Blazers

Blazers Bubble Breakdown: Part 1

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There’s a lot of optimism from the Blazers as the league is set to return to play on July 30, 2020. The main reason for such optimism is centered around the return of two injured big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Nurkic suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his leg back in March 2019. He was set to return to play on March 15, 2020, just before the league suspended play. Collins injured his shoulder in the third game of this season and was not predicted to return at all this year. The extra time off has allowed both big men to heal up and get back into shape as they now prepare for league play to resume on July 30, 2020.

When asked about his thoughts that both Nurkic and Collins were back, Damian Lillard shared:

“They look great. They make me feel way more confident going in just from seeing them — both of them.”

Collins was much less guarded in his optimism about the Blazers’ chances upon his return:

“We know we have a shot to win a title, regardless of seeding. We’re confident, man . . . me and Nurk coming back is going to be huge.”

Collins is correct that their return is “huge” both literally (Collins stands 6’11” and Nurkic measures 7′) and figuratively as the Blazer’s 27th-ranked defense is in desperate need of shoring up. And, as important as Nurkic and Collins are to the Blazers, the long-awaited return of the Bosnian Beast and Big Z could not come at a better time as the Blazers have eight games to maintain their hold on the 9 seed and trigger the play-in tournament. In the first part of this season restart preview, we look at the Blazers’ chances in their first four games.

Season Preview

Per 538’s game predictions, the Blazers are only favored in two games — their first game against the Grizzlies and their last game against the Nets. While the Blazers own any tiebreaker with the teams behind them (Kings, Pelicans, Suns, and Spurs), they will need to adapt to an entirely new rotation and lineups and have one of the more difficult schedules. The Athletic’s John Hollinger, who analyzed and rated each team’s remaining schedule difficulty, went so far as to say that “Portland got hosed.”

As the Blazers begin their training and scrimmages in the bubble, we look forward to the Blazers’ schedule and break down the first four games and each of the Blazers’ opponents. The Blazers’ full remaining schedule is below:

2020 NBA Season Restart: Teams, format, schedule, location, and ...

Game 1 – Memphis Grizzlies — July 31 (4 PM)

  • Win Probability (via 538): 59%
  • Regular Season Results
    • Feb. 12, 2020: L, 111-104

Prior Games

The Blazers and Grizzlies have only played once this year. In a pivotal playoff berth game, the Blazers shot poorly (37.1% from the field) and could not stop the Grizzlies from scoring near the basket. Fatigue likely played a factor for the Blazers as this was the second night of a back-to-back (playing in New Orleans the night before) and their sixth game in nine days. The Blazers could also not defend the Grizzlies in the paint. The Grizzlies, who lead the league in points in the paint at 56.3 per game, more than doubled the Blazers in that category: 76-34. Part of that was Grizzlies’ rookie Brandon Clarke, who tied a career-high with 27 points (12/14) fed mainly by lobs and assists off the pick and roll. Lillard hurt his groin with 3:22 to play (and missed the next six games), but the game was over by that point.

Rematch

The rematch should be a much different game. The Blazers will be well-rested, as this is the first game they play after a four-month break in play. The team should also be able to better defend the pick-and-roll and the paint with the return of both Nurkic and Collins, who both at excel at interior defense. The Blazers excel at three-point shooting (4th-best three-point percentage in the league this year) and will look to attack at the perimeter against a Grizzlies team that gives up the 8th most points from 3-pointers this year (38.4 per game).

What to Watch: New Rotations

As this will be the Blazers’ first game since the return of Nurkic and Collins, it will be interesting to see how Head Coach Terry Stotts handles inserting the two returning big men into the rotation with Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony. Who will start? Will Carmelo slide over to start at small forward, or will he serve to spell Collins at power forward? Will Whiteside and Nurkic both play alongside one another as hinted at by Coach Stotts? The lineup and rotations will be one of the more intriguing things to watch as the Blazers attempt to establish some chemistry while fighting for the final playoff spot.

