• The Portland Trail Blazers came into Sunday night on a league-high 12-game winning streak. They had beaten the Golden State Warriors twice over that stretch, stopped the surging Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City and withstood a vintage performance from LeBron James. What Portland did against the Los Angeles Clippers, though, might be more impressive than anything its accomplished all season long. The Blazers beat the Clippers 122-109 at Staples Center, showing off the two-way effectiveness and more newfound offensive flow that have come to define an historic winning streak that’s now reached 13 games.

    Remember two weeks ago, when Damian Lillard was blazing up the MVP ranks by rescuing his team on a seemingly nightly basis with staggering numbers and crunch-time heroics? He led the charge against the Clippers, scoring 23 points, but was far from the singular force he needed to be at the start of Portland’s winning streak – which is a great sign for both this team and its best player. Lillard’s impact was smaller on Sunday, but still far larger than his modest box-score numbers suggest.

    The Blazers doled out 23 assists against Los Angeles, reaching that total for the fourth straight game. Why? Shot-making has a lot to do with it, of course, but so does the tendency of recent opposing defenses to force the ball out of Lillard and C.J. McCollum‘s hands during pick-and-roll action. The Clippers opted for that coverage Sunday night, just like the Detroit Pistons 24 hours earlier. The result was Lillard and McCollum finding quick outlets when the help defender committed, allowing their teammates to play 4-on-3 behind the initial point of attack. And yet again, Portland consistently made the right play, going from good shots to great ones with extra passes and secondary attacks.

    McCollum had 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting, a number equaled by Moe Harkless on 11 shots and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Jusuf Nurkic fought DeAndre Jordan en route to 17 points, and Al-Farouq Aminu, continuing to burst out of a bygone slump, added 16 points and made four 3-pointers. The Blazers’ starters combined for 98 points and shot 37-of-71 on field goals and 11-of-21 on triples. Shabazz Napier scored nine points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting, and also dished out a game-high eight assists – one of which was the most eye-popping play in a Portland performance stocked full of them.

    Notice how Napier began that play, by swiping the ball from Lou Williams as he rose for a jumper. The Blazers had six steals and seven blocks at Staples Center; three of the former were Aminu’s, and four of the latter belonged to Nurkic. Los Angeles shot just 24-of-55 from the restricted area, and zooming in closer, converted an ugly 18-of-37 tries from the restricted area. Nurkic deserves a lot of credit for those numbers; he’s been a monster on defense lately. But Portland’s unceasing engagement, constant communication and perpetual commitment to scheme is obviously a factor here, too.

    When the Blazers are moving the ball and defending like they did against Doc Rivers’ overachieving club, outliers like 13-game winning streaks seem like they may really mean something – especially when Lillard and McCollum are still making filth like this routine.

    Let’s not get too carried away. Portland is still leagues behind the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Injury is the only way Terry Stotts’ team would have a real chance to beat either of basketball’s juggernauts in a potential second-round series. Regardless, it’s grown increasingly difficult to come to any conclusion other than that the Blazers are the third best team in the Western Conference, and perhaps a top-five team in the the NBA.

    That well-earned distinction means nothing come playoff time, unfortunately. For now, though, it sure is something for Portland and its fans to relish.

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