January 22, 2019, 11:15 pm
We’ve heard it time and time again, dating back years: The Blazers won’t go anywhere meaningful with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum leading the way. While that longstanding assumption by team skeptics has grown increasingly popular this season, the merits of another likelihood seem worth exploring after Portland’s hard-fought 123-114 loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
Can the Blazers really win a championship if Lillard is their best player?
That’s no slight to Lillard, who’s enjoying arguably the finest season of his career and was stellar against the Thunder, finishing with 34 points, five rebounds, eight assists, and five steals on 12-of-24 shooting. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, too, helping Portland come within a possession of Oklahoma City on multiple occasions, only for the home team to extend its lead immediately thereafter courtesy of swarming defense and star-level offense.
Paul George, unfortunately for the Blazers, provided plenty of both for the Thunder from the opening tip in yet another performance that strengthens his burgeoning MVP case. George scored 36 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished four assists, and swiped five steals on Tuesday, getting whatever he wanted on one end and consistently disrupting Portland’s flow on the other. He had a pair of pick-sixes in the fourth quarter alone, when he made all six of his 15 total free-throw attempts to keep the Blazers at bay. George went 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, too, and split time guarding Lillard and C.J. McCollum while also mucking up the action as a help defender.
It was an utterly dominant individual showing, one that forcefully conveyed the impact of a superstar being able to affect the game on both ends of the floor – and served as a reminder of Lillard’s inherent limits. To be clear, Lillard has made subtle strides on defense in recent years, to the point that he’s certainly no longer the sieve he was early in his career. Lillard is smart, has quick hands, and for the most part plays with the engagement and intensity necessary to help his team contain opposing point guards. But compared to George? Lillard, even playing at his defensive peak, will never be able to replicate the influence of a defender capable of not just checking four positions, but wreaking tangible havoc in the process.
The lack of a two-way superstar is one most teams face, obviously, and probably not the issue that’s most pressing to the Blazers. Present and long-term improvement all across the roster takes precedence over anything else right now, and their supporting cast didn’t show much of any on the second leg of a tough road back-to-back.
McCollum exploded in the third quarter, scoring 21 points and netting five three-pointers. He finished the game 31 points and a career-high tying seven triples. Jusuf Nurkic had 22 points and 15 rebounds, seven of which came via his teammates’ misses – and accounted for over a third of Portland’s season-best 20 offensive rebounds, the biggest reason the road team was able to stay close throughout.
Otherwise, there wasn’t a standout individual for the Blazers. Al-Farouq Aminu had 13 rebounds and four assists, but went just 1-of-7 from the field and missed all five of his three-point attempts. Moe Harkless went scoreless in 18 minutes. Jake Layman‘s cutting ability was neutralized by Oklahoma City, and he was 0-of-4 from three. Seth Curry was out-classed athletically on both sides of the ball. Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner played with their typical brands of physicality, but didn’t do enough to keep Portland’s bench afloat.
The Blazers didn’t have much business winning this game. They shot 10-of-36 from beyond the arc and committed 19 turnovers, which led to 29 Thunder points. Absent a strong performance from the bench, Portland will always struggle to beat a quality foe on the road when shooting that poorly from deep and coughing up the ball at such a debilitating frequency. George and Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, combined for 65 points, 18 rebounds, and 18 assists, and four other Oklahoma City players reached double-figures.
Both teams needed this game. They entered Tuesday’s action in lock step in the Western Conference standings, with mere percentage points separating them between third and fourth place. The Thunder lead the Blazers 2-0 in the season series now, with two games left to play, meaning Terry Stotts’ team must beat Billy Donovan‘s both times and substantially improve its record in the northwest division for Portland to win a theoretical tie-breaker over Oklahoma City. Clearly, there’s a lot of work left to be done for the Blazers.
Unfortunately, though, no matter how Portland fares over the season’s last three months, it won’t have a player who can dominate a basketball game in all facets the way George did on Tuesday.
February 22, 2020, 11:52 pmBojan BogdanovicSF, Utah Jazz
Bojan Bogdanovic was limited to scoring just 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting with one trey and six rebounds in Saturday's loss to the Rockets.
