* Tonight on TNT: Thunder vs. Blazers, 10:30 ET
After getting swept as a No. 3 seed in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers ran it back for another year behind a core of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. And once again, the Blazers are in the mix for a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
After a 5-2 road trip coming out of the All-Star break, the Blazers are in a three-way tie with the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder for third place in the West. The Blazers don't have the easiest remaining schedule of those three teams (Houston does), but they don't have the toughest either (Oklahoma City does by far). And they'll have their most important game left on their schedule in their building on Thursday, when they host the Thunder.
Here's one number to know about the 2018-19 Blazers as they return home, play for third place in the West, and try to avoid a season sweep at the hands of the Thunder ...
The Blazers' starting lineup -- Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic -- has played 668 minutes together.
Lineup continuity begins with health. Four of the Blazers' five starters -- Lillard (1), McCollum (1), Aminu (0) and Nurkic (1) -- have missed no more than one of the Blazers' 64 games this season. Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic have all exhibited pretty remarkable durability in Portland.
Harkless has missed 20 games, but the other aspect of lineup continuity is substitution patterns. And Blazers coach Terry Stotts has kept his starters on the floor together more than he had in previous seasons. The Blazers' starting lineup has played 17.6 minutes per game, the third-highest average among the 499 lineups that have played in at least 10 games together.
In McCollum's fourth season as a starter, he and Lillard have already played 1,865 minutes together, second-most among league-wide pairings and almost as many as they'd played together in any of the previous three seasons.
Prior to this season, Stotts staggered Lillard and McCollum's minutes to ensure at least one of them was always on the floor. Typically, McCollum would sit the last few minutes of the first and third quarters, while Lillard did likewise the first few minutes of the second and fourth.
Last season, Lillard and McCollum shared the floor for an average of 7:50 in the first quarter. That was up from a little less than seven minutes over the previous two seasons.
This season, Lillard and McCollum don't go to the bench at the same time, but McCollum stays on the floor longer in the first quarter and both guards are on the bench to start the second. On average, the two of have played 8:58 together in the first quarter and 9:18 in the third.
The minutes with both Lillard and McCollum on the floor have never been better. The Blazers have outscored their opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions with both in the game, the pair's best mark (by a pretty wide margin) in their four seasons starting together. And since the Blazers have been getting more of those minutes, the improvement is felt even more.
The issue is that the minutes with neither Lillard nor McCollum on the floor -- minutes that *didn't really exist the previous three seasons -- have not been good. Evan Turner has been the Blazers' second-unit playmaker for most of the season, and in 457 minutes with Turner on the floor and both Lillard and McCollum on the bench, the Blazers have been outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions.
(* Not counting garbage time.)
The Blazers have been 14 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Lillard on the floor (scoring 114.8) than they've been with him off the floor (100.8). With both Lillard and McCollum on the bench, the minutes spanning the first and second quarters have been rough. The Blazers have been outscored by 33 points in the last three minutes of the first quarter (when only six teams have been worse) and by 61 points in the first three minutes of the second (when only two teams have been worse).
But that averages out to losing just 1.5 points per game in those six minutes. More often than not, the Blazers have been able to make up for it with those extended Lillard-McCollum minutes. As noted above, the guards average more minutes together in the third quarter (when the Blazers are a plus-7 for the season over the final three minutes) than they do in the first.
Also, the neither-on-the-floor option isn't as bad when you look at last year's numbers. Last season, the Blazers outscored their opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions with Lillard and McCollum on the floor together and by 4.9 per 100 in 774 minutes with Lillard on the floor without McCollum. But they were outscored by 6.5 points per 100 possessions in 1,027 minutes with McCollum on the floor without Lillard.
The month of December did test Stotts' resolve. The Blazers were outscored by 19.4 points per 100 possessions (and scored an anemic 94.7 per 100) in 116 minutes that month with Turner on the floor without either Lillard or McCollum. On Dec. 11 in Houston, the Blazers lost by seven in a game in which they were a plus-13 in more than 35 minutes with Lillard and McCollum on the floor together. (So they were outscored by 20 points in less than 13 minutes with both on the bench.)
The following night in Memphis, Stotts went back to staggering his starting guards' minutes so that one of them was on the floor for the entire game. The Blazers still lost, Stotts went back to using a full, five-man bench unit two nights later, and it rewarded him with quality minutes in a win over Toronto on Dec. 14.
There were more ugly bench nights after that, but Stotts has stuck with the original plan of sitting Lillard and McCollum together. The Blazers' most-used five-man bench unit -- Turner, Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard -- outscored its opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possession in its 196 minutes together. A month ago, the Blazers upgraded the Stauskas spot by trading for Rodney Hood. At the All-Star break, they also added Enes Kanter off the buyout market.
Because Turner missed most of the Blazers' post-break trip, he's played in just two games with Hood and Kanter. But in 52 minutes so far with Hood on the court without Lillard or McCollum, the Blazers have outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions, with much better offensive numbers (115.2 scored per 100) than in those Turner minutes.
