PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s been more than a month since the Portland Trail Blazers lost two of their three best players to injury. When CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic went down, the question was whether the Blazers could survive their absence. Thirteen games later, the Blazers aren’t just surviving, they’re thriving.
Portland has won four in a row and six of its past seven games. The Blazers are 8-5 without McCollum and Nurkic and at 16-10, they’re in fifth place in the Western Conference, one game behind the fourth-place Phoenix Suns.
Nothing is easy in the Western Conference this season. The top nine teams in the conference all have records of .500 or better and those nine teams in the past 10 games are a combined 63-27. By comparison, in the Eastern Conference, there are only five teams with a record of .500 or better and the combined record of the East’s top nine teams over the past 10 games is 45-45. The fact that the Blazers, minus two of their top three players, are flirting with one of the top four spots in the ultra-challenging West, is impressive.
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Damian Lillard deserves immense credit. Since McCollum and Nurkic went down, he’s averaged 31 points, 7.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals and is shooting 45.2% from the field, 38.9% from the 3-point line and 93% from the free-throw line. It’s leading for calls to move Lillard into the MVP conversation.
But Lillard isn’t alone. He’s received a lot of help from his teammates. As a starter this season filling in for McCollum, Gary Trent Jr. is averaging 19.7 points and shooting 46.5% from the 3-point line on nine attempts per game. Enes Kanter, who has started the past 14 games for Nurkic, is averaging 13 points, 12.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. In the past seven games, Carmelo Anthony is averaging 18.6 points while shooting 43.6% from the 3-point line on 5.6 attempts per game. Over the past 12 games, Anfernee Simons is averaging 13.2 points and shooting 45.1% on 6.8 3-point attempts per game.
The Blazers also appear to be showing some gradual improvement on defense. The Blazers still rank 29th in defensive rating, allowing 115 points per 100 possessions, for the full season. But over the past six games, Portland’s defense has allowed 111.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 11th during that time frame and would rank 17th.
Here’s a look at how the Blazers fared in the most recent batch of NBA power rankings:
CBS Sports: Blazers rank No. 5 (up 8)
What they wrote: Damian Lillard must have seen his name being left out of recent MVP discussions, as the superstar point guard went on a tear this week, leading his short-handed Blazers to a perfect week to make it seven wins in nine games. Lillard averaged 30 points and 7.3 assists this week, while Carmelo Anthony came up clutch, averaging 21.3 points, including nine in the fourth quarter, on 45 percent 3-point shooting during the four games. Portland put up an impressive 122.5 net rating this week as Gary Trent continues to fill in admirably for CJ McCollum. – Colin Ward-Henninger
The Athletic: Blazers rank No. 9 (up 4)
What they wrote: The Robert Covington trade this offseason didn’t quite yield the results Portland Trail Blazers fans were hoping for. So what about getting his former running mate in Houston? P.J. Tucker next to a healthy Jusuf Nurkic feels like a great fit. We know he can play the defense this Portland team needs, plus he can knock down corner 3-pointers to spread the floor for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. I’m not sure if the Blazers can expect Zach Collins back and in top form, so getting an alternative PF option makes sense. Would moving Covington to a third team in a deal that brings in Tucker be the proper swap for Portland? – Zach Harper
NBA.com: Blazers rank No. 9 (up 3)
What they wrote: The Blazers have the league’s 29th-ranked defense, they have the point differential of a .500 team, they’ve now been missing their second leading scorer for half of their 26 games, and they’re getting minimal offensive production from their two starting forwards. But they just keep winning, with Damian Lillard’s brilliance being supplemented by Enes Kanter’s offensive boards (he leads the league with 4.2 put-back points per game) and Gary Trent Jr.’s 3-point shooting (13th in the league at 45% for the season) .
Now, Carmelo Anthony is enjoying a revival. Through Feb. 1, Anthony had an effective field goal percentage of 42.9%, the eighth worst mark among 213 players with at least 100 field goal attempts at that point. But as the Blazers have won five of their last seven games, Anthony has averaged 18.6 points on an effective field goal percentage of 56.1%. He hit the game-winning free throw against Philly on Thursday, and though he was 1-for-8 from 3-point range in Dallas on Sunday, he made up for it by blowing by Maxi Kleber for a ferocious two-hand dunk. Lillard, of course, provided the heroics. The step-back 3 that put the Blazers ahead for good with 32 seconds left was his fourth bucket (on seven attempts) to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime. That leads the league, with three players – DeMar DeRozan, James Harden and Collin Sexton – having three.
The Blazers still have two games left (Tuesday and Wednesday) in their only stretch of five games in seven days in the first-half schedule. – John Schuhmann
ESPN: Blazers rank No. 9 (up 3)
What they wrote: It was Dame Time in Big D, with Damian Lillard serving up one dagger missile after another to finish off the Mavericks on Sunday. Quietly, the Blazers have won four straight and six of their past seven and are settling into the top six of the West. With all the attrition the Blazers have battled already this season -- injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum and Zach Collins -- to be in the upper half of the West is an accomplishment. And it begs the question: At fourth in the league in scoring, ninth in assists and maybe first in leadership, shouldn't Dame be in the MVP conversation by now? – Royce Young
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