What we learned from the Trail Blazers victory over the Bulls

The Trail Blazers got a (very) soft introduction to the post-Jusuf Nurkic era against the Bulls on Wednesday night. Chicago rested the majority of its best players allowing Portland to cruise to a 118-98 victory — Seth Curry led the way with 20 points. The game basically served as an intersquad practice, allowing Terry Stotts to give his new rotations a dry run against an outclassed opponents.

3 Observations

Kanter gets the start

Stotts occasionally throws a curveball when choosing temporary replacement starters, selecting deeper bench players to avoid upsetting the reserve rotation. Jake Layman starting at shooting guard for CJ McCollum being a recent example.

Stotts tried no such trickery against the Bulls. Enes Kanter started in Nurkic’s absence and the Blazers ran their base offense, heavy on Kanter/Damian Lillard pick-and-rolls, and center post-ups against mismatches.

Kanter responded well scoring 7 points in the first quarter on only four field goal attempts. He struggled occasionally finding open teammates, and picked up a silly moving screen foul, but looked generally competent with the starters. Early returns suggest that Kanter will be able to fill-in sufficiently well to keep the Blazers from devolving to a one-man Dame show for the rest of the regular season.

Can Collins play center?

Zach Collins had a solid game, playing 25 minutes and scoring 13 points. Like last season with Ed Davis, Collins has found success in recent games when playing alongside Kanter. Again tonight, Collins only played four minutes without a bigger teammate on the court.

It’s certainly promising to see Collins playing well, especially draining multiple 3-pointers, but the Blazers will need him to play the 5 during the playoffs when Kanter’s defensive limitations become game-losing liabilities. It remains unclear if Collins can be effective in that role.

Curry is still hot

Rodney Hood looked like the most obvious replacement  when McCollum went down with an injury an week and a half ago, but Curry has been the player capitalizing on the additional looks.

Curry poured in 20 tonight, bringing his average up to 16.8 points on 48 percent 3-point shooting during McCollum’s four-game absence. Curry seems to have finally found the (irrational?) super-confidence he showed during his breakout season with the Mavericks, canning contested triples and driving aggressively through traffic against the Bulls. If he can continue this style of play it will be a major boon for the Blazers bench in the playoffs.

2 Questions

What happens when the defenses adjust to Lillard?

The Bulls were barely an NBA team tonight — Robin Lopez was their only player recognizable to casual observers. As such, they did not bring a playoff-level intensity to defense and did not attempt the hard traps nearing half-court that confounded Lillard and the Blazers offense during last year’s playoffs.

Nurkic’s savvy elbow passing and rapport with his teammates had partially mitigated the threat of a hard trap against Lillard, but it’s unclear if Kanter can reproduce Nurkic’s strengths in this particular situation. This situation should be watched when the Blazers play better opponents and as Kanter gels with Lillard.

Would Lopez consider re-joining the Blazers?

Nurkic is almost certainly going to miss a significant chunk of the 2019-20 season, and the luxury tax paying Blazers probably won’t be able to re-sign Kanter this summer. They’re going to be desperately searching for a new center this summer.

Watching the game tonight it was hard not to think that Lopez would be a good candidate. He’s rapidly approaching the veteran minimum phase of his career and has proven himself competent in Stotts’ defensive system. The Blazers could do worse in their search for Kanter’s replacement.

1 Prediction

The Blazers passed their first test tonight. They showed no signs of emotionally folding after losing Nurkic and proved they can easily handle a subpar opponent. The good news is that their schedule stays easy; only two of their final eight games are against teams with winning records.

As of tonight, it’s looking like 50 or 51 wins will be enough to sneak into a top-5 seed and avoid the Rockets and Nuggets in the first round. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the Blazers can find the four wins they need in the next eight games and finish in the top five in the west.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.