Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard said he didn’t want to play in the resumption of the season unless his team had a legitimate opportunity to make the postseason, and that’s exactly what they’ve been given. It will be a tall task to make up 3 1/2 games to overtake the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, particularly given Portland’s tough schedule in Orlando, but they only need to stay within four games to force a play-in series.
The Blazers’ biggest worry might actually be the Pelicans, who are also 3 1/2 games out but have the easiest schedule of any team in the bubble. Working in the Blazers’ favor is the fact that they played 66 games this season before the hiatus — one more than the Grizzlies, two more than the Pelicans and Kings, and three more than the Spurs. Since the NBA will determine seeds by winning percentage, Portland will have a slight edge if it ends up tied with any of those teams for the No. 8 or No. 9 spot.
Here’s a look at Portland’s roster and schedule for the Orlando restart, along with a few key storylines.
Players sitting out: Trevor Ariza (sitting out), Rodney Hood (Achilles surgery)
All times Eastern
Go big or go home: The Blazers get a huge injection of talent (literally) with the return of Collins and Nurkic from injury. Nurkic hasn’t played this season but was integral to the team’s run to the Western Conference finals last year, while Collins was the team’s starting power forward before injuring his shoulder just three games into the season. The return of the two big men, plus Hood’s injury and Ariza’s decision to sit out of the restart, will likely mean lots of double-big lineups with combinations of Nurkic, Collins and Hassan Whiteside. Lineups with Collins and Whiteside together were extremely effective in limited minutes before Collins’ injury this season, while Collins-Nurkic lineups produced strong results last season as well. With limited wing options, expect the Blazers to go big quite a bit in Orlando.
Dame time: If the Blazers have any chance of making the postseason, they’re going to need their superstar to be in top form. The long layoff should benefit Lillard, who missed six games in late February with a groin injury and didn’t look quite right in the four games after his return before the hiatus, averaging just 20.8 points on 40 percent field goals (his season averages are 28.9 points and 46 percent shooting). We all remember Lillard averaging 48.8 points, 10.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds over a torrid six-game stretch to close out January, and he may need to approximate those numbers to get Portland into the playoffs.
The Ariza factor: Though his stats don’t jump off the page (11 points, 4.8 rebounds, two assists), Ariza was a crucial component to the Blazers after joining the team in late January. He played over 33 minutes per game, the team had a plus-eight net rating when he was on the court, and he was part of one of the Blazers’ best lineups alongside Lillard, McCollum, Anthony and Whiteside (plus-5.6 in 230 minutes). They were already thin on the wing, and the loss of Ariza makes things much more difficult.