Game 2 – Boston Celtics — August 2 (3:30 PM)

  • Win Probability (via 538): 30%
  • Regular Season Results
    • Feb. 25, 2020: L, 118-106

Prior Games

Like the Grizzlies, the Blazers were only able to play the Celtics once before the league shut-down. Playing without their best player, Lillard, the Blazers raced out to an early lead and hung around in the first half but never really challenged the Celtics in the second half. The Blazers had difficulty defending the three-point shot (the Celtics shot 48.7% from three) and the Celtics’ dynamic wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who led the Celtics in scoring. Tatum dropped 36 points with a career-high eight three-pointers (8/12). Jaylen Brown added 24 on 8-19 shooting. The Celtics were also without their starting point guard, Kemba Walker, who was out with a knee injury.

Rematch

The rematch will not be like the February game. Both injured starting points guard will be back and both Lillard and Walker can light up a scoreboard. The two offensive-minded guards can take over stretches of a game and change the entire momentum dynamic. Moreover, Nurkic and Collins’s return should add some challenges to the Celtics defensively. Without either, the Blazers can be a bit one-dimensional in their scoring (outside shooting). The additional versatility of the high-post, mid-range scorers of Collins and Nurkic will allow the Blazers to attack the Celtics in a way they could not back in February.

What to Watch: Gary Trent, Jr.

The Blazers’ defensive strategy against a perimeter/wing-heavy offense is perhaps the biggest challenge heading into the bubble. The Blazers have to account for the loss of defensive-minded wing Trevor Ariza. The Celtics start four guys — Walker, Brown, Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — who are all lethal offensive weapons from the perimeter. Nurkic and Whiteside are too slow to guard the smaller, faster guards/wings at the perimeter. Lillard and McCollum will chase Walker and Brown. But Hayward and Tatum will create matchup problems for Anthony and Collins. Enter Gary Trent Jr. Trent Jr. has been highlighted by many analysts as one of the more lesser-known players to watch when the season restarts. One of the main reasons: his aggressive defense. The Celtics will be the first real test to how the self-proclaimed “dog” fits into the new lineup and how the Blazers unchain their defensive beast.

Game 3 – Houston Rockets — August 4 (9 PM)

  • Win Probability (via 538): 34%
  • Regular Season Results
    • Nov. 18, 2019: L, 132-108
    • Jan. 15, 2020: W, 117-107
    • Jan. 29, 2020: W, 125-112

Prior Games

The Rockets and Blazers have played three games, but not all three games have been equal. In the first game, Lillard had one of his worst games of the season, scoring only 13 points on 4-15 shooting. The Blazers had not yet signed Carmelo Anthony to replace Zach Collins and were struggling with their early-season team chemistry. Both James Harden and Russell Westbrook played outstanding games: Harden with 36 points, six rebounds, and five assists and Westbrook notching a 28/13/10 triple-double. However, when the teams met again (twice) in January, Lillard was in the middle of one of the greatest scoring runs in NBA history. In their most recent matchup, Lillard poured in 36 points and had a triple-double of his own with 10 rebounds and 11 assists.

The defining mark of this series has been the Westbrook-Lillard rivalry. Westbrook has been vicious in attacking Lillard and the Blazers’ defense: scoring more points each time the teams have met (28, 31, 39). Lillard has been outstanding in his own right (27/7/7 36/10/11 in the last two games), but has been balanced by some evenly distributed scoring among his teammates. Harden played poorly (by his own standards) in the teams’ last meeting, scoring 18 on 5-18 shooting. But the Rockets only had seven points from their 4 and 5 positions.

Rematch

The Rockets, who have gone all-in on the small-ball revolution this year, received little help from their interior play, despite the Blazers’ shortcomings at that position. As the Blazers get more depth and size inside, it will be interesting to watch how the Blazers defend against the all-perimeter play of the Rockets and how the Rockets defend the massive size advantage the Blazers’ lineups could offer. Nurkic and Collins provide more spacing than Whiteside and the Blazers will attempt to utilize the additional threat of Nurkic’s high-post presence to create open looks on the perimeter where the Blazers are very dangerous. The Blazers may counter the speed and spacing of the Rockets play going small themselves: playing 6’6″ Trent Jr. at the small forward and keeping 6’8″ Anthony at the power forward position. However, if Harden and Westbrook start getting into a rhythm, sometimes there’s not much scheming that can stop them.

