• Glass half full: It would be really, really hard for the Portland Trail Blazers to play any worse offensively – in the regular season, at least.

    Portland lost its fourth straight game on Monday night, falling 88-82 to the Denver Nuggets in a rugged, ugly, hard-fought game that had major playoff implications for both teams. Nikola Jokic kept the Nuggets’ postseason hopes alive with 15 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists, his second straight triple-double. Jusuf Nurkic was even more dominant than his former running mate, beasting his way to 20 points and 19 rebounds – eight of which came on the offensive end – while helping force Denver into 47.8 percent shooting near the basket.

    Other than Nurkic, though, Portland just couldn’t find a sustainable means of offense, an especially damning sign against a Denver squad with the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating. The Blazers shot a dismal 33 percent from the field and 7-of-33 from beyond the arc. Damian Lillard, a 92.1 percent free-throw shooter, went 7-of-11 at the charity stripe, and Nurkic split a pair of freebies as his team trailed by three with 47 seconds remaining. Portland’s inability to score in a fourth quarter it lost 22-13 was most jarring considering its relative success mere minutes earlier. After extending their lead to 64-53 with 5:42 left in the third quarter, the Blazers closed the game by making six of their last 28 field goal attempts – good for 21.4 percent shooting.

    There’s no single reason for Portland’s widespread offensive futility. Many, many makeable looks simply wouldn’t fall, and C.J. McCollum, who went 5-of-18 for 16 points, suffered from perhaps his worst bout of tunnel vision this season. Effective defense is never about missed shots alone, though, and Michael Malone’s matchup gambit forced Portland into a primary means of offense that normally functions as something close to its last resort.

    Al-Farouq Aminu‘s shooting struggles continued on Monday; he was just 3-of-13 overall and 1-of-7 from deep. Even those poor numbers don’t accurately portray the scope of his negative influence offensively, though, a byproduct of Malone sticking the plodding Jokic on Aminu and Paul Millsap on Nurkic. The Nuggets were fully content watching Aminu try open triple after open triple after he set ball screens, asking Jokic to force the rock from Lillard’s hands as the primary defender recovered in rear-view pursuit. The result wasn’t just missed jumpers and typically uncomfortable dribble-drives by Aminu, but also clogged driving lanes by the presence of Nurkic, who doesn’t shoot threes, inside the arc.

    Time and time again, there was just nowhere for Lillard and McCollum to go. The possession below is from the middle of the fourth quarter, after Aminu had already misfired on multiple 3-point attempts and a pick-and-roll with Lillard was neutralized by Denver committing two to the ball. Another ball-screen with McCollum immediately thereafter failed to yield space for anyone but Aminu, too.

    Malone doesn’t only deserve credit for tactical decisions, though. He rushed the court in response to an effective contest by Caleb Swanigan on Jamal Murray with his team trailing 62-53 midway through the third quarter of a literal must-win game, picking up a well-earned technical foul. Malone’s fiery tirade, intentional or not, provided a major spark for the previously listless Nuggets and a sleepy Pepsi Center crowd. Denver went on a 12-4 run from there, closing within a point of the Blazers before trailing by three entering the final stanza, grabbing control of the game’s momentum and refusing to let it go.

    This loss is a harsh reminder of what awaits Portland in the playoffs, where the seven-game series format magnifies weaknesses and minimizes strengths. It was never any secret that opponents would try to make anyone other than Lillard beat them, and certainly not one that they would do so in part by daring guys like Aminu, Evan Turner and Moe Harkless – who one surmises might have played some small-ball four on Monday if healthy, given Aminu’s labors – to rain 3-pointers. Still, it’s jarring what the Nuggets were able to do to the Blazers given their middling, at best, defensive personnel. Just imagine the problems a great defensive team could pose for Portland under the postseason microscope if its shots continue to miss the mark.

    We’ll find out to an extent during Wednesday’s season finale, when the Utah Jazz visit Moda Center with home-court advantage and playoff positioning on the line. The Blazers will be the three seed if they beat the Jazz, and have essentially been guaranteed of hosting a first-round series at Moda Center; a win for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the tanking Memphis Grizzlies will clinch a top-four spot for Portland regardless of what happens against Utah. The cushion provided by that 13-game winning streak, obviously, still has some give to it.

