This is going to be a very critical summer for the Portland Trail Blazers

This is going to be a very critical summer for the Portland Trail Blazers

Now that the Trail Blazers have finished their season, it's a good time to step back and assess what we have learned about the team and where it's headed. A few thoughts on the morning after it all came to a crashing halt:

  • The biggest takeaway from this season was the impact of Jusuf Nurkic and what it means to the franchise's future. Before his injury, he had the look of a franchise center -- a player with the ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. This, as you know, was no small development. It's the most difficult position to fill in today's game.
  • It must also be pointed out how poorly this team played prior to his arrival. Before that blockbuster deal with Denver, the Trail Blazers were on their way to one of the most disappointing seasons in recent history. And they certainly were not going to be a playoff team. Nurkic carried them into the postseason. But those early struggles -- and the duplication of them after his injury -- should not be forgotten. Lessons were learned about this team and its players during that time and they should be used to help shape the future.
  • This franchise has three valuable building blocks -- guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic. I believe that every other player on the roster is a possible trade piece.
  • Those three first-round draft choices could also be used in trades. In fact, I'd be surprised if Portland keeps all three.
  • That said, aside from the Trail Blazers' Big Three there isn't an awful lot to trade that would bring a talented veteran player in return. There are some high salaries for players who didn't have banner seasons and who may not be desirable to many other teams. The draft picks aren't exactly premium ones, either. Putting those pieces together and acquiring anything of value is not going to be easy.
  • What do the Trail Blazers need? Without a doubt, a forward -- either a power forward or small forward -- who can shoot and defend. Some deep playoff experience would be a big plus. There is not enough outside shooting on this team and it's time to deal with that problem. The frontcourt provided very little firepower. A proven scorer is a must and I doubt that player is available in the draft.
  • This team needs to add a veteran presence to the locker room and on the floor. And I'm not talking about a guy who isn't going to play much. Not someone just stealing another season in the league for the money, who isn't going to play much. Leadership on the court is going to be as critical as off the court. He wouldn't have to be a starter but I think it would be important that he contributes as a rotation player.
  • I would not expect an important player to come via the draft unless Portland finds a way to move up. This team's window of opportunity is growing near and waiting two or three seasons for a youngster to develop might not work. Ideally, a way would be found to add a savvy veteran. But again, that won't be easy.
  • This is a very important off-season for the franchise. Neil Olshey is going to have his hands full. It's time for this team to fill out its starting lineup with at least one more core player who can grow up with the Big Three. I would expect some major changes involving the roster. I'm not certain which of the other players has value to other teams but I wouldn't be surprised to see several of them move on to other teams. It's time for that.
  • For fans, this is no time to panic.  I believe this is potentially a very exciting time to be a fan of the Portland Trail Blazers. With three outstanding players as the foundation, this team can move forward with confidence to add a couple of new pieces that should clarify the squad's personality and eventual future.
  • It shapes up to be a very interesting off-season.

 

Stotts: Nurkic's presence "spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is"

Stotts: Nurkic's presence "spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is"

Terry Stotts did not hesitate Sunday afternoon to rule Jusuf Nurkic out of Monday night's Game 4 of the Portland-Golden State series in Moda Center.

"No," he said when asked whether Nurkic would play. "He's out."

Why?

"Just, more than anything, he didn’t do any further damage but there was soreness, tenderness and it just wouldn’t be wise to have him play through that," said the Portland coach.

Stotts had plenty of good things to say about Nurkic and the decision to play Saturday night against the Warriors.

"I was really pleased that he (played)" Stotts said. "He had a really positive impact on the game with his passing and his presence and his rebounding. He takes up some space and I thought he gave his teammates a lot of confidence.

"It was a really good effort. He’s a big part of our team. Not only a good effort for these playoffs and this team but, I think, moving forward.  It spoke a lot to who he is and what kind of teammate he is."

 

It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

It wasn't a Trail Blazer win, but it was a chance to see the Nurkic Effect

For quite a while Saturday night during the interminable telethon that NBA playoff games have become, it appeared that the Trail Blazers had found the right formula to beat the Golden State Warriors.

