• After being swept out of the playoffs last spring by a decided first-round underdog, the Portland Trail Blazers directed criticism inward. Rather than point fingers at one another for that depressing four-game loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, though, the Blazers confronted individual blame, accepted it, and made efforts to overcome it before the waves of such a dispiriting outcome crested to overcome them. Just a few months later, Portland stands alone at the top of the West following a blowout victory over a talented team that, again and again, allows festering chemistry and cultural issues infect their play on the floor.

    The Blazers beat the woebegone Washington Wizards 119-109 on Sunday in the nation’s capital, breaking a two-game losing streak to take some positive momentum on the remaining half of their second longest road trip of the season. Damian Lillard, ever in control offensively, scored a game-high 40 points, reaching that threshold for the third time this season. The red-hot shooting that marked his previous high-water scoring outputs was absent on Sunday, though, as he connected on just 3-of-10 from beyond the arc and 13-of-29 from the field overall. Undeterred by ongoing labors with his jumper, Lillard attacked the rim relentlessly, taking a whopping 15 shots in the basket area and connecting on 13-of-15 at the free throw line. The reigning All-NBA First Team honoree never let up, either, scoring 18 of his points in the third quarter despite Portland taking a 21-point lead into halftime.

    In a true testament to their all-around excellence, the Blazers as a whole were just as impressive as their best player at Capitol One Arena. C.J. McCollum had 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Jusuf Nurkic barely missed a triple-double, finishing with 13 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists and a game-high +27 plus-minus. Portland was hardly ablaze from three, going 11-of-30, but still managed 26 assists, over five more than its season-long average. Following Lillard’s lead, the Blazers combined for 36 shots from the restricted area and 35 free-throw attempts, both season-highs.

    Despite Lillard’s brilliance and McCollum’s productivity, Portland still managed to play at level greater than the sum of its parts. A team long maligned for its lack of ball movement pinged passes all over the floor, confusing the listless Wizards defensively and creating open driving and passing lanes of which every player wearing black, red and white took full advantage. Terry Stotts’ team entered Sunday’s action as the sixth-most efficient offensive outfit in basketball, evidence of tweaks to the system and roster that over a month into the season have this group playing better than even the most partisan fans anticipated. Even so, “beautiful game” possessions like the one below have been few and far between for the Blazers this season.

    “When you give up a good shot for great shot it’s always good,” Nurkic said after the game. Most exciting among such passes? Nurkic’s pinpoint bounce pass to a back-cutting McCollum, between the legs of an unsuspecting Ian Mahinmi. It was that type of game, and it’s been that type of season, for both of these teams so far.

    It wasn’t long ago the Wizards were considered legitimate contenders in the East. It was even shorter ago, just during the preseason, that John Wall, Bradley Beal, the unabashedly proud Markieff Morris and company were publicly discussing their side-by-side standing among consensus conference powers like the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. A few weeks later, the wheels have come off in Washington more quickly than even Dwight Howard‘s most vociferous detractors thought possible. There’s enough blame for everyone to shoulder in the Wizards locker room. After the game, though, Wall saved his most direct criticism for the one aspect of basketball of which no player or coach has control: the officiating.

    “I’m always positive,” he told Candace Buckner of his mindset in the midst of a 5-11 season, “it’s just a lot of bull**** that – come on, man. These guys getting all the calls and these guys are jump-shooters. You got a guy that shot 12-for-29 and then shot 15 free throws.”

    Portland isn’t the best team in the Western Conference. Not even close. The only reason the Blazers sit mere percentage points ahead of the Golden State Warriors for first place is due to an injury to Steph Curry, a two-time MVP playing at perhaps the peak of his powers before being sidelined, and the type of locker-room melodrama that makes the Wizards’ seem tame. It was barely more than 48 hours ago that Portland was run off the floor by the rebuilt Minnesota Timberwolves, who on Sunday were put in their place by the Memphis Grizzlies, left for dead before the season yet somehow sporting a 10-5 record.

    The West may not be better than its ever been, like many thought it would in 2018-19, but is still rife with quality teams nonetheless. Only the lowly Phoenix Suns can be earmarked for the lottery come next summer; each of the conference’s other 14 teams are currently thinking playoffs, and have already shown the ability to back up those hopes with high-quality play. Nothing is guaranteed, as the Blazers learned the hard way in April.

    Well, except for the fact that Portland, if it fails to crack the West’s top eight by season’s end, won’t be doomed by interpersonal turmoil, a fact easily taken for granted by years of stoic leadership from Stotts and Lillard – exactly what Washington, and many other teams across the league, are so sorely lacking.

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