What They’re Saying: Blazers Have a Legitimate Shot at The Playoffs
By: Matthew Zimmer
The NBA season is set to resume with 22-teams playing eight games starting on July 31. Portland is getting some hype and serious consideration to earn its way into the Top 8 out West. Let’s take a look at “What They’re Saying” around the league and throughout the media.
The Worldwide Leader released their “everything you need to know” about all 22 teams headed to Orlando. For the Trail Blazers, praise is definitely there, but cautiously. Kevin Pelton describes how Portland got to sit at No. 9 and what’s at stake for the squad. Obviously, injuries were a key factor for the performance of the Blazers and “how they got here,” but Damian Lillard says he’s 100 percent confident that Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be available to play. Sadly, Portland will still be without Rodney Hood, but Nurk and Collins would be a huge plus for Portland’s defense.
Pelton says “hope for 2021” is what’s at stake for the Blazers. He also admits the Blazers are a “formidable threat” for the play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed and “even a scary first-round opponent for the Lakers”.
Pelton also gives his “big question after the layoff” and for the Blazers, it’s obvious: “How much will Portland get from Collins and Nurkic?” He doesn’t really answer the question–he mostly ponders if Terry Stotts will start either Nurkic and/or Collins or if Carmelo Anthony and/or Hassan Whiteside will keep their starting spots–but Pelton does help us move to our next section.
Also, if you didn’t know, given the rules clarification from ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, Portland has a great shot at making it to the postseason. The NBA will use winning percentage to determine the final playoff standings.
The Blazers were 29-37 before the suspension of play, while New Orleans and Sacramento were 28-36. Meaning Portland had a win percentage of .439, with the Pelicans and Kings at .438. So, if somehow those numbers remained the same through the 8-game “regular season” then Portland would sneak in as the No. 9 seed. Obviously, the bigger step for Portland would be they need to be within four games to be in a play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed.
Blazer’s Edge – SB Nation
The folks over at Blazer’s Edge always give us some interesting perspectives, and this time they asked (and answered) what the Blazer’s starting lineup should be when the NBA returns.
Nate Mann acknowledges the obvious: Nurkic and Collins will likely see a minutes restriction. However, he does think both return to the starting lineup, if they’re healthy enough to play. So, what does that mean for the rest of the starting five, and specifically Trevor Ariza, Anthony and Whiteside? And, how does the return of Nurk and Collins affect the overall rotation?
Mann argues Portland should go with Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Ariza, Collins and Nurkic. However, he breaks it down like this, “moving Whiteside is obvious” but “choosing between Ariza and Anthony is less obvious.” He refers to the pick and roll relationship that is so special between Dame and Nurk. Mann is hopeful a “consistent 20+ minutes per game off the bench won’t become a point of contention with Whiteside,” and I hope he’s right too because you don’t need unhappy campers in a bubble and such a small time to move into the playoffs.
Mann’s choice of Ariza makes the most sense to me too. He says Ariza fits the role better as starter because “he doesn’t require isolation or post touches like Anthony” which allows Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic to keep the ball in their hands.
For Melo, playing with the bench unit “benefits him too,” Mann says. “He provides guidance to the younger players and can create his own shot, which is frequently needed considering the reserve unit’s lack of ball movement.” He’s absolutely right. Anthony could split possessions with Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent, Jr. as the point player, but also it allows him to be a focal point in the offense even if it’s not as a starter.
Mann admits the Nurk-Collins return makes things toughest for Nassir Little, Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan to stay in the Blazer rotation. Last year, Terry Stotts used a nine-man rotation in the playoffs so he expects the lineup–for Portland’s eight-game dash to (hopefully) the play-in tournament–to be, starters: Lillard, McCollum, Ariza, Collins, Nurkic and bench players: Anthony, Simons, Trent Jr. and Whiteside.
Zach Harper – The Athletic
The Athletic’s NBA Power Rankings for the “return of the NBA season” plants Portland at No. 15 out of the all 30 teams, not just the 22 heading for Orlando. Zach Harper lays out a few things for each team’s fans to latch onto before the season returns: an advantage, any lingering concern(s), injury updates, and a team’s difficulty reaching the playoffs.
For the Blazers, Harper says the Blazers “advantage coming out of suspension” of NBA play is “they have Damian Lillard.” Hard to argue there. The lingering concern? Obvious, “we don’t know how useful the frontcourt can be,” and we don’t just because we’re not sure how quickly Nurkic and Collins can return to high-level performance. We’ve gone over the injury updates in previous sections.
Harper closes with “how difficult is it to make the playoffs” for the Blazers? Minus Rodney Hood, “this Blazers team is very healthy for the first time all season.” He’s also not a fan of Hassan Whiteside: “They don’t have to play Hassan Whiteside as much anymore,” and Harper admits Portland “looked a lot better this season with Collins at the 4.” Finally, “Lillard should have the advantage over most matchups, and he’s the biggest star” of the teams fighting for the No. 8 seed. “I love their chances,” Harper said.
The Blazer big man spoke to The Athletic and he had plenty to say.
“I know all our players are excited that we have the opportunity to make some noise and come back healthier than we were.”
“I know me and Nurk from an individual standpoint are excited to play again and get back out there with the team. I think with everything the team went through this season, and with how many guys had to step up, it made us lot stronger and those players stronger. So when we come back — I’m not going to say we are totally healthy because Rodney (Hood) is still out — but we are going to be damn close to full strength. That’s just going to make us that much better when come back. And with everybody having that layoff, it will give me and Nurk breathing room, because everybody will be rusty.”
“I haven’t been officially cleared, but in talking to trainers about how I feel and what I’m able to do, everybody is on same page that I should be able to do everything with no issues.”
“I think we are just going to be better. I don’t know if I want to say the most improved, but we didn’t have two guys, and now we will be back, and that’s going to help us a lot. But I still think with all the struggles we went through, the losing, it’s just made us stronger.”
“Excited. Finally we are hearing something that is actually set in stone, instead of being in that space of not knowing what is happening and hearing stuff second-hand. We all talked about how we needed to stay ready and be ready for anything, and I think the team was on the same page as far as getting us what we needed to be in as good as shape as anybody. I think we will be ready.”
Former NBA Players
Fourteen-year NBA veteran and now the Washington’s Wizards color commentator Drew Gooden appeared on Lunch Talk Live with Mike Tirico and he believes the two No. 9 seeds have it the toughest. “The Wizards and Portland [Trail Blazers] have it tough because of having to stay in shape. The uncertainty of the outcome of the regular season. As a player you can have three mindsets: in the playoffs on the cusp of the playoffs or out of the playoffs. That’s how you have to take on and train and prepare for these games.”
But honestly, after hearing what Collins said in the last section, I feel pretty good about the Blazers staying in shape.
Also, former Blazer Channing Frye put it plainly: “I don’t think the Lakers, Clippers… want to see the Blazers especially not in the first round.” He’s absolutely right. Even without Nurkic and Collins, Portland beat the Lakers in their last battle in LA.