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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Blazers waltz into the All-Star break on a high note after beating the defending champion Warriors on Wednesday. With All-Star weekend upon us and the final stretch of the season on the horizon, it's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
This week's questions focus on beating the Warriors, the re-emergence of Maurice Harkless and predictions for the final 24 games.
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1. The Blazers' win against the Warriors snapped an 11-game losing streak against the defending champs. What surprised you most about the Blazers' most impressive victory of the season?
Jared: I was surprised to see Portland close out the Warriors. The Blazers got off to a big lead but we've seen them do that before. It was an encouraging sign to see Portland make big plays down the stretch to beat a superior team. We haven't seen a lot of that this season. It wasn't all Damian Lillard down the stretch, either. He scored with about four minutes left to put the Blazers up eight, but didn't score again until he hit two free throws to ice the game with a few seconds left. During that four-minute stretch, several other Blazers players stepped up. Jusuf Nurkic hit a big shot inside, CJ McCollum nailed a clutch 3-pointer and Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner hit four free throws late to hold off the Warriors.
Orlando: When Portland took a 20-point lead in the first half, I wondered how the Blazers would respond when the Warriors made a push. What surprised me was how the Blazers weathered the storm. They’ve given up big leads and lost games this season and this one could have gone the same way. There were a number of times when it looked like the Warriors had taken control of the game. One moment stood out to me, when Stephen Curry tied it up at 99 in the fourth and CJ McCollum knocked down a jumper on the ensuing possession. Portland had an answer each time Golden State was in striking distance. When things got tight down the stretch, they knocked down six straight free throws over the final 18 seconds. We saw the Blazers close a game out against a quality opponent, something they’ve struggled throughout the season.
Nate: I was surprised by the relentless pressure they put on the Warriors from the tip. The Blazers built a 20-point lead in the first half but we've seen teams give away those leads against the Warriors this season. And Golden State made their run. But Portland always had an answer and continued to play with poise. It was also nice to see the rest of the team provide Damian Lillard some offensive support after the dismal performance against the Jazz on Sunday. Given that the Blazers may end up facing the Warriors in the postseason, this was an important win. They've had close bouts against Golden State in the playoffs the last two seasons. But they were still only 1-8 in those matchups. However, if you're a Blazers fan, you're hoping this win will propel them to a strong finish to the season so they can avoid Golden State in the first round because the Blazers can't do what they did last night for a seven-game series.
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2. Maurice Harkless is back in the rotation, playing almost 30 minutes per game over the past six contests. Should Harkless stay in the rotation? Should he remain a starter?
Orlando: If his shooting continues to be consistent, we’ll see a lot more of Maurice Harkless. He’s had a couple of big games this month (Celtics, Kings) that proves he should be in the rotation. It’s all about matchups too. Maurice Harkless can defend and he’s got length on the perimeter — that can be a problem for teams. On the flip side, the minutes aren’t matching the production on the stat sheet. In 30 minutes against the Jazz, he finished with five points and five rebounds. In 27 minutes against the Warriors, he chalked up three points, three rebounds and three assists. He’s still got a long way to go before I’m pushing for him to be a lock for the starting lineup.
Nate: He's earned a spot in the rotation for the time being but we're still seeing some of the offensive inconsistencies that plagued him early in the season. He's had two strong games, 19 points vs. Boston and 15 vs. Sacramento, but he's only averaged five points per game in the other four games and was largely not involved. Those type of performances are what led him to the bench. But during this six-game stretch, the Blazers' net rating is better with him in the starting lineup than Evan Turner. I'd still test the waters for a few more games but I need to see more consistency before I believe he should be a permanent member of the rotation the rest of the season.
Jared: Harkless is playing better, but he's still plagued by inconsistency on both ends of the court. If plugging Harkless back into the rotation means fewer minutes for Shabazz Napier, who has been a consistent contributor all season, or Zach Collins, who has paired with Ed Davis to form an effective reserve frontcourt, I'd rather see Harkless go back to the bench. If you could count on 8-12 points with solid shooting and defense from Harkless every game, it would be a different story. But he's not doing that. The Blazers need to shorten their rotation right now to players they can count on every game. Harkless doesn't meet that criteria. The starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Aminu and Nurkic remains one of Portland's most effective units. Those five should be the starters when the Blazers come back from the All-Star break.
3. Prediction time! After the All-Star break, the Blazers play 24 games to finish the season. How many of those 24 games will they win, and where will they be seeded in the West?
- Jared: 38-20
- Nate: 37-21
- Orlando: 37-21
Nate: The Blazers schedule is not easy in these last 24 games but I still think they'll end up with a winning record and finish the season with around 45 wins. Out of the 24 games remaining, 17 are against teams competing for playoff spots, including two matchups against the Jazz, Rockets, Thunder and Clippers each. The Blazers are currently the No. 6 seed but only a game ahead of the ninth-seeded Clippers, yet still only 2 ½ games back of the third-seeded Spurs. The only two certainties I see for the Blazers in the final two months of the regular season are: 1) It's going to be a lot fun. 2) Don’t go chalk. The Blazers will win some games we don't expect, like the Golden State victory. But they'll also lose some real head-scratchers. It's going to be a wild finish.
Jared: It's possible Portland goes on a post-All-Star-break tear like they've done the past two seasons. But the strength of the Blazers' remaining schedule makes that an unlikely scenario. I predict the Blazers will go 13-11 the rest of the way, finishing with a 45-37 record. Of those 24 remaining games, 16 are against winning teams. Just going off what the Blazers have done against winning teams this season, I believe the Blazers will go 6-10 in those games. And based on what Portland has done against sub-.500 teams this year, I think they'll go 7-1 in the eight other games. Forty-five wins doesn't sound so bad, but the West is so tough right now, I think the Blazers will finish in seventh place in the West. The margin is razor thin, though. Another couple wins and Portland could finish several spots higher. Another couple losses and they're out of the playoffs. It's that tight.
Orlando: Every game seems to matter a little more as they head towards the postseason and only a couple of teams are safe in the West. The difference between third and 10th place in the Western Conference is 4 ½ games. Portland’s schedule is tough. Sixteen of the final 24 games are against teams with winning records. Many of those games are against teams with similar records too (like facing the Jazz, Clippers and Thunder twice). Those games will be pivotal. They will have to win some games they’re not supposed to and win the eight games against teams with losing records, or hope teams in the West continue to beat up on each other. I’m sticking to my 45-win prediction I made at the beginning of the season. That means they have to go 13-11 to get there. The problem is, I don’t see the teams ahead of them in the standings taking a step back. I’m guessing the Blazers end up as the sixth seed in the playoffs.
If you'd like to submit a Blazers question for our panel to answer during the 3-on-3 podcast, send us an email here.
WHAT IS 3-ON-3 BLAZERS?
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3. Can't join us on Thursday? Not a problem. You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
MEET OUR PANELISTS
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
LISTEN TO KGW'S 3-ON-3 BLAZERS PODCAST