6:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Blazers -2.5, Over/Under: 240
A pair of teams looking to upset the natural order in the First Round of the Playoffs clash tonight at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, as the desperate Portland Trail Blazers meet the young Dallas Mavericks. Along with five other teams residing on the fringes of the postseason field, the Trail Blazers (33-39, 9th in Western Conference) have been in playoff mode since the NBA’s Restart from a four-month Covid-19 hiatus, and quite frankly they had no other choice. Invited to the Bubble due to being within six games of the Eighth Seed in the Western Conference, all that was required of them to force a miniature two-game playoff with the Memphis Grizzlies was concluding the eight Seeding Games no lower than the Ninth Seed and with no larger than a four-game difference in the Standings. Well, with just two games left, Portland has accomplished the latter objective, though it remains to be seen if they will succeed in the former, because the competition is still very tight, with the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns a half-game and a full game behind them. Needless to say, Terry Stotts’ troops can’t afford to let their foot off the gas now, and if their recent run of form indicates anything, they’re more than up to the challenge; 4-2 since the restart, the Blazers have faced a daunting schedule in the Bubble, though will likely be favored in each of their final two contests, including tonight’s meeting with the Mavericks and Thursday’s finale with the Brooklyn Nets.
If this unit manages to secure the Ninth (or Eighth) Seed out West, then nobody can say that they didn’t earn it, for they’ve fought tooth and nail in every affair since the restart, outscoring the opposition by a narrow 2.8-Point margin. Offensively, Portland has been red-hot, averaging 123.3 Points per Game on an efficient 47.9% shooting from the field, including a blazing (no pun intended) 43.2% from beyond the arc. However, these games have oftentimes turned into bonafide shootouts, with their counterparts catching fire as well, shooting 48.0% overall and 43.1% from downtown. The difference though has been on the glass where Stotts’ charges have earned a Plus-1.9 advantage, and in taking care of the basketball, committing just 11.7 Turnovers per Game. Oh, and it certainly helps to have Damian Lillard (29.3 PTS, 45.9% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.2 PER) on their side, for the prolific Point Guard has been nothing short of an assassin over the last six games in Orlando. Then again, the five-time All-Star has been in excellent form all season, carrying the injury-ravaged Blazers throughout the campaign in which he’s posted career-highs in a slew of categories including Points (29.3), Field Goal Percentage (45.9%), Two-Point Percentage (52.3%), Assists (8.0), and PER (26.2) among others all the while logging the most minutes in the league (37.3). Since the restart, Lillard has raised his level of play even higher, averaging 33.0 Points on 47.4% shooting, including 38.6% from three, with 4.3 Rebounds, 9.5 Assists, and 1.3 Steals, only punctuating his rise to superstardom with Sunday’s 51-Point performance in Portland’s 124-121 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. One night after missing a pair of Free-Throws and a game-tying three-pointer in a 117-122 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the four-tie All-NBA Selection went on an absolute tear in the final stanza against the Sixers, totaling Eighteen Points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field, and 5-of-6 shooting from the Free-Throw Line. It was the ninth time this season in which he scored at least Forty Points, and the tenth time in his career that he managed to surpass fifty (five of which coming in 2019-2020), putting him in esteemed company with the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Of course, the Trail Blazers have had the luxury of Lillard’s services throughout the term, but what is making them dangerous is the fact that they’re finally healthy for the first time this season. A year after advancing to the Western Conference Finals, Stotts & Co. found themselves without their Starting Frontcourt for a number of months, with towering Center, Jusuf Nurkic (18.8 PTS, 48.2% FG, 10.5 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 2.5 BLK, 25.0 PER), and versatile Forward, Zach Collins (7.1 PTS, 48.1% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 6.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 9.9 PER), undergoing extensive rehabs from significant injuries, while sharpshooting swingman, Rodney Hood, was lost for the season due to a torn Achilles. Mercurial Center, Hassan Whiteside (15.6 PTS, 61.8% FG, 13.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 3.0 BLK, 24.7 PER), was added in the Offseason, while veteran Forward, Carmelo Anthony (15.4 PTS, 42.8% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 12.3 PER), finally found a home with Portland in early November, after spending the previous season in limbo. And it’s with all that said that no team in the league has benefitted from the four-month break issued by the coronavirus pandemic, for the season was completed as scheduled it would have been VERY likely that this side would have missed the Playoffs for the first time since 2013. Simply put, the Blazers are healthy and as presently constructed the argument can be made that if they had a full complement of players this year then they could have easily earned the Third or Fourth Seed, and are head and shoulders above the rest of the five teams for the final spot out West. This also makes them a potential nightmare for the Los Angeles Lakers in the First Round, for with Nurkic and Collins healthy, they now have the requisite size to battle the Lakers’ giants in the Paint, while Lillard will be a serious problem for a shorthanded Backcourt. However, first things first, and that’s the Mavericks, whom they’re just 1-2 against this season.
