Blazers home opener: 3 things to watch

Trailblazers home opener tonight

PORTLAND, Ore. — After a successful 2-1 road trip to the start the season, the Portland Trail Blazers return home for a four-game home stand, beginning with Tuesday night's game against the New Orleans Pelicans (1-2).

If Portland wants to build on its strong start to the season, the next month gives the team as good a chance as it will see all season.

The Blazers play 11 of their next 13 games at home. Eight of the games are against teams that finished with sub-.500 records last season. Portland also faces six teams — the Pelicans, Clippers, Jazz, Thunder, Grizzlies and Nuggets — against whom they'll likely be competing for playoff position all season.

UPCOMING SCHEDULE

  • Tuesday: Pelicans, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday: Clippers, 7 p.m.
  • Saturday: Suns, 7 p.m.
  • Monday: Raptors, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 1: at Jazz, 6 p.m.
  • Thursday, Nov. 2: Lakers, 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, Nov. 5: Thunder, 6 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 7: Grizzlies, 7 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 10: Nets, 7 p.m.
  • Monday, Nov. 13: Nuggets, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, Nov. 15: Magic, 7 p.m.
  • Friday, Nov. 17: at Kings, 7 p.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 18: Kings, 7 p.m.

Here are three things to watch Tuesday night as the Blazers try to win their 17th consecutive home opener:

What's up with Nurkic?

No Blazers player entered the season with more hype than Jusuf Nurkic. But in Portland's first three games, Nurkic has struggled to make shots and control the ball.

The Blazers center is averaging 13 points, eight rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. But he's shooting only 35 percent from the field and is averaging 4.3 turnovers per game.

Nurkic is hitting the midrange jumper, shooting 50 percent on more than three attempts per game, but he is missing a lot of shots inside, making only 37 percent of his shots inside the restricted area and 17 percent in the paint. Last season, Nurkic made 55 percent of his shots in the restricted area and 48 percent in the paint.

Turnovers are also a concern for Nurkic. He's averaging 5.8 turnovers per 36 minutes through the first three games, a significant increase over his career average of 3.5 per 36 minutes.

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Nurkic showed some positive signs in the second half against Milwaukee. He made 4 of 7 shots, scored 11 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and had two assists and a block in 16 minutes.

One area where Nurkic has excelled is on defense. His defensive rating is 90.7, third-best on the team. His defensive rating with the team last season was 103.7, which was the best mark among Blazers who played more than eight minutes per game. So far, he's been even better this season.

Nurkic's struggles shouldn't be cause for concern yet. He's not an elite finisher in the paint, but he's been much better throughout his career than what he's shown so far this season and those percentages will likely improve to more closely resemble his career averages. Nurkic has always been a high-turnover center, but improved focus could help him reduce his current averages by a turnover or two per game.

To his credit, Nurkic recognizes he needs to play better. He said he needs to keep working hard and trust in his ability.

"I must be better, and I'm going to be," he told NBC Sports Northwest's Jason Quick. "It just takes time. I'm getting there. On defense, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. If I could make shots, it would be different. Unfortunately, I'm missing, so I just have to get back to work and trust myself."

Damian Lillard's defense

The most surprising stat of the first three games is 88.6. That's Damian Lillard's defensive rating, second best on the team behind only Al-Farouq Aminu.

Seeing Lillard's name up among the Blazers' best defenders like Aminu, Nurkic and Maurice Harkless is a nice surprise. Last season, Lillard's defensive rating was 108.9, among the worst in the league at his position.

It's early, but Lillard is playing much better defense this season. He's getting more deflections and navigating screens better. The improvement is reflected in his stats. Lillard is averaging five deflections, two steals and more than a block per game.

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Can Lillard keep it up? He'll probably spend much of the game guarding Jrue Holiday and Jameer Nelson, the Pelicans top point guards. He'll switch over and defend guards E'Twaun Moore and Ian Clark as well.

None of the Pelicans guards are elite offensive threats. If Lillard's improvement on that end of the court is legitimate, Blazers fans should see another impressive defensive performance tonight from their star guard.

Can Blazers slow Davis and Cousins?

The Pelicans have two of the best big men in the NBA in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Though both play the same position, they haven't got in each other's way this season and are both putting up elite numbers.

Davis is averaging about 32 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks per game. Cousins is averaging about 28 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and a steal per game.

The Pelicans' two big men combine for almost 50 percent of the team's field goal attempts each game. The only other player who averages double-digit shot attempts has been Holiday, who is putting up 13 shots per game but shooting poorly (33 percent).

It will be interesting to see how the Blazers choose to defend the Pelicans. Will they stick with their regular rotation? Can Aminu match up defensively with either Cousins or Davis? Or will the Pelicans' big men force head coach Terry Stotts to go big, giving more time to players like Ed Davis, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard?

Jared Cowley is a digital producer at KGW. Follow him on Twitter here.

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