PORTLAND, Ore. — The Blazers hit a roadblock before the All-Star break with two demoralizing losses on the road against the Pelicans and the Grizzlies.
Worse, Damian Lillard strained his groin late in the game against Memphis. His status is unknown at this time and whatever the MRI shows Thursday will determine whether it's a Grade 1 or Grade 2 strain and how much time he'll miss.
The Blazers have eight days off before they return from the break on Friday, Feb. 21 against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. They also play the Celtics and Pacers in their first four games back after the break before the schedule eases up. In Portland's final 22 games, the Blazers play 12 at home and only nine of the games are against teams with winning records. According to tankathon, the Blazers have the sixth-easiest remaining schedule in the league.
On this week's episode of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, we talk about Damian Lillard's injury and whether the Blazers can still make the playoffs, discuss the potential return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, revisit our worst preseason predictions and make one big prediction each for the rest of the season.
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1. Damian Lillard is hurt and the Blazers are now five games back in the loss column for the final playoff spot in the West. Are the playoffs still possible?
Nate: Any hope remaining for the Blazers to make the playoffs is on life support. The only reason I'm still saying they have a sliver of hope is because of Damian Lillard. He didn't seem too concerned that the injury he suffered against Memphis would keep him out an extended period, so I don't expect him to miss much time. We've already seen him carry this team for a two-week stretch this season. And a three-game losing streak by Memphis could put Portland right back in the thick of the race. But the Grizzlies are 22-10 in their last 32 games. If they play .500 the rest of the season, they'll be 42-40, which I would put on the low end of what their record will be at the end of the season. That means Portland would have to finish the season 17-9 to get to 42-40. That seems like too big of a hole for the Blazers to dig themselves out of, but I'll give them a slim chance because of Lillard.
Orlando: If this Damian Lillard injury is serious and he's missing games, it's a wrap. If he's OK, then they've still got a chance. Anyone who legitimately follows this team knows you can't count them out with Lillard on the court. After the Memphis game he said, "Don’t think that was just it." He was referring to the two-week tear he went on. He might not average 45 points per game but he is going to play at a high level and elevate the guys around him. He does it every year. The Blazers have 26 games left and they have one of the easiest remaining schedules, while Memphis will be put to the test with arguably the strongest schedule in the league. Portland will have opportunities to catch them. They just have to hope they don't end up in a tie breaker situation with New Orleans. The Blazers have their work cut out for them, five back in the loss column, but to write them off, I'm not going there yet. This is setting up to be an entertaining race to the finish.
Jared: The Blazers are now four games behind the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West and five games back in the loss column. In the past 10 seasons, only one team has been that far back at the break and still made the playoffs (h/t Matt Moore). The Blazers face an uphill, almost unprecedented climb to get into the playoffs. You never want to count out Damian Lillard, but you also can't count on him because at this time, we're still unsure of his injury status. If it's a Grade 1 strain, he could be back shortly after the All-Star break. If it's a Grade 2 strain, he could miss a couple months. If Lillard comes back shortly after the break, it's not over. Many of the reasons for optimism still exist. Dame is really good. The team could get Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back. Memphis has the toughest-remaining schedule in the league while Portland has one of the easiest. The Blazers have two games left against the Grizzlies, both at home. But if Dame has to miss a significant amount of time, it's over. The Blazers are 10 points worse per 100 possessions this season without Lillard on the court. The team has had a negative net rating when he's been off the court each of the past four season, and during that same timeframe, Portland is 10-10 in the 20 games Lillard has missed. That’s not good enough. If the Blazers want to make the playoffs for the seventh season in a row, they'll have to be much better than a .500 team after the break.
2. All season we’ve talked about how the Blazers just need to stay close in the playoff race before reinforcements come back. How confident are you right now that reinforcements (Nurkic, Collins) will be back this season?
Orlando: This is where the doubt seeps in for that playoff push if you were banking on a Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return. Rip City was fired up to see video of Jusuf Nurkic working out and to hear he was a full participant at practice. It seemed like only a matter of time until we saw him suit up for a game. Then the there was the calf injury/setback and since we found out about that, it's been pretty quiet other than he is day-to-day. The Blazers remain reluctant to put a timetable on his or Collins' return. We've seen Collins do some individual stuff, but that's about it. Neil Olshey talked to Dwight Jaynes about both of them last week and said Collins is on a much longer timeline and if he's not 110% and risk free, he's not coming back this season. With 26 games left, it seems more likely Nurkic makes it back before Collins, but he's still got some hurdles in his way before he can impact games.
