PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers bounced back from a tough two-game road trip with an easy win against the Cavaliers at the Moda Center on Wednesday, highlighted by Jusuf Nurkic's first triple-double.
Nurkic finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and five blocks in the Blazers' 129-112 win. It was the first triple-double by a Blazers player since Nicolas Batum had 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds in a 110-94 win against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 8, 2014.
Nurkic became just the second player in Blazers history to record a triple-double with five blocks. The other Blazers player to accomplish that feat was legendary center Bill Walton.
Portland (27-19) is in sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference, a half-game behind the third-place Thunder and one game ahead of the Rockets and Spurs, both tied for fifth.
During this week's podcast, Orlando, Nate and Jared debate whether the Blazers will make a move to improve the team before the February 7 NBA trade deadline, discuss the Blazers' recent improvement passing the ball, and make predictions for Portland's next three games.
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1. Last summer, Neil Olshey admitted that the Blazers’ front office was “too conservative” in trying to improve the roster at the trade deadline last season. Despite that admission, the Blazer failed to make any splashy moves during the offseason. Do you believe Olshey will be less conservative at this trade deadline and make moves to improve this team?
Orlando: Until I see it, I can’t believe it. The answer has to be no. I don’t doubt that he’s trying to explore all options, but the current roster situation adds another hurdle to overcome. When you think about potential trades and rumors flying around, the first question to ask is, what’s in it for the other team? It’s been two years since the Blazers' last move at the trade deadline. It was an underrated move that turned out to be a home run with Jusuf Nurkic. That’s gotta be what the front office is trying accomplish again. A blockbuster move involving a key piece on the current roster just doesn’t seem realistic. I would be shocked if that happened. The end result feels like something we’ve seen over and over now.
Nate: I think he’ll be less conservative, but I don’t think that will mean much. Outside of a likely late first-round pick, I don’t believe the Blazers have much value to offer to make an impactful trade. And there’s debate as to how much value that pick would have. I’d expect Olshey to exhaust all options to acquire a dependable small forward who can consistently make shots on the perimeter. But any player who fits that skillset will also be valued by other teams as well. I just don’t see Portland being able to put together the best package for that type of player. I could see Olshey making a move to shore up the bench, but I don’t see the much-needed 3-and-D wing being acquired before the deadline.
Jared: I know that Olshey's track record doesn't indicate it will happen, but I have a feeling he'll be aggressive over the next few weeks. One, Portland is good enough to challenge for the second seed in a tough but wide-open Western Conference, and any team like that should be a buyer at the deadline. Two, the Blazers have obvious deficiencies (small forward and depth) that they can address at the trade deadline. And three, there sure is a lot of smoke out there. There's already been a credible report that the Blazers are willing to include their 2019 first-round pick in trade discussions and that they've expressed interest in Hawks guard Jeremy Lin. And this week, NBA expert Zach Lowe opined on two different podcasts (here and here) that the Blazers will be an "aggressive buyer" at the deadline and try to make a trade that "really moves the needle." Lowe isn't a rumor-monger. Yes, it's speculation, but Lowe's speculation is more valid than most. Lowe is tight with Woj, who has long been rumored to be one of the few with a close connection to Olshey. Maybe Lowe mentioning that twice this week is more than just speculation. So, I won't be surprised if this ends up being a compelling trade deadline for Blazers fans.
2. Jusuf Nurkic, fresh off the first triple-double of his career, is averaging 4.3 assists over the past 15 games, which ranks fourth among centers during that stretch. The Blazers, 30th in the league in assists last season and 25th this season, are now averaging 26.6 assists per game over the past 10 games, which ranks ninth in the NBA during that stretch. Why are the Blazers suddenly dishing out so many assists and is it sustainable?
