The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.
The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.
The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.
Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.
The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.
Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.
Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.
A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.
The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.
So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.
It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.
Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.
As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.
In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.
Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.
A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.
A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.
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