With the No. 3 seed securely in hand, the Trail Blazers tip off their 2018 NBA Playoffs campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday. But don’t let their position fool you. Despite ranking among the West’s high seeds, this Portland team must put on a show to prove its mettle.
As Kevin Pelton asserts in ESPN’s playoff primer, winning a series wouldn’t be anything new for the Trail Blazers in the Lillard-McCollum era, and their level of postseason success can both alter and justify Portland’s future.
Per Pelton, center Jusuf Nurkic has the most to prove:
Although Nurkic’s offense hasn’t carried over on a consistent basis this season, his ability to protect the rim has anchored Portland’s defense. With restricted free agency looming, Nurkic can solidify his value by avoiding foul trouble and making good decisions with the ball on offense.
Nurkic played just 17 minutes in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, returning from a fibular fracture for one first-round game against the Warriors. He has the opportunity to showcase his defensive complement to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the national stage. All-Star forward Anthony Davis will test him, but New Orleans cannot be the only measure for success.
To justify the luxury-tax bill that re-signing Nurkic and backup center Ed Davis would likely require, Portland could use a couple wins in a matchup with one of the West’s powers.
Should the Trail Blazers win their first-round series, they will face the winner of the Warriors-Spurs series in the second round. Golden State swept the Trail Blazers in the playoffs last season, winning by a dizzying average of 18 points.
In order to call this postseason—and overall roster makeup entering Lillard’s prime—a success, Portland has to come out firing on all cylinders, beating the team they should and challenging the team they shouldn’t, depending on your perspective.
Head coach Terry Stotts has gotten more out of this roster than most expected from the early stages of what was supposed to be a rebuild. Somehow, and against the odds, Portland is positioned to reclaim their spot as a fringe contender or fall back to mediocrity. Wins and losses in the coming weeks will chart the franchise course for years to come.