Blazers

4 Keys to Portland’s Playoff Pursuit

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The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in the midst of a bloodbath as they fight for the last spot in the playoffs. They are currently the ninth seed, just half a game behind the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies just lost their star forward, Jaren Jackson Jr., to a torn meniscus, and he will miss the remainder of the season.

But the Spurs, Pelicans, Kings and Suns are all within a game-and-a-half of Portland. Six teams all vying for one final playoff spot. The pressure is on and every game matters.

In the first four games of the NBA restart, the Blazers have looked fantastic. They are 3-1 with victories over the aforementioned Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets. Damian Lillard is averaging 33.2 PPG in the bubble, and the Blazers have the best offensive rating four games in (122.0).

They still have a lot of obstacles to overcome as they fight for position in the playoffs, however. They are allowing far too many points per game, but if the first four games are any indication of things to come, the Blazers have as good a chance as anyone to nab that last spot.

Game 1

The Blazer’s opening game was against Memphis and it had significant playoff implications. The matchup lived up to the hype and finished in thrilling fashion, as there were five lead changes in the final two minutes. Carmelo Anthony hit a three with 37.5 seconds left to put the Blazers up by two, but Brandon Clarke answered on a put-back with 32.1 on the clock, pushing the game into overtime. Portland went on to win the game 140-135 thanks to two triples from CJ McCollum that helped the Blazers pull away.

Game 2

Portland’s following game was against the Boston Celtics, one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Bosnian beast, Jusuf Nurkic, was huge for the Blazers, scoring 30 points and grabbing nine boards. They found themselves down as much as 22 points in the first half, however. The athleticism and length of the Celtics appeared to be too much, at times.

In the third quarter, Nurkic and Lillard put on a show, dragging the Blazers out of their first-half hole. They each scored 11 points in the period, and Lillard hit two threes in the last few minutes of the quarter including a four-point play. The comeback, while valiant, was unfortunately not enough, and the Blazers lost 128-124. The Celtics forward trio of Hayward, Tatum, and Brown combined for 86 points in rout to their victory.

Game 3

The Portland Trail Blazers came out with a statement win against James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets. This was one of the first true tests for the team having Nurkic and Collins back to see what level of competition they could handle. The Rockets were coming off an impressive victory over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks and looked as lethal as ever.

Harden has always been a nightmare matchup for Portland, but the Blazers managed to hold him to just 23 points—11 below his season average of 34 PPG. Additionally, Portland’s size was just too much handle for Houston. The Rockets’ tallest starter is Robert Covington at 6-foot-7, and they had no answer for Nurkic on the glass. The big man finished the game with 18 points and 19 rebounds. The Blazers also out-rebounded the Rockets 64-39 and controlled the tempo all game in their 110-102 victory.

Game 4

In case there were still any doubters regarding the Blazers capabilities and chances, Lillard silenced them by tying his career high 11 made threes en route to a whopping 45 points in a victory over the Denver Nuggets Thursday night. Having Nurkic back as Dame’s primary pick-and-roll partner, and being able to rely on Gary Trent Jr. to hit open shots, has really opened the floor for the five-time All Star Lillard. Teams usually try to blitz him out of the pick-and-roll, but with Nurkic back, Lillard can thread the needle to Nurk as he rolls to the rim, giving the Blazers so many great options.

Nurk has been a bright spot in his return from the broken leg injury that kept him sidelined for over a year. The big man is putting up career highs across the board. In his four games played, he is averaging 22 points, 11 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.3 blocks per game. Until Thursday night, Nurkic hadn’t missed from the free throw line either. When the Bosnian beast is playing like this, he is one of the best centers in the league and makes the Blazers that much better.

Despite the struggles of CJ McCollum in this game, however, Trent Jr. stepped up big time, hitting seven threes and scoring 27 points in 36 minutes off the bench.

Upcoming Schedule

After the Nuggets, the schedule does not let up at all. Their following two games are against the Los Angeles Clippers (8/8) and the Philadelphia 76ers (8/9) on back-to-back days. The Clippers and 76ers are both playoff teams and formidable opponents. Then they will match up with high-powered offense of the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks are also a playoff team and score more points per game than any other team in the league.  Their final game is against the short-handed Brooklyn Nets which is the only game they are projected to win.