    Either way, the stakes of Wednesday’s game certainly aren’t how the Blazers thought they would be prepping for the playoffs. Their fate in the bracket was supposed to be sealed days ago. But a string of losses to end the season means it isn’t, and allows Portland the chance to enter the second season having shaken out of its weeks-long shooting slump. Unfortunately. nothing that transpired in Denver suggested that’s likely to happen – not on Wednesday, nor going forward.

Fantasy News

  • Tristan Thompson
    C, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Tristan Thompson scored 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting to go with three rebounds and four assists in 22 minutes on Saturday.

    This game was a blowout from the beginning which hurt Thompson's playing time. Thompson is still a top-75 player on the season averaging 13.6 points and 10.0 rebounds. Expect him to remain within the top-100 for the foreseeable future.

  • Kevin Love
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kevin Love scored six points on 2-of-7 shooting to go with seven rebounds in 20 minutes in a 141-94 blowout loss to the Sixers.

    Love struggled in his return on Saturday from an illness that kept him out of Friday's game. Love is putting up top-100 value on the season and is worth holding in standard-leagues. There are reports that the Cavs are listening to offers for Love. If he is traded it may reduce the risk of him being shut down late in the season, but his value could take a slight hit.

  • Darius Garland
    PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Darius Garland struggled to get 17 points on 7-of-20 shooting to go with five rebounds, three assists and three 3-pointers on Saturday.

    Garland struggled from the floor but at least added some peripherals. Garland is inconsistent and is a big drain on field goal percentage, shooting 38 percent on the season. He is not worth rostering in standard-leagues and is only a guy to monitor in case he improves throughout his rookie season.

  • Ben Simmons
    PG, Philadelphia Sixers

    Ben Simmons put up a career-high 34 points on Saturday, adding seven assists, two steals and two blocks in just 26 minutes.

    Simmons dominated the Cavs and shot 12-of-14 from the floor including one 3-pointer. Simmons is great in a many areas, but he is held back by his free throw percentage, no threes and high turnovers.

  • Kyle O'Quinn
    C, Philadelphia Sixers

    Kyle O'Quinn double-doubled in 27 minutes on Saturday with 10 points (5-of-10 from the field), 11 boards and four blocks.

    The Sixers were without Joel Embiid (right hip contusion) and blew out the Cavs 141-94. O'Quinn can be left on the waiver wire in all fantasy leagues.

  • Trey Burke
    PG, Philadelphia Sixers

    Trey Burke nearly double-doubled on Saturday, dishing out eight assists to go with four steals and 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting in 27 minutes.

    There was a lot of garbage time for Burke tonight as the Sixers demolished the Cavs. Burke can be left on the waiver wire.

  • Mike Scott
    PF, Philadelphia Sixers

    Mike Scott started on Saturday and scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds and three 3-pointers in 24 minutes.

    Scott started for Joel Embiid (right hip contusion) and caught fire against the Cavs. Scott can be a streamer for points and threes when the Sixers are injured. Feel free to use Scott on Sunday if Embiid is still out.

  • Matisse Thybulle
    SG-SF, Philadelphia Sixers

    Matisse Thybulle sprained his right ankle and will not return on Saturday vs. the Cavs.

    Thybulle played nine minutes before rolling his ankle. He had just the one assist and one block.

    Source: Jeff Skversky 6abc on Twitter

  • Jake Layman
    SF, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Jake Layman (left toe sprain) has been listed as out on Sunday vs. the Lakers.

    Layman will now miss his eighth straight game. Treveon Graham, Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop will absorb his minutes.

  • Andrew Wiggins
    SF, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Andrew Wiggins (left thumb sprain) has been listed as questionable for Sunday vs. the Wolves.

    Wiggins sat out the last game. If he is able to play, look for him to put up mid-round value for the rest of the season.

    Source: Timberwolves PR on Twitter