The Portland Trail Blazers started the season slow. Right until the New Year, Terry Stotts’ squad was struggling to keep their heads above .500 in a Western Conference that wasn’t as tough as everyone assumed it would be this past July.
Then, it all changed.
Portland found its footing midway through January, going 7-1 from Jan. 16 to Jan. 31. Shabazz Napier hit a hot streak, and paired with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers had a triumvirate of scoring guards many teams found difficult to stop.
Meanwhile, Ed Davis helped cover for the gaps in the game of rookie Zach Collins, who found his way into the lineup as the second big man off the bench. Everything was clicking, even with former starter Maurice Harkless racking up DNP-CDs.
That’s when something switched for Harkless. The 24-year-old wing saw himself in game tape, riding the pine, with an awful look on his face. He felt like he had let his teammates down, and in doing so had let himself down. Harkless made a vow to change his attitude and his effort. He was back to playing heavy minutes to start February.
The Blazers struggled to start the month against the likes of the Raptors, Pistons, and Celtics, but eventually rallied. We all know what happened next. Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 14, Portland broke off 13-straight victories for their best winning streak of the season.
At the heart of that winning streak? Strong play from both Davis and Harkless.
Harkless, who signed a 4-year $40 million deal with the Blazers in 2016, added a much-needed 3-point shooting option that the Blazers were sorely lacking. While the reputation of the team and Stotts’ Flow offense is as a scoring one, the fact is Portland still only finished 11th in 3-point percentage and 19th in shots taken behind the arc. Al-Farouq Aminu, having an up year beyond-the-line after a disastrous 2016-17 campaign, was simply not enough to draw defenders away from Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a non-factor from 3-point range, didn’t help either.
So when Harkless changed his attitude, it changed the offensive makeup of the team. In February and March, Harkless shot 48% and 56% from deep, respectively. His gravity allowed him confidence in his playmaking, too, as his assist totals went up as defenders stopped packing the lane or trapping Portland’s star guards.
Meanwhile, a fully-healthy Davis had helped the Blazers’ big man rotation all season long. Jusuf Nurkic — who only started to respond to direct and open pleas for aggressiveness from coaches and teammates around the All-Star break — was up and down. Davis, whose shoulder bothered him last season, was back to his normal self. His box score statistics were typically drab; more often than not a nine-rebound, six-point effort belied the importance of his contribution.
Davis helped cover up for some of the rotational mistakes of the youngster Collins, who showed defensive prowess and skill as a screener, adding range on offense where Davis could not. It was not atypical to see a play in which Collins grabbed an offensive rebound and keenly dished to Napier for a quick 3-pointer before the defense could reset, all while Davis engaged and neutralized an opponent’s best glass cleaner.
With both Davis and Harkless operating at full tilt, Portland’s rotation seemed to have fewer valleys between their peaks. Along with Nurkic becoming more aggressive, the Blazers transformed over the winter from one of the most uneven teams in the Western Conference playoff race to one of the deepest.
And thus, how Davis and Harkless go come playoff time will largely dictate how the Blazers move through the postseason.
The unfortunate fact for Portland fans is that Harkless underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the beginning of the month. He could be out for up to six weeks, and a recent status update puts Harkless as up in the air for the first round. Without the young forward, Portland closed the year 3-4, just barely making the third seed as they trumped the Utah Jazz in the final game of the year.
Davis, meanwhile, is at least some kind of consolation. He’s not perfectly healthy either — Davis suffered a turned ankle at the same time as Harkless, and had to sit out four games (it should be added that, in those four games without Davis or Harkless, Portland went 1-3). Yet Davis has powered through, and was a positive impact against the long arms of Rudy Gobert in that final matchup vs. Utah. No surprise here — with Davis back in the lineup against the Jazz, Collins went back to contributing positively after a few games of subpar play.
Portland has many weapons that will likely carry them beyond the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round. Lillard is playing solid, and McCollum appeared to break out of whatever funk he was in during the last game against the Jazz. Nurkic seems attached, and guys like Aminu and Turner know their roles and can be relied on each game. New Orleans is no easy out, but the series was split between the teams in the regular season and it’s best to pick talent come playoff time.
Even if Anthony Davis is the best player on the floor during times in this upcoming series, Portland’s bench talent is what pushed them to that 13-game win streak earlier in the year. If their other constituent parts perform near their ceiling, it’s players like Ed Davis and Maurice Harkless who will decide how deep the Blazers go in the playoffs.
Now, Rip City just needs New York Moe to get healthy as they try to chase the semifinals for third time in five seasons.