PORTLAND, Ore. -- The Portland Trail Blazers aren't messing around. Not with a playoff berth in reach.
Since the All-Star break, an 11-game stretch, the Blazers have played like a 50-win team. Shorten the calendar to the past eight games and the Blazers are playing like a 60-win team.
Sound crazy? Maybe, but it's also the truth. The Blazers are 7-4 in their past 11 games, which projects to 51 wins over a full season. In their past eight games, they're 6-2. Project that over 82 games and you're looking at 62 wins.
This hasn't been a hot streak against a weak lineup of opponents. Seven of the 11 games have been on the road and the Blazers have notched impressive wins against the Thunder (twice) and the Spurs.
It's no coincidence that Jusuf Nurkic moved into the starting lineup after the All-Star break, just when the Blazers started to heat up. The Blazers' new center has been a brilliant, if inconsistent, revelation. But Nurkic is just one piece of the puzzle.
Damian Lillard is demonstrating new levels of leadership while playing some of his best basketball of the season. CJ McCollum is efficiently producing bunches of points. Rotation players like Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard have all become consistent producers in their respective roles.
The Blazers' improvement has been a team effort.
In the past 11 games, Portland has emerged as an offensive force only a handful of teams in the NBA can rival, which makes up for the Blazers' defense, which still ranks in the bottom third of the league. Portland's offense has been so dynamic lately, they are winning in spite of their defense.
Can Portland keep it up? Are the Blazers capable of performing like an upper-tier team the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs? Let's take a look at some numbers.
Past 11 games
A look at the Blazers' statistics, with NBA rankings, over the past 11 games:
OFFENSE (PER GAME)
DEFENSE (PER GAME)
Past 8 games
A look at the Blazers' statistics, with NBA rankings, over the past eight games:
OFFENSE (PER GAME)
DEFENSE (PER GAME)
In other areas, the Blazers haven't veered too far from their statistical norms for the season. In defensive rebounding, Portland is averaging 44.2 rebounds (12th in the NBA) since the All-Star break. For the season, the Blazers rank 17th with 43.5 rebounds per game. They're averaging 21.1 (24) assists over the past 11 games, compared to 21.7 (20) over the entire season. Turnovers? Portland is actually averaging more since the break, 15.4 (25), than during the season (14 per game, tied for 15th).
Like the defense, there are minor differences in that set of data, but the biggest change since the All-Star break has been the Blazers' scoring and shooting.
What all those numbers mean
The Blazers' offense ranks nearly 10 spots higher than their No. 13 ranking for the entire season. Even though their defense is still below average (ranked 21st since the break and 17th over the past eight games), Portland ranks 26th in defense over the entire season, so the team is showing some improvement there, too.
As previously mentioned, the main reason for the Blazers' improvement has been its offense, which was already good but is lately playing at an elite Top-4 level. Is this the new normal for the Blazers or just a hot streak that is destined to revert to form?
A factor to consider is that it's not just one player who has shown improvement since the All-Star break. If one or two players were performing well above their normal production level, that could mean the Blazers' performance would likely return to mediocrity once the hot streak ended for that player or two. But that's not the case in Portland.
Since the break, Lillard, Nurkic, Crabbe, Aminu, Leonard and Vonleh are all scoring more points than their season averages. It's not just scoring, it's also shooting. The following players are shooting better from the field since the break than their season averages: Lillard, Crabbe, Aminu, Harkless, Leonard and Vonleh. Just about every player in the Blazers' rotation is shooting better and scoring more points during this stretch of games.
Portland's improved performance stretches across the roster. The fact that so many players have all increased their scoring averages or field-goal percentages makes it less likely this is just a momentary surge. Instead, it looks like the improvement on offense is a byproduct of a more balanced offense, augmented by a low-post presence in Nurkic -- something the Blazers haven't had in years -- and a consistent rotation where players are becoming increasingly comfortable with their playing time and their roles.
The slight improvement on the defensive end of the court has been something that has brewing since January, before the All-Star break. Because the Blazers' defense was already showing improvement before Nurkic's arrival, it's most likely to stay where it is or improve in small increments. It's unlikely to get worse.
These are the new Blazers. An elite offensive team with a poor defense trying to reach mediocrity. It appears what the NBA has seen over the past 11 games is what can be expected from the Blazers going forward.
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Does it mean the Blazers will make the playoffs?
Does it mean the Blazers will be competitive against the Warriors or Spurs in the first round of the playoffs?
Does it mean the Blazers will shock the NBA and and pull off a first-round upset against the top team in the west?
What it does provide is hope for the future. This doesn't mean the Blazers should project to win 50 or 60 games next season. But it seems reasonable to predict that given more time for this roster to gel, with a better-acclimated and conditioned Nurkic and with roster adjustments the Blazers will make in the 2017 offseason -- they have three first-round draft picks -- the 2017-18 season definitely has a new sheen attached to it.
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