Jared: I think, barring setbacks, both Nurkic and Collins will come back this season. If Lillard returns shortly after the All-Star break, this team will still be pursuing the playoffs and Nurkic and Collins will be part of that pursuit once they're ready to play. If Lillard can't play for a month or two and the season falls apart, there's still value in getting these guys back on the court. Nurkic and Collins are likely to come off the bench once they come back, at least initially, and that allows the Blazers to run them out there together to see how they play together. Nurkic and Collins are supposed to be the Blazers' frontcourt of the future but they haven't played much together at all during their careers. Last season, they played 65 total minutes together and though the defense was elite (91.8 points per 100) in those minutes, the offense was terrible (95.1 points per 100). The season before that, they played 53 minutes together and the offense (86.4 points per 100) and defense (113.5 points per 100) were both terrible in those minutes. It would be good to get both of these guys back on the court and see how well they perform together in a larger sample size. If that's in the middle of a playoff race, great. If not, it's still valuable.
Nate: I think we’ll see both players back at some point this season. Will they play enough to help the Blazers make a late postseason push? I doubt that. We haven't heard much since Nurkic suffered a strained calf during practice. We thought all year that he could potentially return in Portland's first games after the All-Star break. Now that we're here, there doesn't appear to be any inkling that he's ready to return. And if Collins returns, his timeline was always the last couple weeks of the season. So, while I don't think we'll see much of either Nurkic or Collins this season, I think they'll both return. The Blazers want Nurkic to get over any mental hurdles he may have returning to game action. They'll want to address that as soon as possible and not wait until next season when they’re hoping to be one the better teams in the West again. As for Collins, there was reporting earlier this year that he was adamant about coming back. If he gets the OK from doctors, I expect we'll see him get more reps as a starter. To me, that outweighs sitting him just because it's a lost season.
3. We’re at the All-Star break, which is a period of evaluation and looking forward to the rest of the season. So let’s do that here. What’s the worst prediction you’ve made this year (Blazers or NBA)? What’s one prediction you have for the Blazers the rest of this season?
Jared: I made a lot of bad predictions at the start of the season. I picked Steph Curry to win MVP. Oops. I think my worst prediction was forecasting 54 wins and a second-place finish in the West for the Blazers. I said the Blazers were a championship contender. I was far too optimistic. It's hard to believe I was ever that optimistic about this team. The injuries are clearly responsible for Portland slipping as far as they have this season, but I also have to admit that even if the Blazers had been healthy, this roster, from Hassan Whiteside to Mario Hezonja to Pau Gasol, was flawed. I didn't see that at the start of the season. My prediction for the rest of the season — do I really have to make one now, after I just exposed how bad my predictions have been — is this: Lillard and Nurkic return this season, but Collins does not, and the Blazers are unable to dig out of this hole and they miss the playoffs (the Grizzlies keep winning and make the postseason). With a lottery pick in the June draft, and the Blazers draft exciting Dayton forward Obi Toppin (watch him).
Nate: This isn't even close for me and it's probably the worst take in the nearly 3-year history of our podcast. I'm ashamed to even type this and admit that it happened. But I picked the Warriors to win the title this year. I was so confident in the pick that I jumped ship one week into the NBA season. I also said Steph Curry would be MVP, but at least that selection I can attribute to injury. With the Warriors championship pick, I was just an idiot. I also said Kent Bazemore would be the Blazers player to exceed expectations this season. But let's stop looking into the past and focus on the future. I'm not giving up on my guy Anfernee Simons. He's averaged 10.5 points per game the last six games. I think he'll average double-digit scoring in Portland's remaining games and re-instill offseason enthusiasm that he'll be a legitimate scoring threat off the bench next season.
Orlando: Oh there have been some good ones. What a hot mess of predictions. Most recently I called Ariza and the Blazers the "Zion Stoppers," then Zion Williamson had the best game of his young NBA career against Portland. I also "predicted" Kent Bazemore would exceed expectations this season. Welp, he's not even on the team anymore. I thought Stephen Curry would be the league's MVP. The one thing I'm glad I did, however, was throw in the "significant injuries disclaimer" when I said the Blazers would win 48 games this season. Time to throw the little bit of credibility I have left into the fire with another prediction SMH ... I'll say the Blazers make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
SEASON PREDICTIONS RECORDS
- Jared: 37-16
- Orlando: 34-19
- Nate: 33-20
Jared Cowley is a digital 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.
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.