LOS ANGELES — There are some silly myths surrounding these NBA playoffs and here is one of the dumbest: The Portland Trail Blazers have virtually zero chance of winning the title.
First, let’s get something clear. Portland isn't the favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy or anything like it. There are better teams in its conference. There may even be a better one, the Denver Nuggets, in the series it isinvolved in, with things tied 1-1 and the teams poised to head to Oregon.
However, to write the Blazers off in this postseason is laughably wrong. It is possible to see why no major publication predicted them to come out of the Western Conference and why few fancied them to get past the Nuggets. Picking them to lose in the first round to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while ultimately incorrect, could also be backed by some rationale.
But zero chance of going all the way? Come on.
Popular statistics website 538.com doesn’t do zeroes, but its prediction model has an ominous “< 1 percent” marker for teams or outcomes that it thinks have the same kind of likelihood as an alien invasion.
The Blazers earn that grim distinction in relation to their title aspirations, the only one of the eight remaining teams to do so. For the record, the Boston Celtics are given a full 1 percent, the Nuggets two percent, and the Philadelphia 76ers a whopping three percent. The Golden State Warriors, unsurprisingly, are given a 49 percent chance of securing a third consecutive crown.
A little more generous is ESPN’s Basketball Playoff Index, which has Portland at 3.4 percent. Basketball-reference.com gives it 5.5 percent.
Thankfully, Portland isn't paying attention to the statistical prognosticators. In Game 2 of its Western Conference semifinal against the Nuggets on Wednesday, the Blazers stepped up, physically and mentally.
“Everything, we just took it up a level,” Damian Lillard said. “You have got to be the tougher team, you got to want it more and you need a few things to go your way.”
The fact the Blazers would need to get past probably the Warriors – and if not them, the Houston Rockets – in the Conference Finals (assuming they can best the Nuggets), is a part of why they have been treated as an afterthought. There was also an overreaction to the injury suffered by Jusuf Nurkic, who was undoubtedly a key component. Since Nurkic went down, however, the Blazers have rallied emotionally, and Enes Kanter has been a surprisingly outstanding introduction since being acquired from the New York Knicks.
The Trail Blazers are making waves with center Enes Kanter (left) and guards CJ McCollum (center) and Damian Lillard. (Photo: David Zalubowski, AP)
Lillard gave a moment for the ages in finishing off the Oklahoma City Thunder in a series that steeled Portland and also revealed the depth of its character. CJ McCollum has a habit of stepping up when Lillard doesn’t, combining for a one-two punch that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Portland is resilient. It would have been easy for the Blazers to crumble in a heap after dropping Game 1 to the Nuggets but instead they came out firing on Wednesday. While the bench-clearing scuffle in the final minute was ugly, it showed that the Blazers – and the Nuggets – are in no mood to be pushed around.
For Portland, the suggestion it is overly dependent on Lillard was answered emphatically, with victory coming despite its main man scoring just 14 points.
“That’s the kind of player and kind of person he is,” McCollum said. “If he sees someone (else) with the hot hand or the advantage, he defers.”
Ultimately statistics are an odd science, and an intriguing one for sure. They don’t tell you who is going to win, they just say who is seen as being more likely to. Even so, it does seem like the Blazers are getting a little shortchanged.
Already the Golden State/Houston series has gotten testy and aggressive. Had Stephen Curry’s finger been broken and not dislocated, would the Warriors’ path seem quite so straightforward? Things can happen that tilt the balance at any moment, especially when tensions are raised at this critical time of year.
There is still a lot to happen in this postseason, and let’s not forget it. Sure, each of the top four seeds in both conferences advanced, leading some to claim things have gotten too predictable.
But there are eight teams still in with a shot and the Blazers belong in that mix. They shouldn’t be the bookies' favorites, but neither should they be the forgotten men of the playoffs.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno
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