The Blazers have been something of an enigma the last few seasons. After underachieving for much of last year, the team picked up Jusuf Nurkic and became a juggernaut to close out the regular season. Their reward? The eighth seed and a prompt first round 4-0 exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Going into this season there was uncertainty over the identity of this Blazers team. Would they be the formidable team that found form to win the 8th seed or the also-rans, destined to lose in their first round matchup? Mike Miller addressed this uncertainty in his pre-season preview with his downstated expectation that the Blazers would be scrapping for the 8th seed. Behind stellar campaigns from the Blazers’ two stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers have actually far exceeded these expectations, finishing third to lead the pack chasing Golden State and Houston.
The major strength of this team is a starting backcourt that compares well to almost any other guard combination in the league. With both Lillard and McCollum truly multifaceted threats on the offensive end, trying to contain their scoring is easier said than done. Portland also rebounds well as a team, finishing the season fourth in overall rebounding percentage. What has been surprising to many, and what has likely been the difference this season compared to last, is that Portland have finished in the top ten in defensive efficiency. This team has made a concerted effort to stop other teams from scoring and it’s showed. In terms of potential matchups with the two Western favourites (Golden State and Houston) – it’s notable that Portland has done well in limiting both opponent three point attempts and points in the paint. Portland’s role players have also been strong as a unit, with big contributions coming from the likes of Evan Turner, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, Shabazz Napier and Mo Harkless, at various points in the season.
The Blazers finished the season averaging the fewest assists of any team in the NBA, which I put down to a combination of offensive system and reliance on their star guards to create individually. Entering the playoffs, where teams have more time to game plan for specific opponents, my fear for the Blazers is that they may struggle to create easy baskets. Combined with a poor record when it comes to forcing turnovers, the Blazers could become involved in some real back and forth nail-biters. Through force of will they have been strong defensively across many categories this year, but they have scored the fewest points off turnovers in the NBA so far and will likely struggle to create the kind of game-breaking runs that can blow open or change the course of a series.
The Blazers have proven themselves this season and exceeded most people’s expectations. The Western Conference has been incredibly competitive all year, with only the Rockets and Warriors having pulled away from the pack. Portland has done incredibly well to emerge as the leaders of this chasing group, ahead of teams with far loftier expectations. With a vastly improved defensive record and having home court advantage, the Blazers will be confident of their chances of getting through the first round. With the genuine offensive firepower that Lillard and McCollum bring and a supporting cast that has stepped up, the Blazers will feel confident matching up with almost anyone. In terms of regular season performances against the Western conference favourites; Portland went 2-1 against Golden State (despite incredible performances from Kevin Durant), but they struggled against the Rockets however, going 0-4 and potentially revealing their favoured eventual matchup were they to reach the latter stages of the playoffs.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER?
Damian Lillard has consistently vocalised his discontent at being overlooked in discussions of the league’s elite players. A truly elite shooter, with range that exceeds pretty much anyone not named ‘Steph Curry’, Dame is as difficult a cover at the point guard spot as almost anyone in the NBA. Having proven his leadership this year too, timing his shot creation and knowing when to let his teammates shine, Lillard will be looking to make sure that all NBA fans are setting their watches to ‘Dame Time’ come the playoffs.
THE ONE TO WATCH?
The Blazers best runs always seem to correlate with the play of Jusuf Nurkic. If the Bosnian Beast can consistently provide the kind of inside force that balances out the contributions from Portland’s backcourt then the Blazers need to be taken seriously. Nurkic has played a significant role in the team’s rebounding and ability to limit points in the paint. At 23, Nurkic has the feeling that he still has something to prove in the NBA and a big playoff campaign could do just that.
Written by Nick Whitfield – Copyright © 2018 Double Clutch. Double Clutch is not affiliated with the NBA and does not claim ownership over any NBA audio or images used. All rights are those of the NBA/NBA UK and respected parties e.g. Getty images.