BY CASEY MABBOTT of Oregon Sports News
Well dear readers, we are now in the final month of the NBA season, with the playoffs set to start on April 13th. Your fearless and fighting Portland Trail Blazers are in a fun but unusual spot, as they are five games out of first in the West and are also three games out of sixth place, and as crazy as it sounds, they are also just three games removed from being out of the playoff picture entirely. The next 18 games will more than decide their season’s ending; it will also decide which team they are matched up with in round one, and will define their odds to make it to the second round, after being swept out of the first round each of the last two seasons.
Portland rookie and NBA veteran center Enes Kanter has breathed fresh life in to Portland’s second unit, but at the cost of seeing forward/center Zach Collins play limited or in some cases, no minutes. Is this the right move to see progress on Collins, who the team invested so much to obtain the draft rights to? Probably not, but it might create more wins in the short term.
So what does the immediate future hold for your Trail Blazers? We asked Fireside Sports co-hosts Casey Mabbott (CM) and Bryant Knox (BK) to answer these questions and more. Will their crystal ball show the true destiny of the team? Maybe!
Without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round:
1. The Portland Trail Blazers are now 5-2 in their seven games (all on the road) since the all-star break and have two home games coming up this week against the Thunder and Suns. They are currently locked in a three way tie for the #3 seed, with 18 games left. Do you see any reason they are not a lock for the playoffs?
(CM) If they miss the playoffs, oh man. It would have to be seen as nothing less than a disaster of mythic proportions, a folktale told to others to make people feel more alive because it didn’t happen to them. That description is in some ways credited to Phil Knight, but not how you might think. If this team and all they have been through this season finds a way to miss the playoffs, that image needs to replace whatever we currently picture as the worst flop in modern sports, which I suppose would be what the Mariners did last year. I don’t think anyone wants to get to a place where they think of PNW teams as teams that fail on an epic scale when it matters most. Please don’t do this, Portland. Just make the playoffs.
(BK) If Damian Lillard goes down with a significant injury, the Blazers become a fringe playoff team at this point in the year. Same goes for a vastly improved Jusuf Nurkic to a lesser extent. But assuming health remains a positive thing around Rip City, there’s no fear of this team dropping out of the top eight. If a healthy Blazers squad botched this one that badly, it would spell the end of at least one of the roster/coaching staff/front office regimes.
2. Even without Enes Kanter in Toronto, the Blazers were one Kawhi Leonard jumper from forcing overtime, and a Damian Lillard three pointer away from leaving with a win. With recent wins over Boston and Philadelphia and a close loss to Toronto, should there be any concern they can beat the best in the East, should they make it to the Finals?
(CM) We have to put an asterisk next to the win over Philly since Joel Embiid was absent, but I don’t see any reason why this team couldn’t beat any team in the East over a seven game series. If this team makes it all the way to the Finals, bring it on, they have the starting talent and reserves to compete with anyone. My concern is out West, where it seems like the top to bottom talent is just stronger. Yes the East has three really great teams, but after that I see a lot of question marks. Even Milwaukee looks vulnerable from time to time. I would put more stock in Boston or Toronto where there is a stronghold of veteran leadership over young teams like Milwaukee or Philly.
(BK) I’d need to dive deeper into the numbers but the eye test tells me the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokoun-NO-YOU-DID-NOT-JUST-TRY-TO-BLOCK-MY-DUNK-mpo are the ones you’d want to avoid. Yes, the Blazers did beat the Bucks back on Nov. 6 at home, but that was before we knew Milwaukee was a legitimate threat for the East’s crown, and it was also before a Nov. 21 revenge showdown in which the home-team Bucks beat down Portland, 143-100. Could the Blazers ultimately beat them in a series? You bet. Same goes for all teams out East. But I gotta admit: I fear the deer, I fear their long ball, and I fear a Freak of a certain Greek persuasion.
3. If you had to bet your house on one, which is more likely – that the Blazers make it to the conference finals, or that the Lakers make the playoffs?