Jusuf Nurkic was back, if but a shell of his usual self. The Trail Blazers seem to take inspiration from his return to the lineup, even though he was dragging a broken leg up and down the court. But it wasn't just the inspiration. Nurkic got his team off to a great start with just his presence. The Portland pick-and-roll offense was suddenly potent again, with Nurkic planting a brickwall of a pick and then rolling down the lane toward the basket. There was either an open three or a pass to Nurkic -- and he'd find the open man with his usual knack for such things.

It was nice while it lasted -- he had 11 rebounds and four assists -- and the Nurkic Effect lasted much longer than the 16 and a half minutes he spent on the court. There was an obvious lift. The Blazers played gallantly until the inevitable Warrior surge, about midway through the third quarter. At that point, the Blazers were hanging on for dear life -- trying to get an open shot for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum against a defense that was willing to allow open shots for anyone but them.

Moda Center was loud and proud most of the night but the tale of this playoff series was never a mystery. The Blazers lost for the third time and there's a fourth one headed their way Monday night. This Golden State team is too much for them and probably too much for anyone else in the league.

But for just under 17 Nurkic minutes Saturday night there was a glimpse of the future, a snapshot of things to come.

Nurkic makes this team better. Much better, even in the condition he was Saturday.

He confessed to a lot of pain after the game and I think it would be unwise to put him through all of that again Monday. I don't think it was a mistake to play him in this game because I trust Portland's medical staff to know what's best for him and the franchise. He got a taste of the playoffs and his teammates found a rallying point. He was pretty much the last card the Blazers had left to play in the series.

Throughout the last few weeks none of us knew exactly what kind of shape he was in. There was hope that when he came back he would be near 100 percent. As it turned out, he was nowhere close ("I'm not the same guy," he said). And for just 15 or 16 minutes a game, I don't think it's worth doing it again. He tried it and it was what it was -- a fun time for us if not for him. He showed the kind of impact he can have when he's right and tried his best to help his squad win one game.

The mission of getting him on the floor was accomplished, if not the part about winning a game. But at this point, it's all about being healthy for next season.

And all about the dreams of what a franchise center can do for this team.

Warriors overhaul Trail Blazers in fourth quarter, take 3-0 series lead

Warriors overhaul Trail Blazers in fourth quarter, take 3-0 series lead

Jusuf Nurkic finally played Saturday night... and it seemed to give the Portland Trail Blazers a little spark. For a while, that spark turned into a raging fire as the Blazers jumped to leads as high as 16 points over the Golden State Warriors. But in the end, the Warriors doused that fire with solid fourth-quarter defense and timely shooting.

The end result was a 119-113 win that pushed Golden State into a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that continues Monday night in Moda Center. CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 32 points and Damian Lillard added 31. Steph Curry had 34 for the Warriors.

The lead seesawed throughout the fourth quarter as two seemingly tired teams traded punches. Portland's shooting percentage, over .500 most of the night, dipped and the Warriors' rose.

The Trail Blazers came out on fire – and the crowd was deep into it when Portland had  an 11-3 lead as the Warriors called a timeout with 9:11 to go in the first quarter. Portland opened the game by hitting its first five shots from the field.

Nurkic, who received a thunderous ovation when introduced with the starting lineup, scored his first basket 2:26 into the game on a bank shot in the lane over Zaza Pachulia.

He left the floor at the 7:06 mark of the quarter and played about five minutes per quarter. He finished with two points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 17 minutes.

The Warriors withstood Portland’s opening salvo and crawled to within four points late in the quarter but the Trail Blazers held a 37-30 lead ater the first quarter behind Lillard’s 15 points, fueled by 3-for-4 shooting from three-point range.

Portland shot 57.7 percent from the field in the opening period and held Golden State to 38.5 percent. But the Blazers had seven turnovers over the first 12 minutes while the Warriors had but one.

In the second quarter Portland stretched the lead as high as 16 as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson struggled from the field for the Warriors.

Lillard and McCollum were the backbone of the Portland offense in the first half, combining for 39 points. The Blazers led 67-54 at halftime on the strength of 53 percent shooting. Portland also held a 29-14 rebound edge at halftime.