What to Watch: Westbrook v. Lillard Part IV

Westbrook v. Lillard. A point-guard duel for the ages. Two fierce competitors who bring out the best in each other. Neither back down; both talk trash. Intensity. Aggression. Sweet, sweet basketball. Every game between the two is appointment-TV viewing. The rivalry that inspired Lillard’s cold-blooded and calm wave at the end of last year’s buzzer-beater series winner against the Thunder. Westbrook may be on a different team, but the blood-feud continues. The hope is that the rivalry continues as the Rockets attempt to improve their seeding and the Blazers try to stave off any challengers for the play-in tourney. Words fail to fully describe this delightful, but dogged, contest of will and skill. But, we can re-live part of it and hope the next meeting is just as epic:

Game 4 – Denver Nuggets — August 6 (8 PM)

  • Win Probability (via 538): 42%
  • Regular Season Results
    • Oct. 23, 2019: L, 108-100
    • Dec. 12, 2019: L, 114-99
    • Feb. 4, 2020: L, 127-99

Prior Games

Despite knocking the Nuggets out of last year’s playoff, the Blazers have not had success this season against Denver. Losing in all three of their matchups, the Blazers struggled to contain Nikola Jokic and counter the Nuggets’ three-point defense. Denver only allows 34.8 points per game from three-pointers (8th best in the league). The Blazers in three games against the Nuggets have shot an ice-cold 28% (25-89). The teams’ season opener saw the Blazers launch 28 three-pointers and only make seven of them. In the teams’ second meeting, Whiteside exploded for 33 points and Anthony added in 20. However, poor guard play from Lillard and McCollum and a balanced Denver attack led to the Blazers’ second loss verse last years’ playoff foes. In their third meeting, the Blazers made less than 40% of their shots and less than 30% of their three-point field goals. Quite plainly, the Blazers have struggled to score against the Nuggets.

Because of the length of time between each matchup, and the Blazers’ injuries woes throughout the season, the Blazers have fielded a different team each time the teams have met. On opening night, the Blazers still had a healthy Collins on the inside alongside Rodney Hood. When the teams played again in December, Hood had ruptured his Achilles and Collins had injured his shoulder and the Blazers were using a lineup that included Kent Bazemore. In the team’s most recent matchup, the Blazers had replaced Bazemore with Ariza and utilized an 11-man rotation.

Rematch

When the teams meet again for their final regular-season matchup, the Blazers will yet again look different. Nurkic and Collins will help contain Jokic and the Nuggets’ offense. Moreover, Lillard getting his favorite pick-and-roll partner, Nurkic, back in play will help the Blazers facilitate the offense: both for Lillard’s own opportunities, but also opportunities for his teammates (especially Lillard’s drive and kick to open teammates behind the three-point line). Adding Nurkic, who emphasized working on his passing from the post on his return to play, not only provides an interior force but allows the Blazers to run offensive sets against the Nuggets with better efficiency than Whiteside or Anthony, who struggle in finding opportunities for their teammates.

What to Watch: Skinny Jokic & Slim Melo

A four-month layoff where players are quarantined away from their rigorous training schedules was always going to raise questions of players’ fitness in returning to full-speed play. But, many players showed up to the bubble in Orlando in much better shape than when we last saw them. Two of the biggest changes in player physique were Slim Melo and Skinny Jokic.

https://twitter.com/TheNBACentral/status/1282429350000951298?s=20

Anthony not only showed up slim, fit, and looking ready to slide into the small forward spot, he also showed up with something many critics have noted a lack of in his playing career: defensive effort and intensity. If Anthony wants to play consistently at the small forward role, he will have to show his ability to guard faster wings. He has always been effective when other players attempt to post him up or even iso him in the mid-range. But, his greatest weakness has been on off-ball defense (running through/around screens) and defending the pick-and-roll. The Nuggets, who excel using Jokic in the PnR present a unique challenge and one that hopefully Slim Melo will be ready for.

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1283200598129737729?s=20

But Anthony isn’t the only slimmed-down version of an NBA player. Jokic, who returned to the bubble later than his teammates, has now returned and looks like an entirely different person. Jokic’s ability to pass has always been entertaining, but now that he’s slimmer and more in-shape, Jokic’s may have even more weapons in his arsenal (including dunking) and better conditioning at the end of games. Jokic is already a top-ten player in the NBA and perhaps the best center in the league. If he was able to play that well while out-of-shape, it will be fascinating to see how much his game improves when he’s in shape.

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