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Blazers on 4-game winning streak thanks to All-Star play from McCollum and Lillard, defensive improvement

The Blazers are playing better on both the defensive and offensive ends of the floor, and taking advantage of a softer stretch of the schedule.
Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer, Associated Press
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, slaps hands with guard CJ McCollum after scoring a 3-point basket.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After some struggles through the first two weeks of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers are on a four-game winning streak and currently tied for third place in a crowded Western Conference with a 7-4 record.

So, what’s changed for Portland? That was the discussion on this week’s episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast with KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez, Jared Cowley and Nate Hanson. They break down what they’ve been most impressed with during the winning streak, Jusuf Nurkic appearing to turn a corner and preview Portland’s next four games against the Pacers, Hawks, Spurs and Grizzlies. As always, Max Barr caps it off with another exciting game of Rip It! (Story continues below)

LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast

The schedule has played a role in Portland's winning streak. The Blazers’ three opponents over the past four games, the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors, are a combined 10-24 this season. But unlike the first two weeks, which included a disappointing loss to a Bulls team that is now 4-7, the Blazers are taking care of business against inferior opponents. And Portland will have plenty of opportunities to repeat that this month. There are only two opponents left on the Blazers' January schedule with a winning record: the 7-4 Indiana Pacers and the 6-5 San Antonio Spurs.

There are several other factors that have played a role in Portland’s winning streak. The much-maligned defense through the first two weeks of the season has been better over the last week. The Blazers ranked 28th in defensive efficiency when they went 3-4 through the first seven games of the season. They’ve ranked 14th in the league during the four-game winning streak.

While not elite, the jump to league average has made a difference. If the Blazers continued playing like one of the worst defenses in the league, they probably would have gone 2-2 over the last four games. Instead, a few key defensive stops have swung outcomes in their favor the last two games, both of which came down to the final moments.

Coinciding with improved defensive play has come stellar offensive performances. The Blazers have had the most efficient offense in the NBA over the past four games, propelled by the All-Star level play of both their guards and improving play from center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Robert Covington.

CJ McCollum has continued the best start of his career and is building an impressive early season case to be named an All-Star for the first time. He’s second in the NBA in scoring, averaging 28.1 points per game. He’s also on pace to have career-highs in 3-point shooting percentage, currently at 43.7%, as well as assists per game (5.5), rebounds per game (4.4) and steals per game (1.5) Meanwhile, Damian Lillard continues to be one of the best players in the NBA. He’ sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 27.4 points per game, while dishing out 7 assists per game.

The big question is will Portland sustain this level of play at both ends of the floor? And will they do it against better competition? We’ll get a glimpse Thursday night when Portland takes on the Pacers, who are currently top 10 in the NBA in offensive and defensive efficiency.

At the very least for Blazers fans, it’s been an encouraging stretch of play during a time when the Blazers need to pick up wins before a tougher February schedule comes around.

CHIME IN! If you have a question about the Blazers that you'd like us to answer on the next podcast, email us at 3on3blazers@gmail.com or tweet your questions to Orlando SanchezNate HansonJared Cowley or Max Barr.

LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast