Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers made a run to the conference finals but were thwarted by injuries to Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins….along with facing an exceptional Golden State Warriors team. Nurkic and Collins have been out all season but because of the suspension of the season, both will return when the NBA season resumes in Orlando. Trevor Ariza opted out of the return to Orlando to spend time with his son which likely means more playing time for Carmelo Anthony.
The Blazers traded for Hassan Whiteside in the off season to make up for the anticipated losses to Nurkic and Collins this season so with those two returning the Blazers will be huge. And they’ll need it because without Ariza, the perimeter defense is weakened so they’ll need help in the lane to stop too many easy baskets.
They currently sit 3.5 games out of the 8th seed in the West, tied with the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. They need to stay in that spot to force a best of 3 series against the current 8-seed Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are unlikely to drop from 8th and all the way out of the play-in situation, they would have to go 0-8 with two of the teams below them going unbeaten to be more than 4 games out of the 8th spot.
Back to the Blazers, with the big frontline and dynamic duo of Lilliard and McCollum in the backcourt, they are likely better than their current record but unfortunately, the key to their schedule is their first game back from suspension. The Blazers and Grizzlies match up right out of the gate. A win and Portland is within 2.5 games of the 8th seed while a loss puts them out of the play-in game at 4.5 games out. While they finish up with a Nets team that looks to be a shell of themselves, the other six games are against the Celtics, Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Sixers and Mavericks. It’s doubtful any teams take any night off during this 8-game stretch especially considering none of those teams will be involved in the play-in situation and will have a break before they start their playoff runs.
Portland is combined 3-9 against those 6 opponents before the Nets game and they’ll likely have to go 4-2 against them to be in position for the play-in game with an opening night loss. With an opening night win, I think 3-3 will be good enough. Either way, we’re asking Portland to play a lot better than they have so far this year against quality opponents while integrating two key players and losing one rotation player.
They may be playing as well as anyone by the time they get to the Mavericks and Nets at the end of their eight games but I think in Portland’s case, it will be more for momentum going into next season than to put them in the playoffs for this season.