The Portland Trail Blazers kicked off the NBA’s stretch run with a bang, destroying a solid Eastern Conference playoff team and an Eastern contender (playing without their best player, FWIW) on the road, at the start of a seven-game trip, not to mention 10 of 12 overall away from Rip City.
Getting off to a hot start was paramount. Not only is this going to be the most rested the Blazers will be from now until their season ends, but as a below-average road team facing a three-week run of games in enemy territory, they needed to get some early wins and establish a rhythm.
Damian Lillard struggled in the games against Brooklyn and Philadelphia (a 17-6-8 line versus Philly is good, but he shot only 10 times), but two big men were there to pick up the slack—Jusuf Nurkic, the most consistent double-double in the game today, and the newly signed Enes Kanter, freed from the tanking Knicks.
Nurk was devastatingly effective. With the Nets skinny and short up front, and the Sixers missing all-world center Joel Embiid, the Bosnian feasted like a starving bear raiding a campsite. His last two games featured a combined 51 points, 22 rebounds, 19-of-28 shooting, and one disgusting dunk on four Nets. They might still be scraping poor Jarrett Allen off of that glossy Brooklyn hardwood.
Kanter has turned some heads with his swift impact off the bench. Signed for just the remainder of the season, he was brought in by Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey to serve as Nurkic’s backup, and as instant offense on the second unit. His playing style is radically different from Zach Collins, the second-year big man who was backing up Nurkic along with Meyers Leonard until Kanter came along, and I don’t think it’s necessarily better.
I get why Olshey picked up Kanter—the reserves have a bad habit of falling back on Evan Turner post moves and the occasional Seth Curry jumper to get by, and just “getting by” in the playoffs actually means “getting blown out.” And he has put up some numbers in his very limited time with the Blazers. I just despise Kanter’s game, and I’ve never liked him from the day he was drafted third overall in the 2011 Draft by Utah.
There are good reasons why Kanter was beaten out by Rudy Gobert for the starting job in Utah, why he backed up Steven Adams in Oklahoma City despite making more money than him, and why the Knicks were happy to waive him after they traded the best parts of their roster. Kanter is a relic of a bygone age who’s flown lower under than the radar than Jahlil Okafor (who’s playing decently in New Orleans, by the way) only because Okafor had the bad fortune to play in Brooklyn and Philly while the Swiss-born Turk was in Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City.
An offense-minded, slow-footed behemoth with the work ethic of a stoned teenager, Kanter is infamous—and loathed—for his utter inability to play defense. Utah’s message boards were littered with crass and demeaning posts and nicknames for Kanter; I don’t know whether to be surprised at the vitriol from the normally inoffensive and mild-mannered Jazz fans, or impressed that Kanter somehow pissed off thousands of Mormons. His post game might be NBA-caliber, but his defense is worse than some college guys I’ve seen.
The big Turk is also very ball-hoggy, a trait that will only be thrown into sharper relief now that Kanter is playing for a new contract this summer. Entering unrestricted free agency, he’ll be highly motivated to perform…meaning he’ll spend his 20 minutes per game dominating the ball, demanding the ball, posting up instead of screening for the guy with the ball, and running toward the rim when the ball is in the air, regardless of which end he’s currently playing. The rebounding, at least, will jive with the Blazers’ wishes, for coach Terry Stotts does encourage his bigs to crash the offensive glass (though that’s only because Nurkic is slower than most 5s, and can’t get back swiftly enough in transition anyway; Kanter is in the same mold).
And just in case you think I’m dumping on him for the sake of dumping, check out his plus/minus in his two games with Portland. Against Brooklyn, he was minus-3 during his time on the court, and against Philly, he was minus-4. And those games were really good games from a backup NBA center too! Still, the Blazers were worse with him on the floor, with their backups playing against other backups. Stunning stuff when he played so well on offense and on the boards.
What will happen if Kanter isn’t playing well on offense? How will he fare when he isn’t going up against skinny kids like Allen or wings masquerading as bigs like Tobias Harris? Could he get a quick hook for Collins and sulk because he sees his chances at earning another NBA contract slipping away every time he doesn’t touch the ball?
Maybe it won’t matter so much overall. Olshey deduced that having a source of proven offense like Kanter around is preferable to his other options right now; Collins is getting trigger-happy on fouls and is emotional, Skal Labissiere is too raw to do anything but push the vets in practice, and the second-best thing about Meyers Leonard is that he’s about to become Meyers Leonard’s Expiring Contract. (The best thing about him? Leonard is involved with Blazers Edge’s ticket giveaway for underprivileged youth in the Portland area. His skills may have always been in doubt, but his heart has always been in the right place.) Olshey may be right, and it comes at very little risk to the Blazers…financially.
If Enes Kanter does skunk up a winnable game, or if he costs the Blazers a lead in a playoff contest due to his immobility, don’t say that nobody warned you.
All games can be heard on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Monday, Feb. 25: @ the Cleveland Cavaliers, 4:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: I think it’s still appropriate to describe the Cavs like this:
Matchup to Watch: Rodney Hood. It’s just a player this time, as Hood was dealt from Cleveland. He’s definitely relieved to have gotten away from there, but a revenge game is still a thing in the NBA; no one likes being traded, unless you’re Anthony Davis.