Nate: I think the biggest contributor to the increase in assists has been the sudden growth of Jusuf Nurkic. It’s interesting, and perhaps not coincidental, the question cites Nurkic’s assist average over the last 18 games. Because in an article written by Jason Quick for The Athletic, Nurkic says the Memphis game, in which he shot 1 for 15, was the low point of the season. He said after that game, he decided to embrace his strengths and not try to do too much. The beginning of this 18-game stretch was against Toronto, the next game following the Memphis low point. Not only has Nurkic shown more patience over the last month, I think he and Lillard, whose assists are also up over the last 10 games, are clicking on another level. That was shown at the end of the Cleveland game, when the two called for plays they were confident would net Nurkic two more assists to get a triple-double. They’re putting each other in great positions off pick and roll, and Nurkic has made smarter decisions about attacking the rim aggressively or finding open teammates on backdoor cuts.
Jared: The Blazers haven't been passing more during this stretch (their number of passes per game has actually decreased), but they're passing with more purpose, as evidenced by their potential assists being up by more than two per game. That has allowed them to create about 10 more points off assists per game during this stretch. You're seeing more effort from Damian Lillard to create for his teammates (he's averaging 7.5 assists during this stretch, up from 6.1 for the season), and the Blazers are running the offense through Nurkic more, too. He's such a talented and willing passer, and I think it's had an impact on his teammates. You see more hard cuts to the rim than before, because teammates know he'll reward them for their effort and get them the ball. Because the Blazers are making smarter passes, the Blazers are shooting better from everywhere on the court. Over the past 10 games, they're shooting 65 percent in the restricted area (up from 60 percent); 41 percent in the paint (up from 38 percent); 44 percent from the midrange (up from 43 percent); and 38 percent on 3-pointers (up from 36 percent).
Orlando: Besides the time the Blazers secured free McNuggets for hitting the 100-point mark on Wednesday, it was Jusuf Nurkic’s assists to complete his first triple-double that got the biggest cheers from the Moda Center crowd. Seeing a big man who can distribute is a thing of beauty. Nurk‘s latest uptick in production has been a major reason why the assists have gone up. Portland is getting better looks at the basket, higher-percentage shots and ultimately knocking them down. It also helps to play some bad defenses over the past 10 games; seven of those matchups were against teams in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating. That includes the Knicks and Cavs, the league’s two worst defenses.
3. The Blazers play three games between now and the next time we meet, Friday vs. the Pelicans (21-24), and then road games Monday at Utah (25-21) and Tuesday at Oklahoma City (26-17). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Jared: Some of it can be attributed to some weak opponents on the schedule, but the Blazers are really playing well right now. Over the past 10 games, they rank fifth in offense, fourth in defense and fourth in net rating. The Pelicans have also played well lately. They rank second in offense and sixth in net rating over the past 10 games. Their defense has still been bad, though, and because the Blazers are playing so well at home, I'll give Portland the edge. The Jazz have won five in a row, rank first in defense over the past 10 games, and have embarrassed the Blazers in two games already this season. I think Monday's game will be more competitive, but I'll still give Utah the win. The Thunder, meanwhile, have hit a rough stretch. They've lost four of five and their defense has been bad, ranking 28th in the league over the past five games. The Thunder are still dangerous, but I'm going to pick Portland to grab the big road win in Oklahoma City.
Orlando: The Blazers are tough to beat at home and the Pelicans have been bad away from New Orleans sporting a 6-18 record on the road. Blazers should beat the Pelicans for a second time this season. We’ve witnessed a 30-point loss and another by 21 last month, that’s enough for me to pick the Jazz to win. I expect OKC to be a close game, but based on Portland’s most recent two-game road trip, I’ve got to take the third-place Thunder. Blazers go 1-2 this week.
Nate: I’m going to say the Blazers go 1-2 over the next three games. I think they take care of business against New Orleans at home. Although Portland already beat the Pelicans in the first meeting of the season, I think the game means a little more to the Blazers because of the playoff sweep last April. Also, the Pelicans are 6-18 on the road. Blazers win at home. I’m going to pick Utah to handle Portland decisively. The Blazers have yet to keep a game against the Jazz within 20 points, so I have very little confidence in the Blazers pulling out a win. The Oklahoma City game was the toughest for me to pick. I think they’re two evenly matched teams and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a 4-5 matchup in the first round of the playoffs. But Portland has not fared well in road-to-road back-to-backs, so I’m going to give the nod to the Thunder.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Jared: 24-19
- Nate: 24-19
- Orlando: 24-19
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.