The lead ballooned to 16 again in the third but then the Warriors made one of their patented runs and closed to within 82-78 when the Blazers called for a timeout with 3:29 left in the third. Golden State turned up its defense and Portland had trouble getting open shots all of a sudden. By the end of the quarter the Blazers were clinging to an 88-87 lead.

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The Trail Blazers are all over the place when assessing Nurkic's playing status

The Trail Blazers are all over the place when assessing Nurkic's playing status

Apparently there have been some real ups and downs with Jusuf Nurkic's healing process. Excuse me, but I'm kidding. I doubt if that non-displaced fracture is as volatile as the team's injury reports make it sound.

In case you haven't noticed, the Trail Blazers are about to play Game 3 of their first-round series against the Golden State Warriors and Nurkic's status has been different on each pre-game injury report. And it hasn't even trended entirely in one direction.

Prior to Game 1 of the series, his status was listed as "questionable" -- and in NBA parlance the Trail Blazers say that means a 50-50 chance that he would play. Before Game 2 he was declared "out " -- as in no chance of playing. And now for Game 3 in Moda Center Saturday night, he's been "upgraded to doubtful" -- which is supposed to mean the chance is 75 percent that he won't play, but obviously a 25 percent chance he will. "Probable," by the way, means there's a 75 percent chance he would play.

Interesting. And also quite intriguing that the only game he was listed as "out" was the game in which he spoke to reporters the day before the game and declared himself out -- saying he wasn't yet ready to play. Friday he wasn't made available to the media. Hmm. Maybe they've decided not to let him give any more updates.

I must say I'm a little puzzled by the differing distinctions if these reports are actually based on a day-to-day assessment of the condition of his injury. So a week ago there was a better chance he'd play than there is now? And just a couple of days ago there was no chance he could play? Now, there's a small chance, they say. That's quite a healing pattern.

Either that's a pretty fragile situation with his leg or someone is just playing games with the injury report. Even then, it would seem to make more sense merely to list him as "questionable" prior to every game -- leaving the Warriors in doubt about his status until an hour or so before each game.

If anyone asks me about his status, by the way, I now have a one-word answer:

"Whatever."

 

 

The Warriors are just too good -- for the Blazers and probably every other team

The Warriors are just too good -- for the Blazers and probably every other team

OAKLAND – In times like these for Trail Blazer fans it’s important to remember a few things. Such as:

  • Portland isn’t in the Eastern Conference. That means the No. 8-seeded team in the conference doesn’t get to play arguably the worst top-seeded team in playoff history. Instead, it must play one of the best teams in NBA history.
  • Jusuf Nerkic isn’t playing right now. Do you remember your Trail Blazers this season before he showed up? Yes, they looked a lot like what you saw in Game 2 of the playoff series Wednesday night – a 110-81 thrashing by the Golden State Warriors.
  • For as much as people talk about the Warriors’ potent offense, their defense is terrific, too. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 75 points in Game 1. Golden State wasn't going to let that happen again Wednesday. The starting guards totaled 23 Wednesday night, hitting just 9 of 34 shots.
  • The Blazers made only 30 of their 90 shots from the field, including only 7 of 34 from three-point range. And they turned the ball over 18 times. It really doesn’t get much better than that. Part of that is a continuation of the Trail Blazers' offensive stagnation but a lot of it was the Golden State defense.
  • The series moves back to Moda Center for a game Saturday night and another one Monday night. And as Damian Lillard pointed out, “It’s a series. The points don’t carry over.”
  • Or as Draymond Green said, “One thing we know is that it’s just one game… They’re still going to come out in Game 3 and give all they’ve got, whether we have K.D. or not.”
  • Yes, Kevin Durant did not play. No, it didn’t make much difference. These guys, in case you didn’t notice, are good. REAL good.

Will Nurkic play in Game 3? I have no idea. But trust me, the decision to play him won’t be based on how the series stands. It will be dependent on the condition of the break in his leg. If he can play without any further ramifications, I’d expect him to do so. But if there’s any problem there, he’ll sit – just as he has so far. And that's the way it should be. The big thing about Nurkic is his long-term future as a Trail Blazer franchise center. There's no point in risking that in a series his team can't win, anyway.

Folks, he will make a difference if he plays. I still think the Blazers, with him in the lineup, are capable of stealing a home game somehow. But make no mistake, he’s not going to turn this series around. The Warriors are too good right now.

