PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers are coming off an impressive win on the road against one of the hottest teams in the NBA since the All-Star break.
Portland, which has won seven of 10 since the All-Star break, is in fifth place in the Western Conference standings, but only a half-game behind Houston and Oklahoma City, tied for third.
Things are looking good, even if as head coach Terry Stotts likes to say, the team still has a lot of work to do.
As the playoffs approach -- the Blazers' last game of the season is less than a month away -- is this team good enough to not only snap its 10-game losing streak in the playoffs, but also win a first-round series?
That's the focus of this week's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast. We discuss whether the team can make it to the second round this season, talk about the keys to a potential playoff series victory for the Blazers, and then make predictions for the next four games, including an important road game against the Spurs.
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Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
1. The Blazers split a pair of games against likely playoff teams this past week. Given realistic potential first-round playoffs matchups, what's your confidence level the Blazers advance to the second round?
Nate: Slim to none. My confidence is as low as it’s been since the beginning of the season. While the Blazers are only a half-game out of the No. 3 seed, I don’t really see them getting the third seed as realistic. I don’t envision Portland closing the season better than Oklahoma City and Houston. So, at best I see the Blazers being a No. 4 seed. And I don’t think it’s that realistic they fall below the No. 6 seed. So, with that in mind it’s likely the Blazers play either the Rockets or Thunder. I have zero confidence in the Blazers in a 7-game series against either of those teams. The Blazers have had no answer to Paul George and Russell Westbrook all season. And although the Blazers are 2-1 against the Rockets this season, they haven’t played them since Jan. 5. Houston is playing at a different level now. Sorry to say it, Blazers fans but I have a really difficult time seeing this team advancing to the second round.
Jared: As much as I’m enjoying this season, my confidence in this team as a playoff threat hasn’t changed since last season. I don’t think it’s a good sign that it seems like everything has to go right for Portland to advance out of the first round. They need to get homecourt advantage. Maurice Harkless needs to be healthy and playing at his best. Jusuf Nurkic has to stay out of foul trouble, and be effective enough to stay on the court even when opponents go small. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both have to shoot the ball well. Al-Farouq Aminu needs to hit open 3-pointers. The bench needs to not give up leads. The problem with forecasting the playoffs for this team is that, considering their recent playoff history, it’s hard to have confidence in any of the things above, regardless of the Blazers’ opponent. I’m not confident that the Blazers can get out of the first round, but I am certainly open to the team changing my mind once we get there.
Orlando: I was feeling pretty good about their chances when we talked last week. That’s all changed for me. Based on the likelihood of facing OKC or Houston, my confidence level is low. Portland had a chance to win a playoff-type game, at home, against the Thunder and couldn’t put them away for the fourth straight time this season. The Blazers wanted that game badly. The Big 3 put up huge numbers and didn’t get much of a lift from the supporting cast. This story sounds all too familiar to me. If Portland can jump into the three seed and/or end up facing San Antonio, LA Clippers or even Utah, I like their chances. If the standings hold true, and they end up with the Rockets or Thunder, it feels like another first round exit is brewing.
2. If Portland is going to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs this season, which player is key to that happening, if you could choose just one?
Jared: If I can choose just one, it’s Maurice Harkless, though Jusuf Nurkic is a very close second for me. With Harkless, we’ve seen for multiple seasons that when he’s healthy and thriving in his role, it completely changes how dynamic this team can be. Harkless has been thriving since the All-Star break, so it’s not a surprise to see him right behind Nurkic for the highest plus-minus on the team since the break, with the Blazers outscoring teams by 12.0 points per game while he’s on the court. It’s also not a surprise to see the starting five taking things to a new level with Harkless playing this way. Since the break, Lillard, McCollum, Harkless, Aminu and Nurkic are outscoring teams by 22.7 points per 100 possessions. A lot of things went wrong for the Blazers in last season’s playoff sweep against the Pelicans, but chief among them was Harkless' injury, which limited him to a handful of ineffective minutes. There's no other player on the roster that can duplicate what Harkless brings to the table when he's at his best.
