• Nick Boylan

Portland’s Form Swings Rise and Fall With the Supporting Cast

With a strong start to the season, a 12-5 record and a place atop the Western Conference on November 20, the Portland Trail Blazers had looked like they had turned the corner.

With a new supporting cast ably assisting Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, hopes were high for the Blazers after getting swept by New Orleans in the first round of last year’s Western Conference playoffs.

New signings Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas added some more scoring and shooting to Portland’s bench unit, while sophomore Zach Collins was expected to improve, and Evan Turner would continue to provide a steady hand in the second unit.

Courtesy of Geoffrey Arnold of The Oregonian

After such a hot start, Portland started to struggle, going 3-8 until getting successive wins and going 6-4 over their last ten games, to leave them 19-14, somewhat righting the ship.

Lillard and McCollum have continued to fill it up, averaging 27.3 and 21.9 points per game, and are relied on heavily to ensure wins for the Blazers.

This has and is consistently amplified with the struggles of the supporting cast off the bench, prior to the Blazers’ recent good form, and after the hot start in October.

Portland’s bench started the season averaging 40.1 points through their first 13 games this season, good for 9th in the league, and then followed that up with 28.2 over the next 15 games, second-last in the category.

In Portland’s recent upswing, the supporting cast have been instrumental to securing wins, particularly against Toronto and Memphis. In a 128-122 win over the Raptors, four bench players scored in double figures for the Blazers:

  • Evan Turner- 12 points

  • Zach Collins- 16 points

  • Nik Stauskas- 13 points

  • Seth Curry- 13 points (season-best)

Getting a win of such magnitude against the NBA’s best team was key to turning Portland’s momentum around.

“It was good to see everybody get back into a rhythm, and just finally have fun for once,” Collins said.

Coach Terry Stotts agreed with the bench improvement, saying “The whole bench-let’s face it, they’ve struggled, I thought all five of those guys played with a little bit of confidence, a little bit of emotion. That was good.”

In the 99-92 win over the Grizzlies, Portland’s bench contributed 42 in the close win, with Meyers Leonard and Collins leading the way with 12 and 10 points respectively.

With the bench beginning to trend upwards once again, it has showed off the Blazers’ inconsistencies and reliability on a fluctuating bench unit.

While Lillard and to a lesser extent McCollum have been reliable and Jusuf Nurkic has chipped in 14.3 points and 10 rebounds per game, the recently returned Maurice Harkless is just as important as consistent bench production.

Coming back from a knee injury from which he missed 12 games, Harkless had initially struggled to find his role again in the starting line-up, going 27.8% from the field in his 5 games in November.

In December that has changed, with Harkless’ shooting percentage jumping up to 57.4% from the field, and importantly 50% from three-point territory.

He’s also been looking more energetic as he’s acclimatised back from his injury, playing more confidently and dunking with authority like this put back effort against the Raptors.

Having the 3-and-D wing version of Harkless is vital to Portland’s success, particularly as Al-Farouq Aminu has struggled shooting the ball this season, at only 35% from three.

Whether it’s Harkless in the starting line-up or the collective streaky talent that lies on Portland’s bench, Lillard and McCollum need all the support their teammates are able to provide.

Otherwise, GM Neil Oshley may be looking to make moves at the trade deadline to keep the Blazers afloat in the hotly contested Western Conference.

Stats accurate as of 12-25-18*

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