BUBBLE POWER RANKINGS » A Good Start To The Restart

by Casey Holdahl
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It’s been a decent start for the Portland Trail Blazers in Orlando. Losing to the Celtics after rallying from down 24 was unfortunate, but everything else has pretty much broken Portland’s way throughout the first five days of the NBA’s 22-team restart at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Grizzlies and Pelicans both lost their first two games, the Pelicans beat the Grizzlies in the third game for both teams and the Kings have started 0-3. Other than the Spurs starting 2-1, there’s been little bad news thus far for your Trail Blazers.

Of course, they still have a lot of work to do. While the Trail Blazers control their own destiny with regard to forcing a play in for the eight-seed, their schedule, never all that easy to begin with in the first place, gets tougher starting with Tuesday’s game versus the Rockets. Basically, even with help, they’re going to have to do the bulk of the work themselves if they want a chance at extending their playoff streak to seven seasons.

Here’s how the Trail Blazers shake out in the first “NBA Bubble” edition of the weekly Power Rankings...

• The panel at ESPN has the Trail Blazers at No. 14 this week, one spot worse than their last ranking...

A 1-1 start probably isn't what the Blazers hoped for, but it is at least satisfactory -- especially because the win was over Memphis. The loss against Boston was competitive to the finish and Portland can review some defensive lapses and iffy clock management, but the Blazers have clearly come to the bubble a better team. At the same time, their primary issue hasn't gotten much better: They have a 124.6 defensive rating through two games, second worst in the bubble.

The folks at ESPN have the Trail Blazers behind the Pacers at No. 13 and ahead of the Magic at No. 15. However, the Trail Blazers are ranked ahead of all of the teams -- Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs, Suns and Kings -- fighting for the eight-spot.

• John Schuhmann at NBA.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 15 after a week in the bubble, one spot better than their last ranking...

Pace: 101.1 (12) OffRtg: 112.4 (5) DefRtg: 113.9 (27) NetRtg: -1.5 (20)

After pulling off a miracle win (coming back from nine points down with less than five minutes to go) against the Grizzlies on Friday, the Blazers went all-in on another miracle (coming back from 24 down to take multiple leads in the fourth quarter) against the Celtics on Sunday. For the second straight game, they played just eight guys. Damian Lillard played the entire second half for just the fourth time this season and CJ McCollum also logged more than 41 minutes. But they took two when they needed three, all those minutes were for naught, and they're now trailing the Spurs for that second spot in a play-in scenario.

The return of Jusuf Nurkic should help them with two big weaknesses: Interior scoring (they ranked 28th in points in the paint prior to the hiatus) and defense (they allowed a league-high 116.5 points per 100 possessions between Christmas and March 11). He provided some of the former in his first two games back, with 45 of his 48 points coming in the paint or at the line. But the Blazers (again) rank last defensively, having allowed 124.6 points per 100 possessions in their two seeding games.

That defense gets to face two of the league's top three offenses (those of the Rockets and Clippers) this week, and that short rotation will play a back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday.

Schuhmann has the Trail Blazers behind the Magic at No. 14 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 16.

• Colin Ward-Henninger has the Trail Blazers at No. 14, a four-spot improvement from their previous ranking...

The Blazers fought back from 11 points down to pick up a huge overtime win over the Grizzlies in the opener, then nearly pulled off the ultimate comeback against the Celtics on Sunday, but fell just short. Seeing Jusuf Nurkic back in action (averaging 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, 3.5 blocks in two games) makes you wonder what could have been for this team if he were healthy all season, but they still have a chance to catch Memphis or get into a play-in series. So far it looks like Portland is hungry for the playoffs, with a noticeable uptick in energy.

Henninger has the Trail Blazers behind the Jazz at No. 13 and ahead of the 76ers at No. 15.

• Zach Harper at The Athletic has the Trail Blazers at No. 17, two spots worse than their last ranking...

How does it look so far? That win over Memphis was one of the most incredible games of the season. Not just the restart, the season. The Trail Blazers talked smack and made big plays. Carmelo Anthony looked great, as did Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins in their return. It was a big step toward snagging that eighth spot. But then they got down to Boston way too big, and not even a 76-point second half could give them the victory. This is where we see the warts of this Blazers team. They’re better than we saw most of this season, but they still rely too much on Damian Lillard to save them.

How does it look moving forward? They still have a brutal schedule moving forward, but the emergence of Gary Trent Jr. this season has to excite Blazers fans. He’s been stellar in the first two games of the restart. He gives them an effective perimeter defender, even though he’s a bit undersized. He can knock down 3-pointers. They’ll need him the rest of the way. Five straight playoff opponents (four from the West) before they end the seeding schedule with Brooklyn. Blazers have to win at least three of these next five.

Harper has the Trail Blazers behind the Grizzlies, which makes a ton of sense considering they’re a team that lost their first two games of the restart, including their opener versus Portland, at No. 16 and ahead of the Suns at No. 18.

• Corey Rausch at Fansided has the Trail Blazers at No. 13 this week, one spot worse than their last ranking...

Even though it got close at the end and had to go to overtime, the Portland Trail Blazers showed exactly why people are jumping on the bandwagon for them as the eighth seed that could give the Lakers fits in the first round.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points and paced the team to a nice five-point win. Jusuf Nurkic saw his first regular-season action 16 months and was solid in his return with 18 points, six rebounds and six blocks. He was an impressive factor on both ends of the floor and being back in the lineup puts things back in line for the Blazers.

We have to acknowledge Gary Trent Jr. as well. Trent came in off the bench and had 17 points on eight shots and led everyone with a plus-20. Single-game plus/minus is a flawed stat in a lot of cases but it does encapsulate in this case the amount of impact Trent had on the game.

With the win, Portland has put itself in the driver’s seat for the time being for the teams chasing the play-in game. They are now 2.5 games behind the Grizzlies and genuinely pose a threat to catch them despite a brutal week ahead.

Rausch has the Trail Blazers behind the 76ers at No. 12 and ahead of the Jazz at No. 14.

• Michael Shapiro at SI.com has the Trail Blazers at No. 14 after the first weekend of play in the bubble...

The Blazers’ center rotation is now well stocked with the additions of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, but Portland remains weak in its wing rotation. Perhaps Gary Trent Jr. can be of some assistance. The second-year forward posted a game-best plus-20 against Memphis on July 31, and he added 21 points with seven threes against Boston on Sunday. Carmelo Anthony is little more than a stationary shooter. Mario Hezonja is never the answer. Trent’s role should only grow in the coming weeks.

Shapiro has the Trail Blazers behind the Pacers at No. 13 and ahead of the Grizzlies at No. 15.

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