The Trail Blazers are going to have to get crafty with their crunch-time rotations as the NBA Playoffs approach and they are facing injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Outside of the normal postseason minutes reduction, coach Terry Stotts is tasked with compiling a cast of capable players worthy of closing out tightly contested games. Damian Lillard stands as a bastion of elite production in the clutch, but who will join the Blazers’ star when the game is on the line?
Here is a look at each position and the options that Stotts will have when Portland attempts to close out games.
PG: Damian Lillard
This is the easiest choice of the bunch. Lillard is among the NBA’s best when it comes to production in the second half of games. The Blazers’ star is sandwiched between a pair of MVP hopefuls when it comes to point production in the final 24 minutes of action. Lillard’s 14.5-point average trails only James Harden’s unbelievable 17.4 and is narrowly in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 14.3. His production isn’t just a product of high usage. Lillard’s field goal percentage and three-point percentage both receive slight bumps in the final two quarters, while his turnover rate stays consistent with his first-half figures.
Of course, you don’t need numbers to support Lillard’s status as a reliable closer. Opposing team’s will do everything in their power to take Dame out of his rhythm, but that outcome is easier to draw up than it is to accomplish.
SG: CJ McCollum*
*if McCollum is fully recovered from a popliteus strain
McCollum’s return looms over the Blazers’ already reduced postseason odds. If the former Lehigh star returns to form for the playoffs, you can expect he will be ready to shoulder a portion of the load in crunch time. Thanks to a 23-point fourth quarter against the Clippers, McCollum owns a slight edge over Lillard when it comes to scoring in the fourth quarter. McCollum’s three-point shooting has underwent notable lulls this season, but that hasn’t hindered his efficiency from distance when the game is on the line. In the fourth quarter, CJ’s three-point percentage balloons to 46.5.
If McCollum isn’t ready for a first-round series, Seth Curry might be the best alternative in the backcourt. Matchups will dictate Curry’s placement, but it is tough to deny the extra spacing that Portland enjoys when he is on the floor.
The Hot Hand
SF: Rodney Hood | Jake Layman | Evan Turner
It is tough to pencil in a single player here, which is why I expect Stotts to rely on the game-to-game results to make a decision. Hood can create for himself on offense, and he is connecting on 55.9 percent of his fourth-quarter attempts after the All-Star break. Layman’s breakout season has cooled off, but he still provides size and streaky shooting on the perimeter. If Jake is hot, don’t be surprised if Stotts rides the wave. Turner’s placement is dictated by the need for additional ball handling. If Lillard is facing double teams every trip down the court, Turner could take the reins, allowing Dame to get free away from the ball.
Versatility, Yes Please.
PF: Maurice Harkless
C: Al-Farouq Aminu
The logic behind this tandem is simple: they give the Blazers the best chance of playing competent defense without Nurkic. Depending on the size that Portland is facing, this pairing might only see time in short bursts. Placing Aminu and Harkless on the frontlines allows the Blazers to defend off screens without having to rely on questionable or unproven contributors.
Seeing Aminu slotted for minutes at center is jarring, but Portland’s alternatives evoke the same feeling. Opposing coaches would welcome any opportunity to test Enes Kanter in the final moments, while Zach Collins’ lack of consistent scoring could result in his defender sneaking off to help elsewhere.
Collins is the wildcard here. On paper, he has the skills to be effective on both ends of the court. Can he avoid cold streaks and foul trouble long enough to remain on the court? That will be the biggest question for Collins and Stotts in the coming weeks.