• If Friday’s game against the Denver Nuggets was a litmus test for the Portland Trail Blazers, a measure of how Damian Lillard and company stack up with another team hoping to break into the Western Conference elite, it’s still somewhat unclear if they passed. The Nuggets beat the Blazers 113-112 at Moda Center, a fifth consecutive victory that brings Michael Malone’s team within half a game of the upstart Los Angeles Clippers for first place in one of the strongest top-to-bottom conferences the NBA has ever seen. Every win matters out West, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be gleaned from a loss.

    Does that apply to Portland after Friday’s game at Moda Center? Yes and no, for reasons positive and negative. The Blazers indeed deserve credit for climbing all the way out of an early 17-point hole. For a long period in the second half, as Portland slowly chipped away at Denver’s lead, it seemed as if the home team would never get closer than two or three possessions from a tie. Every time the Blazers threatened and the Moda Center crowd livened, the Nuggets had an answer to quell that measure of momentum. Even Damian Lillard‘s pull-up 28 footer to pull Portland within three was met by a splashed half-court heave from Trey Lyles as the third-quarter buzzer expired.

    But Portland was undeterred. Terry Stotts opened the fourth quarter with Lillard alongside four reserves, a change from his normal rotation, then brought in C.J. McCollum to briefly spell Lillard before going back to his preferred closing lineup. Behind McCollum’s brilliance and spirited play from Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers were within a point midway through the fourth quarter, then had multiple chances to win in the final minute as the Nuggets struggled inbounding the ball and the officials provided additional drama to a nail-biting game with several questionable calls in crunch time.

    McCollum, in perhaps his finest game of the season, scored 33 points, 15 of which came in the final stanza, on 14-of-21 shooting without connecting on a single three-pointer. He shot 4-of-6 on mid-range jumpers, and a perfect 3-of-3 from floater range. This is a shot Portland will always be happy to get with the game hanging in the balance, but especially when McCollum is cooking with the type of skill, touch, and creativity only a select few others in the league can match.

    There’s a thin line between winning and losing in the NBA, a league where any team is talented enough to best a superior foe. Sometimes, even adequate effort and execution isn’t enough for a favorite to come away with a victory. But if the Blazers were considered the likeliest winners of Friday’s game, that’s only because it was being played in the pacific northwest. Denver, as expected, has simply been better than Portland this season, which makes it all the more confusing why Stotts’ team again required the wakeup call of a sizable halftime deficit to summon the urgency and engagement to win at the highest level.

    “I think we have to be more aggressive and more locked in defensively,” Stotts said. “We can’t feel out the game.”

    The Nuggets scored 68 points in the first half. They shot 52.1 percent from the field, 9-of-15 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. They racked up 17 assists, carving up Portland with dribble penetration, backdoor cuts, and quick-hitting ball movement. Denver’s offensive rating before intermission was a ridiculous 136.0, its second-highest in any half this season behind only the first 24 minutes of a 45-point win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks.

    Before 2018-19 tipped off, we wondered whether the Blazers would be able to sustain the surprisingly strong defensive play that propelled hem to the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs last season. It’s early yet, but the returns thus far are hardly encouraging. Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Portland’s 109.4 defensive rating ranks 18th in the league. That substandard number has been steadily rising since the team’s hot start was cooled by a recent six-game road trip, too. The Blazers own the third-worst defensive rating in basketball since the middle of last month. Related: They’re 3-6 over that timeframe, with narrow, high-scoring victories over the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.

    It’s hardly time to panic. Portland’s defense, in reality, probably sits closer to middle of the pack league-wide than the bottom. Opponents are still being forced into more mid-range jumpers and fewer three-point attempts and shots at the rim than average, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re shooting 37.8 percent from deep against the Blazers, too, a problematically high number that’s ripe for regression given the fickle nature of three-pointers.

    One thing’s for sure, though: The Blazers just aren’t good enough, on either end of the floor, to consistently win games if their intensity and focus on defense leaves much to be desired immediately following the opening tip. That debilitating tendency almost cost them a win against the Orlando Magic earlier this week, and did just that versus the Nuggets on Friday night.

    “We’re going to have to defend a lot better,” McCollum said, “so we don’t have to depend on somebody stepping out of bounds with five seconds left to win a game.”

Fantasy News

  • Kevin Durant - F - Golden State Warriors

    Kevin Durant scored 30 points on 13-of-22 shooting with seven rebounds, five assists and five turnovers in the Warriors' 113-93 loss to the Raptors on Wednesday.

