• 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

  • Dwight Howard - C - Washington Wizards

    Dwight Howard will return to Washington D.C. and start on-court work on Wednesday.

    Dwight has been recovering from November spine surgery, and it's good to see him progressing. He's still a few steps away from playing, and with the injuries he's been dealing with this season, it's hard to see him being useful outside of deep free throw punt teams. More likely, the greatest impact he'll have is eventually taking a few minutes from Thomas Bryant and Bobby Portis.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Henry Ellenson - F - New York Knicks

    Henry Ellenson plans to sign a 10-day contract with the Knicks.

    Ellenson has shown promise at times, but he has never really put together any fantasy-relevant stretches. Leave him on the wire for now, but it's not impossible to imagine a scenario where the tanking Knicks are missing or sitting a couple bigs, giving Ellenson some decent run.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Clint Capela - C - Houston Rockets

    Clint Capela (thumb) returned to practice on Tuesday with no limitations, which could determine his playing status for Thursday's game against the Lakers.

    Capela underwent surgery on January 17 and was initially given a 4-to-6 week timetable, so this would be at the early end of a return. The fact that he is returning to practice without any limitations is a great sign for owners, meaning a return is imminent. Watch out for the Rockets injury report on Wednesday.

    Source: Jonathan Feigen on Twitter

  • Jodie Meeks - G - Toronto Raptors

    Jodie Meeks is signing a 10-day contract with the Raptors, per Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Meeks was waived by the Bucks following the conclusion of his 25-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program. He hasn't played since last season with Washington and is unlikely to see much action with Toronto. He'll give the team some extra shooting when he does see the floor.

    Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter

  • Jared Dudley - F - Brooklyn Nets

    Jared Dudley (left hamstring strain) was scheduled to be re-evaluated on Tuesday.

    Dudley has already made it known that he's planning to return right out of the All-Star break, so unless today's checkup revealed some kind of further issue we're expecting him to be ready for Brooklyn's two games this week. His biggest fantasy impact will be taking minutes from more intriguing players.

    Source: Greg Logan on Twitter

  • Caris LeVert - G - Brooklyn Nets

    Caris LeVert will undergo an evaluation from the Nets medical staff on Tuesday.

    There's no sign of any setbacks from LeVert but the team will obviously keep a close eye on him after he's returned from a dislocated foot. This shouldn't be anything more than routine maintenance, so fantasy owners don't need to worry about it.

    Source: Greg Logan on Twitter

  • Ray Spalding - F - Phoenix Suns

    The Suns are expected to sign Ray Spalding to a 10-day contract.

    Spalding was the 56th pick in last summer's draft but only appeared in one NBA game this season with the Mavs. He was waived at the trade deadline with Dallas taking on one more player than they sent away, and will look to make an impression in a crowded Phoenix rotation. His college numbers (12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.7 blocks in 27.7 minutes per game) make him a name to file away in deep dynasty leagues.

    Source: Gina Mizell on Twitter

  • MarShon Brooks - G - Chicago Bulls

    Marshon Brooks has agreed to terms with the Guangdong Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association, according to Sportando.

    Brooks played 29 games for the Grizzlies this season averaging 6.6 points and he is expected to replace Malcolm Delaney. Leave him on the waiver wire.

    Source: Sportando

  • Kristaps Porzingis - F/C - Dallas Mavericks

    Mark Cuban said that Kristaps Porzingis won't play this season, even if the Mavs somehow are able to make the playoffs.

    The Mavs want to put their world-class training staff, led by Casey Smith, to work, strengthening Porzingis’ body the rest of this season and throughout the summer to hopefully prevent similar injuries in the future. And after all, given the amount of money the Mavs could be committing to KP this summer, a max salary of $158 million, there is no need to risk something happening to him in a season where making the playoffs seems unlikely. Kristaps remains a great stash in redraft leagues.

    Source: 247sports.com

  • LeBron James - F - Los Angeles Lakers

    Joe Vardon of The Athletic is reporting that the Lakers are "somehow a little concerned" about LeBron James.

    LeBron hasn’t been showing the same speed or overall movement lately and the team is concerned that he’s not fully recovered from the groin injury that cost him to miss a career-high 18 games. The Lakers are in the 10th place in the Western Conference, three games behind the Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot and they will need LeBron to be healthy for the rest of the season. James is averaging 26.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists in 35 minutes per game, while his shooting percentage (51 percent), 3-point percentage (35 percent) and free-throw percentage (68 percent) are all down from last season. He is still returning borderline top-15 value in standard leagues and owners can only hope he doesn’t suffer a setback.

    Source: The Athletic