After the Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night, one thing was abundantly clear; the Blazers can compete with the best teams in the NBA. But, something else was crystal clear as well; the Blazers will need to find another gear to beat the best teams in the NBA.
Question is, do the Blazers have a higher gear?
No doubt, the Blazers have been playing at a higher level of basketball since the All-Star break. The passing has been crisper. The shot attempts have been cleaner. The defense has been locked in. And, the wins have been collecting at a much higher rate.
But, the Rockets are still a level above, as evident by their win against the Blazers at the Moda Center. If the Blazers are to find another level of greatness and make a deep run into the playoffs, one or more of the following situations will need to happen.
Jusuf Nurkic Goes Permanent Beast Mode
When Jusuf Nurkic is good, the Blazers are good. When Nurkic is in Beast Mode, the Blazers are fantastic.
Nurkic will have to be in full Beast Mode the rest of the regular season and through the playoffs for the Blazers to make some serious noise.
Nurkic has the look of someone just waiting to detonate, like a pod from one of those Alien movies ready to explode and go full facial on someone, or some team. He has put up some gaudy numbers lately, including the Houston game where he had 21 points and 11 rebounds.
If Nurkic can reach his potential, he can be a double-double man night in and night out. Then, maybe, he can be the third ingredient for a team one ingredient shy of greatness.
Zach Collins Continues His Rapid Rise
Count me as one who thought Zach Collins jumping into the NBA after only one year at Gonzaga University was a mistake. I didn’t think he was ready. I didn’t think his skillset was ready. I didn’t think his body was ready. And, for the first half of the season I was spot on.
Lately, however, Collins has been proving me wrong. Very wrong. Except, for the body thing; Collins still needs to bulk up. But, besides that, he has been sensational in the last month or two. Collins is an exceptionally skilled player, but his recent climbing up the relevancy ladder has more to do with his intelligence. Collins is smart, and he’s reading the game much better than he was just a couple months ago while gaining the confidence to play at this level of competition. The game is seemingly slowing down for him, as the NBA is a much different beast than college.
Coach Terry Stotts, who should be considered Coach of the Year again, has gained a lot of confidence in Collins, who has earned late fourth quarter minutes where you would normally see Nurkic or even Meyers Leonard in dire situations. Leonard came up huge against division rivals Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this year.
If Collins can continue his recent surge, he could be instrumental in the playoffs. But, that’s asking a lot for a rookie, especially for someone who hasn’t seen much time in critical moments parallel to the playoffs. But, Collins has proved me wrong before and I would be more than happy for him to prove me wrong again.
James Harden and Chris Paul Meltdown Together
Chris Paul has never been past the second round of the playoffs.
James Harden has a habit of performing in critical playoff moments like someone being caught on stage wearing only their underwear. He folded in the 2012 NBA Finals when he was with the Thunder and again in 2017 during Game 6 of the semi-finals against the San Antonio Spurs.
Perhaps, Paul and Harden can meld their post-season superpowers of underperforming at the wrong time together, combining their powers of spectacularly choking to create one of the greatest all-time duos of needing constant Heimlich maneuvers.
It’s a dream. But, one I’m rooting for in the first round.
Maybe, the Blazers don’t need to find another gear. The knock on the Golden State Warriors’ run through the NBA playoffs the last three seasons is that they have been lucky, playing teams that have had significant injuries to its star players.
They played against a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers squad during the 2015 NBA Finals. In fact, every team the Warriors played in 2015 during their run to a championship was against teams with noteworthy injuries.
During the 2017 playoffs, the Warriors played the Blazers without a healthy Nurkic. They proceeded to play the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals without Kawhi Leonard for most of the series, after Leonard dominated Golden State for a half in Game 1.
The only playoff run the Warriors haven’t been accused of injury luck is 2016, the year they lost the championship to LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
But, let’s face it, luck is a key ingredient to winning a championship for any team. Some might say Cleveland’s 2016 championship was luck when the Warriors’ Draymond Green had to serve a one-game suspension, leaving the window open for the Cavs to make a historical 3-1 series comeback. But, that was more dumb-luck given to the Cans on Draymond’s part.
This year, luck may be on Portland’s side.
The Warriors have had injuries to most of their starting five. Steph Curry, who has a history of injury problems, has been hampered throughout this season.
The San Antonio Spurs have been without Leonard again, and he may or may not be healthy by the playoffs.
You never, ever, root for players to be or get injured. It is a cardinal sin to be considered sports fan to even think as much. But, I don’t remember injuries, or luck, being a reason to take away any of Golden State’s championships.
The West is truly wild this year. The Blazers could be anywhere between a third seed in the playoffs to completely being left out. If a few pieces fall into place, and with a little luck on their side, anything is possible for the Blazers this season.