PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers passed the midway mark of the regular season this week, and things are looking pretty good.
The Blazers (25-17) are a season-high eight games over .500, tied for fourth place in the Western Conference, and an easier schedule awaits Portland in the second half of the season.
This week's podcast focuses on what to expect from the Blazers in the second half of the season, what the team does about the small forward position with Maurice Harkless ailing, and predictions for the Blazers' next three games.
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Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
1. At the start of December, we talked about how the Blazers were about to enter a difficult 15-game stretch that should be used as a litmus test moving forward this season. That stretch of games started with Minnesota on Dec. 8 and ended with Portland’s win over Houston on Saturday. The Blazers went 9-6 in those 15 games, 13 of which were against Western Conference teams competing for playoff spots. What did we learn about this team? How do you feel about this team heading into the second half of the season? Are they poised for another surge?
Jared: I feel confident the Blazers will make the playoffs this season, and considering their second-half strength of schedule is among the easiest in the NBA, I expect them to challenge for one of the top four seeds. During this critical 15-game stretch, the Blazers had wins against the Raptors (31-12), Clippers (24-16), Warriors (27-14), 76ers (27-15) and Rockets (23-17). Their performance over the past month proves this is one of the better regular-season teams in the NBA. Questions surrounding the playoff viability of this roster remain, though. That's the way it is for a team that's lost 10 consecutive playoff games and been swept in the first round the past two seasons. I'm most curious to see if Jusuf Nurkic’s production over the past eight games is just a hot stretch, or if this is what the Blazers can expect from him going forward. I believe the Nurkic we're seeing right now, a player who consistently demands double teams and through whom the Blazers can run their offense when teams direct all their attention at Damian Lillard, could really change Portland's fortunes in the playoffs.
Orlando: The Blazers 15-game stretch confirms what we’ve been saying all along. When they’re on, they can compete and beat anyone, just ask the Warriors, Rockets and Raptors. We’ve also seen what happens when the supporting cast pulls a disappearing act — just ask the Bucks and Jazz. They’re winning the games they’re supposed to and have generally been good against playoff-caliber opponents. They’re on pace for 48 wins after facing one of the toughest strength of schedule in the league up to this point. With a seemingly easier schedule ahead, 50 wins isn’t as ridiculous as it once sounded. We’ve learned Portland is a good team, but just like last season, they’ll be in a similar position fighting for spots 3-10 in the Western Conference.
Nate: The Blazers showed they are a legitimate playoff team. Going into this stretch of games I, and a lot of Blazers fans, had questions about whether this year’s Blazers were really a playoff team in a crowded Western Conference. And this stretch of games did not start well after uninspired losses to Houston and Memphis dropped the Blazers to 15-13. But Portland rebounded, going 8-4 in the last 12 games thanks to the emergence of Jusuf Nurkic, more frequent contributions from bench players, and a return to average defense. I think Portland is in for another strong second-half finish to the season. Nurkic has shown no signs of letting up and the Blazers will face an easier schedule, although there will be more road games. But Portland has answered the call in their last two road games, beating Golden State and Sacramento. I don’t foresee another 13-game winning streak, but I do see them reaching the postseason comfortably, or at least as comfortable as it can be for a second-tier Western Conference team. Once the postseason begins though, my confidence will undoubtedly wane given Portland’s recent history.
2. There’s some instability at the Blazers’ starting small forward spot. Maurice Harkless continues to be hampered by knee soreness. Evan Turner is playing through pain. Meanwhile, Jake Layman has played well in limited fill-in minutes. How should the Blazers handle their predicament at the small forward position?
Orlando: The nagging left knee injury of Maurice Harkless has been a concern all season and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better. It’s got to be tough for him. He’s fighting through it and trying to be there for his team, but this is a real problem. The Blazers are better with him on the court, no doubt. Without him, there’s instability at small forward. It’s going to be by committee to get it done. Matchups will matter and Coach Stotts will have to mix up the rotation. They’ll have to ride the hot hand. I don’t think it’s as simple as having one guy fill the void if Harkless is out for an extended period of time.
