by Jared Wright, Oregon Sports News

After Wednesday’s thrilling victory over the splintering Boston Celtics, the Portland Trail Blazers have hit the three-quarters mark in their regular season. Their march toward postseason redemption has gone fairly smoothly so far, with the Blazers hitting their usual January-February hot streak. At a healthy 12-4 since January 16, Rip City is neck-in-neck with the Oklahoma City Thunder for third in the West, with 50 wins within reach.

If the Blazers go 12-9 the rest of the way, they’ll hit the half-century mark in wins for the first time since 2015, which is also the last time they won the Northwest Division. Divisions don’t mean much anymore, and Denver’s lead is 4.5 games, but getting home-court advantage should be the goal for the last 21 games of the regular season.

(The Northwest is insane this year, by the way. With the Nuggets second in the West, OKC third, and Portland fourth, they could have three teams with first-round advantage this season—with the Utah Jazz in a comfortable sixth. Hell, even Minnesota is looking frisky with Karl-Anthony Towns obliterating everything in his path. The 2019 Northwest is as strong as all those years that the Southwest had four teams in the top six constantly.)

Today, we’ll look back on the 61 games that are in the rearview mirror before looking ahead to the 21 that remain. Before we get to the players themselves (and there were many transactions from the last time I did this to now), some team notes:

·       Some staterinos for the eggheads out there: The Blazers are in the NBA’s top 10 in points, rebounds, free-throw percentage, three-point percentage, Offensive Rating, Net Rating, second-chance points, and points in paint allowed (Jusuf Nurkic being an effective deterrent). Portland is doing poorly in assists and steals, per usual, but its defense has stabilized at above-average (14th in Defensive Rating) and after years of playing at one of the slowest paces in the Association, Portland is 18th in possessions per game. I guess seven years of flapping his arms like a pterodactyl is finally paying off for Portland coach Terry Stotts.

·       The rebounding is notable because the backboards are being de-emphasized in the modern NBA; coaches want their guys to all run back after a miss, to prevent transition 3s (the Golden State Warriors’ influence on the game is felt in many places). The Blazers zag in many ways, but their crashing of the offensive glass is one of the most against-the-grain cuts. It’s paid off, too; besides the second-chance points, the Blazers’ TV crew dropped an interesting nugget. The Blazers lead the NBA in games where they outrebounded the competition, and have a .700 winning percentage when they do. Leave it to local crews to trot out obscure and highly selective numbers, right?

·       The Blazers’ remaining games look to be middle-of-the-road in terms of schedule strength. Of the last 21 games, 11 are against current playoff teams—with two of those against the Detroit Pistons and another being Sunday’s tilt against the Charlotte Hornets, the dregs of the Eastern playoff picture. The only games that look especially challenging are today’s Toronto Raptors game, Thursday’s game against the Thunder (I’ll be attending that game) and the home-and-home with Denver in April. Other than those contests, everything appears set up for the Blazers to get home-court advantage for the second straight season. What they actually DO with that advantage remains to be seen….

Individual player notes:

Damian Lillard: Ho hum, another All-Star and likely All-NBA season. Yawn, a stat line of 26-5-6 with 91% free-throw shooting. This level of play from Lillard is as routine as brushing your teeth, washing your dishes, or checking your privates for bumps in the shower.

Lillard is 10th in scoring, 18th in assists (the Blazers are not a passing team despite all the movement they do on offense, and Dame is a score-first guard), and that free-throw percentage is third among players with at least two attempts per game, and second among players with four or more attempts per game (behind Stephen Curry). All-NBA First Team is likely going to James Harden and Steph Curry, but I’d be shocked if Dame didn’t make the Second Team.

Interesting thing regarding Lillard and his opponent Wednesday night, Kyrie Irving: Irving has more All-Star Game appearances, but Lillard has more All-NBA Teams to his credit…and the All-NBA Team is harder to make than the All-Star team. I doubt Irving makes it this year; Bradley Beal is playing his ass off for a crappy Wizards squad, Ben Simmons may qualify as a guard, Russell Westbrook’s putrid shooting won’t disqualify him because he’s averaging a triple-double, Kemba Walker is long overdue, Khris Middleton is a more palatable option…it goes on. Irving may be popular among the players, but the fans are starting to sour on him, and the media only see him as easy copy at this point. The coaches HATE him.

CJ McCollum: He’s picked it up during the Blazers’ hot streak, but by and large, this is going to go down as a year of slight regression for the Lehigh product. He’s down two points per game from his 2017 peak (from 23 to 21). His shooting slash line of 46-36-82 is very unbecoming of a guy who flirted with 50-40-90 on a regular basis. He’s shooting a career-low from three-point range while taking more of them per game than he ever has, and his PER, Usage Rate, Value Over Replacement Player, assists and free-throw attempts are all at their lowest since he became a full-time starter.

