PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers are learning the hard part of rising to the top of the league is staying there.
Portland limps into the All-Star Break having lost four of its last six games. While LaMarcus Aldridge makes his third All-Star appearance and Damian Lillard makes his first, the rest of the Blazers will get a much-needed break.
It's been clear that they're fatigued. After a 2-2 road trip, the Blazers fell 98-92 at home Tuesday night to Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, before losing 122-117 to the Clippers in Los Angeles on Wednesday night.
After spending time this season atop the Western Conference, Portland is 36-17 and currently knotted in a three-way tie with Houston and the Clippers for third place, behind the Thunder and San Antonio.
"It's definitely not the way we wanted to end it," Aldridge said following the loss to the Clippers. "We definitely wanted to be on better terms going into the break. But one thing about it is that we took care of business early. I knew there were going to be ups and downs this season, so luckily we put that cushion early where we're still number three or number four in the West."
The Blazers got off to a surprising 24-5 start this season, the best record in the NBA at the time. A revamped roster and the fierce play of Aldridge and Lillard helped fuel the ascent.
Last summer, the Blazers added a true center in Robin Lopez and a capable backup for Lillard in Mo Williams. Additionally, Portland found much-needed bench help with the addition of Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright, as well as draft pick CJ McCollum.
Aldridge has been having the best season of his career, averaging 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds. He has 33 double-doubles overall and set a new career high with 44 points in a victory over Denver last month. Even Blazers owner Paul Allen, who doesn't often publicly comment about the team, said he's been impressed.
"If you watch him out there, he's so engaged in the games," Allen said. "He's taken on more of a leadership role. I think it's evident in all aspects of his game."
Lillard, who isn't being so taxed minutes-wise this season, is averaging 20.7 points and 5.7 assists. Even Lopez has emerged with career bests this season, averaging 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds, with 19 double-doubles.
In New Orleans for this year's All-Star game, Aldridge credited the addition of Lopez for his own improvement.
"It's just growth, having the mindset to do it, and having Robin Lopez helps because he holds off his man, and he's more about position in rebounds, so he's always holding off his guy so I can go rebound better," Aldridge said.
Portland's 36 wins are the fourth most at the All-Star break in team history, and the most since the Blazers won 38 before the 2000 All-Star game.
"Nobody put us even in the playoff race. And then even myself, I projected number seven. So, you know, we're not satisfied. But to be number four in the West right now, not shooting the ball well, and to come into the season with everybody not even thinking about us. We're not in a bad spot right now," Aldridge said.
There are 29 games left for the Blazers to solidify their return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, when they got eliminated in the first round by Dallas.
Portland plays seven of its next eight at home, but then 10 of its games in March on the road.
There is also a chance the Blazers could make a move before the trade deadline. While Allen and coach Terry Stotts have played down the idea, the loss of forward Joel Freeland to an MCL injury earlier this week raised speculation that Portland may look for a big man to help back up Lopez.
Freeland is expected to be sidelined for a month.