Nate: In the short term? Weather the storm. I’d like to see Evan Turner enter the starting lineup when Harkless is out and have Layman come off the bench. The lineup of Nurkic, Aminu, Turner, McCollum and Lillard has a +15.4 net rating so far this season, the best of any Blazers lineup that has played more than 50 minutes together. The usual starting four paired with Layman has posted a net rating of just +2.9 this season. The benefit of having Layman come off the bench is he provides instant energy, which his teammates recognize. The downside to this rotation is Evan Turner has been the one consistent contributor from the bench all season. Who will be that consistent performer if he’s in the starting lineup? As for the longer term, the front office must exhaust trade options to bring in a “3 and D” wing who they can count on. When healthy, Harkless undoubtedly elevates the Blazers. But with this lingering knee issue, you can’t count on him being available. When the postseason arrives, that could prove to be costly.
Jared: The best scenario, as we've said multiple times on this podcast, is for a healthy Harkless in the starting lineup, with Turner running the second unit off the bench. Layman can move in and out of the rotation depending on the hot hand and matchups. But the Blazers can't trust Harkless right now. It's admirable that he's trying to play through this, and he's done well when he's been able to stay on the court, but the mystery surrounding his sore knee makes him an unreliable option. Neither Turner nor Layman are a great choice to replace him. If you put Turner in the starting lineup, he's not running the offense, a role that's allowed him to thrive this season. Plus, he's banged up, and his recent production proves it. Over the past 10 games, he's shooting barely 40 percent from the floor and averaging 6.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists, all down from his season averages. He needs to stay where he is in the second unit and hopefully get healthy. The Blazers can start Layman when Harkless is out, but it's a stopgap move at best. He just doesn't impact the game that much. The Blazers have about a month to sort this out, but if Harkless' sore knee continues to be a problem, Portland should use its first-round pick and other assets to try and acquire a starting small forward at the trade deadline. Otto Porter? Wes Matthews? Kent Bazemore? DeMarre Carroll? Rodney Hood? Courtney Lee? Reggie Bullock? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Jabari Parker?
3. We’ve already picked the Blazers to close out the homestand with a win against Charlotte on Friday. But Portland plays three more games, at Denver, at Sacramento, and vs. Cleveland, before we talk again next week. Which games do they win? Which do they lose?
Nate: All three of us picked the same outcomes last week and I have a feeling that may be the case again this week. I’m going to go with 2-1. The Blazers lose on the road against Denver, who is 16-3 at home this season, the best in the NBA. And after picking the Blazers to lose to Sacramento to start 2019, I think I’ve learned my lesson. I’m going to go with Portland to pick up a win over the Kings, who are 1-5 in their last six games. And except for the early season loss to the Wizards, Portland has taken care of business at home against weaker teams. I expect them to do so again against the Cavaliers.
Jared: I'm really looking forward to the Denver game. Those matchups between Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic are among my favorites. But I can't pick Portland to beat Denver on the road. The Nuggets are 16-3 at home and one of only four teams (the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics are the other three) that rank in the Top 10 on offense and defense. Even though it's a back-to-back, I'm going to pick Portland to beat Sacramento on the road. The Kings are a good story, but they're still surprisingly mediocre at home and have a negative net rating for the season. The Blazers are a better team and will win. The Cavaliers are the worst team in the NBA and it's not close. Easy win in Portland.
Orlando: I’m guessing this week our predictions look a lot alike. A win at Denver would be huge, but I don’t see it happening. The Nuggets currently sport the best record in the West and one of the best home records in the league. They’ve won six of seven and haven’t lost at home in nearly two months. I’ll take Denver. Sacramento has been respectable this season, but the team is fading, losing five of its past six games. Give me Portland for the win. Do we really have to talk about the Cavaliers? The league’s worst team, 'nuff said. Blazers go 2-1 this week.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 21-18
- Nate: 21-18
- Orlando: 21-18
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.