Orlando: It’s all about the role players. You know what you’re going to get from Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic most nights. What’s tough to account for are the guys around them. I’m sticking with Maurice Harkless as the guy who has to play well in order for them to advance past the first round. There’s a reason why Lillard has called Harkless the “X-Factor” on a number of occasions. His double-digit scoring games have almost always resulted in a win. It’s not just his scoring, but he’s going to be asked to guard some of the best players on the court, like James Harden and Paul George. He could be the difference between a first- or second-round appearance.
Nate: I know the league has drifted to 3-point shooting but to me the most important player is Jusuf Nurkic and it’s not close. The Blazers must find a way to keep Nurkic on the floor. He’s always been critical to their defensive success. Blazers fans saw it in last week’s overtime loss against Oklahoma City. The Thunder time and time again went at Enes Kanter after Nurkic was ejected and Portland had no answer defensively. If Nurkic can stay on the floor, he must be the efficient offensive threat Blazers fans have grown accustomed to seeing the last couple months. In addition to averaging a double-double, Nurkic has averaged nearly four assists per game in 2019. The Blazers need Nurkic to play at that level. In last year’s series against the Pelicans, Nurkic averaged just 23 minutes per game and shot 48 percent from the field. If that happens again the Blazers have no shot at advancing to the second round.
3. Portland plays four games between now and the next time we meet, Friday at the Pelicans (30-40), Saturday at the Spurs (39-29), and then home Monday against the Pacers (43-25) and Wednesday against the Mavericks (27-40). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Nate: The Blazers go 3-1. The Pelicans continue to fade and although the playoff sweep happened almost a year ago, I think Portland would love to sweep the regular season series in response. I’m also going to give the Blazers the nod at home against Indiana and Dallas. But Portland drops an important game in San Antonio. Not only is it the second game of a road back-to-back for the Blazers, but San Antonio has been 26-7 at home this year. It’s one of the reasons for their current six-game winning streak. I’ve got to go with the surging Spurs.
Orlando: I’m going 3-1 this week. The loss is coming at San Antonio. It’s the second of a back-to-back for both teams, but Portland is the team traveling. The Spurs are really good at home, sporting the second-best home record in the West. They’re also on a roll right now, winning their last six games. Dallas has lost six in a row and New Orleans has lost four straight. Indiana is tough, but the Blazers have owned the East. It’s the Pacers' second of a four-game road trip. I’ll give the edge to the Blazers playing at the Moda Center.
Jared: The Blazers should beat the Pelicans, who’ve lost four in a row overall, and are mediocre at home, having lost four in a row there. I’m also confident in the Blazers at home and am picking them to beat the Pacers, who have lost five of eight, and the Mavericks, who’ve lost 11 of 12. As for the other game, it’s so tough to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, especially on the second night of a back-to-back. Look at the difference in the score of the three games between the teams this season. The Blazers beat the Spurs by an average of 11 points in two games in Portland, but lost to the Spurs in San Antonio by 13. San Antonio is 26-7 at home. Homecourt advantage should give the Spurs the edge in this game ... but I'm picking the Blazers. Portland has won both games in Portland against the Spurs pretty confidently. In the loss in San Antonio, the Blazers got 77 points from the Big 3, plus another 20 from Aminu. The problem? The bench scored a total of 13 points, all had negative plus-minuses, and were outscored by 16 points when they were on the court. I believe the Blazers' starting five will play well against the Spurs, even in San Antonio, and I'm going to put my confidence in the Blazers' new bench additions to help lift Portland to a surprising victory in San Antonio. And since I always like to back up my crazy predictions with data, here's some to back it up. In the past two seasons, Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood have combined to average 26 points per game on 56 percent shooting in seven games against the Spurs. It's a perfect 4-0 week for the Blazers.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 38-26
- Nate: 36-28
- Orlando: 36-28
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
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 and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and 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.