After an extended break, pre-bubble discussions focused on who would start for the Trail Blazers with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the fold. While the starting lineup garnered attention, the plethora of crunch-time rotation possibilities at coach Terry Stotts’ disposal were overlooked. Considering Portland’s first four games of the restart have had an average scoring difference of five points when starting the fourth quarter, the closing unit has proved incredibly important.
Thus far, Terry Stotts has appropriately had Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Gary Trent Jr. and Nurkic on the floor to finish contests. Besides the strange quick-two decision against the Boston Celtics, the Blazers have finished games with authority, leading to a promising 3-1 record in Orlando.
In the opening game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Carmelo Anthony assumed the vacant power forward spot to fill out that five-man unit. Nurkic’s foul-induced exit and Zach Collins move to center helped Stotts make that decision. Anthony was also on the floor to finish against the Celtics and Houston Rockets.
Most recently, versus the Nuggets, Stotts exchanged offense for defense by swapping Anthony for Collins late in the fourth quarter.
Needless to say, the closing lineup has generally been Lillard - McCollum - Trent Jr. - Anthony - Nurkic. And that lineup, in 30 bubble minutes, is plus-11. It’s a micro-sized sample, but then again, so is every Portland lineup from the bubble now that Nurkic and Collins are back. To go even smaller, in the fourth quarter, that lineup is plus-9 in 14 minutes while shooting 8-for-15 (53.3%) from three.
That lineup is more modern (and dare I say traditional) than what Portland usually deploys in terms of size and play style. Lillard and Nurkic can run their high pick and roll to its standard effectiveness, and they’re surrounded by three above-average shooters for perhaps the first time in Lillard’s career.
On the season, McCollum is making 47.1% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, Anthony 39.4%, and Trent Jr. 40.8%. In the bubble, the trio are a combined 44-75 (58.7%) from deep and seem to connect on every crucial three-pointer when the outcome depends on it. When looking at that level of effectiveness, it is no surprise that Portland sits atop the 22-team league in offensive rating since games started in Orlando.
In addition to the myriad of options stemming from pick and rolls, that lineup has four satisfactory to elite shot creators. The bubble games have had a playoff feel to them as teams tussle for positioning and no style of offense is more useful than individual shot creation when the tempo slows to a grind.
Defensively, those five guys have endured some hiccups. Without Trevor Ariza, there is no lineup that can effectively defend the perimeter for long stretches. That being said, this unit has shown it can ramp up its defensive intensity in the closing minutes of a contest.
Lillard has accepted the challenge of guarding higher-usage scorers and is succeeding in that role. Trent Jr. has blossomed into an elite on-ball defender against guards and wings. Anthony has shown flashes of quick hands to strip opponents. Nurkic, who has picked up where he left off, has held down the paint without being afraid to stray out to the perimeter and defend in isolation.
By playing Anthony over Collins as the closing power forward, Stotts is emphasizing offense and betting Portland can outscore its opponent. However, he has the wherewithal to know when the lineup needs a defensive injection. Against the Nuggets on Thursday, Collins subbed in for Anthony with 5:38 remaining in the fourth, paving the way for the Blazers to secure a lead. His defense provided a much-needed boost as the Blazers outscored Denver 20-9 in the last 5:38.
Stotts is utilizing only eight players each game, so there aren’t a ton of options for what the closing lineup can look like. The core four of Lillard, McCollum, Trent Jr. and Nurkic will be out there rain or shine. The presence of Anthony and Collins allow Stotts to tinker with the Blazers’ offense or defense when the action on the court calls for either shift.
Outside of the loss to Boston, the two lineup variations have finished well. Assuming games remain close in Orlando’s playoff atmosphere, continued success in crunch time is paramount for the Blazers’ postseason chances.