Meanwhile, as one team has no other choice but to approach every single one of these contests during the restart as a Playoff, the Mavericks (43-30, 7th in Western Conference) have instead approached these eight games in an attempt to regain their conditioning and chemistry after the aforementioned hiatus. From the moment that they arrived in Orlando it was clear that that would be course of action for Dallas, who were never in danger of dropping below the Seventh Seed and likely too far away from the Sixth Seed to ascend any higher. This attitude has been reflected in their play thus far, going 3-3 in the six outings since the restart, oftentimes playing to the level of their competition which has forced them into some very sloppy, yet very close affairs. The Mavs have been outscored during that period by a narrow 2.6 Points per Game, though have been far from efficient in shooting just 42.4% from the field, including only 31.5% from downtown. Granted, they’ve managed to make up for it by taking residence from the Charity Stripe, where they’ve calmly knocked down 27.8-of-34.2 Free-Throws, outscoring the opposition by a margin of 9.0 Points in the process, and battering them on the glass, outrebounding them by 3.4 Boards. However, they’ve struggled to provide much resistance defensively, allowing 47.9% shooting overall and 38.2% from beyond the arc, while forcing a disappointing 9.8 Turnovers, which is rather telling when you consider just how turnover-prone much of the league has been since the return to action.
With that said, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mavericks have found themselves in so many close games since the restart, for after all, that’s been their M.O. throughout 2019-2020. In seventy-three games thus far, a whopping twenty-five of them have been decided by five points or less, with their record in such outings a dismal 8-17 (.320), which includes four out of their five contests in the restart following such criteria. Furthermore, three of those tilts were decided in Overtime, including Saturday’s 136-132 victory over the East’s No. Seed, Milwaukee Bucks. As he has for so much of this season, Luka Doncic (29.1 PTS, 46.3% FG, 31.6% 3FG, 9.5 REB, 8.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 27.6 PER) carried Dallas, notching his league-leading seventeenth Triple-Double of the term (and third since the restart), totaling Thirty-Six Points on an efficient 12-of-24 shooting (50.0%), Fourteen Rebounds, and a career-high Nineteen Assists. This impressive showing came just four days after amassing Thirty-Four Points, a career-high Twenty Rebounds, and Twelve Assists in a 114-110 triumph over the Sacramento Kings, which was also decided in Overtime. In just his second season in the NBA, it’s hard to imagine another player making a greater leap from Year One to Year Two than the 21-Year Old Slovenian, who has established himself as a bonafide superstar in today’s NBA. We’ll have to wait and see if Carlisle puts him out there for tonight’s meeting with the Blazers following Monday’s meeting with the Utah Jazz, sidelined with a tender ankle. Officially, he along with a host of other Mavs, are listed as Day-to-Day, with Carlisle likely looking to ensure the health of his rotation in lieu of the a likely matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers in the First Round of the Playoffs, in which they will certainly need all hands on deck. Keep in mind that this team is far from the deepest these days, with the likes of Guards, Jalen Brunson (8.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 2.4 REB, 3.3 AST, 14.9 PER) and Courtney Lee (4.5 PTS, 48.8% FG, 44.7% 3FG, 1.3 REB, 10.8 PER), along with Bigs, Willie Cauley-Stein (5.2 PTS, 68.9% FG, 4.6 REB, 22.2 PER), and Dwight Powell (9.4 PTS, 63.8% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.5 AST, 15.9 PER), failing to even make the trip to the Bubble, while Seth Curry (12.3 PTS, 49.3% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 2.0 AST, 15.5 PER) and Dorian Finney-Smith (9.6 PTS, 46.2% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 1.6 AST, 12.3 PER) missing time of late with leg and hip ailments respectively. Depth will be key against the Clippers, who have a wealth of it, and this team can ill-afford to lose any more of theirs.
However, just because they lack solid depth doesn’t mean that they aren’t formidable, even without the presence of Doncic, a point that was made crystal clear to the Jazz, whom they rallied back to beat 122-114 on Monday. Trailing 56-78 early in the Third Quarter, Dallas put together a furious rally which will go down in the club’s annals as the largest comeback since 2016, as they outscored Utah 34-14 in the final stanza alone. With sharpshooting Forward, Kristaps Porzingis (20.1 PTS, 42.2% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 9.5 REB 1.8 AST, 2.0 BLK, 20.0 PER), also sidelined it was a legitimate question as to where the production was going to come from within the shortened rotation, but thankfully the Supporting Cast arose to the challenge with six different players scoring in double-figures. Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.6 PTS, 42.9% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 14.1 PER) led the way with Twenty-Seven Points on an efficient 11-of-15 shooting (73.3%), including 3-of-6 from the perimeter (50.0%), while the aforementioned Curry added another Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%), and 4-of-6 from long range (66.6%). The massive, yet scarcely utilized, Boban Marjanovic (6.1 PTS, 56.2% FG, 4.1 REB, 25.1PER) got into the act with Twenty Points of his own, while the Bench totaled Thirty-Three Points. Though the Jazz were from poor offensively (47.6% FG), the Mavericks were clearly on another level even without three starters, netting a blistering 56.5% from the field, including 12-of-24 from three (50.0%), assisting on Twenty-Nine of their Forty-Eight Field Goals, and committing a mere Nine Turnovers.