• In seasons past, this might have been a blowout victory for the Denver Nuggets. But the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers, for all their faults established and developing, have the defensive fortitude to stay competitive against good teams when offense is harder to come by than normal, and that’s exactly what they did on Saturday night. Just one problem: The Blazers never found an answer for Jamal Murray.

    Denver staged a mini, late-game run to beat Portland 103-101 in a tightly-contested affair between a pair of playoff hopefuls. Lillard led the Blazers with 25 points and eight assists, while Jusuf Nurkic abused his old team with 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Those guys didn’t receive the sustained support they needed late, though, opening the door for Murray to steal the game – an outcome Portland could have seen coming after his awesome first quarter.

    Both teams shot an abysmal 31.6 percent in the opening stanza, after which Denver led Portland 20-19. But the Blazers didn’t allow a single second-chance bucket or fast-break point, a harbinger of good things to come considering those areas are where the Nuggets thrive. Denver’s struggles, with the notable exception of Murray’s 15 points, extended to the second quarter, while Lillard got Portland going with several ultra-difficult shots both in the paint and beyond the arc. If there’s an attribute the Blazers have that that other Western Conference playoff hopefuls lack, it’s the flammability of Lillard and McCollum. Those guys can catch fire at any time, regardless of the defense being played, and that’s exactly what happened for Lillard before halftime.

    If only McCollum, or anyone other than Murray, for that matter, had followed his lead.

    Denver opened the second half on an 8-0 run, after the Blazers began settling on offense rather than probing for efficient looks late in the clock. Following a timeout by Stotts, though, Nurkic decided to take matters into his own hands. The former Nuggets center, who was booed by the sparse Pepsi Center crowd during pre-game introductions, had 11 points and six rebounds in the third quarter alone, and got some bragging rights over Jokic with a weak-side spike into the stands.

    None of it mattered in the end, however, because Murray simply refused to let his team lose. The sophomore guard was brilliant all game long, but especially when it mattered most, scoring 10 of his game-high 38 points – on video-game like 14-of-19 shooting overall and 4-of-6 from deep – in the game’s final six minutes and 58 seconds. He tied the score at 95-95 with a side-step triple from center as the game clock read 2:07, and gave Denver its first lead since early in the fourth quarter – one it wouldn’t relinquish – with a right-footed, right-handed runner going to his left with just 33 seconds remaining.

    The frantic, multi-shot possession that followed yielded nothing from Portland on the scoreboard, and the officials eventually ruled the ball went off Lillard on his drive to the basket with 2.9 seconds remaining. The Blazers were forced to play the foul game from there, but had little chance of winning it because Stotts had used all his timeouts. Game over.

    In-game context not withstanding, this isn’t a bad loss for Portland in terms of process. Denver is a solid team with a wealth of young talent, and its most dangerous offensive player enjoyed the game of his life. The Blazers could have made life harder on Murray at the point of attack, but that issue would be on the periphery of a fourth consecutive victory if C.J. McCollum (3-of-14 from the field) connected on many makable shots or Al-Farouq Aminu made one of his five open attempts from beyond the arc.

    Any game is losable in the NBA when one team is far from its best and an opposing player has a 48-minute hot hand. This loss, despite the sting of a fourth-quarter collapse, doesn’t say much more about Portland than that. Well, except for adding to the likelihood that the Blazers’ penultimate game of the regular season against the Nuggets on April 9 will possess major, major playoff implications.

    NOTES

    • Stotts might want to further experiment with a frontcourt of Zach Collins and Nurkic. Foul trouble on Aminu forced Portland that direction late in the second quarter, and the ensuing defensive dominance in the paint was striking. Collins is getting better and better contesting shots at the rim with verticality, and has the length and quick-twitch athleticism to grab rebounds out of his area. If the shot comes around, which it will eventually, expect to see this look more often. Regardless, Collins continues playing his way into more minutes. Question is, whose does he take – especially if he’s exclusively playing power forward?
    • Davis isn’t known for making plays with the ball in his hands, but showed exceptional patience on multiple rolls after setting ball screens against the Nuggets. First was a catch, spin dribble and kick-out to Turner for three at the top of the key as the defense scrambled. The second was even more impressive: catch, survey, extra dribble, draw extra help defender and fire airborne bullet to Collins on weak side for three. That’s the type of subtlety that will help Portland eventually get out of their sustained offensive funk for good.

    • With Mo Harkless out of the rotation and Turner forever limited by his broad shoulders and lack of quickness, Connaughton has pretty clearly become the Blazers’ best perimeter defender. He fights hard through screens, cleans up mistakes of his teammates and has enough hops to get effective contests when a more middling defender couldn’t. Connaughton isn’t super disruptive and doesn’t have the length to check elite forwards, but he’s the Blazers’ best option on wings at this point. Stotts must not think too highly of Connaughton’s defensive ability, though: He was on the bench when Murray was going nuclear in crunch-time.
    • Aminu made several great passes on Saturday night, not all of which directly led to points but were an indicator of his increased playmaking comfort nonetheless. He attacked hard close-outs and found bigs in the paint, consistently made the extra pass on the perimeter and always exuded poise with the ball in his hands. The box score doesn’t show it, but Aminu was a big reason why Portland came alive offensively after a stagnant first quarter.

Fantasy News

  • Jontay Porter
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    Taylor Jenkins confirmed that Jontay Porter has been a full participant at practice.

