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The Portland Trail Blazers 2018-19 Season in Retrospect: Holiday Highs and Lows

Part two of a series remembering how a 53-win playoffs team gelled in the crucible of the regular season.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2018-19 regular season included 53 wins, a third seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs bracket, a devastating injury, a couple roster moves, and a whole lot of action. Before Portland takes on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs, we’re look back on the season that got them here.

Part one of the series can be found here. Installment number two examines the swings of fortune surrounding the holiday season, a time of ups and downs for the Blazers.

Not-So-Thankful Thanksgiving

Moe Harkless returned to the court on November 21 to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the penultimate game of a long road trip. Milwaukee won by 43 points. Yes, 43 points.

The embarrassing loss plunged the Blazers into a spiral. They lost seven of their next 10 and for the first time in the Damian Lillard era, the team looked like they didn’t enjoy playing together. Those who expected a roster breakup following the 2018 NBA Playoffs sweep started ringing that bell again, only louder this time.

The one bright spot of the losing streak came in a win over Orlando; Lillard set another franchise record against them: 10 three-pointers in a game. Terry Stotts also reached 400 career coaching wins that night.

Portland finally recovered with three straight wins over respectable teams: the Toronto Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. Players up and down the roster started contributing and the old flow of the offense returned.

There to ruin the comeback were the Utah Jazz, which defeated the Blazers twice in four days by a margin of 25.5 points. Portland almost dropped a game to the Dallas Mavericks between the two blowouts when Luka Doncic hit an insane game-tying three to send it to overtime.

The Blazers needed a game versus the Suns or Knicks to snap out of their funk, but instead they faced Golden State on a home-and-home next.

The first matchup was Portland’s last visit to Oracle Arena. Lillard wouldn’t under-perform in the final game in his hometown. In overtime, he hit a heavily contested three on a broken play to put the Blazers ahead by one with a few seconds remaining. Kevin Durant missed a midrange jumper, a shot he makes nine times out of 10, as the clock struck zero for a Blazers win.

Like most home-and-homes go, the Warriors stole the second game.

New Year, New Nurkic and Layman

Entering 2019, the Blazers needed to restore their identity, recapturing the winning streak at the start of the season. On New Year’s Day, Nurkic decided to do so on his own. Against the Sacramento Kings, the big man recorded a 20-point, 20-rebound 5x5, the first in NBA history. Portland won in overtime thanks to Nurkic’s historical night.

The gaudy stat line symbolized his impressive improvement from the previous season. His passing, dynamic pick-and-roll offense, interior defense and scoring could be relied on nightly.

In a rematch with the Kings two weeks later (which Portland lost), a hard Nurkic screen encouraged Iman Shumpert to try and access the Blazers locker room post-game. Each player subtly insulted one another through individual interviews, but team security prevented any confrontation.

A concurrent five game homestand against mostly Eastern Conference bottom feeders helped jolt the team back into gear as well. Then began the Jake Layman show.

The third-year wing earned an extra dosage of minutes as 2019 kicked off, but he finally started hitting shots in the loss to Denver on January 13. The confidence peaked when Layman scored 20 points in the second quarter alone against the New Orleans Pelicans behind torrid outside shooting. His thrilling alley-oops, energetic defense and three-point shooting sparked a debate of who should start between him and Harkless. Ultimately, Harkless kept the starting spot despite a streak of underwhelming performances in the shadow of Layman.

During Layman’s takeover, the Blazers cleaned the floor with consecutive weaker opponents. The momentum from defeating these teams pushed Portland to a long-awaited revenge victory over Utah.

The Blazers then lost to the Thunder for the second time. In the loss, Lillard and Westbrook shared some words, including Westbrook claiming he’s had Lillard’s number his whole career, a factually incorrect statement.

In that ten-day span, both McCollum and Nurkic recorded triple-doubles, the franchise’s first since Nicolas Batum notched one in January of 2014.

Next: Little acquisitions turn big.