The patched-up Portland Trail Blazers enter the playoffs in great form but their opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder, pose them an array of problems, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.
Live NBA: Oklahoma @ Portland
Sunday 14th April 8:30pm
Heading into the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers are on a 14-3 winning streak over their past 17 games.
Finishing the regular season with a 53-29 record, the franchise’s best since 2013-14, they dropped games in that span only to the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons, all of whom will also be playing in the postseason.
And what makes the streak particularly impressive was how it mostly took place without two key players.
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At shooting guard, the normally-very-reliable CJ McCollum (who played in 68 of the team’s first 69 games, and who had missed only five games over the previous three seasons combined) suffered a knee strain in the defeat to the Spurs, and missed the next 10 games.
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More significantly than that, in the final moments of a victory over the Brooklyn Nets four games later, starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a gruesome compound leg fracture that will keep him out indefinitely. Between those two injuries, the Blazers lost two of their then-only three double-digit scorers, their leading rebounder, interior defensive lynchpin, and small ball punisher. And yet they still came out of it ahead.
Jusuf Nurkic rams home a dunk against the Nets
Nurkic, of course, will not return for this series. But it appears as though McCollum will. In conjunction, then, Portland enter the playoffs in form, in better health, with the third seed, the NBA’s third-best offense, and with a level of depth that passed the test when called upon. All of which seems as though it bodes well for the franchise’s first playoff series victory in three years.
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The problem might be their opponent.
It should be noted that in that 17-game stretch, the Blazers had a favourable schedule. The only playoff opposition they faced in that stretch were the Spurs, Nuggets (twice), Pistons (also twice), Nets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Indiana Pacers, going 5-3 in that span. The formbook, then, is slightly flattering, and of note was the game immediately preceding the start of the streak.
In that game, the Blazers lost 129-121 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. An overtime loss to quality opposition is always fine in isolation, yet that loss saw the Thunder sweep the season series over the Blazers 4-0. And it is that same Thunder team they will now face in the first round.
The Oklahoma City Thunder visit the Portland Trail Blazers in game one of their first-round playoff series on NBA Primetime – watch live on Sky Sports Arena on Sunday at 8:30pm
In those four games, the Blazers (the best rebounding team in the league) outrebounded the Thunder by 10, winning the battle on the boards three times. This, though, was with Nurkic, whose 10.4 rebounds in only 27.4 minutes per game makes for one of the best marks in the league.
3.4 of those came on the offensive end, and Nurkic’s finishing ability on the pick-and-roll (to the tune of 1.126 points per possession) was fundamental to the Blazers’ offensive strategy.
CJ McCollum celebrates during Portland's win over the Los Angeles Clippers
With two guards as skilled and creative on the ball as McCollum and Damian Lillard are, the Blazers are a heavily pick-and-roll based team, Nurkic being the screening, rolling, finishing, middle-of-the-floor passing, and decoy option that created the space for the other two to operate him.
To lose all of that, plus his solid defensive presence around the basket, is to lose an awful lot. And for the Blazers to have to go up against the always feisty and physical Steven Adams without him is to confer quite the exploitable mismatch to the opposition.
Or at least, it would be had they not had some help. Into that breach, they have been able to sign Enes Kanter, about as good of a mid-season free agency pick-up as it is possible to get. Kanter is just as good a rebounder as Nurkic is, and he rolls to the rim just as well if not better, being a better finisher inside the paint with his exemplary touch.
Kanter also provides a post-up option, perhaps better so than Nurkic, ranking in the 88th percentile in the league in post-up efficiency and shooting 64.3 per cent on said possessions.
The NBA Gametime crew analyse the first-round playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Trail Blazers
Doing the work of Nurkic, Kanter’s 13.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in only 22.3 minutes per game are a large part of what has kept the Blazers afloat, especially the 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds he has averaged in his eight starts since the fracture. Notwithstanding the earlier caveat about the quality of opposition in that time, the Blazers have still had the third-best offensive rating in the league since Nurkic went down, just as they did before it. On that end, they have lost little.
Defensively, though, the loss is enormous.
Nurkic could not step up and defend the perimeter, a somewhat exploitable loophole given the NBA’s significant stylistic shift towards perimeter versatility, outside shooting, and the need to switch bigs onto ball handlers.
Kanter, though, is among the worst defensive players in the league. It is not for a lack of trying so much as it is mere physical disadvantages – with poor lateral quickness, no explosion, and no wingspan of note, there is not an area of the court he defends well.
Enes Kanter corrals a rebound on his Portland debut
Kanter cannot hedge or switch on the perimeter, offers no meaningful contests around the basket, and, if he tries to play somewhere in between, is stuck on an island serving no purpose. Nurkic had to be catered for, certainly, but Kanter has to be hidden. And given the importance of the five-spot defensively, he cannot be.
Furthermore, the Blazers’ pick-and-roll based offense is set to run into the Thunder’s pick-and-roll based defense. We have looked at the Thunder’s defense a couple of times this season – where once it was so strong, it has since started to struggle, not coincidentally while Paul George has been hampered with a shoulder issue.
Damian Lillard beats John Collins to score for Portland
Nevertheless, for the season as a whole, the Thunder rank second in the league in defending this aspect of the game. Between George and Terrance Ferguson, they have wings with good length able to defend both halves of the pick-and-roll play; between Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroeder, they have two ball-handling defenders who, while somewhat ill-disciplined on that end, work better when given the freedom to take chances. And in Adams and Noel, the Thunder have a simply excellent defensive pairing at center.
The Blazers have lost in the first round in three of the last four seasons, including sweeps in each of the last two. Over that span, though, they have kept together their core of players, and demonstrated consistent incremental improvement over that span. Finishing third for the second consecutive season in a routinely brutal Western Conference speaks to their quality, regardless of how little fanfare and spotlight they have compared to their peers.
Sunday's Playoff games
- Indiana Pacers @ Boston Celtics, 6pm, live on Sky Sports Arena
- Oklahoma City Thunder @ Portland Trail Blazers, 8:30pm, live on Sky Sports Arena
- Detroit Pistons @ Milwaukee Bucks, 12am
- Utah Jazz @ Houston Rockets, 12am
This year, however, it seems as though luck is against them. They enter this series as slight favourites even without Nurkic, due in part to the excellent patch-up job offered by Kanter, yet also due to George’s injury and the Thunder’s offensive struggles, particularly from outside, which may allow for a paint-packing defense that can help hide Kanter.
But no other Western Conference team enters this postseason with so big an absence as Nurkic will be for Portland.
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