We'll see if Stotts sits his two guards together in the playoffs. They'll each surely play additional minutes (Lillard has averaged 40.5 minutes in his 35 career playoff games), and those can be used to either have one on the floor at all times or to increase the minutes that they're both on the floor together. There's certainly a case for the latter plan.
BLAZERS NOTES - GENERAL
- The Blazers have the West's best record (19-5) against the Eastern Conference, and are 20-20 vs. the West.
- They rank second in rebounding percentage, having grabbed 52.3 percent of available rebounds.
- They're 38-2 (league's third-best mark) when leading after the third quarter and 1-23 (league's worst mark) when trailing after the third quarter. The team leading after the third quarter won the first 54 games the Blazers played this season.
- They're 9-0 on Thursdays, one of four teams that's undefeated on any particular day of the week.
BLAZERS NOTES - OFFENSE
- Rank 28th in ball movement at 309 passes per 24 minutes of possession. But they've seen the biggest increase from last season, when they ranked 29th at 295 passes per 24. They've also seen the third biggest increase in the percentage of their field goals that have been assisted, from 49.6 percent (30th) last season to 54.6 percent (26th) this season.
- Have made just 1.7 corner 3-pointers per game. Only the Knicks have made fewer. Have taken only 15.7 percent of their 3-pointers from the corners -- the lowest rate in the league. They're also one of two teams (Boston is the other) that have shot better on above-the-break 3-pointers than on corner 3-pointers.
- Rank second in free throw percentage (81.9 percent).
BLAZERS NOTES - DEFENSE
- Rank in the bottom five in opponent turnover percentage for the seventh straight season. Have ranked in the bottom three in all but one of those seasons (2015-16).
- Opponents have taken only 1.8 3-point shots for every mid-range shot. That is the lowest opponent rate in the league.
- Have drawn just 0.16 charges per game, fewest in the league.
BLAZERS NOTES - LINEUPS
- The Blazers are the only team with three lineups that have played 200 minutes together (and they have a fourth that played 196 minutes before Stauskas was traded). All three include Lillard, McCollum, Aminu and Nurkic, the league's most used four-man combination (1,400 total minutes), and all three have scored at least 114 points per 100 possessions, making them three of the six best offensive lineups among the 30 that have played at least 200 minutes.
- The lineup that includes Turner has outscored its opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among those 30 lineups.
- The Blazers have scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions with Aminu on the floor. That's the third-highest on-court NetRtg among 282 players (and the highest among non-Warriors) that have averaged at least 15 minutes in 35 games or more.
- The Blazers have grabbed 53.9 percent of available rebounds with Nurkic on the floor and just 50.4 percent with him off the floor.
BLAZERS NOTES - INDIVIDUAL
- Al-Farouq Aminu is registering career highs in both effective field goal percentage (53.4 percent) and true shooting percentage (58.3 percent). It's the first season in which he's been above the league average in both.
- Seth Curry ranks third in 3-point percentage at 45.4 percent. At 49-for-96, he's the only player who has shot 50 percent or better on at least 75 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. Meyers Leonard (46.2 percent) ranks seventh in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage among the 223 players with at least 75 attempts.
- Maurice Harkless is registering career highs in both defensive rebounding percentage (13.4 percent) and total rebounding percentage (9.3 percent).
- Rodney Hood has committed turnovers on just 5.7 percent of his possessions, the fifth-lowest mark among 214 players that have averaged at least 20 minutes in 35 games or more.
- Enes Kanter ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage among players hat have averaged at least 15 minutes in 35 games or more. He has averaged six second-chance points per 36 minutes, most among 328 players who have played at least 500 total minutes.
- Jake Layman has shot 76.7 percent in the restricted area, the third-best mark among 222 players with at least 100 restricted-area attempts.
- Damian Lillard has scored 1.08 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the second best mark among 70 players with at least 200 ball-handler possessions, according to Synergy play-type tracking.
- Lillard has shot 91.1 percent from the free throw line, the best mark among 32 players that have averaged at least five attempts per game.
- C.J. McCollum is one of two players (Kevin Durant is the other) who have shot better than 50 percent on at least 200 mid-range attempts.
- McCollum has traveled 169.2 miles, fifth-most in the league. This would be the first time in the six seasons for which we have full tracking data that a Blazer (McCollum, Lillard or Nicolas Batum) didn't lead the league in total distance traveled.
- Jusuf Nurkic has attempted 45 free throws per 100 shots from the field, up from 29 last season. That is the biggest jump in free throw rate (FTA/FGA) among 185 players with at least 300 field goal attempts both seasons. Aminu (from 14 to 29) has seen the third-biggest increase, and both of them have also seen big increases in free throw percentage.
- Evan Turner has taken just 46 percent of his shots from the restricted area or 3-point range. That's the sixth lowest rate among 235 players with at least 300 field goal attempts this season. He's taken just 12 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (where he's 7-for-46), down from 23 percent last season. That's the sixth biggest drop among 185 players with at least 300 field goal attempts both seasons.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.