The NBA playoffs are quickly approaching, and the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot is heating up. The Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Suns, and Spurs are within just a few games of each other, and all looked poised to capture a spot in the play-in tournament. Among those squads, the Portland Trail Blazers are best suited to wreak havoc in the playoffs as an upset threat. Despite a disappointing start to their season, the Trail Blazers have regained some of the momentum that propelled them to the Western Conference Finals last year. They’re currently 4-2 in the Orlando bubble with wins over the Grizzlies, Rockets, Nuggets, and 76ers. Their only losses came to the Celtics and Clippers in wire-to-wire matchups.
This year, Portland’s path to the finals will look far different from years prior. They’re only eligible for an 8-seed at best and will be overwhelming underdogs in most possible series. But either way, the Trail Blazers have what it takes to make things interesting in the postseason for these four reasons.
All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com
1. “Dame Time”
All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has earned a reputation as one of the game’s best late-game assassins — and for a good reason. He has two epic series-clinching game-winners under his belt, and never shies away from the big shot.
Although Lillard has had a few costly hiccups in the playoffs, his highs in the postseason are nearly unmatched. If the better version of him shows up in this postseason like in last year’s first round, the Trail Blazers could put up a legitimate fight versus their presumptive opponent Lakers.
The good news is that Lillard is catching fire at just the right time. He put up a monster 45 points with 11 threes against the Nuggets on Thursday along with a 51-point explosion versus the 76ers on Sunday. This is nothing new, as Lillard’s been dominant all season with career highs in several categories. Dame alone makes any series interesting.
2. Nurkic is Back
Jusuf Nurkic suffered a gruesome leg injury in March 2019 that sidelined him for the 2019 playoffs and the first 66 games of this season. At first, the loss didn’t seem very impactful. The Blazers ended up making the Western Conference Finals even without Nurkic. But fast-forward to the 2019-20 regular season, and the Trail Blazers desperately missed the Bosnian center’s presence. Their uncharacteristic 29-37 record before the NBA’s suspension was likely a result of Nurkic’s absence.
But now with Nurkic back in the lineup, Portland looks like a playoff contender yet again. He’s averaging 18.8 points, 10.5 rebounds,, and 2.5 blocks in what has been a seamless transition back to NBA competition. He’s one of the more talented bigs in the league and adds yet another capable scorer to the Trail Blazers offense while shoring up defensive weaknesses. Nurkic will figure to be a key contributor in the playoffs and a potential X-Factor.
3. Support Scoring
For the last several seasons, shooting guard C.J. McCollum has paired with Damian Lillard to form one of the league’s most prolific scoring backcourts. His status as a support star has rarely been in question, and he’ll likely make a huge impact alongside Lillard come playoff time.
However, Lillard & McCollum have rarely had a consistent third option on the perimeter to alleviate the defense’s attention. This has been particularly detrimental in certain playoff games when Portland’s offense becomes too reliant on their star backcourt. Luckily, that’s finally changing. If there’s anything that Portland’s performance in Orlando has taught us, it’s that Lillard & McCollum aren’t the only two viable scorers on the outside.
Enter Gary Trent Jr, a second-year guard who’s been on a tear in Orlando. Through six games, he’s averaging 18 points on 57% from three-point range. It’s already enough for defenses to deal with the scoring prowess of Lillard & McCollum. With Trent in the mix, Portland’s offense looks lethal.
Another scoring option that opens things up for the Trail Blazers is Carmelo Anthony, the 36-year old who spent the last few years playing disappointing stints with multiple teams. In a surprising resurgence, Melo has taken on an important role in Portland. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game on 38% from deep this year, with extra motivation to prove his doubters wrong.
A team that’s been sharing some of the spotlight with the Trail Blazers in Orlando are the Phoenix Suns, who look extremely promising with a perfect 6-0 record in Orlando. Based on their recent success, they look like the team to watch for a first round upset. However, Phoenix lacks something very crucial that the Trail Blazers have lots of: experience.
Since taking over in 2012, Terry Stotts has made the playoffs in all but one season as Portland’s head coach. The duo of Lillard & McCollum has been with him for each trip, gaining valuable experience and maturity in the process. Carmelo Anthony has only made the playoffs once since 2014 but is a seasoned veteran with late-game poise. Simply put, this team has been on the big stage before and knows what it takes to grind out postseason wins. Other potential 8-seeds can’t say the same. And against a veteran team like the Lakers in the playoffs, experience is all the more important.