It was a record-setting and milestone-achieving night in Portland on Wednesday night. Damian Lillard hit a career-high and franchise-record 10 3-pointers and coach Terry Stotts won his 400th career game as the Trail Blazers rallied to beat the Orlando Magic to snap a three-game losing streak.
Not everything is rosy, though. The Trail Blazers (13-8) have just three wins in their past eight games and had to overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half to beat the Magic at home on three days rest. And Portland's schedule over the next month-plus doesn't look favorable for a team that has already played the fourth-most-difficult slate of games in the NBA up to this point.
It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week, we discuss what's been ailing the Blazers over the past two weeks, the improvement of Jusuf Nurkic, and predict the outcome of Portland's next three games.
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Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
1. The Blazers snapped their three-game losing streak with Wednesday's too-close-for-comfort 115-112 win against the Magic, but we can't ignore what went wrong in the two weeks before that. The Blazers lost three in a row, including losses to the Bucks and Warriors by a combined 71 points, and they lost five of seven overall before Wednesday's win. What went wrong for the Blazers during that stretch?
Jared: Three things: defense, shooting and fatigue. Over the past eight games, the Blazers' defense has been terrible. They rank near the bottom of the league in opponent field-goal percentage (29th); opponent 3-point percentage (30th); opponent points per game (29th) and defensive rating (29th). During that same stretch, the Blazers haven't been able to make a shot from anywhere on the court. They rank 28th in the NBA in field-goal percentage, 17th in 3-point percentage and 18th in free-throw percentage. Accordingly, their offensive rating during the past eight games ranks 24th. Finally, the Blazers are tired. It's not an excuse to say their schedule has been grueling. Portland has played one of the hardest schedules in the NBA up to this point, and the six-game road trip they had to endure was brutal. The Blazers played six games in nine days, in four different time zones, traveling nearly 8,000 miles. The last two games were against two of the best teams in the NBA, the Bucks and Warriors, who sport a combined 30-13 record. The schedule can't explain away all of the Blazers' poor play, but it shouldn't be ignored either.
Orlando: Whew! That was a rough road trip and it followed them home too. It wasn’t just that they went 2-4 away from Rip City, but it’s how they got there. It’s not surprising that Terry Stotts, who’s mild-mannered most of the time, had to lay into his team at halftime of the Magic game. They spent the last week getting embarrassed. They had entire quarters get away from them. Clippers go on a 20-4 run and out score Portland 38-16 in the third quarter. A similar situation with Golden State with a 22-5 run and a 35-17 quarter. The Bucks game started that way and turned into the sixth-largest loss by deficit the franchise has seen. Zach Collins described the defense lately as “terrible” and lacking intensity on that side of the ball. Coach Stotts points to the pick and roll defense, transition defense and the communication needs to be better. Damian Lillard’s 10 3-pointers helped bail them out of what could’ve been another disappointing loss.
Nate: Simply put, the NBA is a 3-and-D league and the Blazers didn’t hit 3-pointers or play solid defense during that stretch. When the Blazers lost 5 of 7 games, they shot just 32 percent from beyond the arc. During the three-game losing streak, they shot just 25 percent from three and the team’s defensive rating was 122, both second-worst in the NBA during that span. Coach Stotts has talked about how Portland’s season has been a split of two seasons. The first 10 games, the Blazers were consistent on both the offensive and defensive ends. The team was fifth in the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating, and had a +8.9 net rating. The Blazers went 7-3 in those games. But in the 11 games since then, Portland’s offensive rating dropped to 13th in the NBA, and its defensive rating has been the third-worst. The Blazers have gone 6-5 during that stretch. It took a Stotts tongue-lashing at halftime against the Magic to get the Blazers to re-focus. Now that he has their attention, we’ll see if their play on both ends of the floor returns to what we saw the first 10 games.
2. The past two games proved how valuable Jusuf Nurkic has been to the Blazers this season. On Sunday against the Clippers, he bruised his shoulder and didn't play in the second half. Without Nurkic, the Blazers were a mess in the third quarter, blew a 13-point halftime lead and ended up losing by four. On Monday, Nurkic had his 11th double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 rebounds. He also had a plus-minus of +8, the second-highest mark on the team behind Damian Lillard, and was able to neutralize Magic star center Nikola Vucevic. And unlike the rest of his teammates, he actually made his free throws. What's going right for Nurkic this season?
