2019 Playoff Preview: Portland Trail Blazers
It was another strong season in the Pacific Northwest. For the sixth consecutive year, the Trail Blazers will be playing postseason basketball, locking themselves into the third seed for the second year in a row and boosting their win total to 53 -- their highest since this playoff streak started in 2013-4.
Somehow they enter the second season on both a high and a low note, however. Since the calendar turned to March, Portland has gone 15-6 to close out the season, despite missing their second best player - CJ McCollum - for almost a dozen of those games. To add injury to injury, starting center (and third best player) Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in catastrophic fashion and was lost for the season with ten games to go.
As a team, Portland is winning, but McCollum hasn’t shown his top form in the two games he’s been back, and losing Nurkic in the midst of his best season to date looked like a death knell. To their credit, the Blazers didn’t let the loss of Nurkic derail them, winning seven of their last nine to catapult up to the third slot. We’ll all soon see what they do with it.
When healthy, the Portland backcourt is as good and dynamic as you’ll see in the league. Both Lillard and McCollum can be the focal point of the offense, so you’ll rarely see a Portland lineup that doesn’t feature one of the two driving the action. They both hit threes, and they both hit free throws. If you’re down to the Blazers in the closing minutes, good luck -- fouling either and hoping to make up ground is a fool’s errand as they hit 91% and 83% from the line.
Biggest Weakness: This defense is dicey. Nurkic was by far their best defender, and even when he was healthy, the defense wasn’t very good. Portland finished the season 16th in adjusted defensive rating - fourth worst of the playoff teams - and now they’ll head to the playoffs missing their leader in rebounds, blocks, defensive win shares, and defensive real plus-minus. Ouch.
Can Enes Kanter hold down the paint? The West is loaded when it comes to the pivot, with Steven Adams the foe in Round 1, either Nikola Jokic or LaMarcus Aldridge in Round 2, and one of DeMarcus Cousins, Clint Capela, or Rudy Gobert in the Western Conference Finals. Kanter has provided a reasonable facsimile of Nurkic on offense, putting up 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds in his post-Nurkic starting role to end the season. But in the playoffs, where teams attack weaknesses over the course of a seven-game series, bigs get switched onto guards and it can get ugly. Portland can’t survive if they have a hole in the middle.
Players to Watch: Zach Collins could be the solution to the Blazers’ center position if Kanter can’t solve the problem. Collins is younger and far more mobile; he was drafted with dreams of becoming a stretch-five. If he can stay in front of the smaller, quicker players, and lure the opposing big out to the perimeter with the threat of his three-point shooting, Collins has the chance to both provide support on defense, and open up new lanes for his talented guards.
The Blazers and the Thunder match strengths and weaknesses: Portland has the third-best offense, OKC has the third-best defense; OKC has the 17th-best offense, Portland has the 16th-best defense -- it’s uncanny. And while all four of the games they’ve played this season have been close, Oklahoma City has won all four. If Portland prevails, they’re likely to run into a Denver team they only took a single game from this season as well. The past is not necessarily prologue, but that’s not quite the matchup history you’d like to see as a Blazer fan.
It depends on Game 1. If Portland loses, it will be their sixth straight home playoff loss, dating back to the 2015-16 season, and the third straight as the favored team. A loss would be truly deflating -- probably impossible to come back from. If they win, even if they lose Game 2, they’d stand a chance of making it out of the first round.
The West is so closely bunched - a final game comeback by these Thunder over the Rockets dropped the latter from the 2-seed all the way down to the 4-seed. I don’t see the West going chalk, and the Blazers are the likeliest upset victim. The Blazers will be watching the Western Conference Semifinals from home.