Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Have the 5-11 Portland Trail Blazers fallen too far back to make playoffs? We’ve all heard a coach say it: “You can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it.”
That might apply to the Trail Blazers this season. After losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday 137-129, Portland is now 5-11 and the 14 seed in the West, ahead of only the one team possibly more decimated by injuries than themselves (the Warriors). Portland has gone 2-9 in November.
This was a team with Western Conference Finals expectations before the season started, now the question has to be asked:
Has Portland’s slow start to the season dug too big a hole to climb out of and even make the playoffs?
No. But things need to turn around sooner rather than later.
On the positive side, while the Trail Blazers may be six games below .500 they are also only three games back of eight-seed Phoenix and the final playoff spot. They also have a point differential that suggests the Blazers should have at least one more win, maybe two, meaning they are a little better than their record indicates. Get Damian Lillard healthy (he missed the last two games with a back issue but is expected to play Saturday against Cleveland), rack up some wins to change the momentum, and make a late push up the standings once Jusuf Nurkic returns (there is no timeline, but whispers say maybe around the All-Star break)..
Portland is not out of it.
Also on the positive side, Portland has got a run of games at home coming up. And the franchise has some history on their side: The 2007-08 Trail Blazers started 5-10, but went on a 13-game win streak and eventually finished 41-41 and made the playoffs. (The 2017 Jazz and 2016 Wizards both started 6-10 and made the playoffs.)
It’s also not going to be easy to turn things around — there are no nights off in this West, no gimme wins (outside maybe Golden State, until they get healthy again). Also, unlike in 2008, 41 wins will not be enough to make the playoffs. It may not be too big to climb out of, but Portland has dug itself a hole to start the season.
One can’t mention Portland’s struggles without talking injuries, particularly along the front line. Nurkic is out, and the Blazers were counting on Zach Collins to step forward into that role, except he is now out months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol never got healthy from his foot injury and was waived. Rodney Hood and Skal Labissiere have both missed time with ailments. That has placed a lot on the shoulders of Hassan Whiteside, who has done what he’s always done — stuffed the stat sheet with empty calories, given inconsistent effort, and not set good picks. The injuries up front are why Carmelo Anthony was brought in. Add in a slow start to the season from CJ McCollum (who has turned it around) and Lillard’s injury, and here we are at 5-11.
Portland’s biggest issues are on the defensive end, where they are currently a bottom 10 team. Teams are running a lot on Portland, and while statistically the team has defended well in transition, teams still get too many easy buckets.
Portland was an average defensive team last season, but a top-three offense covered it up. This season we’ve seen how much Nurkic — as a strong pick setter and short-roll option who could facilitate a little — meant to the Blazers offense. Portland is 13th in offensive rating, basically league average. The Portland offense no longer can hide their defensive flaws.
Time has not yet run out on Portland, it’s still early. However, the Blazers need to find some wins. Fast. The first rule of climbing out of a hole is to stop digging.
2) Carmelo Anthony scores 18, but we need to see him next to Lillard; Giannis Antetokounmpo has career-high 15 assists, gets triple-double in win. There were some individual games worth discussing in Milwaukee’s 137-129 win over Portland Thursday.
Carmelo Anthony had 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting, and he looked better than his first game back. You can see what you want in his numbers, he took six midrange shots, but is now also 5-of-8 from three in two games in Portland.
Here’s the reality with Anthony: This is Lillard’s team and he missed the two games ‘Melo played. It’s too early to judge the Anthony gamble in Portland because we have not seen him yet next to the guy whose team this is and who runs the offense. Lillard is expected to return from his back issues Saturday against Cleveland, we need to watch Anthony in that and the next few games, then see how this marriage is working.
This is how good Giannis Antetokounmpo has played this season: He struggled against the Blazers shooting 9-of-27 (1-of-7 from three), looking a little worn having to play 37 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back.
His numbers on the “off” night: 24 points, 19 rebounds, 15 assists.
That would be the first ever 20+ point, 15+ rebound, 15+ assist game in Bucks franchise history — and that history has Oscar Robertson in it. Antetokounmpo looks every bit like an MVP player again to start the season.
Finally, CJ McCollum seems to be out of his slump and had 37 points and 10 assists.
3) J.J. Redick, Brandon Ingram lead New Orleans to win, hand Phoenix it’s third straight loss. Brandon Ingram scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter Thursday, leading the Pelicans to a 124-121 win on the road. Ingram is a restricted free agent this summer and has been putting up “pay the man his money” numbers this season.
J.J. Redick added 26 and was killing it from three.
After a hot start, the Suns have come back to earth losing three in a row and 4-of-5, and now they head out on the road to take on two teams playing well in Minnesota and Denver.