Orlando: The Clippers game is a great example of what Jusuf Nurkic means to the team. He’s elevated his game this season from a consistency standpoint, he’s confident and more comfortable in his role this season. His intangibles are undeniable. Nurk’s size, ability to alter shots, and bang in the paint changes the game. Along with the double doubles, he sports a career-high in offensive rebounding, he’s fifth in the league in offensive rebound percentage and eighth in rebound percentage. Also, the dude knows how to set a screen and guys are cashing in. He’s fourth in the NBA in total screen assists and he’s averaging five per game, third-best in the league. He’s also top 10 in contesting two-point shots. Nurkic is impacting the game in so many ways.
Nate: Nurkic's stats so far this season are similar to when Nurk Fever swept through the Rose City and it’s because he’s been a more efficient offensive player. He’s taking less shots this season, but finishing better at the rim and averaging more points. Last season, Nurkic’s offensive rating was 105.6. It’s been 114.7 so far this season, the highest of his career and comparable with the 113.3 offensive rating he had during the 20 games after he was traded to Portland. He’s averaging a career-high 10.5 rebounds per game, just a tad above the 10.4 rebounds he averaged during Nurk Fever. He’s also shooting nearly five free throws per game, the highest of his career since Nurk Fever, which tells me he’s not shying away from contact like he was last season. And he’s shooting 76 percent from the free-throw line, which is also a career-best. His defense hasn’t been as stifling as it was last season, but there’s still time for that to improve.
Jared: Nurkic is playing the best basketball of his career, which means he's playing even better than he did during the 20-game stretch in 2017 that generated a widespread outbreak of Nurk Fever. He's shooting better from the field and the free-throw line than he did in 2017. He's averaging more rebounds and the same number of points while playing fewer minutes per game. He's also reduced his turnovers and fouls. After 21 games, Nurkic ranks as the fifth-best center in the NBA, according to ESPN's real-plus minus. According to that metric, Nurkic was one of the worst offensive centers in the NBA last season (he ranked 46th), but was still valuable because he ranked as the second-best defensive center in the league. This season, Nurkic's offense is no longer a liability. He ranks sixth in offensive real-plus minus while maintaining close to Top-10 ranking in defense (he's 11th). Nurkic's offense has improved because he's playing smarter basketball. He's limited his shots in the paint and mid-range and is taking more shots at the rim, where he's most effective. And his free-throw shooting, both in volume and accuracy, is way up. So far, Nurkic has been the second-best player on the Blazers behind Lillard.
3. The Blazers play three games between now and the next time we meet: Friday at home against the Nuggets (14-7), Sunday on the road at the Spurs (10-11) and Tuesday on the road at the Mavericks (10-9). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Nate: I think the Blazers start to build some momentum again and pick up two wins over the next three games. Denver is playing well again after a four-game losing streak but I’m going to take Portland to defend home court. Even on the road, I think the Spurs are a good matchup for the Blazers. So, I got Portland knocking off San Antonio. But I think the Blazers will drop one against Dallas. The Mavericks are playing better and 8-2 at home, so I’m going to give them the nod.
Jared: It's a 2-1 week for the Blazers. The Nuggets, who have been one of the best teams in the NBA this season, haven't been as good on the road. They're only 5-4 away from Denver and their offense has been the main culprit. The Nuggets have been a good defensive team on the road and at home, but their offense hasn't been good on the road, scoring just 106.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 22nd in the NBA. The Blazers will prevail at home. The Spurs haven't been very good this season. They're just 10-11 and have one of the worst defenses in the league. They have been better at home, where they 6-3 and have showed something on defense. But I'm still going to pick the Blazers to carry the momentum from their win against Denver and pick up the road victory. The Mavericks are pretty good, especially at home, where they're 8-2 and averaging 115.7 points per 100 possessions with a +9.0 net rating. They've beaten some good teams at home too, like the Thunder, Warriors and Celtics. Give them a win against Portland.
Orlando: The Nuggets are good, like really good. Top 5 in net rating, top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. They’ve won three straight and playing well right now. This should be a fun game that I could see going either way. I’ll pick the Nuggets to win their 4th straight this season and 4th in a row against the Blazers. Then it’s time to see if they can get right on the road. I’ll take a Texas two-step in the win column. Portland should beat San Antonio for a second time this season. The Spurs are 3-7 in their last 10 games. Dallas has been tough at home sporting an 8-2 record at the AAC and they’re on a tear right now winning eight of their last nine, but I still think Portland is the better team. I’ll take the Blazers to beat Luka and the Mavs. Blazers go 2-1 this week.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 10-8
- Nate: 9-9
- Orlando: 9-9
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.