If you happened to look toward the Northwest over the past few weeks, you might have noticed a trail of smoke, that’s because the Portland Trail Blazers have been on fire. They are shooting up the standings Western Conference. Last season they struggled defensively, then as this got started they struggled offensively, but in the last ten games they’ve put it all together and it has been glorious. Damian Lillard has inserted himself into the MVP discussion (he’s not going to win it though), CJ McCollum has been a great Robin to him, Jusuf Nurkic after a slow start is beginning to shine, and role players like Ed Davis and Zach Collins are all contributing to this run.
Lillard has been amazing all season, averaging 26.9 points and 6.5 assists on 44.6% field goal percentage, and 38.2% from three. He’s exploded during this win streak, scoring 32.5 points, 6.4 assists on 45.8% field goal percentage, and 42.7% from deep. In addition to these numbers, he has also kicked up his plus/minus numbers from 4.1 to 11.6 during this run. Lillard reclaimed the fourth quarter as Dame’s time, averaging 8.2 fourth-quarter points during the streak, and first in the NBA during the past the games. Just look at what he did to the Lakers in crunch time last time they played.
Not far from Dame in fourth quarter scoring during this stretch is CJ McCollum who has been averaging 7.8 points in the final quarter. It is long debated whether the pair will need to be split, that may or may not be true, that said they have found a way to make things work. He has been a great Robin, with the ability to finish at the rim like he did against Miami after getting a hand-off from Nurkic; he has the Dirk-one legged fadeaway down and can knock down threes either off of screens or off the dribble.
Nurkic is an important piece for the Blazers; he’s their third option and adds the ability to be able to score and create for teammates in the post. Besides that, he’s a great roll option, which he used to kill Miami. He averages 8.1 rebounds a night but he has kicked up a notion during this streak and he is averaging a healthy double-double, 15.3 ppg, and 10.3 rpg.
The Blazers utilize several different types of sets to get their best guys the ball in the spots where they can be most effective. They use a GET action to get into high Pick-and-Rolls, so Dames comes off a pin down catches a pass from McCollum and then he hands it right back as Nurkic sets a flare screen for him, then he sets the ball screen for McCollum. They run another action to get Dame open on a flare screen. Then their big three run a pistol action that in this example leads to a Nurkic dunk, and because every team runs a Flex action the Blazers use it to get Dame the ball on the move.
The big leap for the Blazers this year has been on the defensive end, after having a defensive rating of 107.8 last season, they are in the top ten this year at 104.1, and they are killing teams during the streak with a rating of 99.3. They have done a great job rotating on the defensive end, like on James Johnson’s drive, Nurkic slides over to help which caused Moe Harkless to drop down to take Nurkic’s man with Dame zoning up the shooters on the wing. The ball found it’s way to Bam Adebayo and Harkless came away with a block. Later in the game, Collins slid over to help on a Tyler Johnson’s baseline drive that triggers Shabazz Napier to take his man in the corner and Turner to close out on the next pass.
Coach Terry Stotts has done an excellent job, the Blazers’ defense is much improved from last season, the offense is starting to resemble what it looked like last season. Over the past two months, Lillard has been playing the best ball of his career, entering into the MVP and All-NBA discussion. McCollum is playing the role of sidekick perfectly and providing a second punch. Nurkic started to look like the guy the Blazers traded for last year and the role players are filling the holes gallantly. They may be one or two consistent shooters away from truly contending but the Blazers are lighting the NBA on fire at just the right time.