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Harkless, Nurkic Keys for Blazers Stretch Run

Portland has a tough road ahead. Two variables could make the difference between a good seed and purgatory.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA regular season has entered late February and, as is their tradition, the Portland Trail Blazers seem to be picking up steam as they approach final quarter pole. After finding themselves at 22-21 on January 15th, the Blazers have gone 12-5 since, managing to stay in the thick of a tight Western Conference playoff race. They currently sit in fifth place at 34-26; two and a half games out of third place, three games ahead of 10th.

Here we go again.

Damian Lillard’s play is the big reason why Portland is surging. Lillard has raised his play to dizzying new heights; over his last five games, Lillard has scored 197 points. There’s no denying that he is ascending into true, elite company.

But no matter how much Lillard gives on the court - and make no mistake, he’s giving everything he’s got - he’s going to need help, because the team’s schedule toughens considerably from this point on. In fact, Portland has the sixth most difficult strength of schedule in the NBA going forward; third in the Western Conference behind San Antonio and the Clippers.

If the Blazers are to successfully navigate the playoff seeding gauntlet, fans will need to see more than explosive performances from Lillard. They’ll need to continue to see contributions from two of their most inconsistent players this season; Moe Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic.

The good news? Both have been playing well of late. Since Harkless saw a bump in his minutes against the Boston Celtics on February 4, Harkless is averaging 9 points with just under 4 rebounds in 28 minutes a night. Not numbers that jump off the page, and I (among others) believe he’s still capable of more, but he’s doing well of late.

Most importantly, Harkless been much more aggressive in looking for his own shot. He’s not iso-ing and breaking guys off the dribble; that’s never been his game. He’s shooting without hesitation when he has good looks, which makes a difference. That’s not the same Harkless that we saw earlier this year when he looked completely disengaged on the court, provided he actually got in to a game.

As a result, Moe’s percentages have blossomed. He is hitting 54 percent from the field in the same time span (sustainable) and shooting a blistering 45 percent from beyond the arc (probably not so sustainable). He’s never going to be a high-volume guy, but he needs to be effective when teams key in on Portland’s Big Three. So far, so good.

The other major improvement has been Harkless’ defense. Moe is long, athletic, and - when engaged - a positive on the defensive end. Pretty much right when he started getting consistent court time, his defensive intensity ratcheted back up to what we saw in Portland’s stretch run a couple seasons ago. That’s probably not a coincidence, but the Blazers will take it just the same. Against the Utah Jazz last week, Harkless had six steals and a block and helped set the tone for what became the Blazers best defensive outing of the year.

Along with Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic - who at times has had his effort level questioned by fans and the media alike- is going to be key to stringing off wins against quality opponents.

Let’s look at that epic Blazers/Warriors game just before the All-Star Break. The major narrative of that game was Damian Lillard vs. Kevin Durant. Two stars going mano a mano on national TV. Durant dropped 50, but Lillard had 44 and, more importantly, came away with the win. Nurkic’s play in that game flew under the radar. After coach Terry Stotts went small for part of the third quarter, he reinserted Nurkic late. The center responded by imposing his will on the Warriors. It was reminiscent of last February’s vintage: 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 3 assists on 50 percent shooting. Nurkic played physically in that contest. We’ve all seen what he’s capable of when he decides he’s going to mix things up down low, and Blazer fans were treated to a glimpse when it mattered most. Even with Lillard’s masterful performance, the Blazers don’t win that game without Nurkic playing well.

A too-frequent unwillingness to go up strong, the foul trouble, and the maddening belief that he’s capable more have typified Nurkic’s season. Despite that, he has quietly turned around his rough start of late. Since that loss to Minnesota on January 15 - the one that saw them drop to 22-21 - Nurkic has averaged 13 points and nearly 10 rebounds a night on almost 52 percent shooting. That’s only one bucket and half a rebound less than he put up with Portland last season. Not to mention, his shooting percentage in the same period is actually a tick higher than it was during Nurk Fever. I’ve criticized the guy this season, but he needs credit for the way he’s played.

Both Nurkic and Harkless will need to keep it up. The Blazers have 22 games left. Among them are the Timberwolves, Thunder (twice), Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets (twice), Celtics, Pelicans, Spurs, Nuggets, and Jazz. No matter how long he maintains the amazing run that he’s on, Lillard won’t be able to do it alone every night against quality opponents. No one could. But if Harkless and Nurkic continue to play locked-in basketball, the Blazers just might surprise some folks headed into the playoffs.