PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers have lost two in a row. Their lead over the Denver Nuggets has dwindled to one game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The team is struggling on offense and defense since it lost starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a non-displacement fibula fracture in his right leg.
"We're just not deep at that position," said Blazers small forward Evan Turner. "Once he came to us (in February), we went so heavy with Nurk. Now we're trying to adjust ... and we're doing it on the fly in a playoff hunt."
Still, if you believe the analytics crowd, the Blazers remain clear favorites to grab that last playoff spot over the Nuggets.
On Thursday, prior to the Blazers' home contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves, FiveThirtyEight.com had Portland with 93 percent odds of making the playoffs. ESPN's BPI Playoff Odds gave the Blazers an 88.5 percent chance.
Why are analytics so kind to the Blazers' playoff chances? It's all in the details.
With four games left to play, the Blazers still have a one-game lead over Denver. Portland also has the tiebreaker over the Nuggets, so if the teams have the same record at season's end, Portland gets the playoff spot. That means the Blazers' one-game lead is really two. And Portland's schedule is still more favorable than the Nuggets.
Here’s a look at the remaining schedules for each team.
Portland Trail Blazers
(4 home, 0 road)
Today, vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (31-46)
Saturday vs. Utah Jazz (48-30)
Monday vs. San Antonio Spurs (60-18)
Wednesday vs. New Orleans Pelicans (33-45)
(2 home, 2 road)
Friday vs. New Orleans Pelicans (33-45)
Sunday vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (45-33)
Tuesday at Dallas Mavericks (32-46)
Wednesday at Oklahoma City Thunder (45-33)
RELATED: NBA Western Conference standings
Portland still has to win. None of its four remaining games are easy. With Nurkic out, the Blazers have been playing small lineups the majority of the time, with 6-foot-9 forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh playing the majority of minutes at center. Both have played well since Nurkic's injury, but they have struggled to defend opposing centers.
In a 130-117 win against Phoenix on April 1, the Suns' Alex Len, a 7-foot-1, 260-pound center, had 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots in 16 minutes. The Blazers then lost two road games in a row in which they were ineffective defensively, against Minnesota's 7-foot, 244-pound center Karl-Anthony Towns (34 points and 12 rebounds in 39 minutes) and Utah's 7-1, 245-pound center Rudy Gobert (20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 35 minutes).
We're on our home floor the rest of the way, and we have the tiebreaker on (the Nuggets). We play well at home. We're ready to finish the season strong. We know we control what happens. That's why we should be really confident going forward. — Blazers guard Damian Lillard
Portland doesn't get a break from dominant big men over its next four games. The Blazers face Minnesota (Towns), Utah (Gobert), San Antonio (LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol) and New Orleans (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins). There is the possibility that some of those players won't play in the games against Portland. The Spurs are already locked in as the No. 2 seed in the West, so they could rest most of their best players when they face the Blazers. The Pelicans, in the final game of the season against Portland, may not play either Davis or Cousins, according to a report from ESPN's Justin Verrier
Gentry said if Anthony Davis gets into the 30s in minutes in the first game of upcoming b2bs they "probably" won't play him in second game.— Justin Verrier (@JustinVerrier) April 6, 2017
DeMarcus Cousins will also be questionable with a nagging Achilles injury. Pelicans won't risk anything, Gentry said.— Justin Verrier (@JustinVerrier) April 6, 2017
The closing stretch begins tonight when the Blazers host the Timberwolves for the second time in four days, hoping to avenge Monday's 110-109 loss in Minnesota.
Minnesota Timberwolves (31-46) at Portland Trail Blazers (38-40)
7:30 p.m., TNT, 620 AM
The Blazers' magic number is three, which means any combination of three Portland wins or Denver losses will clinch the playoff spot for the Blazers.
"We're on our home floor the rest of the way, and we have the tiebreaker on (the Nuggets)," said Blazers guard Damian Lillard. "We play well at home. We're ready to finish the season strong. We know we control what happens. That's why we should be really confident going forward."