McCollum, in true Blazer counter-culture form, is perhaps the greatest mid-range shooter in the league today; he’s almost as prolific as LaMarcus Aldridge was when he was here. His stats may not be able to shake off the stink of his early struggles, but CJ still fills it up when the Blazers need him most.

McCollum may need to zag even further and bag some of those open 3s for 18-footers; his long ball is just a little off this year, the occasional 5-5 night notwithstanding.

Jusuf Nurkic: After getting stonewalled by a league that looks down on guys with his body type, one could reasonably expect that after signing the Blazers’ four-year, $48 million offer, Nurk might pout a bit. He’s an emotional guy, and big men can be as moody as your girlfriend. It would have been easy for him to come into the season feeling slighted and disappointed.

Fortunately for Portland, there’s been none of that BS from the Bosnian big man.

Whether it’s Lillard’s influence (he’s constantly talking to Nurkic, keeping him engaged; that’s another thing that makes him superior to Irving, who’d just snipe at a guy like Nurk instead of encourage him), the realization that the Blazers need him, or the simple truth that he’s actually happy with his deal (it IS nearly $50 million to play a kid’s game…), the big Bear has raked the Association’s centers asunder with those blunt claws and massive paws.

He’s averaging a double-double, he nails at least three awesome passes a game (there was this one pass he fired to Mo Harkless to break the Celtics’ 1-3-1 zone Wednesday, just this BULLET for an easy flush. Nurk has played European ball, so he knows how to bust a zone), his shooting from the charity stripe is destroying his previous career-high, and he’s playing the most minutes of his career—while staying healthy.

At times, Nurkic has been the second-best player on this team. He’s been that good, all year.

Al-Farouq Aminu: Chief has been solid this year, very solid. The numbers for him and the rest of the Blazers’ rotation won’t wow anyone—though Aminu averaging 7.8 rebounds per game is impressive for a guy giving up size six nights out of 10—but Aminu plays some very necessary roles for Portland.

Chief often defends the best forward on the other team, is a great free-throw shooter at 85%, and has turned himself into a reliable three-point spot-up shooter by dint of hard work and pure will. When he got to Portland, Aminu couldn’t shoot worth a damn; watching that rainbow moonshot of his swish through with accuracy nowadays is both weird and relieving.

As a free-agent, Aminu is sure to draw interest from teams looking for a 3-and-D option at the 4 spot. The Blazers might want to think about signing Chief to a new deal, and eating a large one-year tax bill until Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Harkless all come off the books—if the Blazers have some postseason success.

Maurice Harkless: His post-All-Star break play has been a pleasant reminder that when he’s healthy—and when Stotts isn’t pissed at him—Harkless can be quite a menace when he wants to be. Lately, especially against Boston, he wanted to be.

I remember a few Mo plays over the last few weeks that either were game-changing or momentum-squelching. The block on Klay Thompson in the corner. The steals against the Celtics. The absolute sonning of Marcus Smart, where he just ripped the ball away, jumped straight up, and packed it like a chipmunk stuffing nuts in his cheeks.

With his inconsistent outside shot taking its biannual vacation, Mo is playing closer to the rim, a la Ben Simmons with Philly. It’s benefited both him and the Blazers—Harkless gets to be active around the rim instead of standing around in the corner, dreading to shoot a three (he’s 29% on the year), while the Blazers are fourth in second-chance points partly because of Mo’s active hands and long arms.

Rip Citizens can count on Mo to provide a couple highlight plays per game, scrounge for putbacks like a smaller version of Ed Davis, give maximum effort on defense, and other glue guy stuff the team needs.

Evan Turner: With each passing year, I feel worse about giving the Villain a hard time. Sure, his raw production hasn’t been enough. I grant that his shooting has been bad, and anything that isn’t at the rim or out of the post is an adventure (even his free throws; once a very reliable freebie shooter, Turner is barely over 70%).

ET is such a nice guy, though. He goes out of his way to help strangers when he can, he helps Lillard spearhead the Blazers’ efforts in the communities of the Portland metro area, he’s a witty dude who has some media person in stitches every night, and his veteran leadership is valuable for a Blazer team that’s still so young—other than Turner, McCollum and Lillard, every player is in his mid-20s or younger.

