All-Star break is over, and the Blazers are poised to be in the play-in game. After how this season has gone, between front office firings, injuries, and the Powell/McCollum trades, it’s great to see the Blazers still sniffing around the playoffs. So let’s look at the current standings, pre-All-Star break games, and how the rest of the season looks for Rip City.
7): Minnesota Timberwolves – 31-28
8): Los Angeles Clippers – 30-31
9): Los Angeles Lakers – 27-31
10): Portland Trail Blazers – 25-34
11): San Antonio Spurs – 23-36
12): New Orleans Pelicans – 23-36
13): Sacramento Kings – 22-38
14): Oklahoma City Thunder – 18-40
15): Houston Rockets – 15-43
The Blazers are set up to be in the play-in game, looking at how the standings sit going into the second half of the season. Minnesota will most likely stay at the seven seed, but after that gets murky. The Clippers are in an interesting spot where they made the trade to get Powell, but he immediately broke his foot. The Clippers hope to have him back for the playoffs, along with Paul George, but there is uncertainty there. With the Lakers, it’s impossible to count a LeBron-led team out of the playoffs. San Antonio should drop as they traded away Derrick White, one of the more crucial pieces of this year’s team, especially with the Pelicans and Kings behind them. The Pelicans made the trade with the Blazers for CJ McCollum, and he’s been tearing it up, averaging 28 PPG since the trade. The Kings famously made the trade that surprised the league, sending Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Tristian Thompson over to the Pacers for Domantas Sabonis, Justin Holiday, and Jeremy Lamb. This trade frees De’Aaron Fox of point guard duties, and adding the consistent 20/10 player that is Sabonis should push the Kings up in the standings. OKC and Houston will stay put as they will be fighting for the worst record in the West.
Pre-All Star Magic and the Core Four
The Blazers ripped off a four-game win streak going into this year’s All-Star Break, and it wasn’t against the basement teams:
February 9th: Lakers 105 – Blazers 107
February 12th: Knicks 103 – Blazers 112
February 14th: Blazers 122 – Bucks 107
February 16th: Blazers 123 – Grizzlies 119
Nested in these wins are superb performances from old and new players:
Anfernee Simons – 30.3 PPG / 2.5 RPG / 6.3 APG on 51.1 FG% / 46.9% FG3% / 88.9 FT%
Jusuf Nurkić – 21.5 PPG / 14.0 RPG / 4.3 APG on 59.3 FG% / 75.0 FG3% / 76.0 FT%
Justice Winslow – 13.5 PPG / 7.5 RPG / 4.0 APG with 2.0 STL
Josh Hart – 24.0 PPG / 5.0 RPG / 4.3 APG on 60.0 FG% / 52.4 FG3% / 76.5 FT%
Simons has been Dame Jr out there, leading the offense, and playing eerily similar to his point guard counterpart. I saw this video of a designed iso on the left wing where Simons mimicked Lillard’s approach with several crossovers and, ultimately, a made three. Nurkić has also been the team’s anchor, producing at an All-NBA level providing the team with great defense and ripping down every board. Justise Winslow, who many thought was an afterthought, has provided incredible energy on the defensive end while also grabbing his fair share of rebounds. Perhaps the player that I was most excited about for the Blazers, Josh Hart, has returned to his sharpshooting form, shooting over 50% from downtown. His numbers are similar to McCollum’s career numbers with the Blazers, which would be a win for the team. An eye-opening 77% of their scoring in this run has been from these for players, averaging 116 points per game in that stretch.
The second half of the season was looking great until news hit that Nurkić would be sidelined at least four weeks with a foot injury. The Blazers have 21 games left on their schedule. The most challenging part of that schedule may be the first three games back from the All-Star break. The Blazers host the Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets, followed by an away game versus Pheonix. All three teams have possible MVPs and currently sit at the top of the Western Conference. After that, the schedule becomes more manageable. In the final 18 games of the season, 14 of them will be against sub-five hundred teams, including two games each against OKC and Houston. Within these last games are two games back to back versus the Timberwolves. While all games are crucial, these two could decide the seeding of the play-in teams.
At the moment, the Blazers are in the play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Between the teams fighting to get into that spot, and the new injury to Nurk, the Blazers may have a rough time fending off the likes of the Kings and Pelicans. The addition of Josh Hart and Justise Winslow is already paying dividends between Hart’s shooting and Winslow’s defense. Even with the possibility of Lillard returning, I don’t see Portland forcing him and Nurk to come back to try and capture the 10 seed. Lengthy injuries have proven to be the Blazers’ downfall this year, with their biggest contributors missing a good chunk of the season. It’s good news for the young guys, like Simons, having the opportunity to prove their worth in the league, but not so great news for the Blazers fans on the rest of the season.