Portland Trail Blazers: Is it too little, too late for a true playoff push?

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /

Is it too little too late for the Portland Trail Blazers

It feels like a brand new season for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Following Sunday’s nail-biting loss against the Boston Celtics, the Trail Blazers currently sit three games back from the final playoff position in the Western Conference. If Portland has any hopes of swiping the eight spot from the Memphis Grizzlies, the Blazers will need a bit of luck to go along with their list of elite talent.

The biggest change to the depth chart coming into the Orlando restart was “The Bosnian Beast,” Jusuf Nurkic‘s return to the floor. The 7-footer has not made an appearance for the Trail Blazers this season, last playing in March of 2019 before going down with a gut-wrenching leg injury.

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Despite not being expected to return for Portland in 2020, the abrupt NBA hiatus allowed Nurkic to continue rehabbing his injury throughout the break. After 16 long, tedious months of work, “Nurk” defied the odds to come back for a playoff push before the end of this season.

But, wait. There’s more!

Portland was fortunate enough to clear another name off of their crowded injured list before the restart, activating fellow big Zach Collins. Collins played the first three games of Portland’s season before suffering a shoulder injury, resulting in the power forward undergoing surgery that would likely keep him out for the year.

Well, so they thought.

Collins made his official return alongside Nurkic in Portland’s first game of the restart, taking on the Grizzlies in a battle for the eighth and final spot in the West. Both played high-intensity minutes in the rotation and fit back into head coach Terry Stotts’ system without a hitch, despite missing significant time.

Nurkic was a standout performer in his return, finding ways to contribute to the game even when his offense was showing the rust. Nurkic tied his career-high with six blocks in the contest, filling out the box score with 18 points, and nine boards in a solid overtime win against the Griz. While his mobility and lateral quickness need to get back to his former form, Nurk showed that he is still finding crafty ways to execute inside.


With Nurkic slotted back into the starting 5, the odd man out Hassan Whiteside was moved to the bench prior to Friday’s game against the Grizzlies. Whiteside was having himself a career year, leading the league in blocks per game (3.0) and ranking second in rebounds per game (13.9), before the move to the second unit.

Currently on the final year of his contract, the move to the bench will not do Whiteside any favors in securing a deal over the offseason. The center was useful in his time in the lineup, nearly single-handedly propelling the Blazers to second in the league in team blocks, all while missing the two 7-footers Nurkic and Collins.

Also on the move in the lineup, Carmelo Anthony made efforts over the hiatus to slim down in order to switch to the small forward spot on the floor. Anthony was key in helping the Blazers survive through their injury trouble this season, playing wherever the team needed him as the wing silenced his doubters.

Melo put together a great first game against the Grizzlies, putting up 21 points while shooting an efficient 70 percent from the field.

This season more than ever, the Trail Blazers relied on their perimeter shooting to pick up the slack on offense that injuries left behind. Leading the charge, star backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both shot the ball well this season and pushed the Blazers to third in the NBA in 3-point percentage (37.3%).

The duo has combined to average 51.6 points per game this season, accounting for nearly half of Portland’s offense and being a driving force for the team.

If Portland is going to make a final push for the postseason this season, they are going to need consistency night in and night out from McCollum. The shooting guard is a streaky scorer who can get hot from behind the arc quickly, however, when his shots are not landing, C.J. will be relied on to expand his game. Aside from just the 3-point line, McCollum can still be an effective slasher on the inside and needs to be an effective second option when defenses load-up on Lillard.

Speaking of Damian, the dead-eyed point guard will have to remain aggressive on offense without forcing up tough shots. Backing up Lillard, Gary Trent Jr. provides a boost to spark the bench unit. Trent Jr. was great against in Portland’s loss to the  Celtics on Sunday, putting together 21 points while aggravating the Celtics on defense forcing lose balls and turnovers.

Sunday’s game was a show of resilience for this Portland team, fighting back after trailing by 19 at the break. The Blazers just fell short in completing the comeback, finally losing a nail-biter 128-124.

Ultimately, Portland is going to need consistent production from the bench unit to compete in a Western Conference filled with elite substitutes.

Despite replenishing their roster with Nurkic and Collins, the Blazers are still going to be without veteran point guard Trevor Ariza and young talent Caleb Swanigan. Both players chose to opt-out of the restart and not travel to the Orlando bubble, with Ariza citing that he wanted to spend the extra time with his son.

Still on the injured list, wing player Rodney Hood did not travel to Orlando as he recovers from surgery repairing his left Achilles. In place in the lineup, look for Mario Herzonia and Nassir Little to pick up additional minutes in the frontcourt.

With only six games remaining on the schedule and ground still needing to be made up, the Blazers find themselves in a tough spot. Looking ahead, the schedule is not doing Portland any favors with a difficult slate of games ahead.

Finishing the season, the Trail Blazers will face the Rockets, Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers, and Mavericks before finishing off the season against the Nets. Portland is going to need Memphis to stumble in their final stretch if they want to reclaim that final position in the West.

In all honesty, Portland may be one of the few squads that could actually make some noise from the eighth spot. Currently 1-2 in their season series against top-seeded Lakers, the Blazers would be armed with a new lineup to defend the duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis and may be able to steal a game or two.

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If Portland squeaks by, the Blazers will be looking to exorcise their postseason demons from 2019 and fight back to where they as a team once were. Portland gets back into action Tuesday, facing off against the Houston Rockets in an important game to make up ground.