Trail Blazers looking to be more than just playoff fodder

PORTLAND – Inside the Blazers’ locker room on Friday night, the celebration was muted. Nine straight wins — the latest a 125-108 victory over Steph Curry-less Golden State — an undefeated record since the All-Star break and a grip on the West’s No. 3 seed that grows tighter by the day. Yet one of the few smiles came from C.J. McCollum — and he was discussing the bright future of the Cleveland Browns.

Nope, the Blazers won’t get sucked into a conversation about the NBA’s longest winning streak. “What streak?” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. Added Damian Lillard, “I’m proud of it, but we’ve got to keep going.”

See, the Blazers have been here before. They went 18-8 after the All-Star break last season. They haven’t played sub-.500 ball after the break since 2012-13. And what do they have to show for it? A couple of trips to the conference semifinals and a pair of first-round exits.

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So forgive the Blazers if they won’t bite on questions nudging them to expound on the team’s recent play.

But is this Portland team different? For starters, the Blazers should never have struggled as mightily as they did to open the season. Portland returned 12 players from the team that surged to end ’17. Jusuf Nurkic — a 23-year-old budding star the Blazers poached from Denver last February — had a full training camp, and a well-regarded rookie (Zach Collins) was added to the mix.

Zach Collins scores against the Warriors on Friday. (Getty)

The Blazers should have been good. And they weren’t. Now they are (again). So is this team different? The defense is. Entering the game against Golden State, Portland had posted the NBA’s second-best defensive rating since the All-Star break. Hours before the Blazers took on Golden State, I posed the question to Stotts.

“After the All-Star break last year, Dame went on a tear,” Stotts told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the common denominator. It kind of got overlooked with Nurkic and him being on the team, and that was a big part of it, but Damian carried the load after the All-Star break last year and he’s doing it again now.”

And Nurkic? Stotts has not been shy about expressing his disappointment in Nurkic’s play this season. Nurkic’s numbers have dipped, and he has yet to emerge as the consistent offensive weapon he was at the end of last season.

“I think he’s playing better,” Stotts said. “He’s still been a little up and down. Defensively we have been better with him on the floor. I do think he is finishing better. He’s probably not playing at the level he did last year — I think that was probably lightning in a bottle for everybody. But he has been an important part of what we are doing now.”

Probe the Blazers’ locker room and you get a lot of the same sentiments. Everything begins with Lillard: He leads the NBA in second-half scoring and is one of its best in the fourth quarter. Friday won’t stand out as one of Lillard’s best performances, but he still fired in 28 points, dished out eight assists and connected on 40 percent of his threes.

Nurkic is playing better. Ed Davis, too. Collins has seized a role in Stotts’ rotation and is getting better by the game. Fourth quarter, game still in doubt, and Stotts had Davis and Collins on the floor, manning the frontcourt.

“They have good defensive instincts,” Stotts said. “[And] Zach is coming into his own as a perimeter shooter.”

But are the Blazers better? We know they can be a playoff team — they have been for the last four seasons. But are they a second-round threat? Could they give Golden State — which has dropped two of three this season to Portland — something to worry about?

“We’re definitely playing better,” McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “And we’re continuing to figure each other out. Each night, we’re figuring how to contribute, how to help. We continue to get better.”

Added Evan Turner: “I think what separates [this team] from the past is when teams make runs and everything, we stick with it. We have been pretty unified lately. Everyone has been focused.

“We’re in a better position [this year]. Last year there was more urgency. We had to win 70 percent of our games to make the playoffs. Right now, we are more comfortable. We went on a run, we are sticking together, and everything is going the right way.”

Indeed. Portland is winning, and it isn’t just feasting on NBA flotsam — Golden State was the third Western Conference playoff team the Blazers have beaten this month. Barring a collapse — and to be fair, all that separates Portland and the nine spot is 4 ½ games — the team will make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. If it can avoid Golden State or Houston in the first round, it will be well positioned to advance.

Can the Blazers challenge Golden State in a series? Inside the Warriors’ locker room, Draymond Green got that one.

“They’re always a threat,” Green said. “They have two of the best guards in the league. When you have two players like they have, they are always a threat. Mo Harkless is shooting better. [Turner] shot the hell out of the ball tonight. Ed Davis was great. They have improved, for sure, but the key is always to contain Dame and C.J. If you can do that, you can win. If you can’t do that, you have a shot at winning — but it’s not good.”

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