Bogdanovic is running a bit cold right now with this being the second straight game where he's uncharacteristically shot 30 percent or less from the field. He's a .451 shooter on the season so an upward correction should be on the near horizon.
February 22, 2020, 11:49 pmRudy GobertC, Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert was quiet in Saturday's loss to the Rockets and was limited to posting just 12 points (3-of-7 FGs, 6-of-9 FTs), six rebounds and two blocks in 34 minutes.
Unfortunately for Gobert owners, the Rockets matchup was not a stylistically favorable one for him. This low-end line is not a cause for concern and he should bounce back soon once the Jazz face teams with non-micro-ball systems.
February 22, 2020, 11:45 pmDonovan MitchellSG, Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell hit 12-of-24 shots from the field and 6-of-7 at the line for 31 points, seven rebounds, one 3-pointer and three assists in a loss to the Rockets on Saturday.
Mitchell has been a top-50 play on the season, but if he's going to carry the Jazz on his shoulders moving forward, his needle should be headed in the right direction as the season winds to a close.
February 22, 2020, 11:42 pmMike ConleyPG, Utah Jazz
Mike Conley returned from a three-game absence on Saturday and got a full complement of minutes (34), allowing him to post 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting with seven rebounds, seven assists and one 3-pointer.
Conley's minutes are a sign that he's got the trainers' full confidence to go full blast. He got an extra rest day (Friday) to recover from an illness, which now is clearly behind him. He did struggle with his shot tonight, but Conley should put up better lines than this moving forward.
February 22, 2020, 11:37 pmJames HardenPG, Houston Rockets
James Harden powered the Rockets to a 120-110 win over the Jazz on Saturday with 39 points (13-of-23 shooting), five rebounds, seven assists, six 3s, two steals and one block in 37 minutes.
Harden has looked fresh, locked and loaded ever since the ASB. He's now trending back into the top-1 conversation in 9-cat formats. Fear the Beard, now more than ever.
February 22, 2020, 11:32 pmBen McLemoreSG, Houston Rockets
Ben McLemore was a perfect 4-for-4 from the field, all from beyond the arc to finish Saturday with 12 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.
Ben-Mac is a streaky shooter and he got hot tonight. The return of Eric Gordon (12 points, 24 minutes) will surely eat into McLemore's outlook for the remainder of the season.
February 22, 2020, 11:29 pmEric GordonSG, Houston Rockets
Eric Gordon (left leg contusion) returned to action on Saturday and put up 12 points (5-of-11 shooting) with three rebounds, three assists and two steals in 24 minutes off the bench.
The Rockets made Gordon come off the bench since this was his first game back after missing three straight, leading all the way before the All-Star break. The 25 minutes are a good sign and the minutes will be there for him as long as he's healthy. That said, his not much more than a points-and-3s streamer in standard leagues.
February 22, 2020, 11:24 pmAron BaynesC, Phoenix Suns
Aron Baynes (left hip soreness) saw 13 minutes off the bench on Saturday and was able to muster four points (2-of-3 shooting) and one steal.
Baynes will need to find his way back to playing time in the mid-20s before we can comfortably recommend an add in deep leagues. Keep him on the wire while he gets his legs back.
February 22, 2020, 11:20 pmMikal BridgesSF, Phoenix Suns
Mikal Bridges swiped four steals and blocked one shot in a superb effort on defense in Saturday's win over the Wolves, adding eight points, six rebounds and two assists.
Ever since turning the corner past the midpoint of the season, Bridges has been simply awesome as a 3-and-D guy for the Suns. There's no reason at this point to think that he'll slow down or that the Suns will modify his current role and usage, so ride him until the season winds to a close.
February 22, 2020, 11:14 pmKendrick NunnPG, Miami Heat
Kendrick Nunn led the way in the Heat's 124-105 win over the Cavs on Saturday, tallying 24 points (7-of-12 FG), eight assists, two steals, one block and four 3-pointers.
Bam Adebayo was on his way to a big game as well but stopped at 26 minutes because of the blowout, finishing with 15 points, three rebounds, nine assists, a steal and a block on 7-of-9 shooting. Nunn rode a hot start to the year to middle-round value but he's easily outside the top-150 over the last month and is only worth your attention in standard leagues if you need some scoring punch.