The following three things need to happen for the Blazers to succeed in the next four games.
1. Big 2 needs to show up
Especially with Nurkic sitting on the bench in street clothes, the Blazers need Lillard and CJ McCollum at the top of their games.
Both players haven't been good enough the past two games for Portland. During the two-game losing streak, Lillard has made only 12 of 41 field goals (29.3 percent) and 5 of 18 from the 3-point line (27.8 percent) while averaging 20.5 points, 4.5 assists and three rebounds. McCollum has made 16 of 36 shots (44.4 percent) but has missed all six of his 3-point attempts, while averaging 21.0 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
With Lillard and McCollum shooting so far below their season averages, the Blazers' offense has struggled the past two games, shooting 42 percent from the field and 29.3 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 98.0 points per game.
The Blazers' struggles on defense without Nurkic have been problematic, but Portland can't win when its offense isn't humming. Right now, that falls on Lillard and McCollum.
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2. Leonard must contribute
Meyers Leonard, at 7-1, is the only available player taller than 6-10 on the Blazers' roster. Given a chance to help fill the void left by Nurkic (as well as injured big man Ed Davis), he has disappeared in April. In three games, Leonard has been completely ineffective in 19.1 minutes per game.
On offense, Leonard is averaging 5.3 points while shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 22.2 percent on 3-pointers. He's grabbing only three rebounds per game and hasn't blocked a shot. The Blazers are being outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court.
Leonard has been playing through hip and back pain, according to Jason Quick of CSN, but he was playing through the same pain in March and was effective then off the bench (11.1 positive net rating, +2.8 plus-minus). Leonard can be a serviceable option at center, and the Blazers need him to embrace the moment and play effective basketball.
3. Strong play from role players
Aminu, Turner and Vonleh have all played well since Nurkic's injury.
Aminu has been the best of the three. In the past three games, he's averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks. He's been an efficient scorer, too, shooting 46.9 percent from the field, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 87.5 percent at the free-throw line. He's doing his best to fill Nurkic's role as the third offensive threat the Blazers need.
Turner is averaging 10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks in 25.5 minutes per game. He's also shooting well, making 44.4 percent of his field-goal attempts. He did not shoot well in the two road losses (38 percent), but contributed in other areas, averaging 3.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals.
Vonleh, whose improved play earned him a larger role in March, has played well in two of the three games in April. He played one of his worst games of the season in Tuesday's 106-87 loss to the Jazz, totaling two points, one rebound and five fouls in 21 minutes while missing all four of his field goals. But in the previous two games, he played well, averaging 12 points, 8.5 rebounds, two steals and one block in 30.5 minutes per game. If that Vonleh can show up the next four games, it will be a big boost to the Blazers.
Like with Lillard and McCollum, Portland needs sharpshooter Allen Crabbe to make more shots. He's shooting 42.3 percent from the field and only 27.3 percent on 3-pointers in April. Crabbe can be streaky, but the Blazers need him on a hot streak right now and he's not.
About tonight's game
- Portland has won two of the three meetings between these teams this season, with the lone loss coming at Minnesota on Monday (110-109). The Trail Blazers are 20-2 at home against the Timberwolves dating back to February 3, 2006.
- The Trail Blazers have won five straight home games, outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.8 points in those contests (118.2-106.4).
- The Timberwolves have won three of their last five games after losing six straight contests from March 15-25. Minnesota is averaging 113.6 points over its last five games, scoring at least 107 points in each contest.
- McCollum is averaging 30.7 points on 61.5 percent shooting from the field in three games against Minnesota this season.
- Lillard has scored at least 30 points in six of his 10 home games since the All-Star break, averaging 27.2 points with Portland going 8-2 in those contests.
- Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have scored 20+ points in the same game 43 times this season, the second most of any duo in the league, trailing only LeBron James and Kyrie Irving (47). Lillard and McCollum have each scored 20+ points in 36 games in 2016-17, the fourth most in the league.
Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. STATS.com contributed to this report.
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