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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers are playing their their best basketball of the season just in time for the stretch run. 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 whether Damian Lillard should get consideration for MVP, the reasons for the Blazers' improved play and predictions for the next four games. (Story continues below)
LISTEN: 3-on-3 Blazers podcast
1. Is Damian Lillard worthy of MVP consideration?
Nate: Absolutely. He shouldn’t be the winner but he should be in consideration for top 5 votes. James Harden is the runaway MVP choice this season, barring an unforeseen collapse. But outside of Harden, I think the field is wide open and you can make the argument Lillard has had as big of an impact on the Blazers’ success as any player in this league. In the 21 games since he returned from injury, Lillard has averaged 28.6 points and 7 assists per game and is shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc. Those numbers are similar to Harden’s over the last two years when he was in the MVP discussion. Lillard is in complete command of this team right now. He’s stepped up with big offensive performances when needed and is putting the Blazers on his back. But in order for him to get votes, the Blazers need to keep winning at the rate they are right now.
Jared: I don't think so. I think when we're talking about MVP contention, it should be limited to the players who actually have a chance at winning the award, and there are only three players I would consider for MVP: James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. In my opinion, team success should play nearly as large a role as individual stats in determining the league's most valuable player. No other players, no matter how well they've played this season, can match their team's success to the Rockets or Warriors. I don't consider Lillard an MVP candidate, but the same goes for Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, among others. This isn't to knock Lillard or any of these other players. With the way Lillard is playing right now, he's moving very close to superstar and Top-10 status and that is something to celebrate. I think he has a good chance, if the Blazers keep playing well, to make another All-NBA team. But let's pause any MVP talk until he's leading Portland to 50- or 60-win seasons.
Orlando: A couple of weeks ago I would have thought this question was absurd, but Lillard has done enough to be in the conversation. Brian Freeman of BlazersEdge compared Lillard’s numbers to Derrick Rose’s stats during his MVP season and they are very close. Lillard’s are arguably better. Here’s the caveat, Rose took the Bulls to the top seed in the East, the Blazers sit in sixth. The Blazers have to continue to win and move up the standings in order for the rest of the country outside of the PNW to take notice. Big games on national TV help too and the Blazers have a couple opportunities against the best in the West. His All-Star performance adds exposure and shows how good he is against the league’s elite. Lillard had one of the greatest months in Trail Blazer history and it likely isn’t enough to win player of the month in the Western Conference because of the tear Anthony Davis is on. Lillard is having a special season and deserves to be in the conversation, but just like his All-Star game snubs of the past, he’ll be judged on wins and losses. If the Blazers finish in third place in the West, Lillard will get some MVP consideration, but James Harden has locked this thing up.
2. Why are the Blazers taking off now as opposed to the .500 team they were the first half of the season?
Jared: Over the past 18 games, the Blazers have the fourth-best record in the NBA at 13-5. During that stretch, Portland ranks eighth in offense and 11th in defense. Early in the season, the defense was great but the offense was terrible. The team seems to have solved its issues on offense while keeping its defense around the Top 10. A big reason for the improved play has been Lillard, who has upped his scoring, averaging 29 points over the past 18 games, while improving his efficiency, shooting nearly 41 percent from the 3-point line. He's playing like a superstar. CJ McCollum has remained solid, and the Blazers are getting consistent production from Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and more recently Maurice Harkless. Nurkic's improvement has been especially impressive. He's shooting better (nearly 53 percent), rebounding more (almost 10 per game) and continues to play excellent defense. I'm not saying Nurk Fever is back, but his production over the past 18 games is pretty dang close to what he did during that electrifying 20-game stretch last season.
Orlando: This has been a common theme of the Blazers recently, playing their best ball at the end of the year. If you ask Lillard, he’ll tell you it’s a higher level of urgency. I can’t argue with that. Lillard has elevated his game and his teammates have followed in his footsteps. I also think the trade deadline takes a toll on the team. Outside of Lillard, who else do you think had immunity from being traded? Maybe CJ McCollum? Even he was trying to ignore the noise the final day or so. It’s got to feel good to get through that and focus on playing. Things are clicking, they are playing with trust and understand their roles. They know what it’s like to be an 8 seed and get swept. I’m sure they haven’t forgotten what that’s like either.
Nate: They’ve put together the offense and defense, and are getting consistent contributions from secondary options. The Blazers are 13-5 since being 22-21. In those 18 games, Jusuf Nurkic has had the best net rating of any Blazer. He’s been much more efficient on the offensive end, shooting a higher percentage and limiting turnovers. He’s also been one of the Blazers’ best defensive players. He’s essentially been the guy he was last year when the Blazers went 14-6 in the 20 games he played. Also, the return of an engaged Maurice Harkless has been a difference maker. Similarly to Nurkic, he’s playing like the guy we saw last year. In the nine games since he returned to the lineup, the Blazers have the fourth best defensive rating in the NBA. He’s also averaging 9 points per game and shooting 56 percent from the field. Getting consistent contributions from those two and Al-Farouq Aminu alongside the scoring the Blazers already get from McCollum and Lillard have been the key to their recent success.
3. Prediction time! The Blazers next four games include home contests against the Timberwolves, Thunder and Knicks and a road game against the Lakers. Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
- Nate: 40-21
- Jared: 40-21
- Orlando: 39-21
Orlando: This week the Blazers go 3-1. Playing three out of four at home helps, but the next two are toss-ups. Jeff Teague is playing well, but without Jimmy Butler, the Blazers defense slows down Minnesota’s offense. I’ll take the Thunder to end the Blazers streak. Two bad teams at the tail end of the week means two more wins, even on a back to back.
Nate: The big talk this week is how the Blazers are nine games over .500 for the first time since LaMarcus Aldridge left town. But how about 13 games over? That’s what I’m predicting. The Blazers already beat the Timberwolves at the Moda Center without Jimmy Butler. I think they win again in a crucial matchup for playoff seeding. The Thunder have fallen off defensively and given their inability to stop the Blazers in the previous two matchups, I don’t see them stopping them now without Andre Roberson. The Lakers are playing better, 11-5 in their last 16 games, but I think Portland wins a close one. I’m also giving the Blazers the nod over the Knicks despite the road-to-home back-to-back.
Jared: I think the Blazers win all four games. The Timberwolves have won two in a row after losing Jimmy Butler, their leading scorer and best defensive player. But those two wins were against the Bulls and Kings. Minnesota was struggling even before Butler went down, having lost eight of 12, including a loss against Portland in a game that Butler sat out. The Thunder are 7-7 since losing Andre Roberson to injury. They have won four of five, but the four wins were against the Grizzlies, Kings, Magic and Mavericks, with the loss a 32-point rout against the Warriors. The Lakers are playing well, winning 7 of 10. Even though this game is in L.A., it's the first game back for the Lakers following a four-game road trip. They'll be tired and the Blazers are a better team. The Knicks have lost 10 of 11 and aren't even trying to win games anymore.
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