Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum seemingly avoided a major injury when it was announced on Sunday that he suffered a popliteus strain. McCollum likely avoids the multi-month recovery time fans were all dreading when he was clutching his knee under the basket at AT&T Center and will be evaluated in a week’s time.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that he’ll definitively be back in a week, and the Blazers are chasing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in the meantime. As injuries go, this is terribly unfortunate timing for your second-leading scorer to go down.
There is little precedent for the injury in the NBA. Kevin Garnett suffered the same injury in March of 2009 and was ultimately unable to play in the playoffs that season. (Boston played 14 playoff games that year, being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals by the Orlando Magic on May 17).
Hopefully McCollum’s strain isn’t as severe as Garnett’s, but even if he only misses two weeks, the Blazers play six games in that time-frame. As of today, the Blazers have a precarious half-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder for 4th place (and home-court advantage in the first round) in the Western Conference. Nearly as importantly, Portland is only one game behind the Houston Rockets for 3rd place, which allows them to dodge the Golden State Warriors in the second round, should they advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The good news for the Blazers? The schedule isn’t too terribly difficult over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Portland Takes on the Pacers at home Monday night, and then faces the Mavericks, Pistons (2x), Nets, Bulls, Hawks, Timberwolves, and Grizzlies. Indiana is still a tough team, despite losing All-NBA guard Victor Oladipo for the season. The eight games after that feature teams with a combined .414 winning percentage. Only the Pistons and Nets are above .500, and barely at that.
Despite the ease of upcoming schedule, Head Coach Terry Stotts will have his work cut out for him in CJ’s absence. But he has to be breathing a sigh of relief that President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey acquired Rodney Hood at the trade deadline. Hood has started more than 72 percent of the games he’s played in since entering the NBA and, though he’s not the scorer McCollum is, he’s adept at getting his own shot. He hasn’t necessarily shown it consistently in a Blazers uniform, but this is his chance to step up. Hopefully it goes better than the last time Olshey acquired a guard at the deadline before the Blazers lost their starting shooting guard.
The pressure won’t fall squarely on Hood, either. The minutes drain that comes with McCollum’s exit will bleed down to players such as Seth Curry, Jake Layman, and even Evan Turner. While Curry has increased his scoring despite a dip in his shooting, Layman has cooled considerably of late, averaging 5.9 points and only reaching double-figures in scoring once in the last month. Assuming Hood will get the start at shooting guard over Curry, Layman figures to have his minutes see a bump again, similar to when Harkless was consistently out of the lineup.
I get the sense that Blazer fans “like” Curry, Hood, and Layman. But do you trust these guys to collectively fill the void of a 20 point per game scorer? It’s possible. All three players are streaky, and Stotts needs one of them to get on a hot-streak ASAP.
Speculation has the Blazers as a “get out of the first-round or bust” team this year. They’ve lost 10 straight playoff games, and have kept their core largely intact throughout the postseason drought. This season, they made a pair of solid February moves in order to give themselves a chance to advance. While McCollum could be back in a week or 10 days, making this just a blip on the radar in the narrative of the season, there’s a chance that this injury could impact the future of the team. If McCollum misses the playoffs like Garnett did, it could lead to the changes that we’ve heard whispered about. It could also be the perfect reason to call a mulligan, and get the band back together for one more year next season.
Here’s hoping we don’t have to find out. Get well soon, CJ.