Terry Stotts has only consistently played eight different players and his team has allowed far too many points thus far. For the Trail Blazers to either jump the Grizzlies for the eighth seed or stay where they are in the ninth seed, they have zero room for error. The biggest keys for the Blazers playoff pursuit are staying healthy, which version of CJ McCollum they get, defense, and bench production.

1) Health

This is the first and most obvious key. Without a healthy roster, the Blazers have no chance. Plain and simple. Portland has had to use 21 different starting lineups in 66 games due to injuries this season, the most in the league. The team has been desperately ready for some stability, and it looks like with the return of Nurkic and Zach Collins, it finally has it.

Through the scrimmages and first four bubble games, the Trail Blazers have started the same lineup: Lillard, McCollum, Anthony, Collins, Nurkic. There’s no reason why this would not be the starting five for the entirety of their playoff push and run, if they qualify. This lineup provides them with size, stability, scoring, defense and rim protection.

Depth/Rotations

The Blazers cannot afford for even one of their rotation players to get hurt as they lack the depth to make a run. Aside from their starting five, the main rotation players are Hassan Whiteside, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons. Both Trent and Simons are in their second years, respectively, and haven’t played very many playoff minutes.

Simons and Trent have both proven this season that they are worthy of being on the court in late-game situations. But aside from the Blazer’s eight-man rotation, the next guys up are Mario Hezonja, Wenyen Gabriel and Nasir Little. These guys can play limited minutes here and there, but can’t be relied on to play heavy minutes for a playoff push.

2) CJ McCollum

When he’s on, the 28-year-old guard is one of the best isolation players and scorers in the league. He has a whole bag full of dribble combinations and a lightning quick release. He can also get his shot off against any defender in the league.

The Lehigh University product scored 33 points on an efficient 67 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from three in the Blazer’s overtime victory against the Grizzlies. He was the teams leading scorer and hit two clutch threes in overtime. The dynamic guard followed up his exceptional performance with a mediocre one against the Celtics two nights later, however. He scored just 17 points on 42 percent shooting and was basically a ghost on the defensive end.

In their matchup with the Rockets, McCollum shot the ball poorly but managed to score 20 points and played solid defense against two of the best guards in the league. He followed up that performance with an abysmal shooting night against the Nuggets. McCollum managed to score just 13 points and shot a woeful 26.7% from the field.

Upcoming Schedule

Following the Nuggets game, the Blazers guard will be matched up with All Star Paul George who is one of the premiere perimeter defenders in the league and an elite scorer to boot. Then, just one night later, McCollum will be trying to get his shot off against the length and athleticism of the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers were a top 10 defensive team all season and McCollum will likely be guarded by either Ben Simmons or Matisse Thybulle, two elite perimeter defenders.

After the back-to-back against the Clippers and 76ers, the Trail Blazers play against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks who currently have the number one offense in the league. In the three matchups with the Mavericks earlier this season, we saw the two polar opposites of CJ’s game. In their first game he was magnificent, scoring 35 points in a victory. He scored just four points in their next meeting, then missed their final game due to an ankle sprain.

Consistency

After a slow start to his career, McCollum has struggled with remaining consistent. Admittedly, the shots he attempts are not always easy ones, and it is difficult to sustain the level of effort he puts in to making those shots. But when he is on, McCollum is one of the most lethal and difficult-to-guard players in the league. His bag is incredibly deep, and he has every move in his arsenal. At 6-foot-3, he is undersized for a shooting guard and constantly has to shoot over the top of taller defenders. But his quickness and ball-handling ability allow him to get to whatever spot he wants and pull up for a jumper.

CJ’s play is so critical to the team’s success as it alleviates pressure from Lillard and gives the team a much needed scoring boost. When the Blazers dynamic backcourt is on its game, they are one of the best teams in the league.

3) Defense

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have never been known for their defensive prowess. Plus missing Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood is a huge blow for the Blazers as they are the team’s two premiere wing defenders. In their first four games, the Blazers have given up an average of 121.3 points per game. Although they have won three of those games, those numbers are not sustainable. They are relying solely on out-shooting their opponents which admittedly is not a terrible strategy when you have dynamic shooters like Lillard and McCollum on your team. However, the team will have to come up stops at some point for chance at a play-in.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony was nearly blacklisted from the league after an abysmal playoff run with the Thunder two years ago. His shooting was wildly inconsistent and his defense was nonexistent. After his run with the Thunder, Anthony played just ten games with the Rockets the following season before Daryl Morey released a statement saying the team was “parting ways” with the 3-time gold medalist. Understandably, he was written off as a poor-decision maker and a defensive liability. Melo’s defensive presence has always been questionable.

