Blazers content at the halfway point
PORTLAND — The Trail Blazers are 36-17, the same record they had at last year's All-Star break. But the feeling this time is more of relief than congratulation.
After a fast start, with just four losses in the first 21 games, Portland was hit by injuries. Its starters have missed a combined 35 games.
Still, the Blazers lead the Northwest Division and are tied for third in the Western Conference.
"I like what we've done. We've had more adversity this year than last year and we've done a good job of fighting through it," coach Terry Stotts said. "We still have a lot of games to go and by no means is it over, but at this point last year we stayed healthy and were the surprise team. This has a different feel to it."
Last season, the Blazers had the same starting lineup in every game going into the All-Star break. Portland went on to win 54 games and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2000. This season they've played 13 different starting lineups.
Center Robin Lopez was out for 23 games after he fractured his right hand Dec. 15 against San Antonio. The 7-footers' absence was felt; the Blazers went 13-10 without him.
But more than his rebounding and defense, Lopez is a steadying force. LaMarcus Aldridge is more creative on the floor when Lopez takes the pressure off him. Aldridge, who started in Sunday's All-Star game, is averaging 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds. He has 27 double-doubles this season, ninth in the league.
There was injury drama surrounding Aldridge, too. In a span of just 48 hours late in January, Aldridge resigned himself to thumb surgery that would sideline him for up to six weeks. Then he reversed himself and decided to play through the pain.
Aldridge hurt his thumb when his hand came down on the knee of Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins in the second quarter of a victory over the Kings on Jan. 19. Aldridge said the injury to his nonshooting hand still causes him discomfort.
"It feels OK," Aldridge said last week before heading off to his fourth All-Star appearance. "I've had it hit a few times and it hasn't been too bad."
The front court has struggled because of Nicolas Batum's sore right wrist, which has caused him to miss six games. Backup center Joel Freeland has missed 20 games and counting with a right shoulder sprain.
Portland's stability has been its backcourt. Although Damian Lillard has struggled at times with uncharacteristic inconsistency, especially from 3-point range, he's averaging 21.5 points and 6.3 assists.
Matthews has 161 3-pointers this season, tying him with Golden State's Steph Curry and Atlanta's Kyle Korver for the most in the league. Matthews is riding a career-best streak of 13 games with multiple 3-pointers.
Matthews said that Portland's ability to overcome injuries is a "testament to us getting better."
"We're just going to continue to get healthier — hopefully. We already hit the injury bug. It's over, so out of sight, out of mind," he said. "But our bench has developed and guys have played minutes that maybe they wouldn't have if guys were healthy. That just strengthens our team."
Meanwhile, talk persists that the Blazers will make a move before Thursday's trade deadline. Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo are some of the names connected to Portland. The Blazers don't return to the court until Friday at Utah.
"It's nice to have this break just to relax, take care of our bodies and to do something else," Batum said. "And come back stronger."