The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves in the thick of a deep playoff race in the Western Conference. What can they do to improve their standing?
We have officially hit the halfway point of the shortened 2020-21 NBA season and our local Portland Trailblazers find themselves in the thick of a deep playoff race in the Western Conference. At the time this article is being written, the Blazers sit in sixth place in the conference with a record of 18-14 and are currently in the midst of a four game losing streak.
Before the four game losing streak, the Blazers had won eight of their last nine and were rolling. They were within striking distance of being in a position of a top two seed in the Western Conference. However, it is clear now that they have come back down to Earth, shooting with much less consistency and struggling in many other areas as well.
During their hot streak, the team was shooting an astonishing 44% from three point range but has dropped to a more dismal 33%. Questions surrounding the Blazers recent performance contemplating whether or not they will be able to stay afloat without two of their three best players, CJ McCollum and Jusef Nurkic, are now resurfacing.
McCollum, who is the biggest loss of the two, is expected to return soon after the all star break and will bring a much needed boost to a struggling Blazers offense, who has been forced to put inexperienced players in an expanded role. McCollum remained optimistic after his injury and is expected to make a full recovery.
“I’m battle-tested, man. I’m good,” McCollum said in an interview following the announcement of his injury. “I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’m in a good stage of life. Mentally, I’m at peace.”
Although Nurkic is not as big of a loss as McCollum, the big man is still a huge help for the Blazers, especially inside the paint. Before the injury, he was averaging 9.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He is a force inside and has been missed on the defensive side especially.
Two players who have stepped up tremendously to keep the Blazers high in the standings are Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter. Trent is in his third season out of Duke and had been a scoring threat off the bench until the injury to Mccollum forced him into the starting lineup. He is averaging 15 points per game as well as shooting 41% from beyond the arc. At only 22 years old, he can be used as a foundational piece for Blazers teams in the future.
Veteran big man Enes Kanter has been huge for the Blazers as well and is a walking double-double at times. Again coming into the starting lineup after the injury to Nurkic, he has averaged 11.7 points and 11.5 rebounds per game solidifying the inside.
However, with these two in the starting lineup, it makes the bench much less deep and the team has shown the tendency to become fatigued in the fourth quarter of games and lose leads. With McCollum and Nurkic eventually coming back from injury, Trent and Kanter can move back into bench roles where they can be just as effective.
Another player keeping this team in contention is, of course, all-star point guard Damien Lillard. Lillard is averaging 29.8 points and 8 assists per game. As a player with the ability to win games on his own if he catches fire at the end of games, if he continues this play he could find himself in the MVP race towards the end of the year.
However, the Feb. 26 loss versus the Western Conference favorites, LA Lakers, showed that he will need help if this team wants to make a run in the playoffs. Lillard dropped 35 points but the team ended up losing by nine to the defending champions.
Even with the recent losing streak, head coach Terry Stotts is confident that the team will get back on track.
“We’ve lost four in a row, we’re coming home, we need to gain some momentum going into the break,” said Stotts following the loss to LA. “I’m really confident about our group and how they compete and how important it is, so I don’t think we need to belabor the point. We know that these three games are important going into the break.”
With the additions of McCollum and Nurkic back into the lineup and how well this team has handled adversity thus far, I can see this team making a run in the playoffs and end up with a top seed.