The curse of the Portland Trail Blazers strikes again. It seems like every time the Blazers find their "big man of the future", that player goes down with a lower body injury. On Friday the Blazers newest acquisition and biggest contributor, Jusuf Nurkic, became the latest Blazer afflicted with the curse. It was diagnosed as a non-displaced fibular fracture in his right leg, and that single sentence set Blazers twitter on fire.
While the Blazers essentially have a 3-game lead over the Denver Nuggets for the wests final playoff seed, the Blazers have to finish the season off strong without their starting center in order to have a chance to get Nurkic back for the playoffs.
Removing 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds a game from a team is not good, and replacing that with a combined total of 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game is a recipe for disaster, but that is what the Blazers will have to try and do by inserting Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard into the lineup at center.
Taking Nurkic out of the fold makes the remaining schedule, which looked easy initially with a starting-caliber center look very difficult. This remaining stretch definitely looms large over the Blazers chances of making the playoffs. Here are the remaining teams the Blazers have to play and what my prediction for the final stretch of the season will be.
Suns vs Blazers (4/1)
Today's game is the easiest remaining game of the season for the Blazers. The Suns are obviously trying to lose, but they will put up a tough fight and the Blazers cannot just go into autopilot and expect to win this game. The problem the Blazers will have in this game is having to guard Devin Booker. Booker just exploded for 70 points against the Boston Celtics and is always a huge threat to light up the scoreboard, especially against the Blazers defensive liability of Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum. I definitely expect this game to be a high-scoring affair, but one the Blazers will come out of. While Alan Williams may be able to get a double-double down low, the Blazers will be able to contain the Suns enough so that they can come out with the win.
Blazers vs Timberwolves (4/3 & 4/6)
The Blazers will have to play the Minnesota Timberwolves two times in a span of 3 days, both at home and on the road. While the Blazers handled the Timberwolves fairly easily last week at the Moda Center, these next two games are a whole new ballgame. For the first time in what seemed like two years the Blazers were able to corral Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves best player. Jusuf Nurkic played a huge role in that game and without his defensive presence, KAT can easily go off for 30 and 15 at least in each game against the likes of Vonleh and Leonard. With KAT going crazy, the Blazers will have to contain Ricky Rubio and the rest of the Timberwolves offense. If C.J can continue torching this Timberwolves team, they might have a shot at winning one of these games. While the Blazers can matchup and outgun the Timberwolves in almost every facet of the game, KAT will prove to be too much and lead the Wolves to victory in at least one of the games.
Blazers vs Jazz (4/4 & 4/8)
Here are the two games that the Blazers were predicted to have a hard time in, even with Nurkic. The Jazz are playing for home court advantage in their 4/5 matchup versus the Los Angeles Clippers. While the season series is tied at one a piece, winning a game against the best defensive team in the league requires a healthy lineup ready to lay it all on the line. With the Jazz not having to worry about the high PNR with Nurkic, they can play up and take away every option from C.J and Dame. These games could easily be Utah taking the ball out of the guards hands and forcing Moe Harkless and Aminu to hurt them. If they can hit down their shots, the Blazers might have a chance, but expect the backcourt to be very inefficient, especially with them having to drive at the best defensive center in the NBA, Rudy Gobert. In these low-scoring affairs, all the Jazz have to do is have a player like Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood get going and it is all over. With the Jazz still fighting for home court, I do not see how the Blazers can win one of these games without Jusuf Nurkic.
Blazers vs Spurs (4/10)
This is probably the most confusing regular season game left for the Blazers as far as rosters go. It looks like the Spurs are locked into the second seed and knowing Pop the Spurs will rest their starters. The Blazers have lost to the Spurs JV squad before, but if the Spurs play that lineup this time, the Blazers will take it to them. Damian will have a huge game against Patty Mills, and Vonleh will take it to Pau Gasol. The Spurs couldn't care less about the outcome of this game, but obviously the Blazers will with a playoff spot hanging in the balance. While this game may be a little close at times, I expect the Blazers to pull this off behind the stellar play of Damian Lillard.
Blazers vs Pelicans (4/12)
This might be the most dangerous of the remaining games for the Blazers. A few weeks ago, the Blazers got punked in New Orleans in what was probably their worse loss of the season. By this point, who know if the Blazers will be locked into the playoffs or holding on for dear life. If their postseason fate is hanging in the balance at this point, I can envision Dame going full Russell Westbrook and have a crazy high usage rate. Dame will do everything he can to make sure the Blazers get the win, even if that means taking over 40% of the shots. With Leonard matched up with Boogie and Vonleh with Anthony Davis, you can expect the Pelicans front court to score over 70% of their points with a variety of post moves, dunks, and put-backs. If this game holds any value to the Blazers you can expect Dame to lead his team to a victory, even if they have to score over 110 points to do it.
With only 7 games left against 5 teams, the Blazers find themselves in a difficult situation. Both Leonard and Vonleh have a habit of picking up early fouls, and they can't do this if the Blazers want to have any chance of winning. I believe that if the Blazers play consistently on offense and somewhat below-average on defense, they can win 4 games, and with a 3 game lead over the Nuggets already, that might be enough to stay afloat and get into the playoffs givingNurkic just enough time to recover for a difficult series against the Golden State Warriors.