    The offense tilted toward Durant's isolation game and the team played less defense than it should have, two issues that are tough to correlate but not surprising when it happens. Steph Curry hit just 3-of-12 shots for 10 points and a lower-end line, and Klay Thompson missed all five of his 3-pointers and finished with 14 points in the blowout loss.

  • Draymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors

    Draymond Green hit just 1-of-5 shots for two points but was otherwise solid with five rebounds, seven assists, two steals and three blocks over 25 minutes in Wednesday's home loss to the Raptors.

    Green is right on track for preseason expectations the rest of the way as far as we're concerned, so there might be a little room to buy low before that's readily apparent.

  • Kyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors

    Kyle Lowry scored 23 points on 9-of-18 shooting (including two threes) with five rebounds, 12 assists and three steals in Wednesday's blowout win over the Warriors.

    That's two in a row for Lowry and with Kawhi Leonard (hip) out he has been forced to hit the gas pedal, though that shouldn't be construed to suggest he can't be productive with Leonard on the floor. Serge Ibaka added 20 & 12 with a steal and two blocks, and Pascal Siakam added 13 points with three rebounds, three assists, one trey, two steals and one block in the win. Jonas Valanciunas' (thumb) potential absence will feed them even more minutes and touches.

  • Fred VanVleet - G - Toronto Raptors

    Fred VanVleet started for injured Kawhi Leonard (hip) and scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting with two threes, three boards, two assists and three steals over 28 minutes in Wednesday's win over the Warriors.

    VanVleet is worth owning while Leonard is out and it won't hurt that Jonas Valanciunas (thumb) could miss some time and ease the frontcourt portion of the logjam.

  • Nemanja Bjelica - F - Sacramento Kings

    Nemanja Bjelica scored 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting (including four threes) with five rebounds, three assists and two blocks over 29 minutes in the Kings' 141-130 win over the Wolves on Wednesday.

    The score pumped up the entire box score but Bjelica is still sitting on top 75-100 value (9/8 cat) on the season and that's a guy that probably shouldn't have been dropped in too many leagues. He was, though, so hopefully you got in on the post-hype production.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein - C - Sacramento Kings

    Willie Cauley-Stein scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (4-of-9 FTs) with eight rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks in Wednesday's win over the Wolves.

    Cauley-Stein was intentionally fouled late in the fourth quarter after airballing a free throw and this isn't just a one-game thing. He has hit just 47.8 percent from the line this season and it's keeping him stuck in the late rounds for fantasy value. This probably gets on scouting reports and he'll have to prove he can make it or he's going to get an even bigger weight on his value, as well as less minutes.

  • Marvin Bagley III - F - Sacramento Kings

    Marvin Bagley scored 17 points on 4-of-5 shooting (9-of-10 FTs) with 10 rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes off the bench on Wednesday against the Wolves.

    Bagley did not have a steal or block and he's not likely to hit that well from the free throw line. He struggled on defense, as well, but he's going to be getting anywhere from 22-30 mpg on most nights. He's well outside the top-150 in 24 mpg so far this season.

  • Yogi Ferrell - G - Sacramento Kings

    Yogi Ferrell scored 17 points off the bench in Wednesday's win over the Wolves, hitting 5-of-6 shots (including four threes) with two rebounds, six assists and one steal in 16 minutes.

    Ferrell looked great in this one and he adds a component to the fast break that the Kings really do need. He's not in the clear when it comes to Frank Mason, even if Dave Joerger said after the game that Ferrell is going to get a 10-game stretch in this role. If you're in a deep league where 14-18 mpg with the right guy can play, give him a look for the aforementioned stretch.

  • Bogdan Bogdanovic - G - Sacramento Kings

    Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 20 points off the bench in Wednesday's win over the Wolves, hitting 9-of-15 shots (including two threes) with five rebounds and six assists in 31 minutes.

    Bogdanovic is bringing late-mid round value back when on the floor this season and he can climb up and over the top-75 hump with just a few more upticks. Aside from some lower-grade injury risk, he's going to be as consistent as it gets.

  • Robert Covington - F - Minnesota Timberwolves

    Robert Covington (knee) scored 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting (1-of-2 3PTs, 4-of-5 FTs) with six rebounds and no steals or blocks in Wednesday's loss to the Kings.

    Covington's goose eggs on defense in a game with no defense being played stood out and he didn't look like he was at full strength. One has to hope that these aren't Thibs minutes and it'll be something we all monitor going forward.