Unfortunately, I still can’t credibly excuse paying a man $17.8 million this year to average 7-4.5-4 and shoot 7-46 from three, just like I can’t really defend making Meyers Leonard the world’s wealthiest male cheerleader going on three years now. Stand-up guy though he is, Evan Turner is still going to be called Evan Turner’s Expiring Contract all next season.

(Basketball-Reference does list Turner as a point guard this season, by the way. He’s done a solid job, actually. He’s just horrendously overpaid to do it—as so many people have said over and over and over and over and over….)

Jake Layman: Neil Olshey gets lots of crap for his misses—and even with some of his savvier moves, like signing Nurk to that cheapo deal, he was helped by a market colder than Antarctica in winter—but in the interest of fairness, let’s give him and his scouts credit for finding a rotation-caliber wing in the second round.

Layman is shooting 54% from the field, including a good 37% from beyond the arc, and like Harkless, he’s one springy sonofagun. The Moda Center crowd gets up and cheers whenever Air Layman sails in like Zeus and drops the thunderous putback dunk. He’s become something of a folk hero among us diehard fans, who only previously worshipped him because of his glorious hair. Turns out the guy with the great hair can also play some good ball.

Jake still has his issues defensively—his upside is limited there, since he’s not fast enough laterally to defend the quicker 1s and not strong enough to defend 4s and burlier 3s. Harkless is going to get more playoff minutes, despite Layman’s superior offensive repertoire. Still, he’s very athletic, a scrapper, and he’s proven he belongs in the NBA.

The question is, will he stay with the Blazers? His second-rounder’s deal expires this summer.

Zach Collins: 6.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, and about 1,374 fouls per game doesn’t sound impressive, but Collins’ work goes beyond the numbers with his rapidly growing defensive acumen and tendency to really piss people off. At 34%, his outside shot is still being polished into a credible weapon.

He’s still so young, which is likely why Olshey decided to bring Enes Kanter on for the rest of the season. It’s possible that Olshey is feeling the squeeze; he can ill afford another playoff collapse, and in his mind, having the more seasoned Kanter over the emotionally volatile Collins helps for this season.

I get that he wants to maximize Lillard’s prime as much as possible, but I’m not sure Kanter is the answer you’re looking for. Even in his best games for Portland so far, he was a net minus, and in the games where he didn’t go for near double-doubles, Kanter and his nonexistent defense dragged them down into the murky depths of defeat. Lillard and Co. won’t be there to cut the cords and drag the team back to fresh air every night.

I understand that Collins and his volatility could have a similar effect, but Zach is also part of the future. Kanter is not. Let the kid learn from his mistakes, and create more memes with McCollum. Namaste.

Meyers Leonard: Even though this a Good Meyers year, he was still on the rotation’s fringes. Now that Stotts has a mandate from the front office to play Kanter, Leonard is back to his familiar role of Grossly Overpaid Male Cheerleader.

Seth Curry: He’s cooled off a bit from his league-leading pace from three (the new leader in three-point percentage is Joe Harris, the Three-point Contest Champion), but Curry is still shooting better from three than two this season. He’s shooting just 42% from two-point range, and has drawn only 19 free throws this season.

Curry has to shoot more threes and find ways to mitigate his physical shortcomings. Portland is his sixth NBA team in six seasons, and playing on a minimum contract, this might be his last chance to stick with a franchise. He’s been the best of the backup guards Olshey has foisted upon Lillard, but that’s not saying much.

New Arrivals: Rodney Hood has cooled off from his hot start for Portland, but he is still a no-risk, medium-reward type who fills Portland’s wing rotations nicely. He’s moving on defense, taking good shots, and generally playing within himself. That’s great to see from a guy in his situation, playing for a long-term NBA contract; it would be very understandable if Hood were forcing shots and hunting for numbers. That he’s playing within the system as much as he’s able to is commendable and professional—and he’s also probably behaving out of fear of Lillard and Nurkic.

You know my thoughts on Kanter. Guy is going to lose the Blazers a playoff game, just you watch.

Skal Labissiere is a big man from Haiti, but he’s no Samuel Dalembert. Not yet.

Departures: Wade Baldwin, we hardly knew ye. Hopefully you can find a jump shot in the G-League.

At least Sauce Castillo will always have Opening Night against the Lakers. On national TV. He gets to tell his grandkids that he outdueled LeBron James on TNT.

Caleb Swanigan was and is a great story. Here’s hoping he lands on his feet somewhere.

Rookies: Anfernee Simons is still rocking that ridiculous babyface look—he looks like a 12-year-old boy.

Gary Trent Jr. might get some run next year. If Olshey doesn’t want to pony up for Layman, he may have to turn to Trent. That’d be a TOUGH act to follow.

More about: