10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Trail Blazers -1, Over/Under: 230
A pair of teams who were considered to be contenders coming into the campaign but have instead found themselves simply fighting to avoid the Play-In Tournament in their respective conferences meet tonight in the Pacific Northwest, as the Portland Trail Blazers play host to the Boston Celtics from MODA Center in Portland, Oregon. After advancing to three Eastern Conference Finals in the last four years, the Celtics (28-26, 7th in Eastern Conference) have endured one of the most difficult seasons by any team in the league in this most unusual year in the National Basketball Association. Following their long trek through the Playoffs (which saw their run end on September 27th, just over three months before the start of the 2020-2021 term), Boston took their lumps in the (truncated) offseason, losing (veteran Swingman) Gordon Hayward essentially for nothing in a sign and trade in Free Agency. Rather than receive a player in exchange, the club acquired the largest trade exemption in league history at just over $23 million (which they would use later at the Trade Deadline). Unfortunately, losing a versatile piece such as Hayward would diminish their rotational depth, which was only compounded by the absence of (All-Star Point Guard) Kemba Walker (17.6 PTS, 39.7% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.0 PER), who underwent offseason knee surgery and missed the first eleven games of the schedule as a result. Over three months later and the 30-year old has continued to struggle to return to full form during this relentless schedule, shooting just 39.7% from the field and 33.9% from beyond the arc, his lowest such figures since the 2014-2015 campaign as a member of the Charlotte Hornets. With that said, the biggest loss by far though was the prolonged absence of the team’s emotional leader and personality, Marcus Smart (13.4 PTS, 40.8% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 14.9 PER). The veteran Guard suffered a calf injury that would go on to sideline him for eighteen consecutive games, robbing the rotation of not just another creative component, but a dogged defender to boot. Oh, and let’s not forget that this is a team that was also stung by COVID-19 early in the season, with (All-Star Forward) Jayson Tatum (25.7 PTS, 45.6% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 20.8 PER) missing five straight outings in late January, with the 23-year old claiming to still be feeling the effects of the virus to this day. Needless to say, this has been a rather difficult hand that (Head Coach) Brad Stevens has been dealt, who has had to repeatedly get creative with a habitually shorthanded squad, only to watch the rest of the competition in the East get stronger. Milwaukee, who has ruled the conference in each of the last two seasons added Jrue Holiday in the offseason, while Philadelphia look reborn under the guidance of Doc Rivers, with Brooklyn welcoming back a healthy Kevin Durant and adding former MVP, James Harden, in the NBA’s latest blockbuster deal. Boston on the other hand, is simply fighting to remain above .500 and work their way out of the Seventh Seed, which would place them in the Play-In Tournament, facing the Tenth Seed, Chicago Bulls in a brief one-off, where anything can happen. With eighteen games left, there is still plenty of time to climb the proverbial ladder, for after building up some positive momentum of late (winning five of their last six games), the Celtics have moved into a virtual tie with the young Hornets in the standings. Hopefully, help will be on the way soon in the form of former Orlando Magic Guard, Evan Fournier (18.6 PTS, 45.7% FG, 39.8% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.5 PER), whom the franchise acquired at the Trade Deadline. After just four games with his new employers, the French International is currently the subject of the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols after his move from Central Florida, though the hope is that his skillset will address some of their needs, namely creativity in the backcourt and the ability to switch defensively, which has long been their mandate on that particular end of the court. One of the most persistent criticisms of Stevens’ side this season is how stagnant they’ve been offensively, with their ball-movement ranking towards the bottom of the league, averaging just 23.2 assists per game (23rd Overall). With Hayward gone and both Walker and Smart shelved for long stretches due to injury, Tatum and (fellow All-Star) Jaylen Brown (24.3 PTS, 48.7% FG, 39.7% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 20.3 PER) have more or less handled the majority of the facilitation themselves, which has in turn led to a very predictable approach. If these guys can find a way to return to full strength and get Fournier acclimated to the rotation, then there is plenty of room for optimism that Boston will move up the standings, though if this season has taught us anything it WON’T be easy.
“We just needed something to get us going… You know, I thought we were close to going the other way there when it was 76-62.”Brad Stevens on Boston’s ridiculous 31-3 run to finish off Denver on the road, snapping the Nuggets 8-game winning streak in Sunday Night’s 105-87 triumph.
When we last saw the Celtics, they managed to win their third consecutive outing while simultaneously snapping the surging Denver Nuggets’ eight-game winning streak in a convincing 105-87 thumping in Colorado on Sunday Night, which saw the visitors put together an absolutely FURIOUS rally to obtain victory. Trailing 79-65 late in the Third Quarter, Boston would go on to finish the affair on a ridiculous 31-3 run in the final period, in which they outscored the hosts by a commanding twenty-eight points. Indeed, this was a contest in which they showed their quality against one of the better teams in the Association, with their dominance in that stanza looking like a masterpiece. Stevens’ troops shot a stellar 12-of-20 from the field (60.0%), with Tatum dropping fourteen points on 5-of-8 shooting en route to a 28-point performance just two days after pouring in a career-high fifty-three points in a 145-136 shootout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The aforementioned Brown, who along with Tatum was listed as Questionable coming into this game with a sore knee and illness respectively, totaled twenty points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), eight rebounds, three assists, and a pair of blocks. Walker and Smart each added fourteen points apiece, combining for nine rebounds and eleven assists, with the former keying the Celtics’ late tear with a thunderous dunk late in the Third Quarter. Though they didn’t shoot well from the perimeter (7-of-33 3FG), their defense was absolutely stifling in relegating the Nuggets to a scant 36.4% shooting overall, including a miserable 3-of-23 in the Fourth Quarter (13.0%), including 0-of-9 from beyond the arc. Furthermore, Boston would go on to outscore Denver 56-46 in the paint and 11-8 in transition, while calmly knocking down 20-of-23 free-throws (87.0%) for a Plus-5 advantage from the charity stripe. Now it’s on to Portland where the Celtics look to build upon their 5-7 away record against Western Conference teams, with this brief three-game road trip wrapping up against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday Night. Tonight’s meeting with the Trail Blazers is their first of the campaign, with the second leg being contested in Beantown on May 2nd. Last season, they met Portland twice and defeated them on both occasions, the first being a 118-106 affair at MODA Center on February 25th and the second a narrow 128-124 track meet in the NBA’s Bubble held in Orlando. Tatum and Brown combined for sixty-four points on 21-of-40 shooting (52.5%) from the field, including 11-of-16 from downtown (68.6%) in that latter meeting, with the former also accounting for eight assists during what was certainly a coming-out period for the 23-year old.
Meanwhile, their opponent tonight, the Trail Blazers (31-22, 6th in Western Conference) are all-too familiar with things like injuries and Play-In Tournaments for they’ve rarely been at full strength in each of the past two seasons, and found themselves competing in the NBA’s inaugural tourney during last season’s trek through the Bubble in Orlando. Portland entered those Seeding Games on a mission, and proceeded to go 6-2 in that eight-game period, setting up a one-off against Memphis Grizzlies which they would win in narrow fashion. Though they would go on to be eliminated by the eventual champion, Lakers, in five games, that showing provided us with a glimpse of just how effective this team could be when they were healthy. After all, let us not forget that they advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals just two short years ago. However, just as injuries ravaged them last season (Head Coach) Terry Stotts has once again been forced to adjust his plans without a number of key contributors for long stretches throughout the campaign, with the likes of (sharpshooting Guard) C.J. McCollum (23.5 PTS, 44.9% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 22.0 PER) for twenty-five games due to a broken bone in his foot, along with (towering Center) Jusuf Nurkic (9.3 PTS, 49.0% FG, 35.0% 3FG, 7.5 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.4 PER) who has since missed thirty-one games with a torn ligament in his wrist, and (young Power Forward) Zach Collins, who has yet to play this season following surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. McCollum returned to the fray roughly a month ago with a clean bill of health, with Stotts having since eased him back into the rotation; the 29-year old has logged over thirty minutes in ten of his last eleven games in which he has averaged 22.2 points on 45.0% shooting, including 35.4% from beyond the arc, with 3.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists over that period. Prior to injury, McCollum was in the midst of a career campaign in which he was posting personal bests in both points (23.8) and three-point percentage (42.5%), and the hope is that he will indeed return to form before long to help alleviate the scoring burden from (All-NBA Point Guard) Damian Lillard (28.7 PTS, 44.1% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 7.