That is not to say he won’t try or take defense seriously. The 10-time All-Star has slimmed down significantly during the break and announced he is focusing more on the defensive end. There’s footage of him in practice getting down in a defensive stance, getting into the body of perimeter players, fighting through screens and communicating. He looks like a man on a mission and understands this could be one of his last opportunities to make a deep playoff run.

Games 1-3

Melo was unbelievably clutch in the Blazers thrilling overtime victory against the Grizzlies in their first real action in Orlando. He hit two timely three-pointers in the corner to push the game to overtime. The team went on to win the game and Anthony finished with 21 points and seven rebounds.

Unfortunately for Melo and the Blazers, their next matchup was against the Boston Celtics whose primary scoring options are three big, quick, athletic wings: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. Anthony’s lack of lateral quickness was exposed all game, as the trio combined for 86 points and the Celtics won despite a second-half comeback from the Blazers.

In his follow up performance, Carmelo Anthony hit a HUGE three-pointer against the Rockets in the final two minutes. More importantly, his defense down the stretch was fantastic. He picked James Harden’s pocket on a drive attempt, then blocked a corner three attempt by PJ Tucker. Both of those plays were massive and came at the perfect time. For those who were ready to write Melo off as a defensive liability- think again.

Upcoming Schedule

Carmelo Anthony will have his hands full with opposing wings in the upcoming games.  Anthony will be matched up with last year’s Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard in their game on Saturday. Leonard is quick off the dribble and is one of the best players in the league. Following the Clippers game, Anthony will be guarding either Tobias Harris or Al Horford from the 76ers, both very formidable. It doesn’t get easier for Melo, but he is up for the challenge.

4.) Bench Production

Gary Trent Jr.

The Blazers have also been relying heavily on the play of Gary Trent Jr., one of the youngest players the team. After a slew of injuries to the Blazers front court, Trent made the most of his opportunity to step up and play big minutes this season. The sophomore was averaging 7.7 points per game and shooting 39 percent from distance before the season halted. Now as a sixth man for the Blazers, he is averaging 20.3 points per game, playing over 30 minutes per game, and has made more threes than anyone in the bubble thus far!

Trent has been one of the most pleasant surprises for the Blazers. His confidence is sky high which directly translates to his shot making ability. The sophomore from Duke has proven his offense isn’t a fluke with his consistency. But his pride is on the defensive end. Trent has said publicly that he desires to win the Defensive Player of the Year award [at some point] in his career. His 6-foot-6 frame, 81-inch wingspan and surprising strength can be a nightmare for opposing wings. Trent’s defensive tenacity and high volume shooting will be essential as the Blazers contend for a spot in the playoffs.

Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside is a huge factor in the Blazers playoffs hopes. The seven-footer started at center for the Blazers this season while Nurkic was injured and had a very productive year. He led the league in blocks per game this season (3.1) and he was the only Blazer player who averaged more than one block per game. Understandably, missing Collins and Nurkic affects rim protection. But both players are healthy and playing well which gives the Blazers three different seven-footers who are more than capable of protecting the rim.

When Whiteside was off the floor this season, the team was relying on guys like Anthony Tolliver and Caleb Swanigan to protect the rim. Neither of those players are notorious defenders, are vastly undersized and opposing teams noticed and took advantage. With the return of Collins and Nurkic, the Blazers will always have a seven-footer on the floor who can deny easy looks in the paint.

Whiteside has struggled in his new role off the bench so far in the restart, but he is still one of the more reliable centers in the league, especially as a backup center.

Sleeper Team

NBA writers across the nation have picked the Portland Trail Blazers as a sleeper team in the Western Conference, and it’s easy to understand why. Their win against the Houston Rockets really showed what this team is capable of. They followed up their impressive victory with another big win against the Nuggets. These next four games incredibly crucial and will test the resolve of this Blazers squad.

They are only one season removed from a WCF appearance. And with mostly everyone healthy, they have the talent, depth, experience and effective coaching to make a deep playoff run. The keys to Portland’s playoff pursuit are simple: Everyone remains healthy to keep their rotations intact, CJ McCollum plays consistently and reminiscent of how he did in the 2019 playoffs, the Blazers play defense at a high level, and their bench production remains constant.

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About Jason Moore

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