Blazers feel ready for NBA restart
It's all systems go for the Trail Blazers — as in a new system with healthy big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to team with Hassan Whiteside up front, the superb backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and a skinnier Carmelo Anthony.
Nurkic has looked good in scrimmages, coming off 16 months recovering after a devastating leg injury. Collins also has looked prepared after missing all but three games with a dislocated shoulder.
Lillard and McCollum are confident the Blazers can make noise in the final eight seeding games and contend for NBA playoffs in the "bubble" in Orlando, Florida. Anthony, who lost weight to play the small forward position, said the Blazers have focus and belief, and can do something special, even when facing "an uphill battle."
The Blazers (29-37), a Western Conference finalist a year ago, sit 3 1/2 games behind eighth-place Memphis (32-33), their opponent in the first game of the NBA restart, 1 p.m. PT Friday (NBATV/NBCSN).
"As long we're healthy, we got action," McCollum said, shrugging off any concerns heading into the NBA restart.
"We'll be ready to go," said Lillard, who dealt recently with a sore foot. "We've been able to execute our offense better than we have all season. We're executing better and communicating better on defense. We'll be very well-prepared."
It's a tough road for Portland. Six of the eight opponents are above-.500 teams and playing for playoff positioning — Boston, Houston, Denver, L.A. Clippers, Philadelphia and Dallas are 13 games or more above .500. Only Memphis and Brooklyn are below .500. Although the Blazers miss New Orleans (which has a 4-0 record against Portland), the Blazers also miss a LaMarcus Aldridge-less San Antonio and two teams that have not been in the playoffs in recent years in Sacramento (last playoffs 2006) and Phoenix (2010). The Blazers also don't get Orlando and Washington, Eastern Conference sub-.500 teams.
Clearly, the Blazers are going to utilize their size. Nurkic dispelled the notion of rusty play with two stellar scrimmages (heading into Tuesday's final scrimmage).
"I am a better player than I was," he said.
Collins, a starter before his injury, played well in scrimmages and said he would be fine with any role.
"I want to be a star in my role," he said. "If I'm coming off the bench (and it) helps us win a championship, I'm 100% in."
Coach Terry Stotts might want to hit teams with posts Nurkic and Whiteside in the starting lineup. "It's something we'll continue to look at," Stotts said.
Nurkic is a better passer and scorer and Whiteside is a premier rebounder and shot blocker. Whichever way Stotts goes, the Blazers will have quality big men to complement Lillard and McCollum as premium penetrators and shooters, and Anthony's matchup advantage at small forward.
When they go big, one issue could be 3-point shooting. The Blazers were a combined 12 of 54 (.222) in the first two scrimmages (and then went 18 of 37, .486, in the finale without Lillard and McCollum). As Stotts said, Lillard (and McCollum) can spread the floor when games mean something.
The Blazers will look for bench minutes from Mario Hezonja, Anfernee Simons, Gary Trent Jr. and Wenyen Gabriel. Nassir Little was dealing with a concussion this week.
"Everybody's locked in," Hezonja said.
The Blazers should be better defensively with more help from big men and with rebounding. Nurkic also brings back a pick-and-roll chemistry with Lillard and he can pop out for jumpers with either Whiteside or Collins in the game.
With two big men in the game, Lillard expects a lot of "high-low" setups for plays, with an example being Nurkic lobbing to Whiteside or Collins for slams.
Stotts "wouldn't be surprised" if teams put smaller lineups on the floor to try to beat the Blazers athletically. But the opponent has to deal with Portland's size, too.
Let the games begin.
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