Very probably too good for any team in the league.

Nurkic still out... and here's how he could have made a difference

Nurkic still out... and here's how he could have made a difference

OAKLAND -- Jusuf Nurkic Tuesday put an end to any mystery about his availability for Game 2 of Portland's first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

He's not playing Wednesday night. He didn't feel ready for it, he said before the team's practice. And, in fact, he was not going to practice Tuesday, either. The video of the interview accompanies this post but as you will hear, he's doing better. And he's also not ready to make any predictions about his appearance in future games.

But he did say he's had a full practice -- and a contact practice, at that.

So there you go. That's about all anyone knows about the situation.

How will it go Wednesday night without him?

Not well, I'd expect. After the first game of the series -- a 121-109 Warrior win Sunday afternoon -- it was obvious how the seven-foot center could help Portland attack Golden State at both ends of the court. His presence at the offensive end would probably force the Warriors into using centers Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee more minutes, something they don't want to do. Pachulia played just 12:28 in Game 1 and McGee played 9:41. Golden State prefers its small lineup, which usually features defensive wizard Draymond Green in the middle.

Now THAT would be an interesting matchup. Green has had success against true centers but Nurkic would be a handful for him. And at least he'd be enough of a threat that he'd keep Green from wandering around blocking shots from the rest of the Trail Blazers.

On defense, Nurkic would provide rim protection that Portland didn't have Sunday. Golden State's 44 points in the paint Sunday was not a huge number, but the Warriors made 22 of their 33 shots in that area and it would help if that percentage came down.

But we won't know, at least for at least one more game, what the Nurkic Effect would be. Or maybe we won't find out during this series at all. Nurkic provided no real clues about the future on Tuesday.

 

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

OAKLAND -- Sometimes, you swear the Golden State Warriors are playing with six defenders against their opponent's five offensive players.

Draymond Green makes it look that way.

At 6-7, Green is capable of defending every position on the floor. He's listed as a forward but against the Trail Blazers Sunday afternoon it seemed as if he was the world's tallest free safety. Or goalie. Whenever the Blazers got into the basket area in the fourth quarter, he was lurking nearby -- ready to smother jump shots or dunks. His timing is amazing and his instincts are even better. There's nobody else in the game like him and he hurt the Trail Blazers down the stretch of their 121-109 loss to the Warriors. Portland was outscored 33-21 in the fourth quarter after running up 27, 29 and 32 points in the three previous quarters.

What happened? Well, the best way I can explain it is to point you toward this video from BBall Breakdown. It clearly shows what was going on in key stretches of the game at the Portland end of the court. Green was leaving Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu wide open when he was matched up with them. Those two players, often positioned in the corner behind the three-point line, combined to go 1-7 from long distance. Green obviously had no respect for them and I'd also say the two Portland forwards frequently didn't even get the ball when they were open.

When Green has the freedom to leave his own man and help out on everybody else he's trouble. Make that TROUBLE. He blocked five shots in the game and affected a few more. He snuffed dunks from Damian Lillard and Noah Vonleh and those plays were momentum busters for Portland and momentum builders for the Warriors. In spite of all the points scored, the Blazers defended adequately -- given the opposition. But to beat this team, you have to score big and Green just wasn't going to let that happen.

Portland is going to have to find somebody hitting enough shots to occupy Green or it's going to be a very short series. Which it may be, anyway. Obviously, Jusuf Nurkic would help. But who knows when or if he'll play? In the meantime, a big shooting night is needed by Harkless, Aminu or anyone else playing forward for the Trail Blazers.

And looking to the future, there is no doubt that the biggest remaining role to fill on this team is a deadly three-point shooter at one -- or even both -- of the forward spots.

 

Lillard, McCollum took a lot of shots -- but when you're the only guys making them...

Lillard, McCollum took a lot of shots -- but when you're the only guys making them...

OAKLAND – And so you see now, if you didn’t already know, how difficult it’s going to be to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA playoffs.

The Trail Blazers – at least their two best players – gave it a heck of a shot Sunday afternoon in Oracle Arena. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 75 points while hitting 7 of their 15 three-point field goal attempts.

But they got very little help.

