The Portland Trail Blazers are red-hot and rolling. They have rolled through the second half of the season, clinched a spot in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, and maintain the inside track on the 3-seed in the Western Conference. While it may seem like nothing has come easy for Portland this season, they actually have been fairly fortunate in the injury department.
The Blazers have had their share of issues this season, sure. But they have been mostly internal and avoidable. Whether it was playing down to bad teams early in the year or Maurice Harkless complaining about his role, these are the types of problems that teams should be able to iron out. And fortunately for Portland, they seem to have done so for the most part.
But now, as the season winds down and teams are gearing up for the playoffs, this group is facing its first real test. The injuries to Harkless and Ed Davis are unfortunate for a team that was clicking so well. Harkless had found his groove as a 3-and-D forward; versatile enough to guard both forward spots, while keeping defenses honest on the other end. Davis, a fan favorite, has had a stellar season, setting the tone for the Blazers bench with his rebounding and energy. Davis and rookie Zach Collins have formed a solid two-man bench duo in the second half; each player complementing the others strengths while covering their weaknesses.
All Portland can do now is say “next man up.” That’s the right approach in these situations. Other teams aren’t going to feel sorry for you, so you can’t feel sorry for yourself. The Blazers certainly didn’t take pity on all of their opponents that were missing key players this year. But Terry Stotts, after settling on a rotation that was humming along, is going to have to make some tweaks on the fly. Evan Turner, after finding his niche with the bench unit, and only playing with one of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum at a time, is starting. Collins will likely see his minutes increase. Rookie Caleb Swanigan, in the G-League not that long ago, will likely see some time.
The fact that Harkless’ and Davis’ injuries are not serious is fortunate. Both players should, barring setback, be back by midway through the first round of the playoffs. But this team hasn’t had to face this situation all season. The following 10 days will show a lot about what this team is made up of. Will they finish strong, or will they stumble into the playoffs, still with home court advantage, but not feeling as good about their prospects as they could be?
It’s possible that they struggle, but at this point I’m not betting against Portland. Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard have the rest of the team bought in. While roles will be less certain, the players still know what they’re supposed to be doing. Evan Turner has locked in more. Jusuf Nurkic is playing serious defense while taking more efficient shots. Those things aren’t likely going to go away due to a couple of injuries.
If this team faces the challenge and fights through it head on, heading into the playoffs with momentum as the de-facto third best team in the West, there’s a very real possibility that this could be a turning point that we look back on a year from now. The young Blazers are still learning to fight through adversity. How they get through the next two weeks could help shape the further growth of this team.