Prediction: I mean:
Wednesday, Feb. 27: @ the Boston Celtics, 5:00 PM, ESPN and NBCSNW/Blazers Pass
The Skinny: It feels odd to say this about a team with a record nearly identical to the Blazers, but the Celtics have had a very trying year. A 37-23 record through 60 games would be an achievement for many a team, but these Celtics were expected to be something more. Instead, the reintegration of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving into the Celtics’ core has caused confusion, conflict, and endless conversation about Irving’s future—fueled by the strange point guard himself.
Hayward’s issues are very understandable. He’s about 18 months removed from a very gruesome injury that dislocated his ankle and snapped his tibia like a dead branch. Currently having ankle troubles, Hayward has mostly been a shadow of his former All-Star self this season. Celtics fans shouldn’t resign themselves to being saddled with a New Chandler Parsons just yet, though; Paul George suffered a similar injury a few years ago, and while his recovery has been long and gradual, my man PG is now playing the best basketball of his career. Maybe Hayward will one day rise from the ashes as George did and reclaim his place as a star wing player.
Irving, meanwhile, is being…odd. He always was a strange dude, saying the Earth was flat and other nonsense, but this season his weirdness has become outright toxicity. After forcing a trade to Boston so he could “have his own team” and get away from playing with LeBron James—a true basketball genius and the second-best to ever play the game—Irving seems to deeply regret assuming a leading man role.
It’s not because of the way he left Cleveland, though. Irving has the air of a kid who got in over his head and now needs Daddy to step in and drag him out from the waist-deep pit of horse crap he plunged himself into. Notice how he made it a point to apologize to LeBron earlier in the season and tried to make up with him…just over a year after he ditched him and forced a rapidly-aging James to drag the rotting corpse of that Cavs team by himself to a fourth straight NBA Finals. What a brat.
(Side note: I still insist that Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time—were it not for two huge shots by Irving and Ray Allen, we’d be comparing LeBron to Jerry West or the Buffalo Bills, not His Airness. But, that 2017-18 season of his was perhaps the very best work he ever did in his long, storied career. It was a truly sick season, and he should have won MVP, even accounting for the voter fatigue that plagues him every year—just like Mike. Anyone who wants to present his or her case that LBJ > MJ should use his last Cleveland season as either Exhibit A, B or C.)
We have to mention Irving’s behavior during the All-Star festivities, as well. Watch Irving as he looks at Kevin Durant all during that weekend. His expression was one of hunger, of longing. It was like Irving was begging Durant—the next best thing to LeBron these days, though this Greek fellow in Milwaukee is hard on their heels—to join up with him in New York, take from him the burdens of leadership, and allow Irving to return to what he does best: jack up shots, do fancy dribbling, barely pass the ball, and hide in the shadows of better players and better men as well as he can.
Kyrie Irving has been a failure as The Guy in Boston. He takes verbal cheap shots at his younger teammates, lacks the skill set to involve everybody (he is a pure score-first point who never learned to bring everybody together, unlike Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard), is quick to blame others for his bad shooting, and angrily barks at reporters for doing their jobs—which is to document a famous athlete shooting his big mouth off in public, over and over. If he leaves, it’ll be very interesting to see what effect that would have on the Celtics who remain.
We might have to rename the Ewing Theory the Irving Theory.
Matchup to Watch: Al Horford vs. Jusuf Nurkic. Nurk has been steamrolling everybody lately, and Horford is renowned for his ability to stop steamrollers. This one should be a good battle matching skill against skill, and bulk against savvy.
Prediction: Celtics win a very close one.
Friday, March 1: @ the Toronto Raptors, 5:00 PM, ESPN and NBCSNW/Blazers Pass
The Skinny: Hmmm. Will the ESPN crew who covers Celtics/Blazers follow Portland north of the border? It makes logical sense and seems expedient, but this is the Four-Letter Network we’re talking about. Logic and a streamlined modus operandi haven’t really been their thing.
Anyway, the Raptors have assumed joint supremacy with the Bucks at the top of the Eastern Conference. At the trade deadline, there was a feeding frenzy for any available talent, and the Raptors were not immune. While Masai Ujiri, the calculating and brilliant Raptors president, has favored a slow-and-steady approach to team building, he also knows when to hit the gas. Picking up Kawhi Leonard over the summer on basically a one-year rental was a win-now move designed to vault Toronto right back into the thick of things, and trading for Marc Gasol was another gamble.
I don’t know if Gasol can help the Drakes any more than Jonas Valanciunas did, platooning with Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, but he provides more passing chops and defensive bona-fides than the Lithuanian—this move was made with Joel Embiid in mind. Siakam is the future of the team anyway, even if Leonard decides to stay in Canada. Siakam’s ceiling is basically “Draymond Green that also scores 20 points a game,” and with the flashes he’s shown lately, you can see that limitless potential beginning to be realized.
As for Leonard, coach Nick Nurse and his staff have been smart about handling his minutes. I don’t like the term “load management” much, but a replacement metaphor comes to my mind: “keeping the powder dry.” Toronto has been keeping their powder dry where Leonard is concerned, and once the playoffs start, they’ll light his fuse and set him off on an unsuspecting NBA.
Remember, this is a guy who at his peak practically got away with strangling LeBron James on live TV. If that Leonard is still in there somewhere, Toronto is going to be awfully hard to beat, especially if they can steal home-court advantage away from the Bucks.
Matchup to Watch: Kawhi Leonard vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. If Leonard plays, that is.
Prediction: I don’t see the Blazers stopping Pascal Siakam if Nurse decides to release the hounds. Toronto wins.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 2-0
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 36-23
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 1-1
Jared’s Picks Overall: 35-23