The Trail Blazers came into the Bubble ready to gun for the eighth seed, and outside of a hiccup against a Clippers squad resting its stars, Portland has looked far more like the team that made a Western Conference Finals run in 2019 than a group scratching its way into a playoff berth.
Having Damian Lillard on your team has proven, over the past five years, to be quite the difference-maker when the margins are slim. Few players have the clutch track record that Lillard has, and pandemic basketball with eight games to make up a four-game margin certainly counts as a slim margin for error. The Trail Blazers couldn’t afford to come in sloppy, and Lillard looks like a man possessed so far, capping off his incredible seeding-game run with a monstrous 61 against Dallas on Tuesday night.
They’re also healthy. The real reason Portland was meandering on the outside of the playoff bracket all season was that they were without Jusuf Nurkic, who sustained an injury all the way back in the spring of 2019, and Zach Collins, who was lost for the season early on. With both bigs back, the Trail Blazers no longer have to rely on the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swanigan to play big minutes.
All these factors led starting forward Carmelo Anthony to tell Rachel Nichols of ESPN that the Trail Blazers don’t see themselves as an eighth seed.
“Our mindset is not an eighth-seed mindset,” Anthony said. “We consider ourselves a very good basketball team coming together at the right time, at the right part of the season.”
— Carmelo Anthony (@carmeloanthony) August 12, 2020
The lineups with Nurkic and Collins on the floor together have looked like a breath of fresh for Portland in terms of having capable decision-making and defense in the frontcourt, but it’s actually not been great for the team statistically. The starting unit is getting outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions in the seeding games, mostly because it struggles to defend opposing lineups, such as in an Aug. 8 loss to the Clippers minus Kawhi Leonard. Collins, while an upgrade over the Trail Blazers’ other options, is still largely the same guy we watched at Gonzaga: A very athletic and mobile big man who is best-suited to be a center, but who fouls far too much to make it work at the 5. He fouled out in the first game in the Bubble and has had fewer than three fouls just once.
But two things have helped Portland counteract their jumbo front court, even when both share the court. One is to get Anthony off the floor and juice the offense, which cuts down turnovers and allows Portland to play a set defense more often, which makes better use of their size. The other is Gary Trent Jr.
The former five-star Duke recruit has been a revelation in the Bubble, making good on the shooting potential he flashed back in high school. The Blue Devils struggled to make use of him in a strikingly similar situation to what he faces now, with two lottery bigs clogging the paint. But when Trent is on the floor now, Portland plays faster and more spread-out.
Trent has scored at least 17 points in six of seven seeding games and has the ultimate green light from deep. After signing Anthony and trading for Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore, Portland has found its best wing internally, a player who doesn’t need the ball and has good size, making him a good fit with the rest of the roster. Seth Curry was a huge part of Portland’s success last year, and even if Trent can emulate Curry, the Trail Blazers will be one of the best offenses in the Western Conference playoff bracket.
Rumors circulated this week that Lillard was trying to recruit Ariza into the Bubble after Ariza opted out to spend time with his son amid a custody battle. If Ariza can make it work, that certainly won’t hurt, but Portland has shown they are quite good as-is. Anthony’s right: With mostly their full roster available and Lillard at the peak of his powers, the Trail Blazers are one of the hottest teams in Orlando and a sure bet to make life hell if they break through and face the Lakers in the first round.