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Blazers’ Bench Remains So-So Even With Playoffs Looming

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If the Blazers want to make noise in the playoffs, having a dependable bench would help the backcourt in every way imaginable.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers bench is not something to call “prolific.” Portland is ranked No. 26 in bench scoring this season with 27.8 points per game. This doesn’t kill them, as they live and die by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But if one of those two has an off night, the Blazers are not in good shape. That’s when the bench is needed most.

Yet, the Blazers are No. 3 in the Western Conference and have the fifth-best record in the NBA. So does bench play really matter? In the regular season, maybe not so much. But it has helped win games. And against other playoff teams, it might make a difference.

Bench Steps up During the Streak

We saw the bench step up three different times during Portland’s 13-game winning streak:

Feb. 27 vs. Sacramento Kings (39 bench points)
Mar. 3 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (31 bench points)
Mar. 9 vs. Golden State Warriors (47 bench points)

Against the Kings, CJ McCollum shot 5-18 from the field, 0-5 from three, with only 11 points on the night. But Shabazz Napier caught fire for the night, pouring in 20 points with 6-7 shooting from the field, 4-5 shooting from 3-point land. Blazers win 116-99.

Against the Thunder, Jusuf Nurkic and Al-Farouq Aminu combined to go 5-18 from the field for 12 points. But not to worry, as Zach Collins and Ed Davis provided frontcourt support (20 combined points), and Napier and Pat Connaughton chipped in to back up the backcourt (13 combined points). Blazers win 108-100.

Against the Warriors, a total team effort culminated in a win. Nurkic, Aminu and Moe Harkless weren’t stellar (20 combined points) but the bench, which included four (!!) double-digit scorers, made up for the starters’ lack of punch. Blazers win 125-108.

Bench Falls Flat Post-Streak

Portland’s bench play helped them get their win streak to 13 games in the first place, but it also failed them as they tried to extend. Three post-streak games showcase the weak bench:

Mar. 20 vs. Houston Rockets (23 bench points)
Mar. 23 vs. Boston Celtics (13 bench points)
Mar. 25 at Oklahoma City Thunder (8 bench points)

Evan Turner was the highest bench scorer against Houston with 10 points, but it also took him 10 shots to get there — the next-highest bench scorer, Zach Collins, had four points. Meanwhile Houston’s two main bench scorers, Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute, easily topped the Blazers’ bench alone (31 combined points). Blazers lose 115-111.

Shabazz Napier ended up missing the Celtics game, opening up a chance for Connaughton or Turner to provide bench support … they combined for nine points. Half of Boston’s bench was starting for the injured Celtics, and their remaining bench still outscored Portland’s. Blazers lose 105-100.

If the Warriors game was a team effort in winning, the Thunder game swung the opposite way. Four bench players had two points each (the fifth had zero). The offense totally depended on Lillard and McCollum (58 combined points). Jerami Grant and Ray Felton (28 combined points) kept OKC in the game despite Carmelo Anthony’s collapse. Blazers win 108-105.

Do You Trust the Bench?

The question of the Blazers’ bench comes down to trust. Do you really trust them in the playoffs? Lillard and McCollum will get theirs — well, hopefully, for Portland’s sake — but they’re not enough to win the game on their own.

It comes down to Napier/Connaughton/Turner/Davis/Collins to, at the very least, keep Portland in the game. Playoff rotations are known to shorten, and it’s highly unlikely five bench players will see the court every game. But should that give calm, or evoke anxiety?

Western Conference opponents have weapons to bring off the bench: Houston can throw Eric Gordon or Luc Mbah a Moute out there with the starters; Golden State hordes wings like Andre Igoudala and Nick Young on its bench; Oklahoma City can turn to Jerami Grant and Ray Felton.

Portland doesn’t know who will step up on its bench any given night. And the offense is often better served with the starters, lacking a seamless transition between starters and bench.

When teams adjust their defenses in the playoffs to hound Lillard and McCollum, and they certainly will, Portland needs someone on the bench to divert attention and open things up — but who will that be?