Blazers: Ready or not, here they come
It's a long time until July 31, when the Trail Blazers begin their eight-game sprint to try to make the NBA playoffs.
Already without Trevor Ariza, who opted out of the NBA restart, who else on the Blazers might not be playing at the Wide World of Sports Resort at Disney World in Orlando, Florida? For personal choice, social justice statement, COVID-19 fear or positive test, who will drop off the rosters of the other NBA teams? We've already seen the Los Angeles Lakers, a potential first-round playoff opponent, lose Avery Bradley (and gain J.R. Smith).
Who really believes rosters today will be the same rosters on July 30 when the NBA resumes? It's what makes the NBA restart intriguing; as long as it actually happens.
Fit with an All-Star guard determined to one day be a champion (Damian Lillard), a great running partner for Lillard (CJ McCollum), returning bigs in Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, and coming off a 2019 Western Conference finals appearance, the Blazers arrive in Orlando this week full of confidence. Lillard said teams could be rusty, given the four-month layoff from playing, and the unique nature of the eight-game schedule before playoffs could reward a team that remains healthy, focused and committed.
It's a goal to make the playoffs for the Blazers — first things first.
"I feel good about our chances," said Lillard, the NBA's fifth-leading scorer at 28.9 points a game. "Nurk and Zach are back, and we're a different team with those guys. It's a neutral court, neutral site. It's fair. I just asked for an opportunity to make (the playoffs), and we've been given that.
"It really helps that everybody's coming back rusty. Nobody's been playing," he added, of NBA teams. "Our team is familiar with each other, and our starting four and five are coming back from injuries ... and everybody's in the same boat. I think that's good for our team. We'll able to get it going pretty quickly, and I like our chances because of that."
Then again, other teams have been rested as well, and "we can't feel it out, and go out there and think we have time," Lillard said. "It's basically an eight-game season and we're starting off behind. We gotta start out assertive and aggressive."
The Blazers (29-37) sit in ninth place in the Western Conference, and trail eighth-place Memphis (32-33) by 3 1/2 games. New Orleans and Sacramento (both 28-36) also are 3 1/2 games behind Memphis, and San Antonio (27-36) is a half-game back of those three, four games back of Memphis. Phoenix (26-39) also is part of the restarted season.
The Blazers' eight games (Pacific Time): Memphis, 1 p.m. July 31; Boston, 12:30 p.m. Aug. 2; Houston, 6 p.m. Aug. 4; Denver, 5 p.m. Aug. 6; Los Angeles Clippers, 10 a.m. Aug. 8; Philadelphia, 3:30 p.m. Aug. 9; Dallas, 2 p.m. Aug. 11; Brooklyn, time to be determined on Aug. 13.
Other than Memphis, Portland doesn't play any of the teams vying for the No. 8 playoff spot.
If they should advance to play the Lakers, the Blazers have some wins over LeBron James & Co. The Blazers are 2-2 against the Lakers, the last game being a 127-119 victory on Jan. 31 — the Lakers' first game after the death of Kobe Bryant. Lillard had 48 points.
The return of Nurkic and Collins and loss of Ariza means that coach Terry Stotts might have to think big — as in likely starting Nurkic and Collins and moving Carmelo Anthony to the small forward position. Nassir Little and Gary Trent Jr. will factor in.
"I could see us having a big lineup out there," Lillard said.
"We're going to lose (Ariza's) defense and 3-point shooting, but you know we gained Zach and Nurk," Stotts said. "Hopefully, we'll be better defensively, even though we lose Trevor."
There won't be minutes restrictions on Nurkic and Collins. And, Stotts said he hasn't ruled out using Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside, the starting center all season with Nurkic out, together.
Because it's basically "playoff" games, Stotts said he'll shorten the rotation.
Along with Ariza being out, Stotts said the playing status of Caleb Swanigan remains unknown.
The Blazers and the other 21 teams in Orlando will be living, practicing and playing in "a bubble," meaning, in theory, they won't be allowed to leave the Disney World campus. Lillard envisions training and staying in his hotel room, maybe doing some music, and just preparing for games. He doesn't have confidence that all players will do the same; if (and when?) players test positive for COVID-19 on campus, how does it affect the situation?
"I know they're going to have some activities for us and all that stuff. I'm going to be chilling," he said. "Still, there's a possibility that something will spread within the bubble.
"You telling me you're going to have 22 teams full of players who follow the rules? When we have 100% freedom, not everybody follows the rules. Hopefully, it'll be handled where they're not putting people at risk or in a dangerous position."
Stotts is optimistic.
"I think it's a tremendous undertaking for the league," he said. "I think everybody's hopeful that we can pull it off. It could be something very special."
Intersquad scrimmages are to be held July 22-28, followed by seeding games July 30-Aug. 14. The two-game, play-in series for the No. 8 Western Conference would be held Aug. 15-16 (if necessary) and playoffs will begin Aug. 17.
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