The consensus following the Portland Trail Blazers 5-2 road trip after the All-Star Break was extremely positive. The last two games of that road trip,however, in which we beat Charlotte on the back of Rodney Hood and endured a frustrating loss at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, were the start to a week of .500 basketball. As the Houston Rockets have caught fire, winners of eight straight, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves occupying the fifth spot in the West. A devastating overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder sent the Blazers to 1-2 on the week before recouping to 2-2 on Saturday with a win over the “not as bad as you think” Phoenix Suns.
Game of the Week
Marred by a loss, this is still an easy choice. The Blazers-Thunder game was everything it was billed out to be and then some. The atmosphere was electric, and one can’t help but hope that these two might be facing each other come playoff time. Although the Thunder are 4-0 against the Blazers this year, the discrepancy between the two is nowhere near that distinct. No game this season has been decided by more than ten points, and only one game in the last two years has been decided by double digits.
In a game that featured only 28 assists between the two teams, it was all about the respective stars in the playoff-like atmosphere. All-Star point guard Damian Lillard led all scorers with 51 points and nine assists on an efficient 15-28 from the field, while hitting 18 of 20 freebies. CJ McCollum, albeit on only 9-24 from the floor, poured in 25 points. For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook didn’t look like someone who’s shooting only 28% from three, as he hit 5-8 from beyond the arc en route to 37 points, seven rebounds, and three assists. Paul George may have had 32 points, but the Blazers held the MVP candidate to only 7-23 from the field and 1-9 from downtown.
Back and fourth the entire way, no team was able to grab control of the game. Unfortunately for the Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic was dismissed with only four seconds left in the fourth quarter after receiving his second technical foul. Preceding the confrontation was a no-call on a driving elbow from George to the face of Nurkic that led to two points for the Thunder. Clearly unintentional, the foul should have been called, negating the lead. Come overtime, the lack of a shot blocking presence proved to be pivotal, with the Blazers sorely missing Nurkic’s rim protection. In the end, it was a 129-121 Thunder win.
Player of the Week
Damian Lillard’s 51-point effort was the highlight of another productive week for the All-Star point guard. Averaging 29 points and seven assists for the week, Lillard is cementing his case for another second or first team All-NBA nod. At this point in the season, his consistency has reached a point where you can almost pencil him in for at least 25 point and five assists a night.
Ideally, with an improved bench unit in place, you’d rather Lillard not have to carry so much of the load night in and night out. As Evan Turner makes his way back from injury, a more productive and organized second unit could take some of the pressure off Lillard. This would be a welcome sight for the Blazers heading into the playoffs. Even if the bench productivity picks up, though, the Blazers will go as far as Damian Lillard can take them.
Play of the Week
I hate to do this to the Phoenix Suns. They have suffered enough on their way to the second worst record in the league. Well, then again, it is Jusuf Nurkic they should be mad at.
Leading 45-36 with just over 4:30 to go in the second quarter, Nurkic, standing in front of the top of the arc, passed the ball to Damian Lillard on the right side of the court near the Blazers bench. Nurkic promptly went to set a screen for Lillard who dribbled around toward the elbow before sending a bounce pass to a rolling Nurkic in between Deandre Ayton and Tyler Johnson. Armed with bad intentions, poor Kelly Oubre should have just moved out of the way. However, lucky for us, Oubre stayed true to his fundamentals and rotated over, in hopes of taking a charge. Unfortunately for him, Nurkic gathered the ball, took two steps, and pretended like Oubre wasn’t even there leading to a ferocious right-handed jam.
The “He Deserves Some More Minutes” Player of the Week
You could make a case for somebody like this almost each week. There are always some surprise contributors throughout the season, whether that’s due to injury, poor play by people in the rotation, or a good matchup for a specific player. However, as the Blazers have seen with Jake Layman this year, those surprise contributions should not always be seen as a fluke. Initially given a larger role because of injuries to Moe Harkless, Layman has made himself into an integral part of the Blazers success.
With that said, if Seth Curry were to get more minutes coming off the bench, I think he could turn into an indispensable part of this team. At 44.2% from three, Curry is an unmistakably elite three-point shooter. Statistically, he had a pretty average week. He did have 22 against Phoenix, but most of that came when Portland was already up by 20. My point is that Curry doesn’t even need to score to make his presence felt. The space he provides offensively would create space for non-shooters Evan Turner and Enes Kanter, in addition to opening up driving lanes for McCollum, Lillard, and Hood. Portland fans know of his shooting prowess, but Coach Terry Stotts is yet to utilize all facets of Curry’s game. We have begun to see it more recently, but Curry has showcased before that he is comfortable operating in the pick and roll and getting his own shot. Both his teammates and the Blazers as a whole would benefit from an increase in Curry’s minutes.