    Porter was set to miss his entire rookie season to rehab a knee problem that cost him his last college campaign, but he's getting some practice reps in and might see spot minutes in scrimmages. The athletic center could be a solid source of blocks down the line but fantasy players can track his progress from afar for now. The fact that Memphis can get a better sense of Porter's game from their time in the bubble is probably the most important development here.

    Source: Peter Edmiston on Twitter

  • Grayson Allen
    SG, Memphis Grizzlies

    Grayson Allen (left hip) has been a full participant in recent Grizzlies practices.

    Allen looks ready to go after a hip problem shut him down in February. While he may be healthy enough to play, earning minutes in the rotation is another matter entirely. Allen has done little to flash fantasy upside through his first two seasons, so anyone playing fantasy games during the Orlando bubble can leave him be, far from your lineups.

    Source: Peter Edmiston on Twitter

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
    PF, Milwaukee Bucks

    Giannis Antetokounmpo was solid but failed to meet his lofty ADP in the 2019-20 fantasy season.

    He would end up ranked 14/20 in 8/9-cat formats. Antetokounmpo had an absurd ADP of 1.3 on ESPN and 3.9 on Yahoo, which is simply far too high for a player that is a huge drag on free throw percentage. The Greek Freak was one of the biggest negatives at the charity stripe this season, shooting an atrocious .633 from the line on 10 attempts per game. The rest of his numbers were more in line with expectations, but decreases in key stats offset other notable gains. Giannis established career-highs with 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 1.5 threes per contest, but also had that counteracted by five-year lows in steals and blocks, which both sunk to 1.0 per game. Antetokounmpo is an elite NBA player but the cracks in his fantasy game were apparent. If the defensive numbers can rebound it'll ease the pain of those free throws, but it's going to be tough for him to meet such high expectations with that one glaring hole in his game. Some market correction may be in order this offseason.

  • Eric Bledsoe
    PG, Milwaukee Bucks

    Eric Bledsoe slipped down the fantasy rankings in 2019-20, ending up as a top-65/80 (8/9-cat) player mostly because of a decline in steals.

    Bledsoe has previously been a steady top-60 type, but this year his steals fell from 1.5 to just 0.9 per game. All of his other numbers are right in line with expectations, but it goes to show how valuable those cash counter stats are. Bledsoe is settling in as a 15 ppg guy for the Bucks and isn't tasked with offensive heavy lifting, but that's not really what he's drafted for in fantasy anyway. Bledsoe is still an efficient scoring guard, even if he's not a great 3-point shooter, and a correction in the theft department would boost him back to more familiar heights.

  • Nikola Jokic
    C, Denver Nuggets

    Nikola Jokic has arrived in Orlando but will not participate in Tuesday's practice.

    Jokic has cleared quarantine, which is the biggest step after he tested positive for COVID-19 in Serbia, but still needs results of other physical testing before getting back on the court. Assuming Jokic returns without any further hitches, he'll be one of the top players on the board for any fantasy games.

    Source: Chris Haynes on Twitter

  • Michael Beasley
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    According to multiple reports, Michael Beasley has left the Orlando bubble after testing positive for COVID-19.

    Beasley was initially signed as a replacement player for the thinned-out Nets, but his place on the roster is now in question. Brooklyn needs bodies, and Beasley, who already is facing a five-game suspension, may not be able to get up to speed in time between his departure, quarantine, return and re-quarantine. Details are limited at this point but if Beasley tested positive after getting to Disney World, it should be of major concern to the NBA.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Donte DiVincenzo
    SG, Milwaukee Bucks

    Donte DiVincenzo authored a low-key breakout season with averages of 9.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks and 1.3 3-pointers in 23.1 mpg.

    DiVincenzo did that while hitting at a .462 clip from the floor, which was good for top-115/100 (8/9-cat) value. He never really got the props that he deserved from the fantasy community, but DiVincenzo became a valued member of the Milwaukee rotation and was able to provide some excellent ROI for any GMs that hopped on board the train early. This was a big step forward after injuries limited him to 27 games as a rookie, and it's entirely possible that DiVincenzo keeps a similar role going forward. Fantasy players just have to hope that the efficiency and steals stick, as those numbers weren't exactly expected given his track record.

  • Lance Thomas
    SF, Free Agent

    The Nets have officially signed Lance Thomas as a Substitute Player ahead of the NBA restart.

    Thomas finds himself back in the NBA after sitting playing his last game in the 2018-19 campaign with the Knicks. He averaged 4.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.5 threes in 17.0 mpg across 46 contests. He would normally just be a depth piece, but with the Nets depleted of talent for the league resumption, there is a possibility that he will play a decent chunk of minutes off the bench.

    Source: Brian Lewis on Twitter

  • Harrison Barnes
    SF, Sacramento Kings

    Harrison Barnes revealed that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

    Barnes is going through quarantine and hopes to join his teammates in Orlando soon. He adds that he's largely asymptomatic, which is good news. He's the fourth member of the Kings to test positive.

    Source: Harrison Barnes on Twitter

  • Marvin Williams
    PF, Milwaukee Bucks

    Marvin Williams took a big step back in 2019-20, largely due to a big decline in playing time.

    Williams finished the season averaging 19.4 mpg overall with minimal difference between his Hornets and Bucks figures (19.7 vs. 18.5). Charlotte was focused on developing its younger players, while there were no expectations that Williams would hold a big role after being bought out and signing with the league's best team. The veteran has always had a 9-cat game that ticks multiple boxes, and that was still present even if the volume wasn't: 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks and 1.0 threes per game. He was able to manage top-250/215 value (8/9-cat), but unfortunately it seems unlikely that he'll come back into big minutes going forward.

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