A year ago, the Portland Trail Blazers dominated in the regular season. It’s taken them a while, but they’re finally looking like that same team again – actually, they’re looking better. Having won six of their last eight games in a tough Western Conference – including impressive wins over the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers – they’re showing signs of being a playoff contender. Led by Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic, the most traveled team in the nation seems to be shedding their inconsistent ways to climb up the conference… slowly but surely. Get tickets to see them play!
Portland’s Star Players
Damian Lillard is the Trail Blazers’ franchise star. The 28-year-old is in his seventh year in the NBA (all of them in Portland) and he’s been impressive since his 2012 rookie season when he made a huge scoring impact on the team. Last year he promised to improve defensively as well, and he did, leading the team to 49 wins in the 2017-2018 season. This year, he’s proving to be just as valuable as he averages nearly 26 points per game, better than his career-average of 23.3, and playing excellent defense. The formerly offensive-minded guard’s new skills are giving him even more confidence on the court. Now he’s playing at an All-Star level and we can’t see any holes in his game. Lillard is currently number six in the All-Star fan vote (which is weighted 50% in the decision-making) for Western Conference guards.
Lillard explained his improvements, saying, “I always look myself in the mirror. Everybody says they go into the summer and say they try to get better, and I try to find things that I’m not great at and stuff where I can improve myself. And that’s what we did that summer. The first 20 minutes of every workout was defense.”
CJ McCollum is the number two contributor on this Trail Blazers team. Alongside Lillard, he’s really stepped up in their last four wins. McCollum scored a team-high 24 points against the Bulls last week (not that Chicago is doing too hot), and while some experts have discussed his slumping stats lately, that can be explained by his increased off-ball role. And give the guy a break – after all, he’s still averaging 21.1 points per game this season. McCollum even dropped a casual 30 points in their win against the Hornets on Friday.
Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic makes up the final component of the team’s star trio and he’s playing better than ever right now. The Bosnian Beast can put a hurting on opponents both offensively as well as defensively. The seven-foot-tall center is averaging a double-double this season with 15.2 points per game and 10.4 rebounds, though in the past 10 games, he’s averaged closer to 19 points. Nurkic’s size and great instincts have evolved to make him an incredible defender, and his assists and free throw attempts are up too.
The Important Bench Players
Portland owes a lot of credit to its talented bench, particularly Evan Turner and Seth Curry who are leading the team’s second-string lineup. In the 36 minutes per game that he’s playing, Turner has almost doubled his assists from 3.1 to 5.7 this season. Curry has proven he deserves his spot on the team too – he’s an excellent three-point shooter with a scoring percentage of .491, one of the best in the league.
Zach Collins, their backup center, is playing better than ever as well. The 21-year-old out of Gonzaga is steadily posting more points and providing a little extra help off the bench. He might only average about 7 points per game, but occasionally posts numbers like a career-high 17 (against the Magic), and his defense is solid (even if he occasionally fouls out). Meyers Leonard, who has been on the team as long as Lillard, is providing a similar scoring and rebounding boost to the team.
Oh, and fun fact, the Portland Trail Blazers travel more than any professional sports team in the US. Away games are tough on any NBA team, but as the only franchise located in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a wonder they’re not exhausted all the time. Perhaps that’s why a cup of strong, hot coffee is an essential part of their game-day routine. Even players like Damian Lillard and Moe Harkless, who weren’t coffee drinkers before, have joined in the team habit after feeling the side effects of travel wearing on them. They say it helps combat mental fatigue and keeps them feeling sharp.
Lillard is currently suffering from an elbow sprain so he was questionable against the Hornets last Friday, yet he ended up playing and scoring 20 points. That game made four in a row for this Portland team until a narrow loss to the Nuggets last night. Halfway through the season with a record of 26-18 in a super competitive Western Conference, we’re impressed with the Trail Blazers. Needless to say, we’ll keep an eye on them. Grab your tickets to go see ’em in action!
How are you feeling about Lillard and the Trail Blazers? Are they a contender?