Blazers

Blazers Bubble Seeding Takeaways: The Good, Bad and Interesting

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The Trail Blazers finished their regular season Bubble run with seven wins and two losses.

Every single game was close.

Damian Lillard went to another level in both his leadership and his play on the floor. CJ McCollum played through a broken back (it’s spinal!). Gary Trent Jr. forgot how to miss three-pointers. And the return of Jusuf Nurkic added another layer of playmaking, defense and sheer willpower to this Blazers squad. It was both encouraging to see how potentially dangerous the team is at full health and lamentable that they missed a full year together. The Bubble revealed some good, some bad, and some interesting. As the Blazers gear up for what may be an insurmountable series against the top-seeded Lakers, here are six takeaways we learned from the Blazers’ life in the bubble so far:

Bubble Takeaway 1: Dame Time Is Now

Lillard, who was already a bonafide superstar, increased his status as one of the league’s premier scorers and his recognition by casual NBA fans. Everyone but Skip Bayless understands that Lillard is a special talent. Lillard has pushed the bounds of the limitless three farther than anyone before him. Before this season, the record for three-pointers made from beyond 30 feet in a season was 25. Dame hit 54 at a 41.5% clip.

That marksmanship, which has earned Dame the nickname “Logo Lillard,” was on full display in the bubble. Lillard was named the unanimous “Bubble MVP” as he willed his team to the playoffs. During the eight-game run, Lillard averaged 37.3 points, 9.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds while shooting 49.3% from the field and 43.6% from three. Of course, Logo Lillard had his share of highlights, including a pull-up three-pointer from a step beyond half court:

Lillard is going into the matchup with the Lakers red-hot. The Lakers are without Avery Bradley, and likely Rajon Rondo for at least a portion of the matchup. Although the Blazers’ chances of success against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the one-seed Lakers are thin, expect Lillard to continue to put on a show.

Bubble Takeaway 2: The Blazers’ Defense Leaks Like A Sieve

While Logo Lillard and the Blazers’ offense was efficient, ferocious, versatile and essentially unstoppable, the team’s defense left a lot to be desired. Each Bubble game was close solely because the Blazers had difficulty stopping any opponent from scoring on them. It didn’t matter whether it was the interior-minded Grizzlies, the wing-heavy Celtics, or the small-ball three-point barrage Rockets. One conclusion was clear from watching the Blazers in the Bubble: their defense is bad.

The Blazers, who came into the bubble with the 27th-ranked defense, hoped to improve with the return of two solid defensive anchors: Nurkic and Collins. Their return has not materialized into any defensive consistency. Watching Jarrett Allen grab three straight offensive rebounds when the Blazers were down three and needed a stop was painful. It was also a reminder that although the Blazers have earned their playoff spot, they may not stay there long as they face dominating physical presence of Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee and Davis.

Bubble Takeaway 3: Clutch Melo

Carmelo Anthony has sported a lot of nicknames throughout his career, including most recently Skinny Melo. After starting and ending the bubble with vital late-game three-pointers, however, it may be time to dub Melo with his latest moniker: Clutch Melo. While Anthony is not the same player as old, he has provided a steady contribution of offense this season. In the Bubble, Melo has provided some much-needed late-game heroics. Clutch Melo started the Bubble by hitting two three-pointers to beat the Grizzlies and start the Blazers’ inspired run to the playoffs.

Clutch Melo then closed with a three-point dagger in the play-in game to seal the win and a playoff berth.

While Anthony’s contributions are not the high-volume numbers they once were, the Blazers are not in the playoffs this year without him.

Bubble Takeaway 4: Zach Collins Is Rusty

One of the more exciting things for the Blazers return to action was a full-strength Zach Collins. Collins’s defensive prowess, boundless energy and versatility on offense were vital to the Blazers’ playoff run last year. There was much hope that he would continually improve his game and make another leap in his productivity this year. That hope has not been realized. In Collins return from his early-season shoulder injury, he has shown flashes of the player the Blazers hope him to become: he has hit a few corner threes, made an excellent assist to Clutch Melo in the first game to set up the go-ahead three-pointer, and he’s made some solid defensive plays.

Overall though, Collins looks like he hasn’t played basketball in quite some time. Unlike Nurkic who has needed no time to adjust back to competitive play, Collins has looked rusty. He has been frustrated defensively and resorted to cheap fouls. He has seemed lost on offense at times. His post-up game has not looked polished or fluid. He simply looks like someone who needs much more time to adjust back to NBA play. He has already been ruled out for Game 1 against the Lakers with an ankle sprain. The Blazers can’t beat L.A. without him. If the Blazers have any chance of upsetting the Lakers, they’ll need not only a healthy Collins, but a better Collins than the one we’ve seen in the Bubble.

Bubble Takeaway 5: The Bosnian Beast Is An Absolute Monster

We all knew that Jusuf Nurkic was good at basketball. After a compound fracture to his leg, the question remained how well and how quickly he could return to form. Unlike Collins, Nurkic has come out absolutely scalding. Second only to Lillard, Nurkic has been the most important Blazer in the Bubble. Not only does he add a layer of defensive stability and rebounding, but his offensive playmaking has been vital to unlocking the Blazers’ Bubble success. The most poignant example was against the Nets in the Blazers’ final regular-season game. The Nets chose to double Lillard (before he even reached half court) and blitzed him on the pick-and-roll. Lillard’s most common answer was to find Nurkic. Coming off a screen, Lillard would consistently find Nurkic who would then either score himself or find an open teammate.

One of the most beautiful examples of this is below in the Blazers’ play-in game against the Grizzlies.

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Dame comes off the screen, immediately finds Nurkic, who then kicks it out to an open McCollum for three. The Lillard-Nurkic pairing was a constant success throughout the Bubble mainly fueled by Nurkic’s great vision once he was in the paint. Although he only spent a few years in Denver with Nikola Jokic, you can see many similarities between the two in their style of play. Ultimately, Nurkic’s Bubble return was everything Blazers’ fans were hoping for.

Bubble Takeaway 6: Blazers Basketball Is Just Plain Fun

While every game was heart-wrenchingly close, the Blazers were fun to watch from pure entertainment value. The entire sport is based around enjoying watching the competition of the greatest players in the world go head-to-head. Every single Blazers’ game was close. Every single game was, essentially, a playoff elimination game. Rather than wilt under the pressure, the Blazers brought an intensity and fire and upped their level of play. It was a joy to watch. Hopefully, the Blazers can bring that same intensity in the first round and we can all continue to watch much longer.

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