With the calendar turned to 2014, Israel Gutierrez and J.A. Adande take stock of the NBA season so far and readjust their perspectives on some surprising storylines.
Israel: Maybe it's the Russell Westbrook injury, or Portland's sustained success or, more likely, the arrival of the new year, but it feels like as good a time as any to recalibrate. The league looks quite different now than how we anticipated it looking three months ago.
For starters, I think we've all been awakened to how real the Blazers are, with their perfectly balanced starting five and their MVP candidate in LaMarcus Aldridge. Anything else require definitive reassessment in your mind?
Yes, they're a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams usually find themselves making more putts than jumpers come June. But the way the Blazers perform in crunch time makes me think their way could work." -- J.A. Adande
J.A.: The Blazers made it clear they were going to remain among the Western Conference's top teams throughout the regular season long before my Thanksgiving dinner worked its way through my digestive system. What has changed of late is the prospect that Portland could be successful in the playoffs.
Yes, they're a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams usually find themselves making more putts than jumpers come June. But the way the Blazers perform in crunch time makes me think their way could work. They're 11-2 in games decided by three points or fewer. Yes, they're shooting jumpers. But they execute so well they're shooting open jumpers. According to NBA.com stats, the Blazers are tops in the league in clutch scoring and clutch true shooting percentage. And what are playoff games if not 48 minutes of clutch time?
Israel: Yes, that would seem to prove there's a level of clutch-ness to the Blazers that would benefit them come playoff time. But it also could just be odds working in Portland's favor at the moment. Without knowing every championship team's stats when it comes to regular-season "clutch" performances, I'd venture to say it's not a prerequisite for playoff success. The Heat didn't exactly come up big in crunch time in the first two seasons of the Big Three, and yet Finals appearances were in their future.
What Portland can ride to playoff success, more so than random shots late in games, is their trust in each other. Their starting five, plus Mo Williams, is moving the ball like the Spurs and Heat, seemingly finding wide-open shooters regardless of the time of game. When you've built up a season of those kinds of habits, it tends to translate in the playoffs. And what two teams were in the Finals last season? The teams that arguably moved the ball best all season. So I'm with you on the Blazers.
Oddly enough, assuming Westbrook does return healthy, I've never liked (the Thunder's) chances more." -- Israel Gutierrez
But how does Westbrook's latest knee issue make you feel about the Thunder now? Oddly enough, assuming Westbrook does return healthy, I've never liked their chances more.