Trail Blazers Likely Out Early, But Deserve Applause

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers officially opened playoff ticket sales to the general public Friday afternoon and, although a terrible run of injuries has likely doomed them to another first-round exit, they deserve your support.

The Blazers have lost 10 consecutive playoff games. They probably won’t get swept this postseason, but missing Jusuf Nurkic (and possibly CJ McCollum) due to injury is simply too much for this team to overcome. If they do fail, make no mistake; it won’t be like previous seasons, where the talent level simply wasn’t there. Or when they lost too many games early and were forced into a first-round battle with the Warriors. Or when match-up issues neutered Portland’s offense from the get-go.

No. The real tragedy is that the Blazers were playing near elite basketball in the second half of the season. Mid-season acquisitions Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter were thriving, to varying degrees, in their supporting roles. Seth Curry, long inconsistent this season, had found his stroke. Jake Layman willed himself into being an NBA-caliber player. Moe Harkless emerged from missing-person status. Damian Lillard was continuing to play at an All-NBA level.

But the real story was Nurkic’s play. When he crumbled to the Moda Center floor in double-overtime of the Blazers 148-144 win over the Brooklyn Nets, and an anguished hush overtook the Moda Center crowd, he had tallied 32 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, and four blocks. An eye-popping stat line for sure, but also indicative of the season Nurkic has had on both ends of the floor. Did you know that Nurk has the second best net-rating in the Western Conference this season? Better than LeBron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Paul George, Nurkic trailed only Steph Curry in pure impact on the court. That combination of offensive facilitation and defensive prowess doesn’t grow on trees.

There are few in the league, let alone on Portland’s roster, that can make up for that kind of impact. Sure, Enes Kanter can admirably contribute with his scoring, and he may even be a slightly better rebounder than Nurkic. But he leaves a gaping hole on the defensive end. Nurkic not only successfully defended his own man night after night, he often covered for Lillard and (more often) McCollum’s lapses on that end. Essentially, if you swap Kanter for Nurkic, you may get similar raw offensive numbers, but you risk conceding a layup line on defense.

But it’s not just Nurkic’s absence that potentially hamstrung this team. When CJ McCollum was writhing on the ground in pain against the Spurs in mid-March, Portland fans held their collective breath. When it was announced that no major damage had been suffered to his knee, the entire Northwest exhaled. But will he return for the playoffs? I’m not sure any of us know the answer, including McCollum himself. If he doesn’t return for the playoffs (and I’m skeptical that he will), that means that the Blazers will be missing two of their big three, with only Damian Lillard left to carry the burden.

Blazer fans have learned to never underestimate Lillard, but a 37 point, 14 rebound, six assist hole in the starting lineup is simply too much to overcome in a seven-game series. As I understand it, McCollum’s particular knee injury isn’t serious in and of itself, but he risks a more serious injury if he doesn’t let it fully heal. Should he give it a go if he’s only 75 percent and the team is missing Nurkic, their second-best player? Maybe. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s held out in favor of a long-term outlook.

Even if this is how it plays out, this Blazers team deserves our applause. During their 28-12 stretch since December 30th (a nearly 58-win pace), they’ve played some of the most consistent and entertaining basketball that I can remember from this franchise. Last season’s 13-game winning streak is up there. The 10-game stretch before Wesley Matthews went down with a torn Achilles tendon in 2015 comes close. The Nate McMillan/Brandon Roy years saw 50-win teams but were, outside of Roy’s brilliance, stagnant and slow-paced basketball. The last time I can recall a sustained period this fun and fruitful was the 2000 Blazers squad that made the Western Conference Finals. That glorious stretch before the Lakers broke our hearts and the team descended into the Jail Blazers era.

Now it’s been taken away, and for no good reason. Of course, the team isn’t going to just roll over. They know that injuries are part of the game, and will have a “next man up” mentality. They have to.

And they have to believe.

That’s where you come in. Sometimes the best efforts – the most dignified efforts – are exercises in futility, but it doesn’t make them any less worthwhile. This should have been the year, if not for a Western Conference Finals berth, but at least for a competitive second round series. Thanks to a soft schedule to close out the season, they’ll still likely win 50 games; a nice benchmark for a quality year, but all that people will remember years from now, when they talk of previous eras of Trail Blazers basketball, will be the lost opportunity. It may not be fair, but we can’t turn our backs on this team just because they were robbed of their real chance to compete.

If you’re a fan of this team, I hope you bought your playoff tickets. I hope you cheer Lillard and the rest of the guys on as they compete, heads held high, in a playoff battle that they surely are out-manned for. Because as gutted as fans feel, you’ve got to feel for the players in that locker room. For CJ McCollum as he works to get back. For Jusuf Nurkic as he lies in a hospital bed. They don’t deserve to be abandoned by fans who know that the writing is on the wall. There are lots of different things competing for your attention right now as a sports fan. The NCAA Tournament, Major League Baseball, the Portland Timbers. All great stuff. But this team, despite the rash of bad luck, has earned more than to get lost in the ether.

Despite all the hardship of the last few weeks, the players on the court need to believe. And to believe, they need you to, the fan, believe. Even if, at this point for the Trail Blazers, it’s a matter of playing for pride – and nothing more.

That and reminding people of the truth… they could’ve been a contender.

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