Which Path Will Portland Take?
By: Devin Zanskas
ESPN’s Bobby Marks predicted that the Portland Trailblazers would finish as the number two seed in the western conference. Especially in hindsight, that sounded like a tall order. However, given their additions, the take wasn’t outrageous. In fact, it’s hard to find the Trailblazers culpable for not meeting the expectations of Marks considering that CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missed 50 combined games. Nevertheless, they still made it to the latest benchmark for a team serious about the playoffs, the sixth seed, just outside of the inaugural play-in tournament. On the surface, a number six seed isn’t anything to write home about. However, by earning this spot, they kept the reigning champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the play-in tournament. The Blazers didn’t just stay in their slot due to the Lakers’ failures either. Portland won ten of their last 12 games including winning two of the last three games against the Jazz, Suns, and Nuggets, and only a one-point loss to the Suns after another controversial shooting foul. Unfortunately, their success at the end of the season did not carry over into the playoffs.
The Blazers entered the first round matched up against the number three seeded Nuggets, with an opportunity to upset them given the disheartening loss of Jamal Murray to a torn left ACL. To the credit of the Nuggets, they’ve persevered exceptionally given that guards Will Barton and PJ Dozier have been extremely limited or inactive since at least the beginning of May. This is in large part due to the excellence of forward Michael Porter Jr. Nevertheless, if Lillard and McCollum are truly one of the best backcourts in the league, the gap between them and Campazzo and Rivers, must be larger than the gap between their frontcourt and the Nuggets’. In addition, if Jokic, the reigning MVP, is enough to cancel out the Blazers’ backcourt, then Portland has to win the minutes when Jokic is on the bench. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Nuggets had a +10 plus-minus with Jokic off the court. Another tell-tale sign that this iteration of the Blazers may never have enough is a loss even after a 55-point Lillard outing.
This is far from the first disappointing loss for the Blazers in the first round. Most fans would first think of their 2018 first round series against the Pelicans, when Jrue Holiday famously held Lillard to just 18.5 points per game on 35.2% shooting from the field. After being swept two years in a row, the second time as the higher seed, the majority of teams would’ve made wholesale changes. However, the Blazers zagged and bet on their continuity and resilience. That bet paid off as the following season they beat the Nuggets in the conference semifinals. However, the conference-final berth against the Warriors will likely be the pinnacle of these Blazers. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, shared that the Blazers and Terry Stotts had “mutually parted ways” after a fourth first-round playoff exit in five seasons. McCollum trades have been a delight for armchair GMs for at least the past half decade, and they’re back in full force. Lastly, Lillard posted a cryptic Instagram caption the night the Blazers were eliminated, “How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation”. This is the last quote that one would expect from Lillard, especially given his critique for Paul George and Pat Beverley, “Keep switching teams… running from the grind. You boys is chumps.” It’s still difficult to imagine that Lillard would post the aforementioned caption without knowing the murmurs that would stir up.