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 25.3 PER), who has continued his torrid form from the previous term, averaging a career-high 30.1 points per contest. Nurkic made his return back on March 26th, and has since averaged 8.3 points on 50.0% shooting along with 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in seven games, though the club as a whole has gone a middling 5-4 since he came back to action. Stotts hopes that towering Bosnian International will bring some sorely-needed size and rim protection to a group that without he and the aforementioned Collins ranks towards the bottom of the Association in many defensive categories, including defensive field goal percentage (47.9%), opponents’ two-point percentage (54.9%), and defensive rebounding percentage (77.0%). (Veteran Center) Enes Kanter (12.1 PTS, 60.7% FG, 11.9 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.7 BLK, 22.6 PER) and even (veteran Forward) Carmelo Anthony (13.1 PTS, 40.7% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 13.8 PER) have logged plenty of minutes at that position, with the return of the 26-year old allowing them to shift back to their preferred roles, creating some depth in the process. And speaking of depth, the Blazers were also rather active at the Trade Deadline, acquiring the services of (veteran Guard) Norman Powell (19.0 PTS, 48.8% FG, 42.9% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.2 PER) in a deal in exchange for Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood. The 27-year old showed steady improvement in each of his six seasons with Toronto, finally breaking into the Starting Lineup and finds himself in the midst of a career campaign in which he’s logged personal bests in a slew of categories including points (19.0) and three-point percentage (43.9%). From a financial standpoint, Powell is set to be an Unrestricted Free Agent this Summer, while Trent Jr. who while five years younger and has been a breakout contributor is scheduled to be a Restricted Free Agent, with Hood carrying a non-guaranteed $10.9 million into the following campaign. This move allows Portland to shed salary if they wish, while adding a veteran player who fits their system to a tee, while offering some insurance behind McCollum. With that said, this is a side that has lost four of their last six games and is dangerously close to falling into the Play-In Tournament themselves, for coming into tonight’s contest they sit two games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks for Sixth out West, while trailing the shorthanded Lakers by 1.5 games in the standings.
“To be honest, I thought we looked a step slow and they looked like a rested team… I don’t say that very often.”Terry Stotts on the Blazers’ struggles in a 107-98 loss to the Heat on Sunday Night, in which they committed 17 turnovers for a whopping 28 points.
When we last saw the Trail Blazers, they continued to struggle in integrating those old and new faces into the rotation, following up a dominant showing against the Detroit Piston (118-103) with a flat 107-98 defeat at home to the Miami Heat on Sunday Night. The story of this affair was during the Second Quarter, where after establishing a 31-25 lead the hosts were thoroughly outplayed; Portland was outscored 31-17 in that period, with the visitors shooting a scorching 13-of-25 from the field (52.0%) in comparison to just 7-of-18 (38.9%) for the home side, who could muster a dismal 2-of-10 from beyond the arc (20.0%) during the frame. Miami would continue to press their advantage following Halftime, besting them 33-23 in the Third Quarter before Stotts’ charges made the outcome look more respectable in the final stanza. In the end, the Blazers shot a solid 48.1% overall, but just 11-of-34 from downtown (31.4%), though their biggest sin was in committing seventeen turnovers, which their opponent was happy to exploit to the tune of a staggering TWENTY-EIGHT points. To put that into perspective, they could only force seven themselves parlaying into a Minus-21 disadvantage. Lillard and McCollum accounted for nine of those turnovers, while Nurkic, who sat out the previous game due to the Coaching Staff monitoring his minutes, turned in four himself in a performance in which he only logged just over twenty-two minutes due to foul trouble. It was a subdued showing to say the least for Lillard, with the explosive scorer relegated to only a dozen points on 3-of-10 shooting (30.0%), all of which came from beyond the arc. With that said, it wasn’t a completely dour performance for the MVP candidate, who passed (future Hall of Famer) Dirk Nowitzki for third on the NBA’s All-Time Three-Point List (1,983). McCollum and the aforementioned Powell led the way with seventeen points apiece, though the latter was the only player in the Starting Five (apart from Nurkic) to shoot over 40.0% from the floor, knocking down a solid 7-of-13 attempts (53.8%). Kanter, who posted a career-high THIRTY rebounds in that victory over the Pistons, chipped in with ten points and eight rebounds in a little over nineteen minutes off the bench. Tonight’s meeting with the Celtics marks the end of a brief three game homestand, though four of their following six will be contested at Moda Center before a lengthy six-game eastern swing with a rather difficult gauntlet in between that could go a long way towards deciding their seeding fate; their next twelve games come against teams currently slotted into the Playoffs, featuring dates with San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, and a pair against the Memphis Grizzlies, all of whom they are within reach of in the standings.