The Portland Trail Blazers so far in Florida have yet to show us who they really are, or what they could become, and it’s truly through no fault of their own.
Portland’s hopes of reaching the NBA playoffs rest with the melding of pieces that have yet to play together this season, a season that saw the team limp to a 29-37 record before the COVID-19 pandemic halted play.
Now nestled in the NBA bubble, Portland is hopeful the return of center Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins will be enough to allow it to make a run months after having little chance to do so in March. Two scrimmages in, the Trail Blazers have yet to taste victory. That’s largely irrelevant. What’s not is that Portland also has yet to function at full strength while preparing for a situation that will leave little room for error.
Damian Lillard sat out Sunday’s 110-104 loss to Toronto with foot inflammation that isn’t expected to be serious. Center Hassan Whiteside missed the team’s first scrimmage, a 91-88 loss to Indiana, on Thursday.
Sunday, we saw for the first time what a big lineup with Nurkic and Whiteside on the court together would look like. Imposing inside, to say the least. But Toronto was able to fire off threes almost at will. Although CJ McCollum did his thing from outside (game-high 21 points), Portland without Lillard had next to no chance of winning an outside-shooting contest with the defending NBA champions.
It would have been nice to see Portland be able to have Lillard and McCollum do their thing outside with Whiteside and Nurkic cleaning up inside. And when the Raptors’ defense extended to disrupt Portland’s dynamic duo, Portland could have been able to work the ball inside more often and watch the big men work.
Portland did do some of that, only minus Lillard. Whiteside had six quick points in the first quarter, but was limited to 18 minutes. Nurkic didn’t shoot well (4 of 13), but finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he thought his two centers played well together. When asked about Toronto launching a boatload of three-pointers at them (44 compared with 25 for Portland), Stotts pointed out that his team did lead at halftime despite not matching the Raptors from the outside.
True, but once Toronto got hot (it made 6 of 10 in the third), the Raptors pulled away.
“As long as they’re contested threes, we can live with it,” Stotts said. “But they got hot in the third quarter … that’s going to happen.”
Portland made just seven threes while Toronto sank 17.
Lillard’s presence certainly could have changed the dynamic of the scrimmage. He would have taken his fair share of threes (he took 9.9 per game this season) and certainly would have opened things up more inside for the big men.
Stotts said that whatever the situation, or opponent, he wants his team to take good shots, and he felt it did that for the most part Sunday.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a steady diet of anything from us because I think we’ve got inside and outside,” Stotts said. “We’ve got penetrators. We’ve got three-point shooters. So, we’re not strictly a three-point shooting team. We’ve got to score the points where we can get them.”
One thing that’s becoming increasingly apparent is that Lillard and McCollum might not receive much help in the backcourt in Florida. Gary Trent Jr., who started in place of Lillard, and Anfernee Simons have not played particularly well.
Trent shot reasonably well Sunday, making 4 of 11 shots. He made 5 of 12 against Indiana. But through two scrimmages, he is 1 of 9 from three-point distance. He did shoot 38.8% from back there before the season was delayed. So, his current run could merely be chalked up as a cold stretch. Trent, even when he isn’t shooting well, brings infectious energy.
“More than anything else, I like the way he competes,” Stotts said. “Defensively, he competes every possession.”
Simons, on the other hand, is not yet a good defender and continues to struggle from the field. He went 4 of 11 on Sunday (2 of 6 on threes ) for 13 points and had four assists. Simons went 1 of 9 and 0 for 5 against Indiana.
Again, it’s only been two scrimmages, but Portland can’t afford to get eaten alive when either Lillard or McCollum leaves the court.
“I think they’ve both competed in different ways,” McCollum said of Trent and Simons. “Obviously, (Trent) is a guy that brings energy on both sides of the ball. He’s accepted the challenge of guarding some of the toughest offensive players and has played well.”
Portland has one more scrimmage to iron out issues before the real games begin July 31 against Memphis (33-32), the team Portland is chasing for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Memphis, 0-2 in Florida, shot 24.2% (8 of 33) from three-point range Sunday in a loss to Houston (40-24), so it’s not as if Portland is the only team trying to fix its shortcomings on the run. However, the chaser, Portland in this case, will play a tougher schedule while trying to make up ground on the Grizzlies.
“As long as we’re healthy, we’ve got action,” McCollum said.
Maybe, but the Blazers are running out of time to pull things together.