Portland got nine points off its bench and just 25 from its starting front line. Sure, Lillard and McCollum took 54 of their team’s 93 shots – but you couldn’t blame them. Who else is going to make shots?

Take away the starting guards and the rest of the Trail Blazers made just 12 out of 39 shots from the field.

Of course, the Warrior defense had something to do with that. The closer Portland got to the basket the more difficult the shots became, thanks to 10 Golden State blocked shots, half of those from Draymond Green.

The Trail Blazers were tied at the half and tied at the end of three quarters but the roof finally caved in during the final period.

“Our fourth-quarter defense in particular changed the game,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “I like the way our guys responded in the second half.”

Portland Coach Terry Stotts agreed – to a point.

“They were very aggressive,” he said about the Warriors in the fourth quarter. “Obviously we didn’t shoot the ball well. We had six turnovers in the fourth. Draymond had an impact on the game at the rim and in the paint.

“They got more aggressive on the ball and the trapping pick and rolls a little bit more. So, I mean in a quarter if you have six turnovers and shoot 30 percent in the quarter, it’s going to be rough.

“It’s a credit to their defense and we’ve got to be able to handle that a little bit better.”

The game was officiated similarly to most playoff games over the years – by a different set of rules than the regular season. There was so much more contact allowed than what you can get away with over the 82 games. It was much rougher and more physical than the regular season.

That leads to all sorts of things and it certainly raises the temperature on the floor –- as do all the sideshow gyrations and chatter from Green.

McCollum, who led Portland with 41 points, couldn’t resist a little byplay with the Warriors’ do-it-all power forward after Green got rim-checked on a dunk attempt. McCollum apparently suggested to Green that he needs a little more work on his legs to get up high enough to dunk.

“Yeah, he does need to do some calf raises so he can dunk,” McCollum said.  “… Where I’m from, if you talk trash, then I’m going to talk trash to you. It’s not disrespectful. We’re not talking about nobody’s mother or nothing bad.

“But I’ve known Draymond Green since he was at Michigan State. He was a little chubbier then at Michigan State. He’s done really well with himself. He’s worked hard. If I have something I want to say I’m going to say it.”

Lillard, who finished with 34 points, had a pretty good summation of his team’s play.

“I thought myself and CJ played good games tonight,” Lillard said. “And I thought as a group we really defended well. Guys were communicating and playing physical. I thought we executed our scouting report on the defensive end and I thought guys stepped up as well on the offensive end.

“Evan Turner had a good game. I felt like Mo (Harkless) played a good game. But it’s a matter of us two making more of those plays. Hitting guys on the weak side and giving them more opportunity.

“I think to beat the Warriors, we’re going to have to maybe make that extra pass more often and be able to defend on guys more often to allow them to have that type of success so we can actually beat them,”

Indeed, the Trail Blazers played more one-on-one basketball than usual. Rather than run a lot if pick-and-rolls against a team that switches on them, anyway, the two guards often just beat their defender off the dribble and drove to the point.

Obviously, Jusuf Nerkic would have made a difference for the Trail Blazers, but he sat this one out – still nursing that broken leg bone. Stotts was asked if there is a chance that he will play in the series.

“Yes,” came the one-word answer.

A ploy, just a fake out for Golden State's preparation or the real thing?

At this point I have no idea.

My best guess -- just a guess -- is that Nurkic will play vs. Warriors

My best guess -- just a guess -- is that Nurkic will play vs. Warriors

The Trail Blazers were predictably quiet Friday about the possibility of Jusuf Nurkic playing Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

I don’t blame them a bit. Why allow the Warriors to narrow their preparation for the series? If Nurkic has been ruled out for the series, why allow Golden State to toss that part of its preparation out the window? At this point, those guys have no choice but to prepare for him to be in the lineup.

If he is playing, why tell the Warriors? Why not leave them in the dark until the starting lineups are written just before gametime? Either way, Golden State is going to waste time preparing for the Trail Blazers with or without a key player.

I have no idea what Nurkic's status is. Nobody tells the media a thing and the Portland players were sticking to the script on this one – they don’t know.

But I'm betting they do know.

My guess – and it’s just a guess – is that they already know his status.

And my guess is that he will play.