The Trail Blazers path towards progress has been anything but linear.
Yet on Sunday night there they were shorthanded, battered and looking a lot like a playoff team.
There was Trevor Ariza with a looping dribble behind his back to get himself a basket in traffic. There was Gary Trent Jr. sprinting to the corner, knowing his teammates would swing him the ball once he set his feet. There was Hassan Whiteside tracking patiently behind an opposing ball handler waiting to swat a layup attempt before it had a chance.
And of course there was Damian Lillard, wand concealed, putting on yet another magic show to will the Blazers to their sixth win in eight games and keep them squarely in the playoff hunt.
"I think we're just buckling down," Lillard said after scoring a game-high 33 points in a win over the Miami Heat. "I think we recognize that the games are chopping away and we're getting almost in the 29, 28 games left area. So I just think the urgency, the fight has just been there and I think that's why we're having the kind of performances that we're having because every guy on the team has it."
The Blazers' roster is strikingly limited while remaining highly functional. After finishing Friday's game in Utah with seven available players, Portland had a luxurious nine in uniform on Sunday night only to lose Mario Hezonja to an ankle injury in the first half.
Only six guys scored on Sunday, all of them reaching double-figures. For this iteration of the Blazers, that constitutes meaningful balance. Lillard is a wizard, Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum dance enough in isolation to find their own points, Ariza fills in some gaps with his rangy shot making, Whiteside cleans up miscues on the glass while Trent Jr. has emerged as a bonafide scorer over the past month.
It's not a long list of scorers. But it's starting to resemble a reliable six-man core.
Since Rodney Hood went down with an Achilles injury in early December the Blazers have been searching for enough offensive firepower to prop up an often porous defense. They're finally getting it now. Following Hood's injury they had had just two games where six players scored in double figures. Since Ariza's arrival at the end of January, Portland has had three such nights in 12 games, including Sunday's win over the Heat.
This is scoring balance out of necessity, the Blazers are running out a depleted roster with limited options. But it's balance nonetheless. Lillard has spent the past three weeks torching everything in his path. Having other players shoulder some of the scoring load is necessary. Even superheroes need sidekicks. The Blazers have found a group that works, they all know that taking pressure of Lillard will be imperative in the final quarter of the season.
"Dame's just playing really well," McCollum said. "I think we're all just playing off of him."
"It helps a lot," added Lillard. "Obviously when don't have that balance, I'm probably going to look at it and think I have to a little bit more or I'm probably going to have to use more energy and try to force things to make things happen, but in a night like tonight, when we had that type of balance, I think that's how you can have a better chance to beat really good teams and down the stretch. I'll have more energy and I'll be able to be stronger and more efficient to close out games."
So whether it's Ariza on the wing, Anthony in the mid-post or Trent Jr. from the arc, Lillard is getting the help he needs. The Blazers will continue to rely on their thin group of contributors for as long as they can.
The Blazers are suddenly heading in the right direction, playing their best basketball of the season. But this wasn't the plan. The path wasn't supposed to be this crooked with this many detours. That's why when McCollum was asked whether the Blazers could sustain this balance with limited bodies during the toughest stretch of the season he offered his own query in response.
"I guess we're going to find out."
Trail Blazers rhythm coming with new found balance originally appeared on NBC Sports Northwest