager Neil Olshey didn’t panic and put together a squad that could push for the conference’s No. 5 seed and a winnable first-round contest with the Clippers.

Having McCollum in the arsenal, of course, made the job a lot easier. The former Lehigh star — yes, the guy who dropped 30 to beat Duke as a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2012 — has seen his minutes explode this year, and he’s taken full advantage of it. After averaging just 6.8 points in 15.7 minutes per game a season ago, McCollum’s averaging 20.9 points per game this time around, putting himself in position to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.

Even before the mass exodus from Rip City, Olshey was making moves that would pay dividends this year, acquiring Mason Plumlee in a draft-night deal from the Nets. Plumlee has been an influential addition, starting every game and averaging 9.1 points per game for the Blazers.

The signing of Al-Farouq Aminu, who’s averaging double figures, was shrewd, too, and head coach Terry Stotts has done a fantastic job of resurrecting Aminu’s once-stagnant career — the former lottery pick will top 10 points per game for the first time in his career this season. Stotts has worked his magic with Allen Crabbe, too, who’s been one of the NBA’s best sixth men this season.

Of course, it’d be remiss to talk about the Trail Blazers’ return to the playoffs without mentioning the difference between this season’s Western Conference and last’s. If the Blazers win their final two games, they’ll finish 45-37, the exact same mark Oklahoma City missed the playoffs with last year.

Regardless though, with a weakened Portland squad, an aging, DeAndre Jordan-less Mavericks team (remember that ordeal?) and a Rockets team that had never showed its full potential, most expected an open door to contention in the West.

It’s just that most didn’t expect the Blazers to be the team walking through the door they created.

Where the Pelicans and Suns, among others, have failed miserably, Portland’s succeeded — and there’s something to be said for that.

There’s a certain assumption that the Thunder and Clippers should have no issues moving onto their second-round matchups with San Antonio and Golden State. And while it’ll be good entertainment if it happens, don’t sleep on Portland.

We’ve all done it once this year. Who knows what could happen if we all do so again?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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