(CM) I really, really really don’t want to take this bet, but given LeBron’s strange gift to elevate teams out of nowhere versus Portland’s strange talent for not surviving the playoffs, I’d have to bet on LeBron. This may be the year he finally took on too much of a project, but that will most likely mean he doesn’t make the Finals, and probably won’t mean he misses the playoffs. Portland seems to finally have the depth to make it past the first and second rounds, but they have so much competition to get to the conference finals. None of this is to say the Lakers have a good shot at making the playoffs, as they have to win eight more games than the Clippers to even have a shot. But if I’m being asked to bet on Portland to win a minimum of eight games this year in the playoffs after failing to win even one either of the last two years, or to bet on LeBron beating out the Clippers, I guess the real question is – do I think the Clippers can lose at least 9 of their next 18? Yes, yes I do.
(BK) The Lakers are toast. LeBron is already trying to decide if it’s in his best interest to hit full “load management” mode while he plans his summer vacations and Space Jam 2 filming sessions, or if he’d rather bust his ass for 35-14-11 a night down the stretch with the sole purpose of putting some young whippersnappers in their places. Alas, this isn’t entirely an indictment against the Lakers; it’s partly a well-deserved testament to the improved Trail Blazers. They’re finally built in a way—and deep enough—that beating anybody not named the Golden State Warriors has some legitimate hope. Matchups are key and not all of them are favorable, but Portland has Nurkic playing the best ball of his life, Kanter (despite his defensive flaws) can keep that same intensity and potency around the rim off the bench, and the team has a fun new wild card in Rodney Hood who can be what Arron Afflalo was supposed to be a few years back. This honestly is more about what L.A. isn’t doing than what Portland is, but the Blazers have a real shot this year. Staying away from the Warriors for as long as possible is crucial, but beyond that, there’s not a consensus second-best team out West.
4. This team is playing its best basketball at the right time, and they don’t appear to be running themselves ragged as they have done in year’s past. Is there a team in the West other than the Warriors that you think could beat Portland in a best of seven series?
(CM) Call me crazy, but I really don’t see another team in the West that scares me the way the Warriors do. Other teams have some star power, but even Houston and OKC have some serious shortcomings when their stars don’t play their best basketball, which to me puts them in the same box as Portland. So my real answer is this – if I believe that Portland’s dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum are capable of shining as bright as the stars in Houston and OKC, and I do believe that, then the real question is – do I beleive that Portland has the depth behind their stars to compete with the other supporting casts? And my answer to that is a resounding yes. I don’t know that this is Portland’s year to win a title, but I think they’ve taken a huge step forward, and the league has been put on alert.
(BK) I guess I teased this one a bit in the last response, but I think just about any team in the Western Conference playoff race could beat Portland—and I think Portland could beat just about any team in the Western Conference Playoff rate. Put another way: I don’t think the Blazers will earn a top-two seed, and I don’t believe the Spurs or Clippers will find themselves better than bottom-two seeds (bummer for the Blazers because they’re the two teams I’d feel comfortable putting money down on Portland without question). This means OKC, Houston, Portland, Utah will be playing each other in some form or another (in my perspective), and that’s one heck of an unpredictable Western showdown in any scenario.
5. Portland is used to being the team that is just happy to make the playoffs, but this year just feels different. If you’re the other teams in the West, do you see the same old Blazers or does this year’s squad make you nervous if you have to face them when everything is on the line?
(CM) I seriously doubt that the Warriors have any issues with facing Portland, but I think the other six playoff teams, whoever they end up being, will not want to face this year’s Portland team. If you over defend their backcourt, they now have the firepower up front to keep the score close. If you try to play small, they have the athletic wings to follow suit. If you try to slow things down and play half court, they have some very capable bigs that can play the pick and roll game as long as you want. It seems like they have the offensive firepower to play with anyone, but the question will come up – can they play defense when it counts? Maybe, maybe not, but having committed and talented rim protectors in Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter and Zach Collins should put enough pressure on offensive slashers that the wing defense should improve. This team finally has enough pieces that they should be dangerous, and I think the league has noticed.
(BK) The nice part about this team is that even if the franchise at large has been happy to just make the postseason, it hasn’t been reflected in the attitude of the players. Neil Olshey and the current ownership group may be sitting back smiling at their strong attendance record and moderate national interest in a certain First Team All-NBA point guard, but that floor general himself has never let his team be content with being a good story or a loveable loser. I do think this year’s roster is built to go deep, but I also think the West is as tough as it’s ever been. Nobody in the conference should fear Lillard and Co. 100 percent—but no team should expect to see the same caught-in-the-headlights squad that fell victim to the broom a year ago in New Orleans.