The Portland Trail Blazers are still very much in their 2019 NBA Playoffs series against the Denver Nuggets. They’re down 3-2 and have looked a bit tired the past couple games, but Game 6 is in Portland, and the Blazers have been great at home in the playoffs. A win next game would mean Game 7, and in one game, anything can happen.
However, things are not looking great right now, and it starts with the Blazers’ most played lineups.
The Blazers rode their starting lineup hard in the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The unit of Damian Lillard – CJ McCollum – Mo Harkless – Al-Farouq Aminu – Enes Kanter played 102 minutes over 5 games, or just over 20 minutes per game, with no other lineup playing more than 9 minutes. That was ultimately a smart decision by Stotts, as that lineup had a Net Rating of 3.8, with a strong offense and “good enough” defense. The Blazers won the series in 5 games, and that lineup carried them from start to finish.
Unfortunately, that lineup has proved ineffective against the Nuggets. It’s been slightly worse defensively (which makes sense because the Nuggets are a much better offensive team than the Thunder), but has fallen off a cliff offensively, with an overall Net Rating of -13.4. Notably, they aren’t shooting the ball well at all (TS% of 49.4), and are turning the ball over at a far higher rate (14.6% to 9.7%). Interestingly, the pace that unit has played at has also dropped precipitously, playing only 94.8 possessions per game, which would be the lowest in the NBA this season. Basically, they’ve just been a disaster in all areas, not getting shots to drop or taking care of the basketball, all while not even getting a lot of possessions with which to do damage.
There have been calls to play Seth Curry and Rodney Hood more to generate increased offense, but lineups with them on the court have not fared better. The modified bench unit, with Hood, Curry, McCollum, Evan Turner, and Zach Collins, has done somewhat better in limited minutes, but mostly defensively. They, too, have been slowed to a crawl on offense, and are not shooting the ball efficiently, though they’re at least holding onto it. The third unit to play at least 25 minutes is the starting lineup but with Hood instead of Harkless, and that group has, somehow, been the worst offensively of them all.
Other lineups have played well for the Blazers, but all of them have such small sample sizes that it’s hard to take much away from them. And, really, the answers for the Blazers aren’t great. Hood has played well enough in this series, and is a better shooter than Aminu, but he’s not really a guy who can get a whole offense untracked. Curry is a special shooter, yet he hasn’t been able to score from anywhere else but deep, and the Nuggets have done a good job at running shooters off of the three point line.
The Blazers winning the series probably won’t be because of any fancy lineup adjustments, though there are probably some that could help. In the end, basketball is a simple game: you need to score more than the opponent. The Blazers have not shot well in recent games, and have lost them because of it. If Damian Lillard can get hot, and at least one of their role players can hit a few open threes, Game 6 (and 7, potentially) could look a whole lot different.