Fans of the Portland Trail Blazers got their first live look at the team in over four months on Thursday afternoon, as the team returned to the court in a scrimmage against the Indiana Pacers ahead of the NBA’s official restart next week. Playing at the HP Field House in Orlando, the Blazers fell 91-88, but the final score was inconsequential. Of much greater importance was the highly anticipated return of both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, who have each missed significant time due to injury.
The duo, healthy and immediately inserted into the starting lineup, buoyed an excellent first quarter in which the team showed its true potential. The second unit struggled to maintain the positive momentum, however, and the Pacers took advantage. A huge third quarter put Indiana ahead comfortably, before a late Blazers comeback made for an exciting finish. Jaylen Hoard’s potential game-tying three rimmed off in the final seconds, giving Indiana the victory.
Portland wasted no time involving Nurkic in the offense, as seen in this impressive post move for his first points of the game—on the team’s second possession.
Collins wasn’t featured much in the early going, but responded with his first points later in the frame while showcasing some quality footwork.
Z IS BACK.— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) July 23, 2020
*insert heart eyes* pic.twitter.com/xF3AFAQDEv
Nurkic finished with 14 points and eight rebounds across 20 minutes, while Collins chipped in six points and four boards in 19 minutes of action. While Nurkic’s passing ability, screening, and low-post scoring give the offense an additional threat, the two’s biggest contribution came on the defensive end of the floor. In the first quarter, Portland’s team defense looked better than it has the majority of the season to this point—66 games in. Both players’ ability to defend the perimeter—in addition to the paint—was something nearly nonexistent from the Blazer big men in their absence, and lent itself to far fewer quality looks for the opponent than fans have become accustomed to this season.
The return of Collins also pushes a noticeably trimmer Carmelo Anthony from power forward to small forward, a task he has clearly worked to be ready for. The physical change has also improved the latter’s offensive arsenal. The svelte swingman appeared a step (or five) quicker attacking the rim, and was much less reliant on his customary mid-range fadeaway. This added dimension to his game should keep opposing defenses on their toes.
The most glaring issue from Thursday’s scrimmage has hampered the team all season long: an inconsistent showing from the second unit. Gary Trent Jr. picked up where he left off in March, being aggressive and effective on both ends of the court. Unfortunately, Anfernee Simons was ice cold from the field (1-9, 0-5 from distance), and Jaylen Hoard didn’t make much of an impact. Mario Hezonja showcased some surprising three-point shooting touch, but had more turnovers than assists, including a few of the boneheaded variety.
Wenyen Gabriel showed promise, registering four blocks—including a wild sequence in which he rejected poor TJ Leaf three times in the span of about 15 seconds—and only committed one foul in 20 minutes. However, like many of the Blazer reserves, he’s not someone the team can rely on offensively, which puts far too much pressure on Trent and creates a significant drop-off from the team’s starters to their bench.
The elephant in the room remains how the Blazers will utilize Hassan Whiteside with both Nurkic and Collins healthy. Hassan sat out the game due to injury, but is not expected to miss any kind of extended time. It will certainly be the biggest storyline in the final two tune-up games. Collins notably spent time with the second unit, but coach Terry Stotts otherwise utilized a line change approach to his rotations. This could indicate that he is considering bringing the big man off the bench, or simply that he wanted an established post player on the floor with the bench unit, as the team is thin up front without Whiteside.
The Blazers continue their restart tune-up with a scrimmage against the defending champion Toronto Raptors on Sunday, with tip-off scheduled for 3:00 p.m. PDT.