The Blazers played their most encouraging game of the year, to date, last Wednesday; beating the Boston Celtics 97-92. Looking at the box score, it seems like a typical Blazers game - Damian Lillard scores more than 30, and the Blazers get a win. But that game was a microcosm of what’s been happening with this team more and more of late, that the team is finding different ways to win each night.
In that Boston game, yes, Lillard had 33. But he took 28 shots to get there. The Blazers as whole were struggling from the field, especially from the 3-point line - shooting 18 percent from beyond the arc. On a night like that, it’s typical to say “shots just didn’t fall, we’ll get them next time.”
But something funny happened in the fourth quarter while the Celtics were making their inevitable late game push. Jusuf Nurkic entered the game with just over seven minutes remaining, and the Blazers proceeded to use him to play bully-down the stretch. Nurkic scored eight points in the next four-plus minutes (with two huge blocked shots) and the Blazers got out of there with the road win.
Winning on the road is tough. But the Portland Trail Blazers have won five of their first six games on this Eastern Conference road trip in a variety of ways that fans haven’t seen a lot of over the last few seasons.
Everyone has seen Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum take over a game. It’s thrilling when it happens, but it’s always felt like a deadly pair of bullets in an otherwise empty chamber. If one or both of them struggle, Portland could be in for a long night. But, with fewer than 20 games remaining in the regular season, the team has found multiple ways to win; starting with Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurk, for his part, has shown flashes of being able to take over since arriving in Portland. This season has seen not only more consistent play from Nurk, but a seeming willingness for the playmakers to find him in the post. Earlier in the season, Nurkic would be rolling, and you’d see the team go away from him. But the team appears to recognize his ability to wreak havoc on opposing centers. It’s not always pretty, but Nurkic excels at drawing fouls down low and opening the floor up for the rest of the team.
Of course, if it’s pretty post-play the team wants, Enes Kanter fits the bill. Since joining the Blazers during the All-Star break, Kanter is averaging 11 points and more than seven rebounds per game in fewer than 20 minutes. His offensive rebounding off the bench has been huge; Portland has lacked a reserve big that could crash the offensive glass like that since Ed Davis’ departure last summer.
With Kanter’s addition, there is some concern about the Blazers being able to match up with smaller teams. But it looks like Portland is turning that into an advantage, saying “smaller teams can’t match up with us.” And it’s working, for at least the time being.
But it’s not just down low that the Blazers are finding success. The team is finally getting key contributions from the wing. Jake Layman may no longer be going supernova, but he’s still providing spark off the bench and using his energy to close games. Rodney Hood, after a five game stretch where he shot only 7/33 from the floor, erupted for 27 second half points to hold off the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday morning. And Moe Harkless, the target of frustration by many fans, has played improved basketball since the break, averaging more than 11 points and seven rebounds a night. He’s also had incredibly active hands on defense, snagging nearly 2-and-a-half steals per game in that time frame.
I’m still not sure if it’s enough to get out of the first round, but the way the Blazers are playing down the stretch is enough to give fans a reasonable expectation that they can make the adjustments that were sorely lacking in previous playoff series. Maybe it will be enough, maybe it won’t, but it’s clear that the Blazers are playing their best basketball right when they need it most.