• 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

  • Terrence Ross - G/F - Orlando Magic

    Terrence Ross could not get it going offensively in Sunday's 85-107 Game 4 loss to the Raptors on Sunday, recording just five points on 1-of-5 shooting (1-of-4 from deep) with two rebounds, three assists and one steal in 31 minutes.

    This was a big blow for both the Magic and Ross' owners in DFS. He was coming off a solid 24-point gem on Friday, so this dud came as a bit of a surprise. In the end, costly turnovers and ill-timed fouls helped keep Ross from exploding like he's done in the past. Evan Fournier helped pick up the slack with 19 points (8-of-16 shooting), four rebounds, two 3s, two dimes and one steal in 35 minutes, but it still was not enough to go toe-to-toe with Kawhi Leonard and company in this crucial Game 4.

  • Aaron Gordon - F - Orlando Magic

    Aaron Gordon shot 10-of-17 from the field to finish with 25 points, seven rebounds, five dimes, two 3s and one steal in Sunday's Game 4 loss to the Raptors.

    Gordon was limited in the first half but turned up the heat in the third quarter where he scored 16 of his team-high 25 points. Unfortunately, his spirited play was not enough to mount a serious enough rally to challenge the Raptor's control over the game. The 23-year-old Gordon has displayed a fresh level of maturity in this series and finally looks prepared to make a significant leap forward in 2019-20.

  • Jonathan Isaac - F - Orlando Magic

    Jonathan Isaac was plagued by foul trouble in the early goings of Sunday's loss to the Raptors and never got into the flow of things, ending the night with zero points on 0-for-4 shooting, adding six rebounds and one assist in 16 minutes.

    Despite Isaac's late-season development, he's shown that he can disappear once in a while with dismal performances like this one. While the Magic are now a long shot to advance in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the team should be encouraged by the strides Isaac has made in his sophomore campaign following an injury-riddled rookie season.

  • Nikola Vucevic - C - Orlando Magic

    Nikola Vucevic was smothered by Raptor double teams all night on Sunday and was limited to scoring just 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting as he ended up forcing some shots in traffic.

    The Raptors have really dialed in and had Vooch's number all series, a smart game plan considering he's been the Magic's best player in the 2018-19 regular season. He added five rebounds, two assists and one steal to complete an overall underwhelming stat line in what was a critical, near-do-or-die game. As long as the Raptors keep the Montenegrin big man out of his groove, the Magic's chances for a reverse-sweep of this series are likely going to go up in a puff of smoke.

  • Norman Powell - F/G - Toronto Raptors

    Norman Powell came off the bench in Sunday's 107-85 blowout victory over the Magic in Game 4 to post 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting with one 3-pointer, four rebounds and one assist.

    There was a bit of garbage-time factor that influenced Powell's line tonight, but it was nonetheless likely a DFS bargain. Not bad for a top-230 player on the season. Guys like Powell, who come off the bench and keep Toronto's offense going when starters like Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard sit, make a big impact as far as snowballing early establish momentum is concerned.

  • Pascal Siakam - F - Toronto Raptors

    Pascal Siakam was his usal solid, dependable self in Sunday's blowout win over the Magic as he delivered 16 points on 7-of-14 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, two 3s and one block in 36 minutes.

    This was a bit of a step back after he exploded for 30 points in Game 3, but the Raptors had this one in control for most of the game, so there was no real need for Siakam to try to keep pace with Kawhi Leonard and his 34-point evening. Overall, Siakam has been impressive in the postseason, signifying that the huge leap he's taken this season is legit and that the Raptors have a bona fide superstar to step up should Leonard find his way to another team.

  • Kyle Lowry - G - Toronto Raptors

    Kyle Lowry was deceptively quiet as he scored just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting in Sunday's win over the Magic, adding four rebounds, nine assists, two 3s and four steals.

    Lowry is no longer the scoring machine he was from two seasons ago. He's taken a backseat to Kawhi Leonard but has managed to keep his mark on the game with a team-high plus-26 on the +/- column, a clear sign that the intangibles that this season vet brings to the table don't always pop on the box score.

  • Serge Ibaka - F/C - Toronto Raptors

    Serge Ibaka logged 20 minutes off the bench on Sunday and delivered 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, adding eight rebounds, one trey and one assist, including one huge block on Aaron Gordon.

    Ibaka's been running hot and cold throughout this series, making it hard to trust him in a DFS scenario. Marc Gasol played 25 minutes and was quietly held to scoring just two points. Big Spain did manage to add value in other areas with six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. As long as these two big men are sharing time like this, neither of them will come up with monster lines. But as long as the Raptors keep on winning, the coaching staff is not likely going to change its course any time soon.

  • Kawhi Leonard - F - Toronto Raptors

    Kawhi Leonard shot 12-of-20 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line to finish Sunday's Game 4 win over the Magic with a game-high 34 points and a full stat line.

    Leonard's presence was felt all over the court in this victory as he tallied two 3s, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks to round out his line for the night. This just another shining example of why he's considered as one of the league's best two-way players today. The Magic have not been able to find answers for Leonard and he's continued to give them headaches throughout this first-round playoff series.

  • Patrick McCaw - PG - Toronto Raptors

    Patrick McCaw returned from a right thumb sprain to play in Game 3 vs. the Magic on Sunday, but saw just a small nugget of garbage time where he played three minutes where he committed one foul with no other stats.

    While his empty-looking line in his return to action may not move anyone's DFS success rate margins, in the bigger scheme of things McCaw does add an extra layer of depth at the guard position for the Raptors that may just come in handy once they face tougher opponents in the playoffs.