ORLANDO, Fla. — The two teams that reached the 2019 Western Conference finals certainly have a story to tell, you think?
In swift fashion, each imploded because fate was not in their favor. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson suffered major injuries in The Finals, then Durant bounced to the Brooklyn Nets as a free agent. A month into the 2019-20 season, Stephen Curry suffered a hand injury and missed most of this season. The Warriors didn’t make the cut for the NBA season restart in Orlando.
The other team from that series, Portland, has its own story. Jusuf Nurkic was slow to mend from a broken leg from a year ago. Fellow big man Zach Collins needed shoulder injury after the third game of this season, and the Blazers gradually went south in the standings, sitting at 29-37, just off the playoff cut line.
But Portland is at Walt Disney World to play out the restarted season. And fate fell their way once the season went on hiatus in March due to the coronavirus, allowing the Blazers to heal, retool and reposition themselves for an unlikely comeback.
Nurkic is healthy. Collins is healthy. The team’s two surprisingly effective additions, Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony, are motivated to reclaim their wayward careers. Something’s percolating in Portland other than java.
“We’re in a good spot right now,” said All-Star guard Damian Lillard.
In a sense they are. The reality is a bit more complicated.
The Blazers sit 3 1/2 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot. Should the Blazers finish within four games of the Grizzlies, they’ll force the best-of-two play-in tournament. The Grizzlies have a tough run in their seeding-game schedule, which begins curiously with the Blazers on Friday (4 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
An argument could be made that Portland, more than any of the 21 other teams in Orlando, has the largest upside here. The Blazers haven’t been complete all season because of injuries and late additions. They actually won’t be whole for the restart because veteran swingman Trevor Ariza is sitting this out for family reasons.
We’ve added some things that suits our team better with Zach and Nurk back. We will be very well prepared. We’re ready to play.”
Blazers star Damian Lillard
Their restart rotation will be the best they’ve had all season and perhaps even more potent than last season’s West finals team (because Nurkic was sitting on the bench then and Anthony was sitting at home).
As the unquestioned leader and force on the Blazers, Lillard’s optimism is barely concealed. He did heavy lifting all season, averaging a career-high 28.9 points and putting his name on the Kia MVP ballot. The Blazers couldn’t gain any traction in the standings, though, because of the missing and moving parts. Their playoff chances appeared remote when March approached. And then the pandemic changed everything.
The four-month layoff not only gave Nurkic and Collins additional time to heal, gain strength and resume practicing, but Anthony shed almost 20 pounds. Few if any teams took advantage of the interruption better than Portland.
Their “problems” are good ones: Coach Terry Stotts must devise a plan to use Nurkic, Collins and Whiteside in a cohesive way. All three are starting material and diverse in their talent, but might not play very long at the same time.
“At this point I’m keeping an open mind about it,” Stotts said. “It could be the matchups against the team we’re playing that night, I don’t know. I will say (Nurkc and Collins) have both looked the way I remembered them.”
Nurkic made great gains as a flexible and dangerous low-post center, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds before breaking his left leg horrifically in March of 2019. His soft touch around the rim, appetite for rebounds and nimble footwork lent more front-line balance on a team that relied too heavily on the gifted-yet-overworked Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt.
The double-blow came when Collins, a new starter, needed surgery on his torn left labrum in early November. The damage on the court was almost instant as even before this hiatus Portland was one of the NBA’s weakest rebounding teams. The absence of Nurkic and Collins meant the Blazers often faltered in pick-and-roll situations involving Lillard and McCollum.
“There’s no question we’re better with Nurk and Zack healthy,” Stotts said. “It was a long road back for Nurk, especially, but having him back makes us a better team. He’s a valuable part. We missed him during the season and glad he’s back and healthy.”
And now, the lineup juggling begins. How do you field a pair of seven-footers (Nurkic and Whiteside) and a 6-foot-11 post player (Collins)? In place of Nurkic, the Blazers acquired Whiteside, who is the NBA’s top shot blocker and No. 2 rebounder. The Blazers will rotate the three of them for the two front-line power spots, with Anthony at small forward.
“It’s going to be fun,” Collins said. “We’re all going to look for each other. We’ll have a lot of high-low situations and all of us are good passers. If we communicate, it could be really lethal.”
Whiteside is the only one of the three whose minutes are all but directed at the center because of his limited outside shooting. The Blazers also suspect many teams will go small against them and force matchup issues, although Nurkic believes that’ll be a mistake.
“Those people have to guard us, too,” he said. “Pick your poison. We’re going to be able to guard anybody out there.”
Nurkic admitted to moments of frustration during a rehab that lasted 16 months, although he’s encouraged by his movement and fitness level.
“It’s great to be back, to get that feeling, there are no words, man,” he said. “I feel in great shape. It’s been really a journey for myself. It was good to get 100% with my body, coming back from an injury, I’m just so grateful. I’m really excited and can’t wait. Mostly I’m going to play forward with Whiteside but we’ll mix it with Zach. We’re going to help each other. We all feel really comfortable.”
Collins, the Blazers’ best front-line defender, had a shorter recovery yet feels a similar level of anxiousness.
“It was a tough moment, especially my first year starting in the NBA,” Collins said. “To get that taken away from me, as a young guy, it was really frustrating. Once I figured out (rehab) was going to be that long, I came to accept how long I was going to be out and try to be positive about it. I’ve never been out that long with an injury. Spent a lot of hours in the weight room and time away from the team and being disconnected.
“I’m going to be a star in my role, either coming off the bench or starting. If me coming off the bench helps us win a championship, then I’m 100% in.”
First things first: Portland isn’t even in the playoffs.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of the West isn’t aware of the Blazers and their potential.
“We’ve had great practices, able to execute our offense better than we have all season,” Lillard said. “We’ve added some things that suits our team better with Zach and Nurk back. We will be very well prepared. We’re ready to play.”
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