The Trail Blazers’ march to the 2019 NBA Playoffs is nearly complete with just four regular season games remaining. High-profile injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have called into question Portland’s once-promising case as candidates to push Golden State for the top spot in the Western Conference. Despite notable setbacks, the Blazers secured 50 wins thanks to contributions from Damian Lillard and the remaining cast members. Of those players remaining, the much-maligned Maurice Harkless has once again crept into the spotlight.
Judging by Harkless’ play since the All-Star break, it appears that the former St. John’s standout is primed to make a mark on Portland’s postseason push. Harkless, a 6-foot-9 versatile wing, has garnered this type of praise before. But this time feels different, as Harkless has abandoned the fringe aspects of his play and focused on playing to his strengths.
As Jeff Siegel outlined on Thursday, the Blazers are tasked with replacing a Nurkic-sized hole in the interior. Enes Kanter has done an adequate job of creating second-chance opportunities and finishing at the rim, but the Turkish big man doesn’t hold a candle to Nurkic’s defensive presence. Luckily for Portland, Harkless’ opportunistic tendencies present a lifeline for coach Terry Stotts.
Harkless’ ball-hawking won’t bail out the Blazers’ defense completely, but it will help irritate opposing teams in the playoffs. Since the All-Star break, Harkless has recorded five multi-block and 11 multi-steal games. Outside of those solid outings, he has produced steady numbers. Harkless trails only Nurkic in blocks per game over that span and he leads the team in steals. His impact goes beyond the numbers. Along with stymieing transition opportunities, Harkless’ penchant for poking the ball away is crucial to Kanter’s ability to stay on the court.
Abandon the Outside
On offense, Harkless has narrowed the scope of his attempts. In the second half of the season, he has steadily reduced his outside attempts in favor of shots inside. Unsurprisingly, Harkless’ efficiency has increased at the same pace. In his last fifteen games, 68.9 percent of his shot attempts have come from within 10 feet of the basket. That rate is up nearly 10 percent over his numbers prior to the All-Star break. The results have been clear. Of the Blazers’ regular contributors, Harkless’ post-break field goal percentage trails only Nurkic and Kanter.
By moving inside more often, Harkless has transitioned into the safety valve role that Nurkic once comfortably operated from. Once the pressure of the playoffs arrives, Harkless must continue to find ways to get open and convert shots in the paint. The Blazers have already used this recipe successfully. In the 2016 NBA Playoffs, Harkless teamed with Mason Plumlee to help drive Portland’s offense. Against the Clippers, the former Magic forward recorded double-digit point totals in four straight games to close out the series. In two of those victories, Harkless made his impact without converting a single shot from distance.
Cause for Concern
Harkless’ significant drop in three-point shooting accuracy cannot be glossed over. After producing two consecutive seasons of percentages above 35, his average from beyond the arc plummeted to 27.2 in 2018-19. As mentioned earlier, Harkless has mitigated this decline by going inside. In the playoffs, opposing coaches force opponents into shots they aren’t comfortable with. If the Blazers’ first-round foe directs Harkless into outside attempts it could get ugly.
Along with outside shooting concerns, Harkless has yet to show he can consistently create off the dribble. This isn’t a problem for the Blazers in the regular season, but it is almost guaranteed that Lillard will face an abundance of pressure in the coming weeks. Over half of Harkless’ field goal attempts come from possessions where he doesn’t put the ball on the floor. Depending on the defensive scheme that Portland faces, Harkless could be forced to do more off the dribble.
What do you think? Headband or not, is Moe poised to make some noise in the playoffs?