There was a cautious optimism in the air on Wednesday at the Moda Center.
Damian Lillard continued his recent torrid pace and notched his first career triple-double, Trevor Ariza continued to his well-rounded contributions as a steadying presence in the starting lineup and the Trail Blazers dispatched the visiting Houston Rockets.
But after a rocky season derailed by injuries and littered with troubling losses, no one was truly ready to say this team is turning a corner.
“One game at a time,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, mixing in a cliche with his own predictable brand of hyper-caution. “You know, look back (at the end of the season) and see where the corners are.”
However even Stotts would admit that the Blazers are playing better than earlier in the season, recognizing that his point guard is in the best scoring rhythm of his career and that the recent trade for Ariza has provided real help on the wing.
The Blazers have won three of their last four games, and for the first time all season have won consecutive games against teams with winning records. It’s not a surprise that the team wasn’t ready to say they’ve turned a corner or finally solved all their issues.
They’ve been burned by optimism before. But it’s also not a stretch to say that they have played their best basketball over the last week with Lillard playing at the highest level he’s ever reached and Ariza stabilizing an imbalanced roster.
“We’re finding it,” Carmelo Anthony said. “I think we’re playing good basketball right now. I think Dame has it locked it in. He’s playing at a very high, high level right now and guys are just doing what they’re supposed to do. If that’s us playing our best basketball, then so be it.”
Over the last four games, Lillard is putting up video game numbers: 48.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 56 percent from three-point range. He capped that with his first career triple-double 36 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in Wednesday’s victory over Houston.
He’s been as lethal as he’s ever been as tries to push the Blazers back into the playoff picture. But even the Blazers point guard and resident relentless optimist admitted that he had thought the team was turning a corner earlier this season before they slipped back into a losing streak.
“I think the last time we had a good stretch of games that we won it was against all teams that weren’t in the playoffs,” Lillard said. “I was encouraged by it because I thought the style that we were playing could stand up against good teams but we just weren’t able to execute those things against good teams.”
Lillard was referencing a four-game winning streak in December when the Blazers beat Phoenix, Golden State, Orlando and Minnesota only to turn around lose five in a row and slip right back down in the standings. The difference in this stretch of games is not just that Lillard has transformed into a supernova, but that Ariza’s addition helps this roster make sense. His size, smarts and shooting on the perimeter are all obvious upgrades that team has been missing since Rodney Hood went down with a season-ending injury in early December.
“A lot of times you need that connective tissue to make things come together,” Anthony said. “Trevor was that. He’s been that his whole career. He’s that now, and a guy like that it’s easy for him to come and fit in anywhere because what he brings to the game you can’t teach. He just has it, and he’s had it since I’ve known him in high school. He’s still doing the same thing.”
In three games, Ariza is averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting 59 percent from the floor. He been tasked with the most difficult defensive assignments as the primary defender on MVP candidates Luka Doncic and James Harden, and while he hasn’t been otherworldly, he’s been solid enough to help in a spot where the Blazers desperately need it.
There are stiff tests on the horizon for the Blazers with games coming against the Lakers, Jazz and Nuggets, which is part of why no one in the Portland locker room sounded particularly triumphant about the team playing better. Their improvement is more necessity than luxury. But maybe when they team looks back and assesses where the corners were this season, they’ll see this stretch as a turning point.
“These last few games we’ve been consistent,” Lillard said. “And the way that we’re playing this is probably our best stretch of the year and it’s coming at the right time.”