Don’t sleep on Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers for the 8-seed

Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images /

The Portland Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes were put on life support Friday night, but don’t go betting against Damian Lillard and company just yet.

There’s no way around it: Aron Baynes and the Phoenix Suns put a severe dent in the Portland Trail Blazers‘ playoff hopes Friday night.

In the kind of wonderfully random performance that makes the NBA special on a night-to-night basis, the Australian backup center filled in for an injured Deandre Ayton with a career-high 37 points, 16 rebounds and nine 3-pointers. In the process, a Suns team playing without Ayton, Kelly Oubre Jr. and rookie sharpshooter Cameron Johnson stole a game Rip City absolutely needed to have.

Yet even after the Blazers were buried beneath a scorching 3-point barrage from Splash Volcano, it’s not quite time to say their playoff hopes have completely melted away. The floor is now lava, but if they watch their step, they can still make it to the promised land safely.

In fact, if anyone’s going to close the gap on the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8-seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the Trail Blazers should still be the first team people mention. Even before Friday’s loss, however, they’ve been consistently ignored or overlooked in that conversation.

Maybe it’s because they’ve been a postseason fixture for the last six seasons and, aside from last year’s conference finals appearance, they’ve been banging their heads on the same playoff ceiling the entire time. Maybe it’s because their offseason was the wrong type of “keep Portland weird,” which made it easier to dismiss their postseason prospects. Or maybe it’s the hype surrounding Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans; the San Antonio Spurs’ absurd 22-year playoff streak being on the line; the Sacramento Kings’ unexpected surge; and the Grizzlies’ youth movement taking flight that are all conspiring to put Rip City on the backburner.

That shouldn’t be the case, however, as a simple look at the standings shows. Even after Friday’s backbreaking loss in Phoenix, the Blazers are still 3.5 games behind Memphis for the final playoff spot out West thanks to the Grizzlies’ 25-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Damian Lillard is back after a six-game absence due to a groin injury, and even better, Yahoo! Sports‘ Chris Haynes reports that Jusuf Nurkic will be making his long-awaited return on March 15.

Head coach Terry Stotts said that date isn’t set in stone, but Nurkic and the team are optimistic he’ll be back by then.

“With Nurk setting a target date of the 15th, that’s not confirmed, that’s hopeful,” Stotts said. “He’s still got some benchmarks to reach, but we’re hopeful that will happen. But we’ve got a lot of basketball before then.”

Reintegrating star players during such a crucial stretch — even a centerpiece like Lillard who’s only been out for two weeks —  can be challenging. Portland will need Dame to quickly shake off the rust that’s been visible in his first two games back.

Lillard has put up 23.0 points and 5.5 assists per game since his return, but those numbers are nowhere near the career-high 29.3 points and 7.9 assists per game he’s averaged this season overall. He’s only shot 42.9 percent from the floor, committed 3.5 turnovers per game and just plain looked sloppier with the ball in his first two games back, fumbling it or losing it entirely on simple dribble handoffs.

The Blazers need him to fight off the doldrums and re-establish Lillard Time immediately, but they’ll also need to find a way for CJ McCollum to continue the tear he was on in Dame’s absence.

“He took his game to a new level all-around,” Lillard said. “I think we went 2-4 during that stretch, but it probably would’ve been 0-6 with no chance of winning those games had he not taken his game to that level. It kept us afloat.”

Stotts said the plan is to continue to empower McCollum with more point guard duties. Considering he averaged 33.3 points, 8.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game on .484/.406/.765 shooting splits during Lillard’s absence, it seems like a smart strategy.

“The main thing is that, I talked to Dame and CJ, we talked about just the dynamics of the two of them — whether they’re together or separate,” Stotts said. “The goal is to get CJ to have kind of that same mentality that he had when Dame was out for more extended periods of time. It’s not like he’s going to take over the point guard responsibilities, but we need to put him in that position a little bit more and when Dame is not on the court with him, have that same mentality.”

As for figuring out the dynamic with Nurkic and starting center Hassan Whiteside? That’s a matter for next week.

“To be honest, I haven’t given it a lot of thought,” Stotts admitted. “I’ve really been focused on whatever game we have coming up.”

Given his matter-of-fact, straightforward basketball mind, the “one game at a time” mindset is hardly surprising. It’s the only approach that makes sense given the injuries Portland has sustained lately … and the ground it still has to make up in order to reach the postseason for the seventh straight year.

“We just look at every game as a must-win,” Stotts said. “I mean, we’re in a position where we can’t afford any losses, so it’s not about who we’re playing. We’ve gotta rack together some wins these last 19 games or whatever we have.”

The Blazers will take it one hurdle at a time, but there’s no denying they’ve got a few things going from them, aside from Lillard being back and Nurkic’s imminent return. According to Tankathon, the Blazers have the eighth-easiest remaining strength of schedule (.476). The Grizzlies, meanwhile, have the second-hardest remaining schedule (.555).

At 17-13, Rip City’s been a winning team at home; it’s that 11-23 road record that has Portland sitting below .500. Fortunately, with the Phoenix road disaster out of the way, 11 of the Blazers’ remaining 18 games will come within the friendly confines of the Moda Center. That stretch run starts with a favorable six-game homestand against the Kings, Suns, Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Mavericks. The Sacramento game Saturday night is key, as it could secure the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“Take advantage of being at home, use the fans to our advantage,” McCollum said. “Play with energy, try and get out and run, make the game fun.”

The ensuing six-game road trip will be make-or-break time for Portland, but by then, Nurkic will have been back for a week, assuming he hits his target return date. From there it’s another four-game homestand, a winnable road trip to face the lowly Golden State Warriors, and then another home contest with an LA Clippers squad that could very well rest players for their last game of the season.

The schedule favors the Trail Blazers, and with two remaining matchups against the Grizz, they’ll still have their chances to close the gap and win the head-to-head tiebreaker after losing their first meeting. Portland has four more losses than Memphis, which is disconcerting since you can’t make those up. But the Grizzlies have dropped six of their last nine games and are playing without Jaren Jackson Jr., a crucial piece of their starting lineup.

The Pelicans remain the sexy pick to steal the 8-seed, but even after winning 10 of their last 17 games, they’re still four losses back as well. They have the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule and own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Portland, but many of their best players — Zion, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball — are on the younger side. They’ve never played games with the NBA playoffs on the line. If Dame can get back to his All-NBA self, it’s still hard to bet against any team being led by an established superstar who’s been there before.

This team has issues, to be fair. Lillard has to snap out of this funk immediately, Nurkic will have to fit in right away and Portland’s 3-point defense — giving up the sixth-highest percentage in the league — will somehow have to magically get better. But if the Pelicans are still getting love in the debate over who might catch the Grizzlies for that 8-seed, overlook Dame, Stotts and company at your own peril.

“We’re just gonna have to be consistent,” Lillard said. “We can’t afford to be up and down, because it’s crunch time. Every game is big for us and every one counts. This is it, so we’ve gotta be sharper every night and it has to be consistent for the last few games.”

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